Every time I watch Casablanca–and I think it’s been a while since the last time, over ten years ago, when I saw it at Radio City–I marvel at the pacing. The film runs an hour and forty minutes and it doesn’t even seem like any time has passed until Bergman is in Bogart’s apartment. I think that scene brings in the temporal aspect not because of the scene’s weight, but because Paul Henreid’s had an off-screen activity. We see everything in Casablanca–with the exception of the pre-opening incident (the murder of the German couriers)–and once we aren’t seeing everything, it becomes clear the film’s a narrative with an eventual ending. The beauty of the film is how the script sets it up to never imply a conclusion–certainly not one so quickly (as Bogart says to Bergman, he didn’t expect her so soon)–as the present action takes place over two and a half days.
The film’s opening, with the narrated introduction, followed by the daily life in Casablanca, gradually introducing Bogart, exquisitely conditions the viewer. For most of the running time, the film portrays Bogart as a cynic, hardly a heroic protagonist (he’s not even as consistently funny as Claude Rains). Watching Bogart bicker with Dooley Wilson over his drinking or lash out at Bergman, it’s a raw human desperation not often seen in films of this period. Curtiz’s frequent, patient close-ups–most often of Bergman thinking–contribute to the film’s sensitivity.
The viewer doesn’t even have all the necessary information until forty-five minutes into the film–and even then there’s the question of whether Bergman’s history with Paul Henreid is essential–after Bogart and Wilson’s bickering, after the flashback to Paris. The flashback must only take five minutes, but it always seems to take so much longer. It really does resonate, since up until that point, we’ve only seen Bogart on the one night.
The script does such an amazing job setting up the characters and their potential for empathy (especially with Sydney Greenstreet), with Nazi Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre the only irredeemable characters. And even then, Lorre’s questionable. There’s a great ambiguity to the film in how it deals with its characters and their morality. Only Henreid and Wilson–as well as the supporting cast in Bogart’s nightclub–are scrupulous. The film doesn’t even make an issue of Bogart growing into a noble mold–there’s no implication he’s going to continue doing the right thing.
The other thing I always think about is the film’s ability to juggle being well-written and narratively solid with being constantly entertaining. Curtiz frequently brings a comedic timing to the action–for instance, with Bogart pulling the pistol on Rains at the end. The film establishes, right away, a dire setting (my wife, watching for the first time, gasped as the French police shot the fleeing man without his papers in the first scene). Everyone’s desperate, everyone’s unhappy, everyone’s in a lot of trouble… but there’s so much humor. Bogart and Lorre’s opening conversation lightens the mood, but never breaks the setting.
Rains is responsible for a lot of the levity. His police prefect is just perfect. Every scene he’s in produces a smile at the least.
Both Bogart and Bergman are fantastic, with Bogart’s performance setting a mold for all reluctant heroes to follow (I noticed a music cue John Williams borrowed in Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo being a direct descendant of Rick Blaine). Bergman’s got a harder job–though, is this film the first where Bogart had to cry–since Curtiz loves giving her those pensive close-ups.
Wilson’s great, as is Henreid. Henreid’s actually got the hardest job, since he’s got to convince the viewer he’s this Utopian do-gooder, whose rhetoric and ideals are infectious. And he does.
I can’t think of a single complaint (I want more Wilson, but I understand he’s got to go into background as Henreid becomes more relevant to the narrative). I just miss seeing it on a seventy foot screen.