as part of an extremely mellow (read: post-night out) saturday, i ended up watching the movie casablanca for the first time in years.
as classic movies go, it's a pretty peculiar piece. we've all seen "classic" movies that have aged less than gracefully (go watch ben hur). and we've all seen movies that originated cliches that have stuck in the public psyche well beyond the scope of the original audience (that mad shout of "it's alive!" from frankenstein, for example). but it's hard to find another movie where so much of the script has been etched into popular memory.
part of that is because the script is just so repetitive. you know the line "here's looking at you kid" is one you're supposed to remember, because it crops up about every ten minutes. alternately, there's a line like "we'll always have paris" which is so contrived that i can't believe audiences in the forties didn't find it just as corny as it sounds today.
in retrospect, the studio's expectation that the film would be a box office disaster seems entirely reasonable.
and yet, somehow, the film maintains a lovable quality that's hard to resist. yes, looking back, humphrey bogart, like many icons of the time, is pretty one dimensional. and ingrid bergman is luminous, but her character, when you get down to it, really isn't that interesting. if the film rested on their shoulders, it probably wouldn't have been exceptional.
what is exceptional is the cast of background characters. sidney greenstreet and peter lorre, fresh from working with bogart on the maltese falcon, put in entertaining appearances. paul heinreid, in the uncomfortable role of the third corner of the love triangle, actually makes what could be a wimpy, insipid caricature of political virtue seem like the kind of guy you would leave the love of your life to help. conrad veidt, most famous now as the sinister somnambulist cesare in the cabinet of doctor caligari, was a particularly amusing choice for the nazi arch-villain major strasser. a staunch anti-nazi who had been known to claim to be a jew on government surveys (he was not), he had fled his home country after being blacklisted by hitler's government. (another interesting nugget: veidt's disfigured face in the silent horror classic the man who laughs was the inspiration for the illustrations of the joker in batman, making him party to another cultural cliche.)
of course, claude raines as the delectably unpredictable renault pretty much steals the whole film from under the noses of its stars. no matter what happens, it tends to be the guy that makes you laugh that you remember the best. (and of course, he is the agent of that quirky, neither happy nor tragic ending that helps lift the movie above garden variety melodrama.)
movies from the forties, suffused as they often were in the politics and morals of the day (more so, for instance, than a lot of films from the twenties), seem pretty creaky in retrospect, but the ones that stand out tend to be the ones where someone had the good sense to pay attention to the details rather than just the foreground.