Arts & Leisure

Good look at a great movie: “Casablanca”

HUMPHREY BOGART and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”

By Jim Tortolano

When I was teaching a college mass communications course just a few years ago, I used to show my students a 1942 black-and-white dinosaur of a film they claimed to have never seen or even heard of: “Casablanca.”

At first they shuffled their feet in their cramped chair-desks or cleared their throats in boredom, but it wasn’t long before their heads came up, their eyes focused and they were enthralled with the ancient story of love, loss, war, peace and conscience.

“Casablanca” may not be the greatest film ever made, but it’s the one that has the strongest grip on the American psyche. Even people who had no idea what it was become true believers by the time Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick’s Café Americain.

“We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” written by Noah Isenberg, takes a new look at an old giant of a movie, one which helped make the rather plain-looking (some might say ugly) Humphrey Bogart into the film character most admired by men, and not a few women.

Isenberg’s book traces the origins of the story, from its birth as an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” all the way through its blockbuster run at the box office, to its frequent revivals in the popular mind.

It devotes a lot of space – maybe too much – on the tortuous path the story took before it finally hit the silver screen. But it redeems itself with a witty and insightful analysis of why “Casablanca” continues to be a touchstone of fine Hollywood filmmaking and an iconic tale of the need of even the wounded skeptic to step up and be counted when the fate of the human race hangs in the balance.

“WE”LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA,” by Noah Isenberg.

“We’ll Always” also traces the imprint the movie had across the American culture, from Woody Allen’s comedy “Play it Again, Sam” to more recent riffs and satires, such as the 2015 Saturday Night Live skit featuring Kate McKinnon as an alternative Ilsa who decides that the idea of sticking with Rick isn’t such a promising plan after all.

Bogart’s Rick Blaine still serves as a masculine template. He’s not a big guy, but he’s afraid of or intimidated by no one, be they beautiful girls or Nazis. He’s seen a lot and been hurt, but he still retains a strong sense of slightly bent empathy. And when the chips are down, he can always be counted on to do the right thing.

Isenberg has done the right thing in shining a new spotlight on a great film classic. If you want a greater insight into everyone’s favorite classic film – provided you are over 40 – this book is the place to look. If you don’t know the story but are interested in seeing how movie magic is made, rent the DVD or Blu-Ray and download “We’ll Always Have” onto your Kindle app. Take the time to experience what’s really timeless.

“We’ll Always Have Casablanca” by Noah Isenberg is published by W.W. Norton & Company. It’s available in hardcover, Kindle e-book and audio book and CD.

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