What Makes a Great Movie? Notes on Casablanca

The Oscars Week Fest at 317am continues today with the nearly impossible question posed by our title. One way of getting at the issue of great movies would be to collect a list of such films and then extract their common elements. So I tried a little crowd-sourcing this week on Facebook, asking my friends what their top five films of all time were.

As you’d imagine, responses covered a wide span: 59 movies got votes ranging from the beloved mainstream (The Wizard of Oz) to the unheard of (Wristcutters: A Love Story); no movie got more than four votes. I realized that so many films can make claims of greatness, at least within this particular crowd, that it would be hard to identify much in the way of commonality. Maybe Tolstoy had it right: bad films are all alike; every great movie is great in its own way.

Economist Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman.

But then I thought of a book I happened to be sampling at the moment, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics. Kahneman brings together a lot of recent research in economics and psychology to analyze the way humans make decisions. We all have evolved what Kahneman likes to call System 1, the intuitive part of ourselves that we use without even being aware that we’re thinking. System 1 tells us within a millisecond of walking in the door that our spouse is ticked at us, or that 2+2 = 4. It’s the system that puts the illusion in optical illusions, and the one that tells us to start moving when we spot a tiger bounding over its cage wall in a zoo. When Allen Ginsberg said, “First thought, best thought,” he was really saying , “Trust your System 1.”

So I came up with a plan. Take my own top-five list of great movies a la System 1 – that is, the first five that popped into my head – then use System 1 techniques on each to list the major elements that come to mind about that film. My top movies, in chronological order, are: Casablanca, North by Northwest, The Leopard, The Godfather, Blue Velvet, and Unforgiven. (You may have noted that there are actually six movies, but System 1 is not much of an accountant.)

So what do I remember about Casablanca? System 1 instantly spews out: Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Nazis, “play it, Sam,”  “round up the usual suspects,” and “we’ll always have Paris.”

Let’s try a little System 2 to analyze why these elements make for movie greatness. Bogie and Ingrid Bergman were in my book the perfect movie match (except perhaps for Bogart and Bacall). The toughest of cynical tough-guy exteriors encasing the heart of a true romantic paired up with the freshest of misty-eyed young beauties with a slight European accent. What a combo. They’re so good together we know that they’ll have to split at the end. What’s clever on the screenwriters’ part are their motives. As is so often the case in “Downton Abbey,” it is the nobility of their character that dooms their love.  Somehow if Rick /Bogie doesn’t hand Ilsa back to Victor Laszlo, the Nazis could win out. He’s giving her up to save the world from Hitler.

Photo of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

Star power of the first magnitude.

But the real point about the Bergman-Bogie pairing, one that transcends their characters’ motives, is that they were stars, Hollywood glory of the first magnitude. In a way a star is like a great poem – there’s not much to say about it because it’s all there before you on the screen and any words you could put on a star are pallid next to the presence of the original. The eternal mystery of stardom is summed up in a line usually attributed to the great director Howard Hawks: “The camera loves some people.”

In a fine think piece in the Guardian on screen “chemistry,” the film critic David Thomson nicely elucidates that point:

And there we come to the most mysterious and potent chemistry of all, the one that may exist between a performer and the camera, the one that relies on the unique way in which light reflected from one face makes chemistry in the film emulsion. To praise the mystique itself, or to explain away helplessness, film people have always claimed that the camera loves some people and not others….

That may sound like a perfunctory difference, but I think it is crucial in the movies. Even after 150 years or so of still photography, many of us are wary of being photographed. We tense up. We hold ourselves against the scrutiny or the invasion. We become grim or shrill in our look. We give nothing away. And, in life, we are probably more trained in concealing our feelings than in revealing them.

Photo of Marilyn Monroe.

One whom the camera loved.

But there is a type of person, not necessarily an actor, who enjoys being photographed because he or she reckons that revelation is their strength. They regard the camera as a friend, or a lover even; and it is not absurd to say that some screen gods and goddesses have had affairs with the camera. Nicole Kidman takes a positive pleasure – something not far from a passion – in being photographed. Marilyn Monroe had a similar rapport with the still camera. She was not always as happy with movie cameras, but the ethos of the still seemed to move her; it was her hope to be a radiant self for just a split second.

Kahneman’s book adds another vital element to the star equation – the “halo effect.” This psychological phenomenon has been documented in many experiments. A classic example: a handsome, self-confident fellow takes the stage and begins to deliver a lecture. The audience is far more inclined to credit his words as true than a lecture by a sloppily dressed, hesitant speaker. Another experiment: researchers string six adjectives together to describe two different leaders. For Leader A, the first three adjectives are positive, beginning with the word “intelligent.” The last three adjectives are negative, ending with the word “arrogant.” For Leader B, the adjectives remain the same, but the word order is reversed so her list begins with “arrogant” and ends with “intelligent.” Naturally, test subjects choose Leader A. It’s the halo effect in action. Her good start conditions how they see the later revelations about her.

For stars, the halo effect can be very powerful. When I talked about my desire to see The Descendants in my last post, it was almost entirely due to the halo George Clooney wears for me.

At the time of Casablanca in 1942, Bogart had been playing private eyes (Sam Spade) and gangsters, often bad guys, in Hollywood movies for more than a decade. His screen persona was well established as a tough guy. Ingrid Bergman was far less known to audiences in 1942. She’d been appearing in movies, mostly European films for nearly 10 years, but she was a fairly new face for American audiences in this film. The IMDB editors refer to ”her natural and unpretentious beauty” – not to mention a true star’s talent for coming alive before the camera – and that sort of freshness is exactly what her part calls for.

Gosh, this System 2 stuff is exhausting, and the word counter beeped a couple hundred words back. So it’s time to call, “Cut!” on this post. But stay tuned for a future post in which I’ll apply System 2 to such tricky Casablanca-generated questions as why great movies need both wise guys and very bad guys as well as the special art of movie dialogue.

6 Responses to What Makes a Great Movie? Notes on Casablanca

  1. Love this post, Rasoir J! I somehow stopped coming to your site after many changes in my life. But I found you again. I hope you will go to the website and learn about some of my changes. And I will try not to be absent so long again. I loved especially these words: “They regard the camera as a friend, or a lover even; and it is not absurd to say that some screen gods and goddesses have had affairs with the camera. Nicole Kidman takes a positive pleasure – something not far from a passion – in being photographed. Marilyn Monroe had a similar rapport with the still camera. She was not always as happy with movie cameras, but the ethos of the still seemed to move her; it was her hope to be a radiant self for just a split second.”

    • Thanks, Shirley. David Thomson is one of the great film critics, wonderfully gifted with words. Have had trouble finding your blog , 100 Memoirs, through various search engines today. Maybe it has a new incarnation. But I do like the ticker on your Web site counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until your manuscript is completed. What an anti-procrastination device.

  2. Is there a difference between a great film and the one you are happy to watch again and again? For me, Casablanca is both.
    In literature, there is the notion of “canon”; in music, the word is “classic”. Both connote a status generally acknowledged to have “passed the test of time.” Most often difficult to predict what will ultimately rise to such an exalted rank. A classic is sometimes thus in part for its sentimental (a variety of Type 1) appeal, e.g. It’s A Wonderful Life. Most often it richly rewards Type 2 scrutiny, analysis, criticism (the major works of Beethoven and Wagner). As I get older, it’s the emotional connection, the unthinking pleasure I get from a work of art or a performance, that adds the most value to my life. These are the experiences that become imprinted, accurately or not, on my memory. Recollection brings one the warm feeling of having been enriched.

    • Well said, Ken. Your comments will inspire me to return to Casablanca, a movie that offers a warm feeling in abundance, for more Type 2 analysis in a future post.

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