TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
Cinestudio’s annual Valentine’s day showing of Casablanca has become a defining moment in any spring semester at Trinity. In order to understand why this film remains so lauded so many decades after its release, some history is needed.
It is December, 1941 in Casablanca, a city on the outer edge of Morocco. France has fallen to the invading forces of the Nazis. Morocco, then a French territory, is still technically under the control of the surviving fragment representing the unoccupied French Government. The isolated city acts now as a kind of glamorous purgatory for the refugees of a war-torn Europe. Casablanca has become a melting pot of all fronts of the war, though it does not truly belong to any one of them.
The streets of Casablanca are walked by Nazis, North Africans, Vichy French, and one solitary American, unable to return home. He is Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the owner of a beautiful and popular nightclub, “Rick’s”, and an amalgam of everything it meant to be American in 1941. Our hero is solitary, quiet, and embittered by some past heartbreak, but he is also respected and feared by all who know him. It’s a different world here- one where the darkest days of World War II are around the corner, and where evil and inevitable violence seem to be closing in on this last island of peace, flooding it more every minute. The last trains out are boarding, and anyone left behind will have to stick out the long night. Rick “sticks his neck out for no one”, not even the handful of friends he has, and while this way of life is not a happy one, it has always kept him on the right side of the war- his own side.
One night, as the club is in full swing, a woman from Rick’s past arrives. She is the mysterious Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and she is the reason for Rick’s melancholy coolness toward the world. They were of course in love once, less than two years before in the weeks prior to the German invasion of Paris. She left him with scarcely a goodbye- alone in the rain, with a head full of sorrow, and no idea where to go next. Ilsa has a husband now, A Czech revolutionary and a good man who many believe can rally the people of France again, if- and only if he is allowed safe passage to America. By happenstance, Rick has been guarding two valuable passports, capable of seeing Ilsa and her husband to safety, but will he use them? With the Nazis circling like buzzards, Rick must choose between what is right for him, right for Ilsa, and right for the war.
The two actors shed legendary sparks while they share the screen. Director Michael Curtiz, who also received an academy award for his direction, takes such special care with Rick and Ilsa’s eyes- that is, the way they interact and the ways the light takes shape in their retinas are sometimes the most striking details of a scene.
Casablanca is less about true love than it is about sacrifice. For this reason among others it is a great movie. But It is more than a great movie, it is a classic, and classics are tough to define. Casablanca is thought of as a classic not because of it’s excellent cast, it’s poised sense of place in history, or it’s technical beauty- these things are what earned it the Oscar for best picture in 1944. What makes it really magical and allows it to hold its viewer’s hearts in its grip like it did to audiences 70 years ago is the subtle poetry and memorable imagery used throughout. Bogart’s gravelly quips and the way he wears his trench coat with the back of the collar up. Ingrid Bergman’s eyes as her character remembers how she felt back in Paris, and how they shine just before the tears come. The fog at the airport in the final scene, and the way it makes everything glow in the dim light. We have to ask, why the coat? The eyes? The fog? Because: without these little touches, we would be left slightly disappointed with only a great movie: not an immortal one.
And so, in the world of today, where the once stiff and immovable borders of love and war are breaking down; where friends and enemies are not so exclusive and love is more complicated than falling-in and then sticking around, it feels good to look back- to hike across campus in frigid weather with someone special, and fall in love with Casablanca– you will feel in your heart, on Valentine’s Day that maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all.