Film Classics - Film Critique 01
January 24, 2012
Acting and Character Development
It’s said that when the body is in too much pain the brain shuts down, no where is that more apparent than in the case of Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Rick Blaine. Some say he appears to walk through scenes more than he actually acts his part. It could be argued that Rick has suffered so much he’s been left an apathetic shell moving through the throng of bustling people. He manages the activity in his cafe, which is ironic since he’s only just barely managing to live his life. He’s only roused out of his hibernation when his former love, the one who caused his great pain, picks his gin joint out of all the towns in all the world to walk into. We see him handle the pain as most saloon owners would, self medicating with his own product. He lashes out at Ilsa, still to hurt to hear her explanation. He refuses to help her and her husband, Victor Laszlo, even when Ilsa threatens him with a gun. Considering that he has had pretty much everything taken away from him at this point, what with his cafe forcing to close as well as loosing the woman he loves, he probably wasn’t lying when he told her that if she shot him she’d be doing him a favor. In the end, he chooses to behave nobly, working to make certain that Ilsa and Victor can escape to freedom. It’s hard to decide if Humphrey Bogart plays the part well, because he plays it much the same way he plays his many other roles. Still, I doubt that Rick would have a problem with being accused of being a part of the Bogart persona.
Ingrid Bergman plays the part of Ilsa Lund-Laszlo(?), devoted to her husband, Victor Laszlo, and his cause but undeniably in love with Rick Blaine. Ilsa’s character is very secretive and subtle, conveyed with the softest of close-ups and the subtlest of glances. Ingrid Bergman is the ideal leading lady for this movie in this era. She portrays the fearful and constrained Ilsa, who doesn’t want to admit to her love for Rick for fear of being unfaithful to her husband.
Paul Henreid plays Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian freedom fighter who has outsmarted the German Reich many times. Henreid plays him as a firm but warm man, understanding that the price of standing up to the Nazi’s is not as great as the price of not standing up to them. Though at one point he admits to his wife Ilsa that he is afraid of the Germans too, there’s little in his performance that suggests it. The man stands undauntedly despite the German officer Major Strasser’s veiled threats and continued pursuit. Though there is plenty of secrecy in his character, he isn’t the sort to hide himself away. If Rick is to be admired for picking himself up out of the muck of his apathy, then Victor Laszlo is to be admired for having mighty principles and never deviating from them.
Claude Rains plays the cunning Captain Louis Renault. Though he doesn’t receive top billing in this film, his character is undoubtedly crucial to the story. Claude Rains plays the character spectacularly, portraying the gravity of the time but still managing to keep it humorous and interesting. While Captain Renault may appear to be an unscrupulous cad throughout the film, in the end he choses to aid and accompany Rick. And why shouldn’t he? After all, he’s a citizen of a free French province, and to a point the utmost authority in Casablanca. No one could possibly blame him for trading the oppressive German General for a beautiful friendship.
There are numerous other characters that round out this story, and though they are only ‘supporting’ at best they make Casablanca a rich and human tale.
Casablanca owes its title to a play originally titled ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’. Casablanca received a name change due to many factors. Just a few years before, a successful picture named Algiers had come out. This picture conjured up many images of romantic locals. When Casablanca came out, the country of Casablanca had been invaded. Thus everyone knew about Casablanca and the situation.
During the time Casablanca was filmed, color was an option. Still, the black-and-white medium reigns in the setting, allowing the characters to be the focal point. It makes whites more vivid, blacks darker, and shows off the varying shades of grey in between. It also allows the lighting to make more dramatic effects in every scene.
It’s also interesting to notice the difference between Rick’s Cafe Américain and the flashbacks of France. While Rick’s has music and livelihood, it is still very contained and closed in, the focus always on moving past the moment of refuge fleeing citizens may have gained. However, the flashback to France begins with the happy couple, shown in a montage with no dialog heard… only lovely music and light laughter. France is seen as bright, open, and airy. The scene with Rick asking Ilsa how he could be so lucky is shot in a darker environment, as though admitting that though they love each other they are still in the dark as to their situations. But the real darkness comes on the rainy departure from France when Rick is forced to flee knowing Ilsa has left him but not knowing why.
It’s also pretty interesting that when Rick and Ilsa speak to each other after reuniting, many times Ilsa’s shots appear to have a softer edge, her eyes glistening as though she may dissolve into tears at any moment. While this could just be the best sort of way to shoot Ingrid Bergman, I also speculate that it may have been an intentional choice to soften the edges of her shot perhaps to convey the softness with witch she is viewed by both of the men who love her. And her glistening eyes convey the sense of sorrow heavy enough to rouse even the most hard-hearted individual to her aid.
… PS: I don’t really know if it’s part of any ‘artistic’ choice, but I find it interesting that in the beginning of the show, Captain Renault’s uniform is white just like most of the other French uniforms, but the very next day his uniform changes to black like the German officer’s uniform. It’s quite possible that he was simply dressed to the nines upon receiving Major Strasser. Still, speculation is as speculation does.
Camera Angles, Cinematography, & Lighting
The Camera Angles in Casablanca are almost all at eye level — distant enough to see the entire picture while the characters move through the scene, but closing in on them when it is necessary to focus on them and their conversation. This allows the story to play out driven by the characters while they work within the setting.
And oh, the lighting in this film! It is one of the best tellers of the feeling in the story. While in Rick’s Cafe Américain, light is prevalent most of the time, but the shadows create a background littered in shades of grey. During the times when Rick is at his lowest, the darkness seems so thick it’s almost suffocating. However, the flashbacks of France are lustrous and lit brightly, conveying the feeling of freedom before the German invasion.
The style of dress in Casablanca is very in line with what was worn by high society during the 40’s. Gentlemen wore impressively clean suits, and ladies wore beautifully tailored gowns (considering they’re in a desert). Perhaps it’s fitting that Ingrid Bergman’s outfits are some of the most striking in the film, her being the leading lady and all. The uniforms of the French and German men are very crisp, but the German’s appear in darker dress while the French (with the exception of Captain Louis Renault) sport lighter colors.
Casablanca’s editing is very linear. You see the story as it unfolds, and it unfolds quite clearly in front of you. Sometimes shots are lined up so that you understand where you are, or how that particular location works in the story. The streets littered with refugees all look up, wistfully watching as a plane flies in the distance, conveying the desperate need of the people trapped there. The scene at Rick’s Cafe with so many people trying to sell things and make deals alludes to the fact that while Rick’s may provide some momentary refuge, the far off dream is to some day fly far away from Casablanca. But the story moves along very well.
Casablanca is a war time romance portraying star-crossed lovers constrained by their circumstances and the struggle of nobility. Both Rick and Victor love Ilsa. Her feelings for Rick are greater than that of her Husband, but she understands that Victor’s cause would suffer without her being by his side.
I suppose it isn’t much of a leap to know that Casablanca is set in Casablanca. Of course, if they were to make a movie about Casablanca now, it may not mean as much. However, Casablanca is set during the 1940’s when the German war machine is invading other countries and pushing desperate refuges to the free French province of Casablanca, Morocco, in north Africa. To a finer point, the setting is also Rick’s Cafe Américain, the ‘saloon’ owned and operated by our protagonist Rick Blaine.
Sound and Music
The music in Casablanca is quite striking. The orchestra ranges from lovely to dramatic to heart stopping. The theme of the lovers personified in the song As time Goes By is found throughout the film, playing slow and sorrowful when the characters are torn and again playing light and hopeful when they are happy. The quality of sound is enjoyable as well, with an appreciation for moments of silence when they are necessary, and utilizing soft background noise to convey that the characters are not alone even when they are having a meaningful conversation.
The leading moment for music in this movie is the moment of dueling Anthems. When the Germans are singing of the Fatherland, and Victor Laszlo leads the free French in their own National Anthem, La Marseillaise. It is an impressive gambit, one that ends with the French citizens showing the Germans that the Nazi agenda isn’t the most favored… and, while Victor Laszlo may have proved a point, he did make it very difficult for poor Captain Renault who had to put up with Major Strasser. Still, the scene of Dueling Anthems is perhaps one of the most moving , showing a people browbeaten and stranded, yet still able to take pride in what makes them different.
The purpose of Casablanca is to show the desperate struggle of loving, free people to remain free against an oppressive force. Murry Burnett wrote ‘Everybody Comes to Ricks’ after traveling with his wife through Europe and witnessing the ruthless Nazi presence invading many countries. The plot of his story came a long way from the lone saloon with a single black man on the piano. Laszlo never would have had a cause if his country were not oppressed by the Germans. Rick and Ilsa’s love story never would have occurred if Ilsa had not believed her husband was dead at the hands of the Germans. And Rick never would have been invested in Victor Laszlo’s cause if not for his love for Ilsa. The story of this love triangle plays so vividly due to the characters endeavoring to do the right thing in horrible conditions. However, it does promote the idea that sacrificing something as important as love for the greater good is a reward unto itself.
The ultimate story of Casablanca is that of the war and what it forces on people. Those who cannot resist the invading German army flee to Casablanca in hopes of someday reaching Lisbon and then America. Casablanca is a French province of northern Africa, very close to Spain. Flights leave for Lisbon, but acquiring exit visas allowing departure is very difficult. The stranded refugees gather at Rick’s Cafe Américain in hopes of winning the money or perhaps even the influence they need to get exit visa they need to board the only flight out. Rick manages his cafe stoically, never drinking or taking much part in whatever celebrations occur in his establishment. It’s explained early in the story that a couple of German officers were killed and that their letters of transit (paperwork that allowed them to move about freely) were taken from them… and wouldn’t you know, Ugarte has those letters of transit and leaves them with Rick? Well, of course he didn’t mean to leave them with Rick at all. He simply asked Rick to keep them, and he was captured before he could reclaim them. As for Rick, he’s known as completely neutral, though it wasn’t always the case. The Germans have a full dossier on him entailing his exploits. The title of this dossier should be ‘Always Helping the Underdogs’. But now it seems he doesn’t fight for anything at all… Perhaps Rick says it best himself when he says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Still, he seems to have a good understanding with the free French Captain Louis Renault. In fact, out of everyone in Casablanca, Rick has the best set-up.
Enter Victor Laszlo and his beautiful wife Ilsa… Ilsa, who also happens to be the love of Rick’s life. The tension between Rick and Ilsa is thick, and we see through a series of flashbacks how the two met in Paris and fell in love. No questions were asked, they simply enjoyed one another’s company… until the German’s rolled into Paris. Rick and Ilsa had decided to leave Paris for safe harbor. Unfortunately for Rick, he’s alone with Sam on the platform when it’s time for the train to depart. He reads a depressing ‘dear John’ letter in the rain before departing, knowing only that Ilsa never intends to see him again. The experience leaves him broken. Coming back from the flashback, Rick is alone in his Cafe drinking after hours. His solitude is interrupted by the woman who caused his heart break. Ilsa does try to explain, but Rick is still too hurt and bitter by what happened to let her get very far. Ilsa leaves, resolving not to bother patching the bridges she burned with Rick. Things get especially harsh the next day when Ilsa tells Rick that Victor Laszlo is and has been her husband even when she was with him. It’s not much of an explanation, and it certainly doesn’t leave Rick feeling any more charitable towards Mr. and Mrs. Laszlo.
It’s very unlucky for them, since Major Strasser has arrived in town, and he is very keen on making Victor Laszlo’s escape to freedom impossible. True, Casablanca is a free French province, but the French are cooperating with the conquering Germans to a point. Captain Renault invites the Laszlo’s to his office to discuss private matters with them… to the tune of, ‘I’m the only person who can sign an exit visa for you, and I’ve no intention of ever doing so’. The Laszlo’s only option now is trying to sneak out by means of the black market… unfortunately, they’re being watched. Their first stop is to speak to Signor Ferrari at the Blue Parrot, another gin joint of less repute than Rick’s. Unfortunately, only one exit visa could be procured, and Ilsa refuses to leave Casablanca without Victor. Ferrari regrets that he cannot help the couple more, and even though he doesn’t imagine it will amount to much, he does tell them about the letters of transit Rick has come to possess. Victor Laszlo pleads his case, offering Rick a small fortune for the letters of transit, but Rick refuses telling him only that he should ask his wife why Rick wouldn’t sell them. Laszlo is no fool, but he assures his wife that she owes him no explanation and that he will always believe in her. Laszlo meets with other members of the underground movement against Germany, meanwhile Ilsa steals away to Rick’s in hopes of convincing him to give her the letters of transit…. that doesn’t work out so well. In the end, Ilsa threatens Rick with a gun (pretty dramatic for the 1940’s), but Rick calls her bluff. Ilsa dissolves, finally releasing all the things she’s been holding back, including her love for Rick and the circumstances behind her leaving him. She confesses that she’s grown tired of fighting her feelings for him, saying that he will have to think for them both.
The scene comes to a halt when Victor Laszlo and Carl (one of Rick’s employees) seeks refuge in Rick’s. Rick get’s Carl to take Ilsa home secretly while Rick talks to Laszlo. Laszlo tells Rick that if he won’t give the letters of transit to him, then he begs him to take his wife and leave Casablanca. Victor Laszlo is then arrested, but it’s on a charge that won’t hold him for long. It’s at this point that Rick does what Ilsa told him to do… Rick does the thinking. He does a whole lot of thinking, and he works out a masterful plan that I wasn’t sure of until the end. Rick tells Captain Renault that he does have the letters of transit, but if Renault calls off his dogs, then Rick will offer the letters to Laszlo. Captain Renault can arrest Victor Laszlo with enough evidence to lock him away forever. Rick’s willing to go through with this as long as Renault allows Ilsa and Rick to get away. Renault agrees, and Rick sets about the business of selling his cafe. When Renault shows up to arrest Laszlo, he’s surprised when Rick holds a gun on him. Rick gets them all in the car and takes them to the airport, forcing Captain Renault to sign the letters of transit with the names Mr. and Mrs. Laszlo on them. Rick chooses to do the honorable thing, knowing that Laszlo’s work wouldn’t last much longer without Ilsa by Laszlo’s side. The two board the plane, and who should appear but Major Strasser just as the plane is taxiing down the runway. It appears that when Louis ‘called the airport’ to let them know there would be 2 more passengers on the plane, he had in fact called Strasser. When Strasser attempts to call the radio tower and stop the plane he pulls out a gun, and Rick shoots him. Just like the Calvary, a car of French officers shows up immediately after Strasser falls down dead. Captain Renault tells them that the general has been shot, and that they should round up ‘the usual suspects’. Captain Louis and Rick end the scene walking off together, with Rick reminding Louis that he owes him 10,000 francs, and Louis stating that it should pay their expenses to a Free French garrison at Brazzaville. The two close the movie out walking into the mist, thus beginning a beautiful friendship and closing a movie with so many great lines.