Casablanca is one of my favorite movies. I even prefer it to Citizen Kane – sorry, AFI. In my heart, however, I know it doesn’t work. I’m not going to recount all of the famous “making of” bits (1,2), but they are extremely entertaining, especially for fans of movies in general and this movie in particular. What I am going to do is try to articulate why I think Casablanca, despite its flaws, not only works but succeeds so brilliantly.
Casablanca is inherently simple. First, the characters and their motivations are compelling, even if they don’t always form something coherent. (I’ll interrupt here with a digression on how great Claude Rains is in Casablanca. While it’s pretty easy to recast the other roles – George Clooney as Rick Blaine, natch – there is almost no modern actor who can toe the required line between despicable, lecherous collaborator and lovable scoundrel as well as Rains. My wife’s suggestion of Robert Downey Jr. is close as anyone’s ever come in 15 years of playing this game.)
Second, Casablanca‘s narrative pulls you along, even if it doesn’t make much sense if you stop to think about it. Why doesn’t Rick just give Victor the letter of transit, then leave on his own with Ilsa, as there’s nothing that states the two letters of transit must be used together or that he and Ilsa would have any trouble leaving Casablanca after purchasing normal exit visas? But in the end, the film’s momentum carries us past these questions.
In that way, it reminds me of another movie I love, but which I know doesn’t make a lot of sense: The Empire Strikes Back. (For starters, how much time elapses during act two? It FEELS like a lot of time has passed for Luke during his Jedi training, but based on what we see in Han and Leia’s parallel narrative, it’s only been several days since they escaped into the asteroid field (1 day), escaped from the worm (maybe 1 additional day), traveled to Cloud City (an undetermined number of days), met Lando and lost C-3PO (1 day), hung out in Cloud City (an undetermined number of days, but seemingly not many), and got captured, tortured, and frozen by Vader (1 day). The two narratives just don’t match.) But just like in Casablanca, it doesn’t matter. Each component unfolds according to a timeline that makes sense in isolation; when they intersect, the narrative momentum – we want to see Luke fight Vader and maybe even save Han – pulls us past the obvious plot holes.
But it’s not just crackerjack storytelling that makes these great. Somehow, they are imbued with a depth and meaning I doubt even their creators intended. Umberto Eco, writing about Casablanca, argues that “it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control.” The little details in both films, such as Rick’s cynicism or Han’s “I know” quip, add dimensions to those characters that are more in the mind of the viewer than in the script or even on the screen. We as viewers hang this depth on each film’s framework of stock characters and flimsy plotting, and somehow end up with a film so much more than the sum of its parts.
P.S. While I earlier revisited The Sweet Hereafter as one of the “Top 24 Films Ever Made (and then Seen by Me),” I feel it’s a bit superfluous to reevaluate my love for either Casablanca or The Empire Strikes Back. They’re both still awesome.