December 16th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

This year is the 75th anniversary of Casablanca, the romantic and resonant melodrama praised by Umberto Eco for fusing together clichés and archetypes in such a moving way that it reaches Homeric depths and gives a glimpse of the sublime.

The movie is a triumph of the Hollywood Golden Age studio system, a masterpiece whose artistic masterfulness comes from its superior craftsmanship and the way in which the individual artists worked together to make a picture explicitly for popular consumption, but in such a way that its popularity transcends its time.

Set in December 1941 in French Morocco, Casablanca depicts a world of charm and sophistication that is little more than a veneer for the corruption and desperation underlying it. This is the world of World War II. The Germans have overrun much of Europe, creating an exodus of refugees of all classes and races seeking a way to the Americas. The city of Casablanca is the last stop for those wishing to escape – both from the conquerors and from their own pasts.

At the centre of Casablanca’s nightlife is Rick’s Cafe Americain run by Richard “Rick” Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expat who once fought for freedom, but now only fights for himself. He has drowned his idealism and sentiment in alcohol since the woman he loved and cannot forget pulled a disappearing act.

When two German couriers are found dead and their letters of transit stolen, the Reich sends in the well-mannered but brutal Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) to stop them falling into the hands of charismatic Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Strasser teams up with the charming and openly corrupt local Prefect of Police, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), a man whose cap is always at a rakish angle and whose leisurely manner and light-hearted banter hide the ruthlessness he’s willing to use for self-preservation.

But the authorities are not only the ones after the letters. They’re worth a fortune to anyone who buys and sells human beings, Casablanca’s leading commodity, such as Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), leader of all illegal activities in the city; or Signor Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who hopes to use them to secure his own escape. And for the Laszlos, they are their only way to make it to America to lead the fight from abroad.

Casablanca rightly deserves its title as one of the best loved and best made films of all time. The story, with its themes of romance and sacrifice, of principles and opportunism, resonates across the years, giving it a philosophical depth all the more remarkable for its melodramatic plotting.

Moreover, it is a triumph of cinematic craftsmanship, rather than individualistic artistry, demonstrating the strengths of the studio system, a system that shot the picture in a week, one of hundreds made that year. Executive producer Hal B. Wallis deserves credit. He ensured the right people worked on it, bringing together their varied talents into a unified whole. People like screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, who reworked Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play on which the film is based; and Maltese Falcon cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who brought a noirish sensibility emphasising the story’s moral complexity. And, of course, the incredible cast, whose performances turn the film from melodrama into something deeper, something with subtlety and nuance.

Part of the film’s success is the expert way it shows rather than tells, alluding to things rather than making them explicit, allowing the actors to give incredible shades of meaning and emotion in a look or a line. This is a movie where the subtext is made apparent by the symphonic interplay of all its elements, giving the viewer the chance to engage their brain and their heart to make sense of it, thus ensuring a richly imaginative and nostalgic experience.

Casablanca appeals to the romance and nobility at the heart of the human person, the desire to do what’s right, while not glossing over that we often do what’s wrong. It showcases the reality of redemption, that it remains ever possible despite what may have been. It acts as the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the ideals of heroism and self-sacrifice. It is a movie that moves the soul, and will always do so, as time goes by.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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