Friday, May 20, 2011

Casablanca - Where Intrigue meets Heartbreak

We have all heard of 'Casablanca', if not seen this movie which upon its release, was just one of the many movies by Warner Bros. Even with its A-list cast and direction by Michael Curtiz, it was made on a tight budget and harbored limited expectations. That, almost 70 years after its release, it is considered as the second best movie by AFI, is a matter of everything falling in place, just so perfectly. From the romance which till date raises a thousand sighs peppered with enduring dialogues like 'Here's looking at you kid' to 'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine', from the passion for a higher cause in a war inflicted world, an exotic locale called Casablanca in the northern coast of Africa, immaculate shot taking with memorable closeups of its lead pair and their inner turmoil so vividly on display and finally a pulse pounding climax, this movie tied up to a perfect, emotional viewing experience which hasn't dimmed through the passage of time.

Of its famous story, we all know some. In the turbulence of World War II, in the port town of Casablanca in Morocco, at a time when travel to neutral Portugal and finally America was stringent, the French occupied city is a pit stop for the thousands seeking transit permits to travel out of war zone. In this city is the famous 'Rick's Cafe Americain', a hub for people to while away their evenings in drinks, conversation and gambling. The owner is the strong, silent, ruthless Rick, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart. He sticks his neck out for no one. Life is strictly business till one day in walks the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with her partner/husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) to his cafe and emotions that Rick had kept buried, threaten to overflow.

Ilsa was his one true love in pre-war Paris, who leaves him stranded at the train station in the rain, the day the Nazis march into the city. By way of explanation is a letter begging him to forget her and that she will always love him. And thus, an embittered, cold man surfaces in Casablanca only to have jealousy, betrayal and anger threaten to blow the lid off his carefully crafted front by the arrival of his ex-love. The story takes an interesting direction as Laszlo is a resistance hero and former concentration camp escapee, who needs to leave for America to continue his work. The Gestapo in Casablanca have made it their business that he not leave the city.

Ilsa and Victor's only hope lies with Rick who has two exit visas in his possession. Can Rick be trusted to part with them for the girl who broke his heart. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were at the top of their games in the movie. Bogart is the quintessential cynical, macho man hiding softness and extreme hurt under his veneer. His eyes speak his pain and to see his tender side in the flashback sequences of those happier days in Paris is heart breaking. Ingrid Bergman was rightly hailed as one of the classic beauties of her time. As the woman who betrays for a higher purpose and torn between love and duty, she is perfection. In this tale of lost love, intrigue and redemption, every actor plays his part. The local prefect of police, played impeccably by Claude Rains, deserves special mention as the self proclaimed corrupt opportunist who has a change of heart. 'Round up the usual suspects' is his final punch line.

The scenes that remain engrained in the minds of its audience are plenty. The scene where Ilsa asks Rick's friend Sam, the cafe's piano player, to play the song they shared in those golden Paris days 'As Time Goes By' and when Sam renders it, Rick's reprimandation only to come face to face with Ilsa is almost heart stopping. The night when Ilsa comes to explain her betrayal only to face Rick's drunken wrath, the request and then battle for the exit visas by Ilsa leading to an emotionally charged sequence are memorable. Arousing in its patriotism is the scene when Laszlo drowns the Nazi singing in the cafe by a powerful rendition of the French national anthem. The movie is blessed with a perfectly choreographed climax where action meets thrill meets love and ultimately sacrifice.

Rarely do things fall so perfectly in place as in the case of Casablanca. Perfect casting shook hands with a tight script sprinkled with timeless dialogues and emotions. The direction, music, editing, cinematography are top notch. The time it captured, when the world was in the throes of threat from a totalitarian regime, and the emotions it evokes are right on. 'Casablanca' remains one of the ultimates in motion picture history and a worthy addition to any film connoisseurs library. Love, heartbreak and intrigue never joined hands to create such magic again.

Originally released in 1942
Available on DVD
Oscar Award winner for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.

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