Our primary example of genre film in this class is Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz). However, this is not because it is a great example of one particular genre, but rather because it is a unique example of a film that samples from many genres.
Before continuing, I should define genre. A film genre is a film category. According to your textbook, a genre is “a group of films that share a set of narrtive, stylistic, and thematic characteristics or conventions” (383).
An important question is who decides the genres? Is is critics and scholars who define genre? Or is it viewers?
It’s probably a combination of both, working in tandem, or sometimes one or the other. If you go to Netflix, for instance, you’ll see genres that are popular – that is, genres defined by viewers. You won’t see a film noir or western genre there: viewers tend to think of film noirs as something else (action/suspense with a bit of atmosphere), and don’t generally see westerns at all, since it is almost a dead genre at this point.
However, if you do searches in an academic database, you’ll find plenty of articles on westerns and film noirs precisely because they are “iffy” genres.
Film producers and studios also use genre. But instead of using it to classify films that viewers might want to watch, or that critics want to study, producers use genre to advertise films. If you’ve ever sat before movie listings and tried pick a movie based on what you were in the mood for (a comedy? an action film? a “foreign” film?), know what I mean.
It’s important to note that most Hollywood films borrow from multiple genres. This is because Hollywood films are made to appeal to as many people as possible, so adding musical numbers to an action/suspense film (as in Casablanca) entertains those who like action/suspense films and those who like musicals.
But what makes Casablanca unique in this regard is that the director, Michael Curtiz, samples from more than the action/suspense and musical genres. In fact, Casablanca is a genre mash-up.
We see evidence of this genre mash-up starting at the beginning of the film.
As in Citizen Kane, Curtiz begins the film with a mock newsreel. So, the first film genre we’re presented with is newsreel/documentary. In terms of conventions, the mock newsreel in Casablanca uses the same style of voice-over used in newsreels (and in Citizen Kane). Also conventional is the inclusion of amateur and documentary film footage (not filmed by Curtiz) which, in this case, shows the plight of refugees in Europe after the Nazi invasions of most of the countries of western Europe.
Following the newsreel, the film cuts to someone reading a news bulletin (announcing the murder of the German couriers and the stealing of letters of transit), followed by instructions to the police. The film genre has changed: now we are watching an espionage film.
But it isn’t long before we find ourselves in another film, in regards to genre.
After the news bulletin, the film cuts to a round up of “the usual suspects” in Casablanca. One man is stopped, produces fake identification papers, and then makes a run for it. He is shot in the back and falls dead beneath a poster of Marshal Philippe Petain, the dictatorial president of the Vichy regime (in non-occupied southern France), which collaborated with the Nazis. On the poster we read the words: “Je Tiens Mes Promesses Mem Celles Des Autres,” which translates as “I Keep My Promises, Just as I Keep the Promises of Others”). This meant to be ironic and hypocritical, in that Petain has violated his promises to uphold the core values of France, particularly liberté, egalité, and fraternité (freedom, equality, and friendship).
The man who is shot dies while clutching a resistance handbill bearing the Cross of Lorraine symbol, which shows that he is a member of the underground Free France Organization, headed by Petain’s arch rival, General Charles De Gaulle.
So what is the propaganda value of this short segment for an American audience? It reinforces American resolve in Europe by showing that the Nazis need to be opposed, and eventually defeated. At the same time, it shows that remaining neutral (like the Vichy regime is “neutral”) is little more than collaboration with the great evil that is fascism.
However, the propaganda genre is almost immediately succeeded by another genre. I’m going to call this genre the expatriate film, which focuses on the misadventures of people traveling in countries not their own, often highlighting their ignorance of local customs and chauvinistic regard for their own national traditions (in contrast to the traditions of the “natives”). More specifically, Casablanca is a time-of-war expatriate film.
But it isn’t long before the expatriate film yields to the war film (which is also related to the propaganda film). The film cuts to a plane landing at the airport. Those trapped in Casablanca greet the sight of the plane hopefully, thinking it is the plane from Lisbon (in Portugal, a neutral country, from which most passengers would fly on to the then-neutral United States). But instead, it is the Major Strasser, of the Gestapo, landing in Casablanca in a mission to detain, capture, or kill Victor Laszlo. The “evil Nazi” was a convention of World War II films. Film-makers like Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds) revise the “evil Nazi” war movie genre by depicting Nazis who were not one-sided, monolithically-evil antagonists.
After the war film genre has been established, we finally get inside Rick’s cafe (“everyone comes to Rick’s”), and the film reverts to the time-of-war expatriate film. By visiting a few different tables, we witness the varieties of desperation of those seeking to escape Casablanca for America.
Then we meet Rick, first as a signature, then as a hand playing chess, and finally as a man in a white dinner jacket. In the figure of Rick, we have to combined genres: the time-of-war expatriate film and the propaganda film. Rick represents the cynical expatriate, but he also stands for a United States that refuses to get involved (again) in European wars. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick says, declaring his independence.
The rest of the film shows Rick slowly but surely sticking his neck out for the anti-fascist cause (of which he is quite familiar, since he already fought the fascist Italians in Ethiopia and the fascist Germans and Spaniards in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s). So in Rick is dramatized the move from isolationism to intervention in Europe.
Shortly thereafter, when Ugarte talks with Rick and leaves with him the stolen letters of transit, we are re-introduced to the espionage film.
In a celebrated essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco breaks down the genre break down differently. He lists the various genres at play at the beginning of the film:
1. First, African music, then the Marseillaise. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.
2. Third genre: The globe: Newsreel. The voice even suggests the news report. Fourth genre: the odyssey of refugees. Fifth genre: Casablanca and Lisbon are, traditionally, hauts lieux [favorite places] for international intirgues. Thus in two minutes five genres are evoked. (466)
Eco also sees evidence of the “barbarian” film (what I call the “evil Nazi” film), and the war propaganda film. Then: “Change of genre: comedy with brilliant dialogue,” followed by the action movie genre (Ugarte’s arrest at Rick’s Cafe), and then the spy movie (467). All this in the first ten minutes of the film.
There is one prominent genre that Eco doesn’t mention: the film musical. Casablanca is also a musical, particularly in the middle section of the film, set at Rick’s Café. There are a number of musical numbers in this part of the film, some of them performed by Sam, the piano player.
At 28:52, a Spanish woman sings a song at Rick’s. This is not background music: the song is front and center. The film stops and waits for the song to finish.
Then, Ilsa enters the cafe, with her husband Victor Laszlo. Shortly thereafter, she gets Sam the piano player to play the song she associates with Rick and Paris, “As Time Goes By” (32nd minute of the film). Thus, the musical genre is mashed with the genre for which Casablanca is most known: the romance.
The musical genre is mashed with the propaganda genre a little later when, provoked by German officers boisterously singing German songs at Rick’s, Victor leads the non-Germans in singing “The Marseillaise,” the national anthem of Free France (the song first became popular during the French Revolution). Quotations of “The Marseillaise” often appear on the soundtrack of Hollywood to signify revolution and/or resistance.
It’s important for you to know that Warner Brothers, the studio that produced Casablanca, also owned the rights to some of the songs featured in the film, including “As Time Goes By.” Hollywood studios often invested in other media (such as radio and popular music) and built films around these properties (a famous film in this regard is Singing in the Rain). The song has been inextricably linked to the romance genre in the film, but the fact of the matter is that, by using that song, Warner Brothers was plugging the song for radio placement and sheet-music sales (it is, in other words, a kind of product placement).
Now let’s look at the end of the film. Genres continue to collide and coalesce. At one point (around 1:21), Ilsa comes to plead with Rick about the letters of transit. But it’s really about her undiminished love for Rick, and her need to explain why she never showed up at the train station in Paris. So, romance.
But then, after she is rebuffed by Rick, she becomes a gun-wielding femme fatale, a conventional (and misogynistic) character-type in film noir movies. She is not able to convince Rick with her sexual allure, so she resorts to violence. Other conventions of film noir evoked at this moment are the suspense music and the chiaroscuro lighting.
When Ilsa cannot, after all, shoot Rick, the moving is yanked from film noir back to romance.
The film noir genre reappears at the end of the film, when Rick turns on Captain Renault (after it looked like Rick was turning on Ilsa and Victor), and they all head to the airport (1:39). Rick’s trench coat and dark fedora marks him as a film noir hero. In fact, viewers of the film in 1942 would only have known Humphrey Bogart, the actor who played Rick, from gangster films and films noir – particularly Bogart’s turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, in 1941).
In class, I suggested that the film noir yields to the film western when Rick shoots Major Strasser. This is based on the “quick-draw” gunfire exchange between Rick and Strasser, and the otherwise inexplicable appearance of what looks like a Conestoga wagon wheel at the airport. Both the “quick-draw” and the Conestoga wagon wheel are conventions of the western. Another argument in my favor is that many other genres are suggested in the film, so it’s not that unlikely that Curtiz would bring in the western.
There is, of course, plenty of romance at the end of the film, both before and after Rick shoots Strasser. Rick and Ilsa discuss their love affair, with the lush, romantic music playing in the background and the lighting/cinematography highlights Ilsa’s shining, tearful eyes.
But this is romance mashed with propaganda, since the reason Rick ultimately rejects the idea of going off with Ilsa and leaving Victor to his fate is that he believes the war will go better if Victor is free and working against the Nazis. That is, he chooses the greater, more abstract good of defeating the Nazis over the lesser, personal good of being with the woman he loves. He finally joins the cause, vowing to fight fascism once again (as he once did in Ethiopia and Spain), in the same way that the United States has finally entered the war on the side of the Allies.
There is one minor detail that shows how Captain Renault, the officer of the Vichy regime, has also joined the cause, bringing his character within the constraints of the propaganda genre. During his tense exchange with Rick after Rick shoots Strasser, Renault reaches for a bottle of water. It seems quite strange that Renault would get thirsty at such a moment, and it’s tempting to think Warner Brothers was engaging in product placement (long before films did such things). But then Renault thinks better of it, and throws the bottle away. Why? Because the label on the bottle says the water is from Vichy, in France (Vichy was known for its waters). When Renault reads this, he dumps the bottle, which is his way of saying that he is done with the Vichy regime, and is now ready to join the Free French.
And that’s how the film ends: with both Rick and walking into the mist, their first steps towards military involvement in the war. The romance, the film noir, the musical, the espionage film, the expatriate film: in the end, they are all subsumed into the genre of the propaganda film. That is, everything must be subsumed into the war effort, including Hollywood entertainment films.
According to the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), which evaluated Hollywood films for their propaganda value, Casablanca was one of the more propaganda-friendly films of World War II. Though the BMP report did not say so explicitly, the fact that the propaganda message was embedded in a film that sampled from so many other film genres was likely considered a positive thing, because instead of just sugar-coating the propaganda message, the film offers the viewers a box of chocolates with different flavors of that message.
University of Maryland