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Why Classics Like ‘Casablanca’ Hold Up And Modern Schlock Doesn’t

Contemporary cinema is overwhelmingly schlock that caters to the ideological and commercial whims of the day. Not ‘Casablanca.’


Spoilers for a nearly 100-year-old movie.

In the ninth season of “The Simpsons,” Bart and Lisa uncover an old 35mm film reel containing an alternate ending to Michael Curtiz’s classic 1942 film “Casablanca.” In this version, Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund — the characters portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the actual movie  — get married after Lund skydives out of a plane to kill Adolf Hitler.

“The Simpsons,” and pop culture in general, is replete with hat tips, homages, references, and spoofs of Bogart and Bergman’s performances in one of the most influential pieces of American culture ever created. Woody Allen’s “Play It Again Sam,” albeit a neurotic’s therapeutic exercise in self-expression and public effacement in which Allen’s self-insert character is haunted by Bogart’s ghost, is another such example.

This past week I had the opportunity to see “Casablanca” on the big screen for the first time. And (perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight) other than “Top Gun: Maverick,” this was the most crowded movie screening I have attended since 2019. Why?

What makes this movie so unique that at 9:00 p.m. on a weeknight, people of all ages and backgrounds come out to see it? Why is it that an 80-year-old movie still holds audiences when Hollywood, in general, has received a precipitous drop in support?

Why Does It Hold Up?

During an interview for “Casablanca’s” 50th-anniversary re-release, Murray Burnett, co-author of the play the movie is adapted from, said the story is “true yesterday, true today, [and] true tomorrow.”

Whereas contemporary cinema relies on overly elaborate, mind-numbing visual effects and ideological messaging to engage audiences, “Casablanca” employs a nuanced approach to storytelling, relaying observations about humanity that have resonated with people for millennia. It’s a story about man’s eternal struggle between gratifying his personal desires and fulfilling his obligations to those dependent upon him. 

The Moroccan city of Casablanca is established as an intermediary junction through which people can find reprieve from the seemingly inescapable tide of Nazism sweeping across Europe and Northern Africa. But the movie didn’t survive this long and maintain such an impactful legacy because it’s a decent war flick. 

The backdrop of the war does serve to elevate the film’s stakes, however. Being set in 1941, prior to America’s involvement in the war, nobody really knows how it will play out. This uncertainty adds a heightened level of tension to the characters’ interactions.

From the film’s first moments, we are introduced to the nominal city as an aesthetically charming town where people from across the world flock as they try to squeeze something more out of life. Sometimes what they’re looking for is just out of reach, and other times, they serendipitously succeed. These phenomena are reflected by the rigged casino managed by Rick, the film’s protagonist.

Human nature compels man to yearn for more out of life, which is reflected in man’s search for meaning. Curtiz’s film captures this by depicting Casablanca as a cosmopolitan purgatory and human beings as complex individuals without over-intellectualizing the role they play in the war or trivializing the struggles they’re experiencing. Bar patrons pawn family heirlooms for safe passage to a better life, young soldiers come to blows over the slightest offense to their nation’s glory, and mostly everyone else just wants to get drunk as they try to escape the crushing weight of nihilistic authoritarianism.

The individuals depicted in the film are caught between doing what is best for them as individuals and what is right. Often the two constructs overlap, as when escaping with one’s family from Nazism aligns with an individual’s monetary appetites and what is good. In some instances, they are parallel decisions, as is the case with the bar patrons at Rick’s, who choose to spend their evenings inebriated and gambling. Their whims are gratified, and presumably, no one is harmed long-term. In others, as with Rick, they are directly at odds with the world around, thus setting the film’s plot in motion. 

Rick’s Cynicism

Rick is presented as a thoroughly cynical individual. Throughout the film, whenever solicited, his go-to answer is: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But we quickly find out he is actually an idealist who previously risked his life fighting alongside the Ethiopian resistance and the Spanish Republicans despite having no personal stake in the trajectory of either nation. 

Despite being deeply moved by sentiment, Rick has grown weary. His disillusionment is the result of being abandoned by his former lover, Ilsa. Her reemergence into Rick’s life with her resistance leader husband, Victor Laszlo, forces Rick to reacquaint himself with long-dormant feelings of vulnerability that were suppressed in favor of a tight-fisted and defensive cynicism.

As the plot progresses, Rick and Ilsa fluctuate between vindictiveness as Rick refuses to assist Ilsa and Laszlo to escape Nazi persecution and heartfelt collusion as the two rediscover their feelings for each other and make plans to run away together, leaving Ilsa’s husband to continue rallying European resistance groups as an unencumbered bachelor.

Ultimately, as Rick and Ilsa have their final opportunity to abscond, the barkeep sacrifices his own happiness for the “greater good.” Realizing that Ilsa’s companionship is crucial to Laszlso’s role in the resistance, Rick chooses to abandon their plans and insists that she remain faithful and committed to her husband and his fight against Nazi tyranny in Europe, knowing that Ilsa’s love is what kept Laszlo fighting. 

In one of the film’s final scenes, where Rick is explaining this to Ilsa, he says: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

So What?

Rick lost the girl again, and some people in northern Africa got drunk. Why does this matter? How is this story particularly “true”?

The dilemmas experienced by the main cast, let alone the background characters, may be unique to Casablanca in the 1940s, but they are experiences with which people from every generation can easily identify, albeit indirectly. 

Everyone wants a better life for themselves and their families, and everyone wants to find love. These universal phenomena are, among other things, dealt with in “Casablanca” as man tries to strike a balance between his nature and his duty. 

The late English philosopher Roger Scruton articulated a belief that art should aim to offer a unique and accessible perspective on the world that challenges viewers’ prior convictions. To be fair, a good deal of contemporary cinema is entertaining, but it is overwhelmingly schlock that caters to the ideological and commercial whims of the day. “Casablanca,” however, exists at the rare intersection of popular culture and art, encouraging people to ponder deeper truths.

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