It's still the same old story: Rick sends Ilsa away at the end because the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this world.
But "Casablanca" amounts to an Everest of beans.
At 50, the classic Bogart-Bergman flick has become the dowager empress of American studio-system movies: It represents the Hollywood machine working at maximum efficiency, hitting on all cylinders, and yielding the rarest of icons, the unself-conscious masterpiece. Seeking merely to entertain, it became great art. And it never stopped entertaining.
Each scene has a line of dead, cold perfect dialogue, or a smidgen of business so wonderful it makes you want to cry, yet not one sequence seems strained or overheated. The result is basically a harmony, a subtle and elegant orchestration of sensations that mesh brilliantly into a whole. Like few popular movies, it succeeds on nearly every level: as spy thriller, as political parable, as star vehicle, as emblem of romantic yearning, as patriotic agitprop, as document of photography and lighting.
And, while watching it the other day at the Senator (where it opens today for a nine-day engagement in a wondrously restored 50th anniversary print), I had a moment where I looked around and thought: Of all the film-joints in all the towns in the world, "Casablanca" had to come into this one. And then I thought: Thank God.
Since everybody goes to Rick's, the film hardly needs synopsizing. Nevertheless: In Casablanca in 1942, world-weary ex-soldier of fortune Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs the town's most swinging nightclub. Dissolute and embittered, Rick is still as sexy and macho as they come. One night, who should walk into his club but Victor Lazlo, the world-famous, anti-Nazi Czechoslovakian journalist who has just barely made it to this Vichy-controlled city as the last step on the way to the Americas. Naturally the Germans do not wish him to escape. And who does Victor have on his arm but his secret wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who, in Arthur Edeson's shimmering black-and-white cinematography, looks like an orchid of perfect, dewy radiance. It turns out that Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris, pickling him in bitterness and booze.
That's the setup. The delivery is an unfolding of melodramatic tropes, each more incisively handled than the last -- betrayal, seduction,friendship, love, nobility. The great good fortune is that Bogart's texture -- rough-hewn, well-used, with the tantalizing hint of a complex personality -- harmonized so vividly with Bergman's innocence and beauty. It was a much hotter coupling, for example, than Bergman and Gary Cooper in the dim "For Whom the Bell Tolls" a few years earlier. You could feel the heat between these two, and it's amazing that a movie in which the act of lovemaking is never even acknowledged is probably the sexiest movie ever made.
But "Casablanca" is fundamentally engineered to stress the importance of a hopelessly outdated value: sacrifice. "Casablanca" is a sacrifice machine: Rick and Ilsa give each other up because without Ilsa, the great Victor will be useless. But what's so grand about the movie is that it makes you feel sacrifice, yet it never seems to lecture or browbeat. Of course, the political parable being enacted was a ritual end to isolation
ism: Like Rick, it was time for America to "get back in the fight." The cause is more important than the personal relationship, which, in 1942, millions of Americans were just beginning to understand.
To see it for the 20th or so time,however, is to notice how room-bound it is, clear evidence of its heritage as an unproduced play. Now and then the director, Michael Curtiz, will open up the picture with a visit to Sydney Greenstreet's Green Parrot cafe, Claude Rains' police of
fice or the airfield, but largely "Casablanca" takes place at Rick's and much of the business is theatrical: that is, getting people into and out of the room at the proper moment. It's Curtiz's great gift that his segues from table to table and room to room in Rick's are so seamless you never notice how crassly you're being manipulated.
Well, no matter. "Casablanca." At the Senator. They played it for me. They'll play it for you. They'll play it again and again, for nine days.