By now, much has been said and written about Casablanca's rather unique status in the history of American cinema: how a run-of-the-mill major-studio concoction that could have been just another standard potboiler of the period became, instead, a sterling example of the almost magical perfection the Hollywood studio system could conjure almost unwittingly. A shameless dovetailing of romantic melodrama about star-crossed lovers, wartime propaganda piece and Hollywood exotica, Casablanca has a lot more tongue-in-cheek sly wit going on than most people will remember.

     It's the heightened romance between Humphrey Bogart's scarred, hardened American expat Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman's love-battered Ilse Lund that everyone thinks of first and has gone down on history books. But the heart of the film lies elsewhere - in Claude Rains' captain Renault, the venal yet resourceful Casablanca chief of police, as his detached, survivalist pragmatism, expertly conveyed by Mr. Rains with a glint in his eye, best reflects Casablanca's context and place in the Hollywood scheme of things. Just as Renault's quiet state of things is shaken by the arrival of Resistance fighter Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his Nazi nemesis, major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Casablanca was never designed as anything other than tony entertainment, but found itself suddenly dragged - even if not entirely unwillingly - into a bigger role than it was ever expected to play.

     It was the passage of time that gave it its patine as a classic - that and its almost perfect example of Hollywood's routine skill and professionalism, as seen in Arthur Edeson's perfectly contrasted photography, in the exactingly soft-focused film-star close-ups of Ms. Bergman, in Warner veteran Michael Curtiz's to-the-point handling. It's a film that trades knowingly in archetypes, as so many contemporary studio productions did, and that never hid its status as 1940s hokum; it could almost be a parody of itself, and it's occasionally touch-and-go, but it somehow believes in itself with such a softer heart, its perfect match of actors and roles giving it the romantic, timeless feel it needs. And its very status as period hokum is the precise reason why it became the classic it is now: it crystallises a filmmaking era like few other productions of the time have.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenwriters: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Everybody Comes to Rick's
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson  (b&w)
Music: Max Steiner
Art director: Carl Jules Weyl
Wardrobe: Orry-Kelly
Editor: Owen Marks
Producer: Hal B. Wallis (Warner Bros. Pictures)
USA, 1942, 102 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, December 28th 2013


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