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There Was A Time When ‘Casablanca’ Was An Object Of Art-House Worship, But That Time Is (Finally?) Ending

Feb 27, 2017

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock. Still by Warner Bros.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock. Still by Warner Bros.

In 1957, the Brattle Theater on Harvard Square kicked off its Humphrey Bogart series with the 1942 classic Casablanca. Bogart himself had just died, and the response to the film was rapturous. By the fourth or fifth screening, “the audience began to chant the lines,” the theater’s then-manager told Noah Isenberg, author of Well Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywoods Most Beloved Movie. It was the dawn of the art-house era, the moment when film was beginning to be taken seriously as an art form by college students who flocked to theaters like the Brattle to see the work of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Casablanca didn’t exactly rank among those auteurist masterpieces—even the movie’s most ardent champions have always described Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz and credited to screenwriters Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein, as the quintessential product of the Hollywood studio system. But it nevertheless became a cult object for a generation or two of cinephiles, particularly young men, over the next several decades.

Allen Felix, the fictional film-critic hero of Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen’s 1969 play and 1972 film, epitomizes that breed of young man. The film begins with the closing scene of Casablanca, in which Rick Blaine (Bogart) nobly parts from Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) on a misty North African tarmac. Then the camera cuts to Woody Allen’s rapt face, his mouth gaping, as he inhales the movie’s glossy, yearning romance. Felix lives in an apartment wallpapered with movie posters, most of them featuring Bogart, and as he bumbles his way through a largely unsuccessful love life, the phantom of the movie star in his trademark trench coat and snap-brimmed hat appears to offer hard-boiled advice on how to handle dames.