Nostalgia and Uncertainty in Casablanca

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When I teach my introduction to film criticism course, I sometimes let my students choose to analyze one of a select list of classical Hollywood films as their midterm project. If an individual student wants to examine a particular film that is not on the list, I usually grant permission for him or her to do so (if I am familiar with the text). There is only one film that I have consistently forbidden my introductory students to analyze: Casablanca. When students ask, "Why not?" I usually tell them that the film is just too difficult for a beginning critic to analyze. It's too close to the classical ideal of "invisible style" to discuss its visual aesthetic, I argue, and the film depends too much on the "charisma" of the stars, which is another difficult concept to dissect. The remarkable thing about Casablanca is that it's difficult to describe what's remarkable about it.

Academics from Umberto Eco to Dana Polan to Robert Ray have tried to pin the film's appeal down. Many accounts foreground the extrafilmic discourses that have depicted the production of Casablanca as the Hollywood version of the discovery of penicillin, as a haphazard confluence of several factors that happened to come together to make a classic. For instance, Andrew Sarris has called Casablanca "the happiest of happy accidents."1 Much of this understanding of Casablanca as accident is rooted in the allegation (attributed to Ingrid Bergman) that none of the principals involved in making the film knew how it would end during most of the primary shooting. This mythological uncertainty during the production process shows up in the final product, according to many. According to Umberto Eco, the production was "a fairly ramshackle affair" that resulted in a movie that is a "hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly." In fact, for

Eco it is the "glorious ricketiness" of the film's construction and the extreme banality of the film that "allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime."2 The reigning wisdom has been that the uncertainty of production created an uncertainty that can be felt by the viewer, and this instability captured in the film can be emotionally reexperienced by the viewer watching Casablanca over and over.

Like Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who was lured to Casablanca for the waters, many find the production story's appeal to be seductive, but, like Rick, they have been "misinformed." Knowing what we know about the rigors of the Hollywood studio factory system, it seems unlikely that anything but the lowest of B films would start production without the principals knowing the ending. And in spite of the romanticization of Casablanca's "humble" origins, this was no shoddy production. This film was produced with A-list stars (Bogart and Bergman), an A-list director (Michael Curtiz), and a veteran supporting cast (Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre). Recent historical work has confirmed that the ending was never in doubt, that everyone knew that Ilsa (Bergman) would take off into the fog on an airplane with Victor (Paul Henreid), not Rick.3 Richard Maltby has posited that perhaps Ingrid Bergman, still relatively new to the workings of Hollywood and the Production Code, mistook the Hays Office's standard tinkering with the script for true uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the film.4 In any case, the central extratextual evidence for the ricketiness of the film's production has been disproved, leaving us once again to struggle with the question of what makes Casablanca unique. What is the basis of its emotional appeal, which encourages film audiences to return to this text again and again?

Like those academics who have trod this ground before me, I also felt tempted to attempt to find the answer to these questions. Unfortunately, these attempts often come up with specious conclusions, such as Eco's assertion that" Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is 'movies.'"5 (a claim that is rhetorically forceful but essentially meaningless). Theory often has difficulty explaining the unique individual. While sidestepping the thorny question of Casablanca's uniqueness, I will try to give an explanation for both the commonality and the distinctiveness of its emotional appeal to a sense of nostalgia. This involves a reorientation toward the text from the assumptions of Sarris, Eco, et al. I ask you to consider

Casablanca not as a rickety production with charismatic stars and little style, but instead as a coherent, well-made, elegant example of classical Hollywood practice. Unlike Eco, I assert that the well-made narrational structures are more responsible for the pleasures of watching Casablanca than are any moments of textual instability.

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