The Best Picture Project – Casablanca (1943)

casablanca movie posterDirected by Michael Curtiz

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains

Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch

In some ways, working on the Best Picture Project has been a curse.  Setting a goal to see each and every Best Picture winner has meant having to watch some truly awful movies, many of which were made all the more awful because I had to watch them – you cannot believe how many times I mentally found myself reliving the tenth grade experience of slogging through The Scarlet Letter.  Not the first example, but probably the worst, was The Broadway Melody.

 However, in other ways, this Project has been a revelation, forcing me to watch movies I’d not ordinarily watch, or films I’d tried to watch but gave up on too early, only to find out later that I’d been unjust in dismissing.  This weeks entry, Casablanca, is just such a film.

For years Casablanca was the one classic movie I didn’t get.  Lots of people talked about it being this great romantic film, and critics adore it, and it even played a major role in When Harry Met Sally… – the same part an Affair to Remember played in another Nora Ephron scripted film – but the fact is, every time I tried to watch it, it just eluded me.  Maybe it’s that I’m from the MTV generation and Casablanca is for the pre-TV generation, or maybe it’s something else – I don’t know.  The fact is, I could just never get more than ten or twelve minutes in without giving up and moving on.

Knowing this history, that I tried and failed to watch it – a la Grand Hotel – I heartily expected it to be another slog film for me and steeled myself for it.  But all my prep was for nothing because it turned out the film was magnificent.  Without the Best Picture Project to prod me along, I would have missed an undeniable gem.

I’ll save the rehash of the plot, only say the film takes place during WWII and concerns some resistance fighters stuck in Casablanca, hoping to get exit visas to the west to escape the Nazi’s.  It’s typical spy story stuff, but this film, is far from typical.  Unlike a lot of films of the 30s and 40s, with the exaggerated acting and disposal of all things subtle – hello, Mrs. Miniver Casablanca is a breath of fresh air.  The acting is understated, the dialog natural, the obvious is obvious and not beaten into a pulp and the characterizations are all the height of subtlety.  In all, the script, the direction, and everything else is spot on.  It might not ever be my favorite film, but it’s very well-told, and hardly the film I thought necessary to avoid.  If it popped up on TCM, I’d watch.

What’s really striking about it, for me, though, is that for all its romantic credibility – Harry and Sally sure loved it – there is very little romance in Casablanca.  Ingrid Bergman, beautiful and stunning as always as one corner of the romantic triangle, doesn’t show up in the film for nearly half an hour, and until nearly an hour in, she and Bogart are basically at odds – except for the little bit of flashback to flesh out their history, they are basically bitter and hateful.  Then, instead of winding up together at the end of the film, Bogart sends Bergman away with her husband.  For a romantic film, it has little romance and no payoff.  In other words, it was a bit like real life.

 

What’s also strike me is that, for all the great lines Bogart has – “Of all the gin joints…,” “Here’s looking at you…,” and what have you, the most memorable line in the whole film doesn’t come from Bogart at all, but from Claude Rains.

Forced to manufacture a reason to close Bogart’s café by a vengeful Nazi who didn’t appreciate an impromptu bit of French, nationalist fever, Rains struggles to come up with a justification, until finally declaring, “I’m shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here!” Only to thank the dealer when the man flags him down to give him his winnings.  Perfect.

 

Trivia:

In addition to winning Best Picture and Best Director, Casablanca took home the award for Best Screenplay.  Among the three writers are the twin Epstein brothers, one of whom – Philip – is the grandfather of Theo Epstein general manager of the Boston Red Sox and architect of the Sox first two World Series wins since before WWI.

Since I’m never one to miss pointing out the weird connections between films – Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, claims Casablanca as the greatest screenplay ever written.  McKee, played by Brian Cox, appears in the Spike Jonze directed Adaptation.

Click here to see those already seen and to get a list of those left to see.

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