The End of a Beautiful Friendship

Why America fell for Casablanca, and why the classic film is losing its hold on movie lovers.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock. Still by Warner Bros.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock. Still by Warner Bros.

In 1957, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square kicked off its Humphrey Bogart series with the 1942 classic Casablanca.* Bogart himself had just died, and the response to the film was rapturous. By the fourth or fifth screening, “the audience began to chant the lines,” the theater’s then-manager told Noah Isenberg, author of Well Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywoods Most Beloved Movie. It was the dawn of the art-house era, the moment when film was beginning to be taken seriously as an art form by college students who flocked to theaters like the Brattle to see the work of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Casablanca didn’t exactly rank among those auteurist masterpieces—even the movie’s most ardent champions have always described Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz and credited to screenwriters Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein, as the quintessential product of the Hollywood studio system. But it nevertheless became a cult object for a generation or two of cinephiles, particularly young men, over the next several decades.

Allen Felix, the fictional film-critic hero of Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen’s 1969 play and 1972 film, epitomizes that breed of young man. The film begins with the closing scene of Casablanca, in which Rick Blaine (Bogart) nobly parts from Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) on a misty North African tarmac. Then the camera cuts to Woody Allen’s rapt face, his mouth gaping, as he inhales the movie’s glossy, yearning romance. Felix lives in an apartment wallpapered with movie posters, most of them featuring Bogart, and as he bumbles his way through a largely unsuccessful love life, the phantom of the movie star in his trademark trench coat and snap-brimmed hat appears to offer hard-boiled advice on how to handle dames.

As late as the 1990s, you could still find plenty of Bogey idolizers in the lobby of your neighborhood rep house, but sometime between then and now Casablanca began to slip from the perch Isenberg claims for it. Could you really still call it “Hollywood’s most beloved movie”? Not to judge by the film’s IMDB ranking, which shows a precipitous drop from the fourth highest film to the 34th in the 21st century. Once, Casablanca was a touchstone, a vision of love and glory its fans aspired to even if they knew they could never attain its heights. When Harry and Sally, of the 1989 Nora Ephron film that bears their name, drive together from Chicago to New York, they debate the romantic triangle at the center of Casablanca as if the choices the characters make somehow pertain to their own.

In a later split-screen sequence, they talk on the phone while watching the movie on late-night TV in their separate apartments, then sigh over the ending with almost as much longing as Felix. That’s how Ephron’s audience knew Harry and Sally were made for each other. Today, the only on-screen lovers who hold Casablanca in equivalent reverence are the pair played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, a couple of vintage fetishists snow-globed inside a movie genre—the musical—even more retro that the luxe exotic melodrama of Casablanca itself.

Make no mistake: Everything about Casablanca is indelible. As Isenberg writes, even people who have never even seen the film (like most of his millennial students at the New School in New York) know the basic plot and can quote such celebrated lines as “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The movie’s dialogue has disseminated into everyday English to such an extent that many who sarcastically pronounces themselves “Shocked, shocked” at some thoroughly predictable scandal don’t even realize they’re parroting the suave, corrupt Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) as he raids the back room of Rick’s Café Américain.

We’ll Always Have Casablanca is less a history (Aljean Harmetz’s Round Up the Usual Suspects, published in 1992, already covered that comprehensively) than a scrapbook: a digestible assembly of interesting facts, a few fresh quotes, ongoing controversies about who wrote which bits of dialogue, and tributes—from Simpsons parodies to Saturday Night Live sketches—meant to illustrate Casablanca’s lasting legacy. But as the 75th anniversary of Casablanca’s release arrives, Isenberg doesn’t seem to perceive the subtle but distinct transformation of the movie’s cachet over the past 10 or 15 years.

In 2013, when Sight and Sound magazine tallied up the votes of “846 critics, programmers, academics, and distributors” to compile what many view as the definitive list of the 50 greatest films ever made, Casablanca didn’t even make the cut. But it was never a critic’s picture. The critic Pauline Kael, in her seminal 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” held it up as a prime example of “how entertaining a bad movie can be.” For Kael, that wasn’t necessarily an insult; her essay was a frontal assault on the prevailing, staid concept of “quality” films. Even the fact that Casablanca’s screenplay has been used as a model by such screenwriting gurus as Syd Field and Robert McKee tends to underscore the view that the movie represents a perfection of craft rather than of art.

What’s changed about Casablanca is the most powerful and intangible element in any work of popular culture: its ability to make each audience member feel this is about me, about who I am, but most of all, who I want to be. Often, a movie elicits this sort of identification in ways that defy rationality. Umberto Eco wrote of Casablanca, “in order to transform a work into a cult object, one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.” As Play It Again, Sam demonstrates, much of the spell Casablanca cast over postwar youth originated in the image of Bogart as a tough, wised-up man of the world. Rick is depicted in an early scene giving the brush-off to the beautiful Yvette, with whom he’s apparently had a fling. “How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that,” Renault tells him. “Someday they may be scarce.”

This is the Bogart that Allen Felix idolizes, daydreaming of mesmerizing a series of beauties with his bedroom prowess and implacable cool. “I never saw a dame yet that didn’t understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45,” his imaginary Bogey counsels. This figure is most definitely not the Rick who falls apart (and then into a bottle) the moment that Ilsa walks into his gin joint. It’s also not the Rick who once fought in the Spanish Civil War or who resists the Nazis, craftily at first and by the end of the movie overtly. The politics that provide Casablanca with its context and meaning have been erased from Play It Again, Sam, leaving nothing but a mirage of sexual mastery.

There were, of course, other aspects of Casablanca that appealed to young fans during the 1960s and ’70s. Todd Gitlin, a leading historian of that period’s counterculture, tells Isenberg that the film appealed to students opposed to segregation and the Vietnam War because it asks what it takes to be “a good person in a monstrous age.” As Isenberg puts it, Casablanca “spoke to the young-activist zeitgeist, providing a kind of mythic bedrock.” Certainly, Casablanca is a movie about political resistance, but it’s also a clarion call to cast aside isolationism and self-interest to fight on behalf of the invaded and oppressed. Although Isenberg doesn’t include interviews with conservative students who supported the Vietnam War, it’s not difficult to see how they might have interpreted the movie as an argument on behalf of their side.

Great works of popular culture often have this chameleon-like ability to reflect whatever their audience most wants to see. In a case of spectacularly good timing, Casablanca was released hot on the heels of the arrival of Allied troops in North Africa. The movie was a hit and won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. As Philip Epstein’s son Leslie told Isenberg, “it’s the signature archetype of how Americans would like to think of themselves, as tough (‘I stick my neck out for nobody’), but underneath it there’s a heart and they do the right thing somehow.” In Rick Blaine, the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of rugged individualism and selfless heroism meet and intermingle.

By the time the Vietnam War ended, Casablanca seemed less a summons to decisive political action than a celebration of a certain type of masculinity. If you dated a young, cinema-loving, commitment-shy guy during this period, chances are you saw Casablanca enough times to notice the way Rick proves the depth and soulfulness of his love by running off to have adventures in the desert with another guy. Virtually every other character in the movie exists to experience Rick’s emotions for him, as in the famous scene in which the resistance leader Victor Lazlo rallies the customer’s at Rick’s Cafe to drown out some singing Nazis with a thrilling rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Although Rick sympathizes with Lazlo, his sole involvement in the scene is the curt nod he gives to the band when Lazlo asks them to play the French anthem. Casablanca is generally seen as Bogart’s movie but it would have withered to a husk without the lustrous performance of Ingrid Bergman, whose dewy face, with its natural, unplucked eyebrows, is the place where all the authentic feeling in the film resides.

“This is a film of my parents’ generation,” Gitlin told Isenberg, “so in some way it’s a bridge. Their world became more palpable, richer, and more significant to me as a result of this stylized, incandescent representation of it.” Baby boomers like Gitlin had to square a circle. They grew up among adults who had, according to common knowledge, rescued the world from a great evil: People who fought, suffered, and died for the freedom that movies like Casablanca unabashedly celebrate. Their children, however, chose not to fight, and had to reframe as valiant a refusal that was often interpreted as cowardice or selfishness. Their parents’ generation admired plenty of gung-ho, all-American film heroes, the type of men played by John Wayne, who publicly condemned the anti-war movement. But the counterculture cherished Bogey: a skeptic, sure, but definitely not a coward. The men Bogey played could be persuaded to take a stand but only when the cause had sufficiently proven itself to them. Jingoism and patriotic rhetoric earned nothing more from him than a sneer.

These days, the black-and-white artifices of midcentury studio films often seem overly mannered to viewers who didn’t grow up watching them on TV as Harry and Sally did. And while young men will always struggle to define masculinity in a way that feels authentic, the world in which they’re struggling has changed dramatically. The bitter stoicism that made Bogey cool in the eyes of Allen Felix might look like emotionally stunted self-pity to Felix’s son.

Bogart, and Casablanca, offered baby boomers, as Gitlin aptly puts it, a bridge between themselves and the parents they both admired and openly rebelled against. He showed them a way to be as manly as a warrior while standing apart from war. Americans still underestimate the degree to which the Second World War cast a long shadow over the last half of the 20th century. That shadow has mostly subsided, and the radiant dreams that consoled us as we walked through it, while still worth revisiting, now seem less captivating and necessary.

*Correction, Feb. 27, 2017: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Brattle Theatre. (Return.)

Well Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywoods Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. W.W. Norton.

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