Michael Curtiz, 1942.
Previous Contact: I've seen Casablanca a few other times, and think of it as, well, a good and iconic old movie.
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Casablanca suffers, or benefits, from the Hamlet Syndrome.* There are so many scenes and lines that have thoroughly penetrated the culture that it is hard to watch either entertainment simply as a dramatic story. The money lines -- "Alas, poor Yorick" or "Here's looking at you, kid" -- have resonance far beyond their place in the script, and the central quandaries of Prince Hamlet and Rick the "saloon keeper" are so well known that the performance is experienced more as an acting out of ritual than with the usual suspension of disbelief.
Or, maybe that's just me. I like Casablanca, though. It was a low budget affair (its runaway success was apparently a big surprise for everyone involved), which protected it from the excesses of overproduction that often ruin a movie that's groomed to be a hit. As importantly, it refuses to make The Big Copout* that is characteristic of the lion's share of popular American dramatic films. The Big Copout is a plot structure that works like this...
...and its dominance in your big-budget Hollywood flicks goes a long way towards explaining why such fearsomely concentrated foci of talent, attention, technology, artistry, and sheer capital so often suck.
Casablanca is in the minority of films that follow a plot structure suitable for grown-ups:
...and this is what makes it good. There are half a dozen ways that the hero could have been paired with the girl in the end, with everyone still pledged to active resistance against Fascism. In fact, according to Ebert, these other endings were all kicked around in what was apparently a pretty seat-of-the-pants screenwriting process. But the film that actually got made involves an bona fide painful sacrifice, which means... well, it means that the story MEANS something. That the movie engages more than animal reflexes of suspense and release. Add in a certain stylishness, some wit, good pacing, and competent filming, and you've got a product we're still talking about 68 years later.
Plot: See Diagram #2, above.
Visuals and Dialog: Both the writing and the filming of the movie are strong. They situate a moderately complex story in a moderately exotic location in such a way that we always know what's going on. Multiculturalism is handled pretty well by 1940s standards, even if the local Moroccan crime lord does look like my dad in a fez.** And if there is a touch of jingoism in the portrayal of the evil, gloating Nazis, it's worth pointing out that the Nazis were pretty darn evil and, in 1942, still widely gloating.
Prognosis: Although not an essential stop on the History of Film grand tour, being more well-made than revolutionary, it is certainly mandatory cultural literacy viewing. But you've already seen it half a dozen times anyway.
* "The Hamlet Syndrome" & "The Big Copout" (c)2010 M5K Blogfotainment.
** Not that I have actually ever seen my dad in a fez, mind you.