This was the first screening at The Station. With the restaurant’s classic cafe style decor it was a choice between Casablancaor Brief Encounter for the opening film. Hollywood won out. Originally published on The Film Hermit on 12th November 2011.
Casablanca– (Michael Curtiz 1942)
It is easy to see why Casablancaremains so popular some seventy years after it was made. It’s got everything; a gunfight, romance, memorable dialogue, Dooley Wilson singing ‘As Time Goes By,’ and Claude Rains. Every film is a little better for having Claude Rains in it. Casablancawas released shortly after the US entered the war effort and represents that uncertain period as well as offering reassurance to audiences that fighting the Nazi’s was a just cause and worth the sacrifice.
Yet nobody thought they were making a classic. The Hollywood studio system was designed to mass produce films, often fifty a year. It was a factory production line and movies were assembled. Casablancawas one of the fifty, but the talent involved was phenomenal. Producer Hal Wallace was the driving force bringing everything together and being instrumental at every stage. Wallace hired writers Julius and Philip Epstein to work on adapting an unpublished play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s.’ Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood), a safe pair of hands and a true craftsman, was hired to direct. Ingrid Bergman loaned from Selznick International Pictures.
Burnett had spent time in Vienna in 1938 and did not like the strong pro-Nazi presence he felt in the city. Continuing his travels, Burnett ended up in a Mediterranean bar populated uneasily by the French and Nazi’s. This place became the inspiration for Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, a halfway house for refugees, hucksters, the lost, and those like Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who don’t want to be found. However the play is unremittingly bleak and embittered. Rewrites proved problematic and the Epstein’s were still working on the screenplay during filming.
Rick is an ambiguous figure with a shady past. “I’d like to think you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me,” Renault (Rains) tells him when asking about how he ended up in Casablanca. Rick is cynical, opportunistic, and never shows his hand. On one level he represents American isolationism in his refusal to pick sides, on another he is a classic movie tough guy. Bogart spent most of the 30’s playing supporting roles in gangster films, but had risen to leading man status with High Sierra (Raoul Walsh 1941) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston 1941). It gives Rick an edge and we like him more than the noble resistance figure Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreich). Cynics are usually wounded romantics, and we know sooner or later Rick will get around to doing the right thing.
Warner Bros. tried to repeat the success the following year with Passage to Marseille(Curtiz 43) again starring Bogart and Claude Rains but the magic wasn’t there this time around. Film critic Roger Ebert described Casablancaas being put together by ‘happy chance,’ which could well be a shorter way of saying “of all the gin joints in all the towns.”