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What makes a movie memorable? So memorable that we can watch it on almost infinite repeat? Well, it has to be of truly unusual quality, not only in each of its elements but in their chemistry; plot, cast, acting, music, visual tones, setting, camera work all have to add up to a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. But my little series on five all-time stand-out films has also been an object lesson in the first principle of reception criticism: the circumstances and animating questions of the viewer play at least an equal role in making a film what it is. The top-5 lists that some of you have sent me (more are welcome!) confirm the notion—who we are and where we are and what was going on at the time we first see a film do much to seal it in our memories. Don’t forget the quality side, though. A couple years ago I watched Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider for the first time in ages and found it almost unbearably dated. It was the last word in cool in 1969, pure cliché now.
Ok, so maybe all this excuses my nomination of Casablanca for the final (or is it the first?) slot in my hit-parade. No doubt there are problems with the thing; I mean, how did the luminous Ingrid Bergman manage to recite this stellar entry from the movie’s surplus of cheesy lines: “Is that cannon firing? Or my heart pounding?” Which leads us, secondly, to the observation that Casablanca was not filmed in feminist heaven. ‘Oh Rick,’ Bergman’s Ilsa Lund tells our hero (Humphrey Bogart) at the critical point in the plot, ‘I can’t think straight anymore; you’ll have to think for both of us.’ Lauren Bacall will right these wrongs opposite Bogey in the films they would make together. Finally, I fear anyone younger than forty will laugh so hard at the special effects here (cardboard cut-out airplane obscured by fog? really?) as to miss the real magic on display.
None of this mattered to the young graduate student getting his first exposure to classic black and white cinema at one of Yale’s student-run film series back in the early ’70s. The projector rattled alive, the Warner Brothers insignia popped up, Max Steiner’s score sounded forth, and the stentorian voice-over began to explain the line of refugees we see superimposed ona map of the Mediterranean. From all over Europe they stream to escape the Nazi threat, he intones. “They come to Casablanca,” cuing the student throng to repeat along with him: “and wait, and wait, and WAIT!” No doubt the humor was enhanced by the doobies that had been fired up and started on their trek down the rows of seats just as the lights went down. Come to think of it, this screening was in the Law School auditorium, and as Bill and Hillary were in residence at the time, the Man Who Would Be President could indeed, all too easily, have met sweet Mary Jane without inhaling. You can’t hold your breath forever.
So that was my setting. The film itself is set at a liminal moment—early December 1941—and equally liminal spot. We first see Rick’s Café Américain as the “plane to Lisbon,” the yearned-for flight to freedom, takes off over the entrance sign. We’re on the boundary between continent and ocean, tyranny and liberty, old world and new. Rick himself is in a boundary state too, frozen emotionally from having been burned once by the lovely Ilsa and twice by fighting on the losing side against fascism. He is now determined to love and fight no more: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” So we fixate on him to see if and how he will break free to make amends with Ilsa. At the same time he’s enacting an allegory of America. It too was locked in isolationism after having seen its ideals and commitments from World War I betrayed by fickle female Europe. Rick is jolted out of his emotional slumbers when Ilsa turns up on the arm of a famous freedom fighter: “Out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world she walks into mine.” This after-hours soliloquy in his darkened bar drives the allegory home for us too: “I bet they’re asleep in New York; I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Here and elsewhere in this viewing, I was impressed at how consistently Casablanca manages to interweave the personal and the political into a tight double helix.
The movie, set in 1941 but made in 1942, is undoubtedly American war propaganda, though mild compared with some counterparts: Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will on behalf of Nazi Germany and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky for the Soviet Union. Its subtler tone makes Casablanca’s crafting of the American myth all the more perfect. Reluctant to fight, forced into the fray only after renouncing a most inviting escape (flying off to safety with Ilsa), Rick will finally do the right thing, and so will America. We know, from having watched Rick’s masterful navigation of the geo-political tides metaphorically swirling around his bar, how, once committed, America will fight as well: lean and mean, without much rhetoric and show, but with plenty of quick wit, quiet understatement, and deadly effectiveness.
Face it, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is the American hero. I tell my students that a guy’s goal in life should be to melt a woman’s face in adoration as Rick does Ilsa’s. They laugh, and so do I, but still…. World War II was the peak occasion for American males to go off to war in an admirable sort of way. After that, it’s all about maintaining and extending the empire, with the Americans coming to imitate Casablanca’s Germans in all too thorough and predictable a way. I had been reared on the bombast of John Wayne. The ‘60s cued up the anti-heroes of Easy Rider, and a little later of Midnight Cowboy. The not very naïve and unsentimental lover Rick served very well in between. He even gives off a faint Calvinistic tone in his famous summa on the tarmac as Ilsa and Mr. Conventional Hero get ready to fly away: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” We both have important work to do, he continues, and we have to sacrifice personal desire for that. But then comes that bittersweet benediction: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Male viewer melts to tears.