Celebrating Great Films

Friday, January 30, 2009


Casablanca#11 at time of writing.

I don’t know how it’s possible after so many years of being addicted to films, but – believe it or not – until yesterday I had never seen Casablanca. I think I am instinctively wary of canonical old films; perhaps I have been disappointed a few times in the past by a purported classic that felt dated, wooden, slow, contrived...
And, well, Casablanca might be guilty of some of those faults too, but it easily transcends its faults with pace, witty characterisation and sheer cleverness. Yes, I loved it.

Also, watching it for the first time 66 years after its release allows me to enjoy it on an unusual level: Thanks to its immense influence on popular culture (and thanks to dozens of parodies) I already know what to expect; and it is gratifying to see that the source is deserving. Like reading 1984 for the first time in 2004.

I was fascinated to learn that at the time this film was made, the studio was churning out 50 films a year, and this one was not thought to be special. The lead actors switched around at the last moment, the gaggle of scriptwriters barely kept up with the production (During filming Ingrid Bergman asked them which man she would end up with and they had to admit they didn’t yet know), the release was rushed to coincide with the real-life invasion of Casablanca, and the film had a tepid reception at the box office.

Yet this film stood out, winning three Oscars and growing to be one of the world’s favourite films. Makes you think, might there be other gems among the 50 films per year which have been overlooked? Maybe if fate had twisted slightly differently, instead of “Here’s looking at you, kid” we would be quoting from Gentleman Jim (“Fine way for a gentleman to behave”), or Kings Row (“What's the harm in a little kiss”)?

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