Arts & Events

Arts: ‘Casablanca’ In El Cerrito

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday October 31, 2006

Casablanca may seem like something of a cliché these days. Its reputation is so prevalent that for the viewer who rents a copy to take home, either for the first time or the thirty-first time, it may be a rather underwhelming experience. The film may seem dated and filled with overly familiar scenes, rendering the movie a sort of post-modern compendium of oft-quoted lines.  

But Casablanca on the big screen is an entirely different experience. To see the film projected larger than life in a room full of fellow moviegoers, and in an authentic theater from the era, which likely showed the film in its original run in 1942, is to set aside the decades of lionization and all the baggage containing the myths of its now legendary stars, and immerse oneself in one of the most compelling and satisfying products of Hollywood’s regimented studio system. 

It’s an unlikely classic. The movie is often used as an example to undermine the auteur theory, the notion put forward by the critics and filmmakers of the French New Wave, that a director is the sole author of a film. Casablanca is fascinating in that it was never meant to be a great film; in fact, many of those working on it at the time considered it something of a lemon, a contractual obligation they would be happy to put behind them.  

But what emerged was a film that embodied all that was best in the studio system, with excellent screenwriters reshaping the film until the last minute; a sure-handed director making the most of his sets and players; fine actors transforming two-dimensional characters with compelling performances. If you’ve only seen it on video, in the isolation of a private living room, Casablanca, like many great films of the past, can be underwhelming. There is something lost on the small screen, no matter how big that small screen may be. Movies of this era were meant to be seen on the big screen, not because they contained big action sequence or special effects, but because they contained big emotions. 

Humphrey Bogart’s talents are arguably better displayed in other films; he’s tougher and grittier in the Maltese Falcon; he’s darker and perhaps more compelling in his films opposite Lauren Bacall, or in the underrated In a Lonely Place. But Casablanca is where Bogart truly made the big time, stepping up to play a complex romantic leading man after only having played thugs and tough-talking detectives. And Ingrid Bergman delivers one of her finest performances, conveying deep undercurrents of longing and regret even without saying a word. And the direction of Michael Curtiz and the photography of Arthur Edeson lends an evocative sheen to the melodrama, with dark shadows and probing searchlights piercing through the obfuscations of characters embroiled in a forlorn mix of politics, war and love.