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Movie review: Casablanca

Well, the secret is out: I am calling myself some kind of movie reviewer, yet I have never watched Casablanca before. Guilty as charged! Never came across its showing at an opportune time, and never bothered to rent it.

But a recent conversation with my friend Jason, who is miles ahead of me as far as movie knowledge is concerned, spurred me to fill the gap in my cinematic education. So, a couple of days ago, Natasha and I watched the famous movie.

And, to my chagrin, I was left underwhelmed.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie well enough. It has a plot with intrigue and twists, characters with depth, a love story with a substance, great dialogue and memorable one-liners, excitement of danger, colorful backdrop… And yeah, the good guys retain upper hand in the end. Add to that the fact that the movie was made in 1942, when computers – which have an integral role in any modern movie-making – were not even invented, and I can understand how anyone can make the case that it is nearly impossible to name a movie that is better than Casablanca.

Yet, it left me with a lingering sense of disappointment.

Mostly, I feel that the main characters are portrayed unevenly. Bogart is great as a witty and unflappable man with a dark past, but he never mastered the gentle look that you need to express love. If “Here’s looking at you, kid!” is supposed to convey affection, he fails at making it more than a requisite catch-phrase that a hero must have.

Ingrid Bergman is absolutely ravishing and has an amazing presence, but her emotional displays are melodramatically acted out over the top and not entirely believable (I am itching to channel Stanislavski the director here).

Paul Henreid does rather well to project an unbent resolve to fight the Nazis, but even such a singularly-motivated person has got to be a bit more emotional at the thought of his wife possibly being in love with another man.

Claude Rains’ Capt Renault is the only character who I thought is portrayed perfectly, projecting cynicism and unscrupulousness in just the right qualities, while leaving enough room to suspect that he is not a bad guy, so that his part in the final scene is not an out-of-the-blue stretch. On a couple of occasions when he has to emote, as opposed to delivering most of the movie’s best lines with a smirk, he is believable.

The Nazis, conversely, make me snort. I grew up on Soviet war movies, in which the Germans were always despicable monsters perpetrating gruesome deeds. The haughty but gentlemanly Major Strasser, who allows the defiant La Marseillaise rendition to finish before ordering the bar closed, is simply not menacing enough. He is unpleasant and seemingly villainous, but his cruelty and inhumanity is hinted at in a cartoonish stiff-necked, spit-the-words-through-the-teeth way, which makes him implausible in my eyes.

By the way, if the plot ever went into the left field, it was when the ranking German, upon having been warned of a sticky situation, goes to check it out by his lonely self, as opposed to rousing his cohorts; he is shown rushing to the scene, yet arrives much too late, even though nothing suggests that he had a significantly longer trip to the final destination than our heroes had. I am nitpicking now, sorry.

A positive nitpick, then. It always makes me cringe when an English-speaking actor is required by the script to say something in Russian. The phrase comes out foreign enough for English-speaking viewers, but just an undecipherable gibberish to me. A person who knows how to properly say a line in Russian (Leonid Kinskey who plays Sasha) is always a welcome sight.

The last two unimportant tidbits suggest that I need to wind this down. To summarize, it is a very good movie that I would certainly recommend for you to watch if you somehow managed to beat me in terms of staying away from it. But I can’t say that I loved it, and I’m afraid no movie maven will ever take me seriously anymore…


  1. Jason Bennion

    Ilya, just a couple of brief comments before I sign off and head home for the evening (I’m at work…)

    First off, sorry to hear you were let down by this one. I wonder if perhaps that might be a result of having heard for so long how great this movie is? I had a similar problem when I finally saw Gone with the Wind and found myself thinking, “This is it? The movie so many people have raved about for decades? Meh…”

    I was lucky enough to see Casablanca when I was fairly young, around 13 or 14, before I heard how great it was supposed to be (and maybe even before everyone started talking about it all the time; this was in the early ’80s), so I came by my love of it honestly, without being influenced one way or the other. I grooved on the look of the film, the wonderfully rich black and white cinematography and atmospheric drifts of cigarette smoke, as well as the snappy dialog. (Still love the exchange between Bogart and Rains about the coming to Casablanca for the waters…)

    As for the performances, well, I would suggest you experienced something many modern viewers feel when they see old movies. Acting styles have changed in the last 60 years; a lot of stars of the 30s and 40s now read as either stiff or over-the-top, but these issues seem to be so prevalent in films of the period that I long ago decided it was just how it was done then. Audiences of the day must’ve found it ordinary and/or expected it. (If you think ’40s movies are melodramatic, check out some of the silents from the teens and ’20s!) Also, our ideas of how men and women behave are drastically different, too. A man in 1941 (when the movie was actually written and filmed) wouldn’t have expressed as much emotion as we now expect, because that wouldn’t have been, well, manly.

    That’s not to say the movie is flawless. I personally find the flashback “love montage” between Rick and Ilsa painful, for instance. But “Here’s looking at you, kid” works for me, and there are moments in the film that always bring me to tears.

    I could go on all night about the production history of the film and what a miracle it is that it works at all (it was being written as they were filming, and the actors didn’t know how the movie was going to end until the day they showed up to shoot the iconic final scene), but I have a train to catch.

    I will just say, again, sorry you were disappointed. That happens sometimes…

  2. Ilya

    Thanks, Jason. You are right both in terms of high expectations contributing to the let down and the difference of eras requiring a perception adjustment. I’ll try to keep that in perspective when I watch the movie again, in a few months or so…

    And yes, without doubt, “I was misinformed” is priceless, as well as many other parts of the dialog.

  3. Jason Bennion

    I also love the exchange when Rick and Major Strasser first meet, the one that ends with Rick advising Strasser that there are parts of New York the Nazis would do well not to think about invading… 😉

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