There are some films that not only stand the test of time, but that should be saved for all-time. There should be a collection stowed in a time-proof box or sent into space for other species to view, a representation of the medium, films that give a glimpse of our world, displaying different types of characters, different themes, presenting the human condition in a way that feels more real than life itself does sometimes. These are movie essentials.
In looking at some of these essential films, it is important to remember that what is paramount to the essence of cinema is first and foremost: story. Without an interesting, involving, heartfelt story, all the effects and cinematography and acting amount to nothing. Or, to put it more in line with Rick Blaine, they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.
Casablanca (1942) may indeed be the finest screenplay ever written. It is the work of a number of writers including Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and potentially Casey Robinson off the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. The characters, plotting, locations, resolutions and dialogue are all timeless treasures that have transcended the film itself into popular culture.
The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, has survived nearly eight decades based on its timeless story.
Rick Blaine is trapped in Casablanca, Morocco, the owner of a cafe in the midst of World War II. Everyone in the city is trying to get out, Casablanca being the last port to potential freedom away from the Axis powers, but the town is essentially a prison where no one can escape. Cynical and tough-minded, Rick’s world comes crashing down when the woman he thought he had lost forever, Ilsa Lund, walks into his gin joint and upsets the balance of his self-proclaimed exile. Faced with a choice of helping the fledgling freedom cause or wallowing into irreparable self-pity, Rick must confront his past and decide what to do with his future.
One of the greatest things about Casablanca is its ability to genre-morph. It contains elements of the dramatic, comedic, romantic, action-packed and musical genres. Its ability to balance all of these elements without falling apart is a tribute to the strength of its narrative which keeps the film chugging along. These different genres also give the film a more comprehensive feeling of completeness; we feel many different aspects of life throughout the course of one story.
The score, the song (As Time Goes By) and the cinematography, a high-contrast black and white palette that emphasizes bars seemingly on every character to represent the nature of their prison environment, all contribute to create the ambiance that the story serves. Supposed bit players such as Peter Lorre’s Ugarte and S. Z. Sakall’s Carl are given interesting character arcs and dynamics that make them memorable and further add to the emotional appeal of the movie. All of these elements (lighting, casting, sound) contribute to the story rather than distract from it.
At the heart of the characters of Casablanca, and specifically Rick, is a sense of mystery as to who they really are. Rick thinks he is one thing, a reclusive drunk who just wants to be left alone, but his heart tells him he is something else, a man dedicated to virtue and sentimentalism. Ilsa thinks she is one thing, the wife and inspiration of a freedom fighter, but her heart tells her she is a renegade in love with another man. Even Captain Renault believes he is one thing, a corrupt, woman-hoarding goer with the wind, and reveals himself to be a caring sympathizer.
It is this recognition of who we truly are and choosing to be that person despite the pains of that choice that makes the film feel more honest and dramatic than most films dare to recognize. At the finale, Rick chooses to be the freedom fighter that is true to himself at the expense of a potential life with his love. It is that moment of realization and action that has kept the film alive all these years, that recognition of true inner self, a universal theme that transcends time.
Of course, that is just one interpretation of the film. The film could also be interpreted as a story of unrelenting love against oppressive times, the necessity of personal sacrifice for the greater good, latent homosexual longings in times of crisis or the unending patriarchal power over feminine will.
One of the greatest things about cinema is the ability to interpret individually what films mean to us. The best films not only reveal themselves to us, they continue to do so every time we watch them, bringing us new interpretations that we had never experienced before and illuminating new aspects of the human condition. Casablanca continues to enlighten with each additional viewing. That is the mark of an essential film.