There are two ways to learn about people, two acts—one unconscious and the other deliberate—that provide insight into people’s personality more than anything they willingly disclose. The first is to check the contents of their bookshelf; this survey will reveal more about people than anything that they say on their own. No amount of “profile” responses or conversation can be more honestly revealing.
The second reliable insight into someone’s personality and character provide an answer to this question: “What is your favorite movie and why?” Now to start with, I refuse to accept the “I can’t pick” response. There is always one movie in particular that everything can be narrowed down to, whether it be comedy or drama, biopic or sci-fi, but the answer is always there. It is simply a matter of using the basic “desert island” test: if you were to be marooned for the rest of your life, what is the one movie you would take with you? For me, the answer to the question has been easy for nearly a half-century.
The movie is Casablanca.
The reasons are many.
First, to the many, and as we mark the 75th anniversary of the movie, it seems as good a time as any to defend Casablanca as the greatest ever made, regardless of what other lists or surveys might say. I know that Citizen Kane resides as the undisputed champion of the film world and Casablanca has been knocked down a few spots by the Corleone family and some others, but I will always defend it as the supreme piece of film, no matter what technology may bring about, no matter how social mores may change.
To start, it is the prototypical American film. It permeates our culture decade after decade, often without people even being aware of it. For example, if you ever visit Catalina Island off the coast of Long Beach, California, two of the numerous clubs that exist there are influenced by the movie. One is called “Rick’s American;” the other is the “Blue Parrot.” What are the names of the two hotspots in the film? Speaking of that, note that in the 2012 sci-fi time bender Looper, the name of the Kansas City nightclub where the main character hangs out is La Belle Aurore, also the name of the café where Rick and Elsa spend their last evening as a couple in Paris.
Then there all the literary techniques it satisfies. Casablanca acts as allegory, metaphor, and foreshadowing for the United States of both its own time and now. If Rick is America, he is conflicted, aloof, cynical, romantic, and idealistic—all at once. Can’t get more American than that. Beginning as an “isolationist,” the story ends with Rick returning to the freedom fighter who always lay beneath the surly and self-centered surface. Even the title translates into “White House.” Actually, these avenues of study occupy perhaps thousands of pages of books, studies, and lectures, so I won’t dwell on those aspects of the film other than to say they are there. But even if, as
Umberto Eco wrote, “Casablanca is not a work of art,” he concedes it most certainly sits as the focal point of being a “cult movie” and “object.”
Another indicator of its prominence in the realm of film is how it dominates inventories and lists about cinema, not only in general but in specific. Every time there is a listing of the “top whatever” of movies, Casablanca sits near the top. Name the category this one fits in, it’s probably in the top ten.
Perhaps the best example is when AFI released its list of the “Top 100 Lines of Dialogue” some years ago. Casablanca had five (count ‘em: five) lines in the final tally. Now that is some serious influence. People use those statements reflexively, often not even realizing their source. It might not be too far a stretch to say that, after Shakespeare, Casablanca has produced its own share of oft-repeated phrases or sayings. Some of those pieces of the script have even made their way into later movie titles: ‘The Usual Suspects‘ and ‘Play It Again, Sam‘ stand out (leaving aside the fact that the last one is really a famous and popular misquote).
However, even with all the academic and intellectual insights, one can go into concerning Casablanca, my ultimate “test” of its greatness boils down to one singularly personal reason for never tiring of watching the film, and here it is.
I want to be Rick Blaine.
Cary Grant has been crowned film’s “King of Class.” Both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen have been called the “epitome of cool,” a claim that is pretty solid, but the predecessor to them all, Humphrey Bogart, is the “God of Cool.” After all, Bogie taught us what “cool” was decades before Bond was even “born,” metaphorically speaking, since Ian Fleming didn’t start the novels until a decade after Bogie brought Rick to life, and he was “our last hope” over 30 years before Obi-Wan Kenobi’s name appeared in Star Wars.
Watch the film: First, there is his cigarette in the ashtray beside the chess board. Its smoke curls around the bishop that he taps, once, before taking a drag. On his other hand, the glass of champagne sits—bubbles rising in the amber liquid. It is only then that we see his face emerging from the white dinner jacket, weary and pained, living in isolation as the uncaring man with plans within plans, a disillusioned mercenary living without questions.
Then there are his actions: first giving the heave-ho to a powerful banker trying to enter the casino, then blowing Ugate off with the line “I don’t mind a parasite; I object to a cut-rate one.” Who wouldn’t aspire to that level of “cool?” As his competitor Ferrari says, “One never knows what he’ll do. Or why.” And isn’t that the standard of “cool?”
Just look at him. He wears a fedora, its brim angled, his shoulders slouched in apparent nonchalance but, more likely, that trench coat conceals a body coiled into a panther’s crouch of readiness: the icon of cool.
Rick is more than noir. He’s forced into heroic greatness, becoming the “Hemingwayan hero.” Better still, as Kathryn Hepburn said, simply, “He was a man.”
That is the best reason to watch and re-watch Casablanca. In fact, it is my personal and deeply-held, near-religious belief that any male watching Bogie as Rick Blaine who doesn’t want to be him is automatically, immediately, and eternally under suspicion.
About the Writer
Bill Cushing earned an MFA in creative non-fiction writing from Goddard College in Vermont after his undergrad work at the University of Central Florida. He now lives in Glendale, California and teaches English classes at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges. His interest in film started in his youth after his parents took him to see (and be knocked out by) West Side Story. Writing across genres, he has been published in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and newspapers, both in print and online. This year he was named as one of the “Top Ten L. A. Poets of 2017” and has had work featured in both volumes of the award-winning anthology Stories of Music. When not teaching or writing, Bill facilitates a writer’s critique group (9 Bridges) as well as collaborating on live performances with an area musician in a project they have dubbed “Notes and Letters.”