AFI Top 100 Discussion: Casablanca

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AFI Top 100 Discussion is a series of posts dedicated to dialogues concerning the best of American Cinema as designated by the American Film Institute. Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey and I have been picking our way through the list since 2014, having covered six films so far. Today we are discussing the 1943 film that basically defined the term classic, Casablanca.

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Today we’re discussing one of the films that people most associate with the word “classic:” Casablanca. Famous for its classical Hollywood style, starring performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and tale of self-sacrifice and romance, Casablanca has long captured the minds and hearts of movie-goers. In the film, Bogart plays Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, which is overrun with refugees from Nazi Germany waiting to get to America. Rick stays above all of this however, until Bergman’s Ilsa Lund wanders out of his past and into his cafe hoping to secure letters of transit that will let her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) leave Casablanca. However, Rick, the perfect example of American isolationism, seems dead set against letting her have them. Join us as we discuss interesting side characters, larger political contexts, and a famous romance.

Hunter: I’ve seen Casablanca more times than I can count, though I still remember the first time I saw it. Though it still holds up in many ways, every time I watch it I find myself caring less about the central romance (which is probably what the movie is most famous for) and more about the eccentric side characters and the larger political context of the film. I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but how did those elements play out for you?    

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Jon: Well you have certainly seen this more than me, I believe this was my third time watching Casablanca and it’s funny you mention the central romance. This time in particular the central romance caught my attention more than ever, perhaps because at the moment I can relate to what they had in Paris, but it was presented really well. The other two times I watched this film though, I was digging the political context within the film, and still even now my favourite scene in the singing of La Marseillaise. Asides from the French National Anthem already being incredible; a lot of the extras were actual refugees from Nazi Germany since this film was made during World War II, so the emotions evoked from the anthem was powerful. The whole sequence played out like a battle of war too, so I enjoyed that a whole lot. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the central romance though Hunter!

Hunter: The La Marseillaise scene is definitely my favorite scene in the whole movie, and I think the most powerful. It brings me on the verge of tears everytime I watch it. It’s mostly the strength of the performances, and our awareness of the political context of the film, because the filmmaking style (both in this scene and the rest of the movie) is pretty straightforward. I really can’t praise that scene enough, even after all these years it ends up being the best and most surprising part of the movie for me.

I know it’s going to be an unpopular opinion, but the more I see this movie the more I fail to get on board with the central romance of the film. It’s not that I hate it or anything, it just isn’t the best thing in the movie from my point of view for some reason. Like I said before, I get much more invested in the side characters, and even Louis and Rick’s relationship, than the love triangle between Rick, Ilsa, and Victor.

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Jon: Which is a testament to the power of simplicity. As you said most of the film is pretty straightforward with the beautiful black and white cinematography with a great use of contrast. I love that about this movie, it can be viewed in a deeper context but overall it’s just such an easy watch, but knocks the ball out of the park in nearly every aspect of the film.

That’s fair though, it’s a great thing that all of the side characters and plot lines are equally as interesting. I loved Louis and Rick’s relationship, there was so much banter between them that was completely engaging. Another thing that seemed a little uncommon for this period in cinema was for the main actress to be a strong character, but all while not becoming a femme fatale, also the fair treatment of Sam in the movie is always wonderful to see. I know you are much better at noticing these aspects of the film, were you on board for Bergman’s character?  

Hunter: Aw man, I was hoping it wouldn’t come up because I’ll have to express another unpopular opinion! First, let it be not misunderstood, I really love Ingrid Bergman, I’m just not as much of a fan of this performance as some of her other work (notably with Hitchcock). I think she does a good job in this movie, but there just isn’t much for her to do compared to Bogart and Rains. And I’ve never been a fan of her character turning over all of her agency to Bogart’s, even though I suppose it was her choice… So I don’t really have a leg to stand on with this, and I’ll admit it, but the fact remains that it still rubs me the wrong way.

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Jon: Well this surely is a shocker. I got the impression that she did it all out of her love for Rick which could be seen as selfish because the whole world apparently needs Laszlo to continue his work against the Nazi’s but after seeing Interstellar and how Hathaway’s character explained love I was all on board for her going back for Rick. It’s strange because in most instances we would be switched positions on things like this haha, but yeah I felt that received a solid amount of Bergman.

Hunter: As I mentioned before, outside of the La Marseillaise scene, I really love the cast of colorful character all rattling around Casablanca. Not only do you have notable character actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, but you also have the people who work at Rick’s, like Sam and the waiter and the bartender, and you really get a sense of loyalty between them that’s wonderful to see. Then you have the people that come to Rick’s, such as the German couple who are practicing English and the pickpocket, and I really just love seeing how these small side characters all come together to create the world of Casablanca.  

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Jon: Yeah I fully agree with you, it just brings the film to life with all these wonderful characters. A lot of older films have a lot of patches where it doesn’t hold up too well with the current advances in technology, however asides from literally the first 5 minutes, Casablanca is exquisite. I never noticed before how much of the dialogue from this film has been transfused into American culture. There are six quotes from here that made it onto AFI’s Top 100 movie quotes, which sounds strange for a film that had so many rewrites, and onset revision.

Hunter: Yeah, the script is really solid, especially with so many classic lines. Along with the other elements I mentioned, it really is one of the highlights of the film. It’s one of the things that make the film so comforting on a rewatch. Even though I feel that the film has lost a bit of its luster over the years, there still is something intangible about it that makes it a classic. Even though it’s not doing a huge number of groundbreaking things, it still manages to really have an emotional effect on people after all these years. Keeping that in mind, even though there are films that might be better farther down the list, I’m pretty okay with Casablanca being so high at number three. Do you feel it deserves its place on the list?

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Jon: I definitely believe it earns this #3 spot on the list right behind The Godfather at #2, and ahead of Raging Bull at #4. Casablanca has maintained a dazzling allure, with all of the aspects we spoke about previously.

Though it might be hard to find new things to say about such a classic film, there’s still a lot to appreciate about Casablanca. Jon and I both liked it, for a change, and agree with its inclusion on the AFI’s list. As we’re both perhaps overly familiar with the film, feel free to point on things we missed in the comments! As always, thanks for reading and we’ll be back with another AFI Top 100 Discussion sometime in the future.

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“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

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