This week, I watched Casablanca (1942) for the first time in years, particularly the first time since becoming invested in studying film noir. I’d taken others’ words for the idea that the film can comfortably be called noir, and I’d relied on my memory of scenes and sympathies. In both areas, I found my perspectives have changed. But I love the film, in some ways old and some new.
I still find Ingrid Bergman utterly irresistable, in appearance, body language, and acting. I’ve come to appreciate some films I’ve watched recently even more than her romantic roles. Don’t miss the Swedish En kvinnas ansikte (A Woman’s Face, 1938) if you have opportunity to see it, for example. I’ve written about it in comparison with the far weaker Hollywood version starring Joan Crawford here and here. I’ve also written about her performance in the wonderful and lesser known Arch of Triumph (1946), here.
Humphrey Bogart shines when he’s with Bergman, and he is particularly good in Casablanca as a dynamic rather than static character. Yes, Rick goes for the bottle and has to be soothed by his ever-obedient follower Sam (Dooley Wilson) — whose desexualized, sidekick role, poor piano miming, and stereotypical dialogue will never be anything but painful to watch to for me — but I like that we see him in pain rather than just anger. The acting is even more compelling to watch than his also dynamic performance in Key Largo (1946), where WWII also looms large, though in retrospect, as Bogart’s Frank must decide whether to give in to cynicism or regain patriotic determination, and thereby access to love and home. I’ve written about Key Largo and this issue several times in this blog, for instance here.
I also love the setting of the film, in terms of its impact on theme and mise-en-scene. The space of refugees, an eye of the storm for Europe, and the focus on Rick’s Cafe — all work so beautifully as background for this tale of love, loss, and the importance of resistance. The tension and desperation are as palpable in the setting as in the characters.
Conrad Veidt wasn’t an actor I knew when I last watched Casablanca. I knew there were actors in exile featured in the film, but nothing specific. Knowing Veidt left Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and how he understood the Nazi roles he played as opportunities for resistance (they’d always lose) have made me appreciate him as much as have the films I’ve watched him star in, particularly his early work in Weimar Germany, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the unforgettable The Man Who Laughs (1928). For a fascinating little surprise, I also recommend him as “The Stranger” in the light yet poignant British film The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935).
Paul Henreid‘s Victor Lazlo occupied far more of my heart this screening. When younger, I didn’t appreciate him as a resistance leader, a man who moves others and acts fearlessly in the face of tyrrany and threat. I didn’t process his concentration camp experience as I do today. And I didn’t admire Henreid’s handsomeness or his acting ability because I didn’t much pay attention to him. In rewatching the Marseillaise scene, I found it more powerful than I remembered, and I particularly appreciated Henreid’s performance.
All Out of Love
A few facets of the film have not aged well for me, particularly the sexism in the writing of Ilsa and her relationships with Rick and Victor. I have less patience with Ilsa’s passivity, her willingness to not only to be led, but to be passed between men who determine her fate with their different yet equally patriarchal forms of love. Both Victor and Rick claim to love her, but when it comes to choosing, Ilsa won’t…can’t. She turns her entire life over to Rick, letting him not only lead, but fit her into the scheme of who he wants to be as a man caught up in wartime. And what is it that Victor calls love? He knows Ilsa doesn’t love him as more than a brother or father figure. She respects and admires him, and that somehow sustains him as a leader of the resistance? I’d find it painful and awful, and we get little reason to understand why he is possessive but not jealous. Ilsa is not Laura or even Gilda, but she is treated like a precious possession. And Victor is neither Waldo Lydecker nor Ballin. But there is a pattern in these melodramas of men who want women who don’t want them — or women who admire but don’t desire them. And the whole thing reduces women’s roles in favor of men’s passions. Too often, these women become objects for men to fight over. (And at least Laura fights back and Gilda tries to before a hideous tacked-on ending ruins the film.)
Ultimately, this treatment of gender relations rather ruins the ending for me. The movie is really all Rick’s: his cynicism, his change of heart, his plans, his suffering, his beneficence. And his machismo, especially as he walks off into the night with Louie (Claude Rains), joking about the beauty of friendships among men.
Finally, there is the question of noir that never concerned me until now. If noir is about style, there is some noir style to the film, especially in the handling of light and darkness in the final moments. If noir is about crime, there is crime in the film, though it’s centered in resistance to Nazi oppression. (Frankly, it’s not easy not to be a criminal when there are Nazis to be stopped.) And doomed romance is a part of noir melodrama, to be sure. However, to me a noir tone is darker than this film, more about the worst in humanity, the underside of daily life and the failure of the American Dream, and Casablanca doesn’t fit that bill. There is too much determination, too much hope (however desperate) to call it noir. Does Casablanca have noirish elements? Certainly. Is it noir? I vote no.
But perhaps this question the least interesting one to ask about it.