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ISSUE 118 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/18/2005

Casablanca still captivating

By Molly Bayrd
Executive Editor

Friday, March 18, 2005

Throughout the history of the American “silver screen,” there have been times when landmark films have altered – either purposely or inadvertently – the very face of modern cinema. In the case of “Casablanca,” that time was 63 years ago, and the film’s epic love story continues to make an impact on the way in which Americans approach motion picture.

Released in 1942 and directed by Michael Curtiz (“White Christmas,” “The Jazz Singer”), “Casablanca” is set in early 1940s French Morocco amidst the increasingly ominous expansion of the Third Reich.

After two German couriers are killed in the desert and robbed of several important travel documents (uncontestable visas), Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) wends his way to Casablanca in search of the murder suspect. He also seeks to impede the escape of Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), a prominent anti-Nazi revolutionary, also believed to be in Casablanca.

All three men – Strasser, Lazlo and the murder suspect – end up in Rick’s Café Américain, Casablanca’s buzzing oasis. There, gin-sipping European refugees wait in limbo for exit visas to Lisbon (and subsequently, to America), in the hopes of evading the Third Reich.

Because he knows that Lazlo intends to escape from Morocco with the help of his Café contacts, Strasser keeps a close eye on Lazlo and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), at all times.

Strasser succeeds in apprehending the couriers’ murderer, but suspects that the stolen exit visas have been passed to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the begrudgingly compassionate, alcohol-loving proprietor of Rick’s. Now Strasser must discover where Rick is keeping the visas, and ensure that Lazlo, whom Rick greatly admires, doesn’t get his hands on them.

In spite of his mechanical, cynical demeanor, focal protagonist Bogart exerts a subtly dry humor throughout the film’s 102-minute running time. His droll, bitter mannerisms – especially apparent in his witty exchanges with Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) – are the highlight of the film, transforming even the most dramatic moments into lighthearted ones.

Bergman is almost tangibly fragile as Rick’s one-time love interest and Lazlo’s devoted wife. Her timelessly soft beauty and natural delicacy are well-infused into Ilsa’s defeated disposition, conveyed in the character’s inability to choose between Rick and Victor – both of whom dream of fleeing Casablanca.

Other elements that precipitate the black-and-white film’s appeal are its epic scope, sweeping score and affected camera techniques (dramatic close-ups, striking lighting and Doris Day filter). The film, which has retained the No. 2 spot on various “100 Greatest Films” lists for decades – penultimate only to Orson Welles’ overrated “Citizen Kane” – exudes a palpable, desperate grandeur highly reminiscent of the pre-WWII mentality it intends to convey, especially in the immediacy of emotion depicted in Rick and Ilsa’s relationship.

“Casablanca” concludes with a heartwrenching, yet hopeful, climax – one which offers the film’s hallmark quote: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” At this point in the film, audiences will stand well-assured that “Casablanca” deserved the Best Picture Oscar it garnered in 1943, and that Bogart – whose deserved Best Actor honors went to Paul Lukas (“Watch on the Rhine”) – was robbed.

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