(As a preface, this is mostly written out of disagreeing with a certain member of the Slash Filmcast, a podcast that I highly recommend. Adam, I must respectfully disagree.)
As a 23 year old male, who just watched “Casablanca” for the first time the other night, I have no choice but to completely disagree with those that feel it is not a classic. “Casablanca” is a film based in romance with noir, drama, comedy and even musical flair. It is one that relies on the viewer to understand people and their reactions as opposed to being told how to feel about these characters. In my personal opinion, I feel that “Casablanca” is a great American classic, very deserving of the praise it gets. But why is this film so great? What does this film do that is so amazing?
Humphrey Bogart (playing Rick Blaine) sets the standard for the American actor from cynicism to selfishness as well as fully embodying what it means to be a real life American at the core of our being. Set during the early days of WW2, Rick is representative of America and our involvement with other nations. We were isolationists looking out for our own good. We fraternized with other countries, though never taking a “side”. As staunch as Rick is in the film, his moral inconsistencies are directly affected by his sensitivity to doing the right thing when the power and choice are his.
The film is navigated by a forbidden romance that tears at the inner workings of the characters played by Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund). During an affair in Paris, before the Nazi invasion, Rick and Ilsa come together amid the turmoil and destruction around them. Set in the “city of love”, it is obvious upon viewing this tryst that Rick has fallen for the beauty of Ilsa and has completely let his guard down. Little does he know, however, that Ilsa is actually married and her husband has been found to be alive. Knowing and discovering this, she leaves Rick alone on a train as she breaks their future plans together while at the same time breaking his heart.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know many of the quotes from this film. It is the definitive love story, set amid a tumultuous war where our protagonist is forced to do the right thing even if it is not the outcome the viewer is drawn to root for. As the story progresses it is hard not to feel and understand what the characters are going through, as the emotions are easily relatable.
I would argue when the selling point of a film is based in flash and pizzazz, instead of the emotion, it begins to tell a lot about how we perceive film. Even in a film such as “The Matrix”, we are given the love story which is extremely vital to the final outcome of the film. However, at its foundation “The Matrix” is not an emotional film, but an action film filled with visual effects that have become old. As catchy as the story for “The Matrix” may seem, it is at its core nothing new and can only be appreciated in context. Simply put the story spine is nothing innovative though the story elements supporting it are.
For those that think that “Casablanca” is bland and the visuals are lackluster you must realize exactly what you are saying. For many of the films of the 90’s and 00’s, the grossly overused and abused computer VFX are a complete waste and look increasingly worse as time goes by. However, with “Casablanca” we feel a greater sense of realism as the VFX are done with lighting and perspective; tricks that would be used later in films such as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Movies in B&W can be very powerful as we allow the contrast in the scenes to help tell the story. It was very possible for “Casablanca” to be shot in color (as many films were during the time period), but the choice in using B&W was to facilitate the story.
Part of the reasoning for “Casablanca” being a classic is more about the time period in which it originated from than anything else. Movies were fresh and new and with every twist of style something was born. By that token, the way Bogart is able to represent an American is why this film is an American Classic. It is America’s movie set in Morocco about an American that doesn’t necessarily get his way. He compromises and let’s his selflessness shine through (an element that is fully integrated into “The Matrix”) at the risk of his own life. Though the elements of compromising and selflessness aren’t new, the way they are portrayed within the film are expressions of a new type of male lead and in subtext a new American.
In defining classics, we can’t be so pretentious as to divide into groups what classics are. By that form of thinking, we can in effect make everything a “classic”. That will only serve to diminish the important films that have “changed the game”.
It is very interesting to me that people complain about narration, yet also complain when things aren’t explained enough. Isn’t it Shakespeare that wrote “brevity is the soul of wit”? If you are forced to ask why Rick and Ilsa are in love, than you have missed a major part of the film and are possibly disconnected from the emotional center of your being. “Casablanca” is timeless because the romanticism and emotion of love is at the very core of our human form. The characters transcend time, because they can be anyone at any time. Their emotion can be the same in context or out of context. And as long as we have passion, “We will always have Paris.”