Why It Works: Casablanca
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
1942... not the happiest of times. The Second World War saw Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and other Axis leaders committing atrocities and causing unrest around the globe. While it wasn't uncommon for films and other media to condemn the Third Reich (have you seen Donald Duck as a Nazi?!), any criticisms were made at a great risk should the war not go our way. Think the fiasco surrounding THE INTERVIEW, but replace Kim Jong-un with a much scarier dictator who looks slightly less like a cartoon. Set in discordant Morocco, CASABLANCA sees refugees from occupied Europe and beyond desperately seeking passage to neutral Portugal and the United States. Amid the chaos, an equally tumultuous love story comes to a head, resulting in one of the most well-loved, studied, and iconic films of all time. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
At the onset of our story, Rick Blaine is cold, distant, and mysterious. While he may not be instantly likeable, we catch glimpses of the character we'll grow to love. When a stuffy Nazi affiliate tries to get into the gambling room, Rick banishes him to the bar, assuring him he's lucky to be let in at all. Rick hints at a yearning to leave Casablanca behind, wields a quick wit and debonair charm, and shows unwavering strength in his decisions. Once we learn Rick has been a lost soul since the beautiful Ilsa left him waiting on a train platform in Paris, we're brought through the rough exterior and see a much more vulnerable protagonist. Of course, CASABLANCA is nothing without the troubled Ilsa Lund, desperate for freedom, both from war-torn territory as well as her own heart. Finally, the rest of the cast pepper the film throughout, bringing both levity and tension to the story, including the radiant Sam, Rick's jilted lover Yvonne, the shifty Ugarte, the morally ambiguous Renault, Victor Laszlo- naive but impressive, and the Vader-esque Strasser (tell me Strasser getting off the plane isn't the inspiration for every the-bad-guy-is-here-and-needs-an-update scene).
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
WHY WE CARE:
CASABLANCA opens with a prologue detailing the plight of imprisoned Europe and the importance of French Morocco as an embarkation point to the Americas. We're then treated to a medley of desperate refugees, pickpockets, and German soldiers, eventually transitioning to the Mos Eisley cantina scene of Rick's Cafe Americain (okay, I'll stop with the STAR WARS comparisions, but they're totally there). We haven't even met the main character yet, but the alternating scenes of tension and levity immerse us into this world and have us intrigued. Immediately after Rick's introduction, the driving plot device is introduced: two letters of transit have been obtained, allowing the bearer passage to Lisbon and then the United States. It's not apparent whether Rick has any interest in said papers, but their importance is nonetheless clear. Shortly after we've settled into the world and understand Rick's involvement in it, Ilsa comes on the scene and stops Rick dead in his tracks. As we learn their backstory and see a fire still very much alive, letters of transit are the last thing on our minds.
"Here's looking at you, kid."
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Once Rick and Ilsa's story takes off, CASABLANCA becomes a love story with the war as a backdrop. While Ilsa struggles with her feelings for Rick, we learn that she and her husband are indeed in search of extraction to the States, something she discovers Rick can provide (oh, that's what all that letters of transit business was all about). Having once been deserted by Ilsa with no explanation, Rick refuses to help. After several attempts, including threatening Rick at gunpoint, Ilsa reveals that she thought he husband was dead during their dalliance in Paris and only left upon learning he was alive and in need of help. Finally, as people tend to do after light gunplay, Rick and Ilsa discuss running away together. Following an unexpected conversation with Laszlo, though, Rick has a change of heart and arranges for Ilsa and Laszlo to escape together, ensuring Ilsa that it's the right choice. What matters most here is that we've seen Rick mature from a near-heartless wreck to a compassionate person making an extremely difficult and selfless decision. Oh, also Major Strasser shows up, so we get to see Rick kill a Nazi piece of shit (every movie should end like this) and make plans to join the resistance with Captain Renault.
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
It's not uncommon these days for a film to feel dated after only ten or twenty years (often due to its dependence on the filmmaking trends of the time), but CASABLANCA feels timeless and as relevant and relatable today as it was in 1942. The characters are flawed and three-dimensional, the two circling plots don't work without each other, and significant political and societal criticisms pierce the story. As for the leads, Humphrey Bogart's Rick embodies a style and definition of cool we can still look up to, and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa is as captivating and stunning as ever. With dozens of memorable lines, an exciting cast of characters, and a precise balance of comedy, drama, and political intrigue, it's no wonder CASABLANCA set such a precedent for modern film and continues to be celebrated and revered as time goes by.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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