One of the most enduring movie arche-types of the 1940s and 1950s was the lone American male in a foreign land. Despite his armored exterior, he remained susceptible to a beautiful damsel in distress, especially one with a cause. The films were melodramas, but they offered a message that mirrored a long-standing issue in American political debate: isolation versus commitment. Humphrey Bogart put his indelible mark on this kind of tough guy in Casablanca (1943), and reprised the type a couple of years later in To Have and Have Not (1945). As Rick Blaine or Harry Morgan, respectively, he might sneer at politics for the first nine reels, but in the 10th, he’d do his part to make the world safe for democracy. Imitations proliferated through the early ’60s, but the image of Ronald Reagan or Rod Taylor scurrying around the Third World didn’t have quite the same effect as Bogart drawing on a cigarette, twitching his lips, and letting you know with his cold basset-hound eyes that there was indeed a moral center to the universe.
Hollywood’s inability to find suitable political struggles (after 1950, most rebels were funded by Communists — what kind of heroes would they make?) helped to kill the genre, while ensuring the enshrinement of Casablanca as an eternal romance, a dream to be shared by misty-eyed movie lovers, but utterly beyond the ken of modern filmmakers. In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen reduced the Bogart character to an adviser for insecure men who couldn’t get dates on Saturday night.
The action is centered on a bar fraught with international intrigue; there’s a loyal piano player (Dooley Wilson), a woman in need of help (Ingrid Bergman), and extensive male bonding (Claude Rains). And we’ll never tire of Casablanca because of its emotional charge, which has not dated. The pacing is so sure, the script so taut, the supporting performances so witty, that you know from the start you are in masterful hands. The pleasures of Casablanca don’t lie in ideas or realism, which it manages to skirt entirely. Casablanca exists almost exclusively in the emotions; in that regard, it is a peerless example of pure cinema. A+