The French presidential election of 2017 is one of those events that history might well underestimate. It will probably be seen, as history usually is, purely in terms of what happens next. At the time, of course, we all had no idea what was going to happen next, and it seemed as if this might be the year that the political far right came into power across the world.
Pretty much as soon as I heard the result, the first thing that came into my mind was the scene in Casablanca, when the drunk Nazis are in the bar singing patriotic songs, and Victor Lazlo, hero of the resistance, walks up to the band at the other end of the room and tells them to play ‘La Marseillaise’. It still makes me tear up a little every time I watch that scene. Not only does this man have the moral courage to stand up to a group of drunk soldiers, and the charisma to inspire the whole bar against them, but he knows all the words! I’m the guy that would quickly realise to my horror that I only know the first four lines.
It made me remember what a great film Casablanca is, with this scene as clearly its greatest – the one everybody remembers. Then I remembered, of course, the final scene, and the ‘As Time Goes By’ scene, and all the others. Endlessly parodied, because it’s assumed that everybody has seen it enough to get the references.
Which makes it a tricky thing to eulogize. What hasn’t already been said (many many times) about Casablanca, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed movies in the history of cinema? The writing, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, the music. The ending. All of them add up to make a film which, to me, is still so satisfying after more viewings than I can count.
Then again, the enduring appeal of the great works of art is that there is always more to say about them.
I remember being surprised when I first saw it how quickly the story moved. I was expecting a sprawling epic that followed its characters for years, but the whole story (flashbacks excluded) seems to cover just a matter of days. I might even have thought “Is that it?” on the first viewing, because I was so distracted by the weight of my preconceptions that I wasn’t really paying attention to the story.
I was also surprised by how unlikeable so many of the characters seemed, at least to begin with. The film doesn’t pull any punches about its protagonist, the cynical and bitter symbol of US isolationism Rick Blaine, being an arsehole. He turns a blind eye to his friend, the police chief, extorting sexual favours from desperate refugees. His selling of Sam, his loyal piano player, to a seedy rival feels reminiscent of the days of slavery. Victor Lazlo initially seems dry, humourless and rather pleased with himself. And Ilsa is clearly prepared to go to any lengths to escape this chaotic, claustrophobic nightmare of a town.
But, of course, that is how the film works its magic on you. It’s a film about idealism and courage masquerading as cynicism and sarcasm. I was also surprised by how funny the dialogue was for a film made in the 1940s. Suddenly I could see why it’s quoted so much: even the lines that aren’t famous are good enough to be, and they just keep coming at you like machine gun fire. And this is even after it had been through the infamous ‘Hays code’ of censorship (which is worth a read in itself, incidentally, if you want an insight into the deeply puritanical and openly racist culture of censorship at the time).
What I really noticed on the second viewing (when I feel I saw it properly) was the sense of a real world full of people who did things that real people do. A world that was deeply atmospheric, and oddly attractive. Even though Casablanca is supposed to be this end-of-the-road town full of refugees who will do anything to leave, I weirdly wanted to live there. Everyone seemed to be so sharp, so cynical, so worldy-wise, and yet frequently so compassionate. The minor characters seemed so real. Characters that have only a couple of lines of dialogue, or no lines at all, could conceivably walk off screen and carry on with lives as complicated and intense as the central characters. Even the Nazi villain feels like a real human being, and is shown to be suave, intelligent and nuanced.
Something that surprises me now, doing a quick refresher of the film and its context, is how many people at the time considered it clichéd and melodramatic. One of its writers, Julius Epstein, described it as having “more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works, there’s nothing better.” But when you compare it to any number of films made about the Second World War, I think this one makes the competition just seem like fluff. And possibly at least part of this is because the film was made as the war was going on, and no one knew the outcome. Perhaps it seemed corny compared to the reality. But I imagine the film needed to be much more sophisticated, much more morally complex, much more honest because the film-going public were just much better informed about what was going on in the world than they would otherwise be (they had to be). Caricatured Nazis being thrashed by cartoonish patriotic heroes would have just seemed absurd to an audience fearful that Germany might win the war.
Perhaps the best thing to say about Casablanca is that it still matters. The specific strain of fascism that the characters were fighting may have died out, but the values are still with us, warped into different strains. And the decisions that the heroes and heroines face — to play along with a corrupt and bullying regime or to fight it, to put your own interests above that society, even if it comes at great personal cost — still challenge us today. Even though it’s so familiar, so quoted, so parodied, the power of the story means that every time I watch it I’m gripped like it’s the first time.
Speaking of which, I’m also struck by the fact that I seem to have managed to write 13 paragraphs on Casablanca without throwing in any puns about ‘the usual suspects’, ‘we’ll always have Paris’ or how ‘I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’. Or even that most famous misquotation in film history: ‘Play it again, Sam’. I’m not sure that’s ever been achieved before. Sometimes, it’s not about what new things you have to say, as much as the old things you don’t.
Intriguingly, there’s a rumour that in the original shooting script, the first time Rick hears Sam playing ‘As Time Goes By’, Rick says “What the —- are you playing?” Knowing the Hays code, the word was almost certainly ‘hell’, but I can’t quite let go of the idea that maybe it was actually ‘fuck’. Because wouldn’t it be great if that had somehow made the final cut? In perhaps the most quotable film yet made, it would now almost certainly be the most memorable line. And I don’t think anyone would misquote that one.