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As time goes by, it's the still the same old glorious `Casablanca'

"Casablanca" is The Movie. There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time. But when it comes right down to the movies we treasure the most, when we are -- let us imagine -- confiding the secrets of our heart to someone we think we may be able to trust, the conversation sooner or later comes around to the same seven words:

"I really love 'Casablanca'."

"I do too."

This is a movie that has transcended the ordinary categories. It has outlived the Bogart cult, survived the revival circuit, shrugged off those who would deface it with colorization, leaped across time to win audiences who were born decades after it was made. Sooner or later, usually before they are 21, everyone sees "Casablanca." And then it becomes their favorite movie.

It is The Movie.

This year "Casablanca" is 50 years old. That is a long time in movie history, since the movies themselves are only about 100. But it is an instant in the span of time, and some of the people who made it, including two of its writers, are still alive. Most of the stars are dead, although Paul Henreid, who played Laszlo, and Curt Bois, who played the little pickpocket who warned visitors to Casablanca against the pickpockets, died only this year. The story of how it was made, of how quickly and inevitably this wonderful film seemed to flow through the studio system, is part of Hollywood legend. It is told again in a new book, Casablanca, (Overlook Press, $16.95), that includes the screenplay, a memoir by co-writer Howard Koch, and essays by various people who love the film, myself included. Movies are, in a sense, immortal. It is likely that people will be watching "Casablanca" centuries from now (and how wonderful it would be if we could see movies from centuries ago). In another sense, however, movies are fragile. They live on long flexible strips of celluloid, which fade, and tear, and collect scratches everytime they travel through a movie projector. And sometimes films burn, or disintegrate into dust.

For the 50th anniversary of "Casablanca," the Turner movie division, which now owns the film, has brought out a restored black and white 35mm theatrical print. The chances are it looks better than any version of "Casablanca" you have ever seen. This new print is also the basis for a new video tape release of the film, and prints of comparable quality have been made into laserdiscs by Warner Bros. and the Criterion Collection. I admire the tape and both of the discs, but I will offer one urgent piece of advice: If there is any way you can see this movie in 35mm in a theater, do it. Revival houses, which used to show a different movie every day, are a disappearing species, and only when a special anniversary print of a movie is released (as "Citizen Kane" and "Singin' in the Rain" have also been recently) can you see a 35mm revival on a big screen. This chance may not come around again soon.

And as for The Movie itself...

The key passages in "Casablanca" of course are the ones that immediately follow the unexpected entrance of Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa, into Rick's place. These are unusual among classic movie scenes in being more emotionally affecting on subsequent viewings than they are the first time, and indeed "Casablanca" is one of those rare films that actually improves with repeated viewings. The first time we see the film we know nothing of the great love affair between Rick and Ilsa in Paris, and so we are simply following along, and the byplay between Ilsa and Sam has still to be decoded. We know it means something, but as yet we don't fully understand it. Then the film continues, and we experience the memories of Paris, we understand the depth of Ilsa's feelings, and the movie sweeps on to its magnificent conclusion. The next time we see it, every word between Ilsa and Sam, every nuance, every look or averted glance, has a poignant meaning. It is a good enough scene the first time we see it, but a great scene the second time.

In a sense the whole movie demands the same kind of repeated viewings. Find, if you can, someone who has never seen it, and sit next to your friend during the film. You will almost certainly find yourself more involved than your companion. Your friend is not an insensitive boor; he or she simply does not understand, as you do, the infinite gradations of poignancy to be found behind every look, and overheard in every line. And a first viewing may not even pick up on some of the film's quieter asides, such as the subplot involving the young woman who will do anything to help her husband get out of "Casablanca."

If familiarity makes the movie more effective, it also exposes some weaknesses than are not at first apparent. There came a time, in my history with "Casablanca," when I realized that I did not like Victor Laszlo, the Paul Henreid character, very much. He is a heroic leader of the Resistance, but he has no humor and no resilience. If in peacetime he finds himself in political office, I believe he will be most comfortable in a totalitarian regime. When at the end of the film Rick tells a lie about what happened between himself and Ilsa, in order to preserve Ilsa's image in Laszlo's eyes, Laszlo hardly seems to care. In fact, I think he hardly deserves Ilsa. Rick tells her that her place is at Victor's side, but does Victor notice her there, or need her there? In the long run he is married to his career and his heroism, and there will be more nights when she hears "As Time Goes By" and realizes she made a mistake when she got on that airplane.

Of course "Casablanca" is not about love anyway, but about nobility. Set at a time when it seemed possible that the Nazis would overrun civilization, it seriously argues that the problems of a few little people don't amount to a hill of beans. The great break between "Casablanca" and almost all Hollywood love stories--even wartime romances--is that it does not believe love can, or should, conquer all. As I analyze my own feelings about the small handful of movies that affect me emotionally, I find that I am hardly ever moved by love, but often moved by self-sacrifice.

Like everyone who deeply cares for movies, I identify with some characters more than I might want to admit. In "Casablanca," I identify with Rick, and what moves me is not his love for Ilsa but his ability to put a higher good above that love. The Henreid character is a pig because he wants to have his cake and eat it too. What kind of a serious resistance fighter would drag a woman around with him, placing her and his work in unnecessary danger, unless his ego required her adoration? A true hero would have insisted on leaving alone, both for the good of his work and for the happiness of the woman he loves. Laszlo is so blind he does not even understand what exists between Rick and Ilsa. The movie makes a halfhearted attempt to show that Ilsa loves both men, but we can read her heart. Bogart has never been more touching than as he sits alone with his bottle and his cigarette, drenched in self-pity. The cruelty with which he assaults Ilsa after she walks back into the empty club is all the more painful because it is masochistic; talking that way hurts Rick himself much more than it hurts her. He is tearing at an open wound. She is a little slow to understand, but then one of the screenplay's subtle qualities is that Ilsa is always a beat behind what is really happening.

If it is true, as legend has it, that the ending of the movie was not written until the last day, and that Bergman never knew which of the two men Ilsa would end up with, this may explain her air of being slightly dazed. Alas, this wonderful legend is almost certainly not true, because the Hollywood Production Code of the day would not have allowed her to abandon the man she was legally married to, and stay behind with the man she loves. No matter how often we hear that the ending was not delivered until the last day of shooting, "Casablanca" could only have ended as it does. And not simply because of the Code, but also because the whole moral undercurrent of the movie requires Rick to sacrifice Ilsa.

Yet Bergman is utterly convincing as she turns from one man to the other on the tarmac of the airport. She is torn. And emotional confusion in the presence of a man she loves was always one of Bergman's strongest qualities as an actress. We can see that in Hitchcock's "Notorious," a film with a buried theme remarkably similar to "Casablanca," in which Cary Grant plays the man who loves her--but must pretend not to, because of the higher goal of fighting the enemy.

Michael Curtiz' direction of "Casablanca" is remarkable for being completely economical. He creates a picture we would be hard-pressed to improve, and does it without calling attention to the fact that it has been directed at all. Mostly he uses the basic repertory of cinematic story-telling, as encoded by Griffith and rehearsed in thousands of earlier films: Establishing shot, movement, medium shots, alternating closeups, POV shots, reactions. Is there a single shot that calls attention to itself for its own sake? I cannot think of one (there are dozens in "Citizen Kane"). Curtiz is at the service of the characters and the story. Nobody ever asks "Remember that great shot in `Casablanca?' because there are no great shots in "Casablanca." Anyone who thinks there are...was misinformed. Howard Hawks, asked for his definition of a great movie, said: "Three great scenes, no bad scenes." "Casablanca" multiplies his formula by four.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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