Seventy years after its release, why does ‘Casablanca’ remain so easy to experience? Perhaps because its building blocks are still being used by mainstream cinema.
Even those of us who love non-mainstream cinema pause a little before a canonised Great Movie, like how the hand hovers above the sign-up line for a marathon in aid of polio-afflicted children. The spirit wills, but the flesh – anticipating heavy expenditure of (mental) energy – resists. Great Movies often come about that stature through the exhortations of critics, many of whose criteria for watching movies aren’t the same as why regular audiences watch movies, which is why they are rarely “entertaining” in the sense of what a general audience defines as entertainment. But Casablanca – which was premiered 70 years ago, in 1942 – remains a happy exception. It is one of the Great Movies that’s the easiest to watch. It requires so little effort from the audience’s part that we almost feel like asking: “What’s so great about this movie?” The answer may be that it’s a classy model – a template, even – of what we, to this day, consider least-common-denominator entertainment.
Citizen Kane, for instance, is a Great Movie that wears its greatness grandly, drawing us instantly into a mystery. Who is this man? What rosebud is he talking about? And, good God, how big is that room really? But Casablanca has little use for obscurantism. Even its title is so direct, imposed over a map of Africa – and once this geography has been established, a narrator wastes no time in laying out the history: “With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly. And so a torturous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles across the Mediterranean to Oran. Then, by train or auto or foot, across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones, through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon. And from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca. And wait and wait and wait.”
We know where we are. We know why we are there. And we know what it’s like to be there, to wait and wait and wait for an exit visa. And now, after the generalities have been established, it’s time for specifics, to see this scenario play out in the instance of individuals. A man is apprehended by the police, who ask to see his papers. He attempts to flee. There is commotion. He is shot. We move to a couple, beset by a man with a strange accent. This man implores them to “be on guard. This place is full of vultures. Vultures everywhere. Everywhere!” After he leaves, the husband reaches for his wallet. It’s missing, stolen by the man with the accent, who has turned out to be a vulture himself. We cut to another couple, a younger one, standing alongside a group that looks longingly at a departing aircraft. The woman says, “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on the plane.” With breathtaking swiftness, we’ve witnessed the building blocks of entertainment: action (the man who is shot), comedy (the vulture), and drama (the young woman’s yearning for freedom).
And now, it’s time for that most cherished cliché of commercial cinema: the hero introduction shot, which is alluded to by a brief discussion. “But we know already who the murderer is.” “Good. Is he in custody?” “No hurry. Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.” We cut to an illuminated sign: Rick’s Café American. Inside, a turbaned woman at a card table enquires of the waiter, “Will you ask Rick if he’ll have a drink with us?” The waiter replies, “He never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen it.” We’ve heard about Rick. Now it’s time to see him. We set eyes on his hands first, as he signs his name across a cheque. We see his accoutrements. A drained goblet. A cigarette still smouldering on an ashtray. A chess board, and no opponent on the other side. He raises the cigarette to his lips. We finally see his face. And what a face it is, weary of the world, and prone to dispensing what we know today as the punch dialogue. “You are a very cynical person, Rick, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.” “I forgive you.”
Soon, we’re shown what will drive the plot, letters of transit signed by General de Gaulle. And who will need these letters? Why, here are Victor Laszlo and Ilsa, walking into the café and kicking off that other staple of mainstream movies: the love triangle. And the villain? He’s here too, Major Strasser of the Third Reich, alongside the comedian, Captain Renault, who asks Rick, “And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.” Within twenty minutes we have everything we need to know, we’ve met everyone we need to meet. Soon, there’s a song. There’s the shot of the romantically disillusioned hero drinking alone, like Dev Anand in Guide. There’s a flashback (involving marriage talk) that softens the prickliness of the hero, like what we saw in Vikram’s Thaandavam. There’s melodrama, patriotism, and fog-shrouded suspense at the end. Not a single element in Casablanca has fallen into disuse, which may be why it’s so durable. It’s a remarkably well-oiled machine that grinds on with little aspiration to capital-A Art – but don’t tell that to the critics.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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