My ten great movies #7: Casablanca
Casablanca is often called an accidental masterpiece, a movie where the necessary elements came together almost by chance, which is reasonably true, to a point. If anything, though, it’s the ultimate illustration of the maxim that luck is just another word for preparation. For Casablanca to occur, you needed a journeyman director of consummate technical skill; a team of screenwriters whose craft had been honed under some of the most demanding conditions possible; and a set of extraordinarily capable actors gathered over time on the Warner Bros lot. As Thomas Schatz convincingly documents in The Genius of the System, the Hollywood studios of the thirties and forties were exactly the sort of machine that would produce a masterpiece like Casablanca sooner or later, although the shape of the resulting movie itself couldn’t have been predicted.
And the details are what make this movie so special. Now that Casablanca has become a canonical work like Hamlet, in which every line sounds like a cliché, it’s hard to appreciate how beautifully it transforms a story full of stock types and incidents into something specific, atmospheric, and emotional. One can profitably explore almost any element of the film’s production, but I’d like to concentrate on just one: Claude Rains’s performance as Captain Renault, which may be my favorite supporting performance in any movie. Rains never won an Oscar, although he was nominated four times, but his work here is Hollywood acting at its best: mannered in some ways, but with a professional delight in great dialogue ravishingly delivered—Casablanca has more laughs than most comedies, and Rains is good for at least half. His performance, like the rest of Casablanca, isn’t a matter of luck at all, but professionalism ready to seize the moment when it came. Sixty years later, there’s never been a better example.
Tomorrow: The cinema of obsession.