Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

humphrey bogart, claude rains, paul henried & ingrid bergman - casablanca 1943

A rather trite, unnecessarily-complicated wartime romance in which the most cynical drunk in the world is persuaded, after getting a second chance with the love of his life, to sacrifice his happiness (and hers, but that’s not really relevant) for the war effort, by tricking her into returning to her anti-Nazi activist husband and continuing her loveless sham of a marriage. He and the corrupt local chief of police (he uses his powers to extort sexual favors from pretty young women in exchange for the chance to flee the Nazis), then wander off into the desert.

Depending on how you define your terms, Casablanca might be the greatest motion picture ever made. An example of Hollywood studio filmmaking at its finest, with assured direction by Michael Curtiz, perhaps the greatest non-auteur director of all-time, and brilliant performances not just from the leads but also from a remarkable cast of character actors bringing depth, nuance and personality to even the smallest role (I’m not kidding: even the croupier manning the roulette wheel is a major talent, Marcel Dalio, who only three years before had starred in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece  The Rules of the Game). Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, SZ Sakall, Leonid Kinskey and John Qualen are simply overkill in a film that already features Paul Henreid and Claude Rains in the major supporting roles. Ingrid Bergman is luminous of course, on the precipice of superstardom, she has the kind of purity that almost makes you forget she’s trying to exchange sex for her husband’s freedom. But Humphrey Bogart reminds you (and her husband – how bold that line is, said by Bogart to Henried, “She did her best to convince me she was still in love with me. . . and I let her pretend.”) It’s his finest performance, cynical cruelty melting before our eyes into wounded romanticism and self-sacrificing heroism. He’s everything America aspires to be: too cool to care about right and wrong, but determined to do the right thing anyway.

If you’ve never seen Casablanca, or if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or if you’ve seen it a hundred times already, go see it this week at the Central Cinema.