Whenever the phrase “it’s a classic” is used to describe movies, films like “Casablanca” are usually brought up. Yet, this Best Picture Oscar winner is far from a classic.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca” follows a saloon owner named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca, Morocco during World War II. One night, an old friend of his named Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) comes to the saloon with her husband Victor (Paul Henreid) to see if Rick can help them get immigration papers to leave Casablanca.
Bogart is considered to be one of the greatest actors in the history of Hollywood, however, his performance in “Casablanca” was mediocre. He seemed flat and bored whenever he interacted with patrons in the saloon. When it came time to be romantic with Bergman, however, Bogart was able to capture the pain of meeting a former lover perfectly. While Bogart avoided being melodramatic and pretentious, his melancholic tone throughout 75 percent of the film hindered his potential to be anything more than average.
Bergman, on the other hand, did a terrific job playing Ilsa. She was able to portray Ilsa as a wise and tired soul who is trying to heal a relationship tainted by her absence. Ilsa should have been the main character of “Casablanca.” Her backstory of escaping war-torn Europe would be a great story and, if given more screen time, Bergman would have made the film more interesting.
The direction from Curtiz was good, but not award-winning like his Best Director Oscar suggests. What he lacks in shot creativity or framing, he makes up for with clever camera movements and the use of flashbacks.
My main issue with “Casablanca” is not with the film itself, but rather with its legacy. It is held as an all-time great film, but in reality, the movie is no better than your average drama. The romantic dynamic between Bergman and Bogart is cliche and the horrors of the Nazis are not displayed at the level they should be.
In comparison, “Gaslight,” a film that was released two years after “Casablanca,” has a much more detailed and interesting storyline about a woman going through an abusive relationship and how she gets out of it. Unlike “Casablanca,” “Gaslight” plays with expectations instead of catering to them.
There is nothing wrong with claiming that “Casablanca” is a masterpiece. In my opinion, however, there are far better films that explore the deterioration of romance. Movies like “American Beauty” or “Brokeback Mountain” highlight relationships that sour while also providing sweet direction and amazing storytelling.
If a studio were to remake “Casablanca,” there should be more of a focus on the geopolitical climate during World War II and less on a zombified saloon owner. Have an arthouse filmmaker write and direct the feature, and you have what could be an enhanced version of a so-called “classic” movie.