I usually try to maintain a certain degree of objectivity in class, and I don’t offer a firm opinion about anything I show until the last day (if anyone bothers to ask me). Casablanca, however, inspires me to make an exception. I love Casablanca. Every time. At this point I’ve probably seen it fifty or sixty times, and it never gets old. In fact, it’s different every time I watch it. I might pay particular attention to a performance, the way the music works, how the film approaches the politics of unoccupied France…I never know. And it’s generally not that I set out with a particular interest in mind. A few viewings back I became mesmerized by cataloging the various interesting ways that the director (Michael Curtiz) used shadows. It’s kind of a trademark of his (think about the final duel in the Adventures of Robin Hood), but Casablanca is a masterclass in shadow usage. This time around, the class seemed to be especially responsive to the humor of the film, so I spent some time thinking about how well-balanced all of the various elements (action, romance, suspense, humor, etc.) are in relation to the whole.
Of course, none of this should really be the case. Any film is a patchwork quilt of a million things which have to magically work just right to really come together, and that’s especially true for Casablanca. Even a cursory glance at the production history (there’s a whole chapter of production memos in Rudy Behlmer’s “Inside Warner Brothers”) makes it difficult to believe that the swirling chaos of casting, writing and filming could result in anything remotely coherent, let alone entertaining and beloved. But that’s one of the things that makes the film so great. Creating solid entertainment was what studios did during the era of classical Hollywood. No matter how chaotic it looked, everyone was a professional, everyone did their job, and everyone was so good at it that they could function together to make things work. And boy do they.
But it’s more than that. Casablanca captures the particular zeitgeist of its era in a way which few films do, and that’s part of the magic. As Rick slowly comes around to the fact that he’s the key to the future lives, happiness and success of each of the main characters, he understands that he has hard choices to make. He also knows that he can’t make them based simply on his own preferences, because there are more important things in life than what he wants. He has a good stoic attitude about himself, his emotions and his decision-making, and it parallels the kind of choices being faced by people throughout the United States (and the world) during the Second World War. The filmmakers may have been cognizant of the way they were summing up these themes, or they may not have been, but it doesn’t matter. These issues exude from every frame of the film, and they continue to give it a striking resonance for viewers who are open to it.
And that leads to a larger point. If a film really gets under our skin, it doesn’t get old. Every year my sister and I have the same experience around Easter/Passover when DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments airs on television. We both get sucked in by the compulsive watchability of the thing, regardless of the fact that we’ve seen it a hundred times. There’s no escape. If it’s on, we end up watching. The same is true (for me) of films like Hondo, Galaxyquest or Spartacus (among many, many others). They are what they are, but they’re also something more. They really do speak to the human condition. All of them have moments that give me a little lump in my throat, or make the hair stand up a little bit on the back of my neck, or make me think more deeply about something. I connect with them emotionally, and trying to figure out how and why that works isn’t just a question of analyzing a film. It’s also about understanding myself. And if watching Casablanca sixty times helps me to understand myself a little better, then I consider it time well spent.