The Greatest Movie Ever?

Last night my wife and I went out to eat to celebrate our 26th anniversary and afterward we watched Casablanca, which is translated White Castle but never mentions hamburgers.

It must be the case that there is a better movie somewhere in the universe, and not having watched as many movies as most other people I can’t know for sure, but I have never seen a better one myself.

I’ve watched this movie about a half dozen times now (watching a movie once is a complete waste of time), but last night I was watching it with an eye to some of the more literary elements, like plot and language.

There’s much to love in this movie, like the witty cynicism that serves as the background for the few noble actions, the camera work, the love of country that saved the world from the extreme nationalism of the Nazis, and the recognition that the whole enslaved world wanted to come to America, not for cheap jobs but for freedom.

But the language! The turns of phrase – it’s downright poetical. What other movie has so enriched our store of phrases? Even some that were never said are drawn from Casablanca, one at least then turned into a sports store (I refer especially to that famously unspoken line: “Play it again, Sam.”).

I listened closely and through the whole movie I was jarred by only one truly awful, disproportionate, adolescent, over the top statement. It was by Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) were in Paris. I can’t remember the line, but it was a real clunker.

Otherwise, from the very opening of the movie to the end you hear line after line with good form, irony, wit, insight, potential for reflection, and that magical capacity to sum up in a phrase something everybody recognizes as worth expressing.

I’m out of time now, but if I have time, which is unlikely with the conference coming up, I’ll watch the movie again and write some quotations, especially of the first quality, good form. All the other qualities depend on form or they won’t be memorable.

To see an illustration of this, look at the appendix to Strunk and White, where they suggest alternatives to Thomas Paine’s famous, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Try to improve on the form of that line!

Form is what makes truth (and life) pleasant.

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