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More thoughts on Casablanca

Lloydville on how Ingrid Bergman made the film Casablanca special:

Bergman brings an emotional commitment to her role that’s of a different order. She suggests an inner life that is mysterious, complex, fully rounded. It’s through her eyes that Bogart becomes sexy, that Henreid becomes admirable, that the dangers of Casablanca become real.

The film’s narrative promises much in the way of romance and intrigue and adventure, but Bergman is all those promises fulfilled. Audiences loved Bogart and accepted him as a romantic leading man because he held his own with Bergman in this film, tried to expose himself to her emotionally on her level and often enough succeeded. Study his expression, his eyes, in the very brief close-up of Bogart taking his last look at Bergman’s face on the airfield — it’s devastating, a moment of total exposure. By the same token, we recoil at Henreid’s Victor Lazlo because he never opens himself to Ilsa, because he stands on idealism and form even when gazing into her miraculous eyes.

A contrarian explanation of the film’s appeal comes from Umberto Eco:

Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of “La Marseillaise.” When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.

I don’t have much to add to either brilliant observation. But ultimately Eco is wrong-headed in his criticism. Who cares if the script was written by committee or full of cliches or if the sequence of events seemed improbable? The point is that the characters came alive; they had complex motivations and a tight narrative structure; also the film presents choices for everybody; do you stay with Rick or leave? Do you forgive Ilsa or treat her contemptuously? Do you turn the Resistance leader to the Nazis or not? These are questions likely to arouse the viewer’s curiosity and what make the film great. yes, the film is about sacrifice, and the viewer watching it might ask himself, “how would I act under the same circumstances? Would I be able to yield to some higher good?

On the other hand, without the right mix of talent and sets and technical prowess (and don’t forget music), the film could have been a dud.

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