I was going to hold off on the heavy classics until I got more settled into writing these every week, but this film was sort of presented to me as a request. So here we are, Casablanca. I must admit, I have not met a single person who has not liked Casablanca, so I feel like reviewing it might not be the best use of my time, nor would it do this film the most justice. Thus, I’m going to give you a few reasons as to why this movie is great that, I feel, are also reasons movies like this aren’t made anymore.
To anyone who has seen this movie it is an understatement that it is heavy on the dialogue. This is not a bad thing, and this movie does not necessarily make you think philosophically. However, if you miss a few lines of dialogue chances are you will miss an important plot point or two. Many people today like to go to movies to relax and forget about their stressful day at work/school, but Casablanca forces you to pay attention. Also, most movies today have at most five good, iconic lines. Casablanca is literally filled with memorable lines to the point where there were just too many of them to go “mainstream” in the collective conscious that is pop-culture. My favorite example of a line everyone should know but probably doesn’t: “I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me” (spoken by Captain Renault). While I can’t say movies don’t have great lines anymore, it’s very hard to find a movie where all but a few lines are this memorable.
Another thing about this movie you don’t see a whole lot of anymore is the noir style. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this, but I can’t help being nostalgic for a time in films that passed before I was even born. The use of shadows to frame people, shots, or even fill negative space is always intriguing to me, and I wish it could be pulled off better in color film. There are various films that have tried (like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare…*shudder*) but it doesn’t have the same effect due to the diminished contrast of color film. Scenes like this in color film feel like gimmicks rather than shots used to set a mood.
Shots like this just don’t work as well with color film, and I have met far too many people who refuse to watch black and white movies simply because they are old (note: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad). Sure, the occasional experiment film ventures back to older techniques, but creating a film like this for the typical film viewer of today and not the film snobs (like myself…at least I own up to it) just doesn’t work anymore.
While I can’t really say this next bit is something films don’t TRY to do anymore, they certainly don’t do it well. All the drama of Casablanca is set up to occur within the first half hour. Ugarte gives Rick the exit visas, Rick makes the bet with Renault about whether or not he will help Victor Laszlo escape, we are told (and shown) that Rick doesn’t care for the women in Casablanca, and then at the twenty-five minute mark Ilsa walks in with Victor and she and Sam look at each other extremely awkwardly before she starts asking about Rick. We know because of this that there is a history between Rick and Ilsa, Rick has reasons for not wanting to help them get out, but he is also the only one with the means to do so. There are plenty of movies these days that try to set up the plot all at once, but usually doing this ends up getting messy because it is not made clear to the audience that something will become important later, or filmmakers give up and decide to bring in a side-plot about halfway through. I really wish more movies would come in more “neatly wrapped packages”, if you will, but there is a huge gap in film-making these days between films made for the sake of money and films made for the sake of film/art/storytelling. Films made for money tend to not care, I suppose, about whether the story is solid. Casablanca works because the story was cared about by the filmmakers, especially considering that it’s a World War II movie released during WWII so everyone had something at stake (see: http://www.cracked.com/article_19693_5-amazing-performances-from-actors-who-werent-acting.html).
Finally, there is the “problem” of Rick as a protagonist. We are told rather than shown that he is a good person that has done good things in the past, which makes it somewhat hard to believe (but not impossible). What we are shown is that he will “stick his neck out for no one”, especially the woman who ditched him at a train station even if it would be tremendously helpful to the rest of the world if Laszlo were to escape Casablanca…until the end of the movie. Films today seem to have a problem with the protagonists not being entirely “good”. If they do want their protagonist to seem less than perfect, they give them an addiction or a skewed view of the world that doesn’t help the viewer sympathize with the character. The only reason these traits are added is to point out that the character is not perfect. Rick however, is far from perfect yet we still sympathize with him. He is a man with a heart, though he’s not always willing to show it because his heart has been broken from being too trusting in the past. Thus, his actions are not surprising and while we may not like him telling Victor “why don’t you ask your wife”, we can understand why he is doing it and even feel bad for Rick. Thus, the ending of the film is made even greater when we see Rick stand up for “the greater good” in giving up Ilsa despite his own feelings. Yes, it is martyrdom, but it shows that he understands that there are more important things than his own happiness. Protagonists these days seem highly wrapped up in their own problems and even when they are trying to do something bigger than themselves, they always seem to get something out of it. Rick’s only gain from letting Ilsa and Victor leave is a better relationship with Renault, but that sacrifice is what makes him such an iconic character.
I could go on for ages about the cinematography, lighting, dialogue, amazing writing, and the acting, but I won’t. I also feel like saying “this movie is amazing and you should go see it” would be preaching to the choir. However, if you consider yourself to be the typical contemporary film viewer and you’re looking for something different, don’t sit there wishing and hoping that something better will come. Something better came a long time ago. Here’s looking at you, kid.