Homeric depths

‘Here’s looking at you, kid’. ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine’. ‘Round up the usual suspects’. ‘I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’. ‘Play it, Sam’. Few if any films in the history of cinema have contributed as much to spoken English vernacular as Casablanca. This is probably less to do with its success on release, which was moderate—although it did well at the Oscars—than with its considerable afterlife as a repertory and TV favourite. A tradition arose in the 1950s at Harvard, and subsequently at other American universities, of showing Casablanca during exam week, and several generations of viewers all over the world know its every line from its repeated broadcasts. Personally, I saw it no more than once or twice as a child, and paid it very little attention, so on watching it recently I encountered it effectively as new.

It has a reputation as a masterpiece. In context, as a commercial picture from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s a serious romantic drama, made by a very accomplished team of people, but if its status is deserved, it isn’t really for its surface qualities, in terms of writing, directing and acting. A studio picture is always going to cleave to certain conventions, and I think it would be hard to argue that the scenario is plausible, the plot airtight, or the characterisation convincing. Michael Curtiz’s direction is crisp and sure-footed, however, abetted by Arthur Edeson’s cinematography to construct the film from a varied repertoire of imaginative shots and angles, stitched together dynamically by editor Owen Marks. This stands in contrast to some successful films of the era, which could often be rhetorically incoherent and deficient in narrative pacing. But it was not this which made the film stand out, and which gives it such a secure place in the pantheon of global cinematic monuments.

Casablanca is a vehicle for its stars. Its myth is so powerful and so unquestioned that it’s very hard to look critically at the film, even to see it as one cinematic text among others, or to separate its values from the values that define its medium. Casablanca is cinema. If you like one, you must like the other. But its mythical status is a function, I would guess, of its mythical structure. Its stars bestride it like gods, archetypal figures which resonate in the imaginations of everyone who understands the language of Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart’s cynical, selfish chancer, who will always win the fight and get the girl, but who nevertheless does the right thing in giving her up in the end, is the heroic embodiment of America at the end of the Depression—a man in exile, a wounded hero, the tragic obverse of the American Adam. Ingrid Bergman is luminous with purity, although as far as the Hays Code would permit, the narrative makes it clear that she’s ‘experienced’: she embodies the superposition of virtue and availability that was required of women stars in the Golden Age, and which still is, to a large extent.

These archetypes were known to the audience in 1942, but since the film’s first theatrical release they have accumulated meaning and mythic power, until they underlie every romantic pairing in Western cinema. The film has, as Umberto Eco put it, ‘Homeric depths’—its lack of real characterisation is not an obstacle to its creative success. It is, in fact founded on the impossibility of identifying its leading figures with any real human beings that might be known to its viewers. Although it is hardly unique among Golden Age flicks in being populated with types, it is the infinite desirability of both possessing and being its stars, and the obvious, unavoidable knowledge that nobody could ever hope to live up to their surpassing manliness and femininity, which gives it its unique power.

It is now nigh impossible to separate its internal qualities from the film’s own myth, to say to what extent it gets its charisma from Bogart and Bergman, and to what extent they get theirs from its. But the archetypal resonances of Hollywood, standing in place of the great hero myths of oral tradition and epic poetry (which by the twentieth century no longer played a significant part in most people’s lives) seem to come together and burn more brightly in this film than any other.

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