Who Hasn’t Heard of ‘Casablanca’?
It’s taken for granted now that ‘Casablanca’ is one of the greatest American films ever made. Why even try to explain it? Most of us have at least a cursory awareness of the story of Rick and Ilsa, former lovers now reunited in a time of international strife. The lasting appeal of ‘Casablanca’ might be even more self-evident than that of ‘Citizen Kane’, the movie that has been hailed by critics for the past several decades as the single greatest movie of all time; but ‘Citizen Kane’ must also carry the baggage, by virtue of its many innovations, of having signaled the birth of American auteurism. It’s not exactly uncommon to find someone, particularly someone of a certain age, who thinks ‘Citizen Kane’ is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Meanwhile, ‘Casablanca’ remains both beloved and virtually free of controversy. Since its premiere in late 1942, ‘Casablanca’ has taken on such a life of its own that casual moviegoers can remember (or misremember) lines and scenes from the film — likely without having seen it in the first place. A newcomer may well be taken aback by how much smaller the movie is than what its reputation would suggest, with its 102-minute runtime and being mostly set in one location. How could such a low-key film, with such seemingly low aspirations, have become a classic? More importantly, why does ‘Casablanca’ still hold up so well, even under modern scrutiny?
‘Casablanca’ is a special film in that it does not rely on a single factor to account for its success, but rather, several elements working in tandem. I’ll be looking at the acting, the screenplay, the direction, and finally, the continuing relevance of this soft-spoken masterpiece.
Who Comes to Rick’s?
The cast of ‘Casablanca’ is immediately striking for three reasons: the star power of the leads, the synergy of the supporting players, and the fact that most of these actors are not American.
Firstly, we have Humphry Bogart as Rick Blaine. Bogart was originally a character actor, playing minor roles in even more minor crime films in the 1930s, before landing back-to-back starring roles in ‘High Sierra’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’, in 1941. With the release of ‘Casablanca’, Bogart’s meteoric rise as a leading man had been cemented, and indeed he’s the only prominent American actor in the film. Opposite Bogart stands the two other points of the central love triangle, in the forms of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Austrian actor Paul Henreid. While not her first American role, Bergman firmly entered the spotlight as Ilsa Lund, Rick’s lover in the days prior to the Nazi occupation of France. Then we have Henreid, a now-obscure actor who nonetheless plays a crucial role as Victor Laszlo, the true hero of ‘Casablanca.’
Perhaps even more enticing than the leads are the supporting actors, who enliven both Rick’s cafe and the film as a whole. We have British actor Claude Rains as police captain Louis Renault, a man of ambiguous sexual orientation (the late Roger Ebert went so far as to call him “subtly homosexual”), as well as ambiguous allegiances, who acts as Rick’s most useful ally. There’s Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as Ugarte, in a role low on screen-time but pivotal in terms of plot relevance; Lorre had previously co-starred alongside Bogart in ‘The Maltese Falcon.’
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We also have another holdover from ‘The Maltese Falcon’, British actor Sydney Greenstreet as the enigmatic underworld figure, simply named Ferrari. Finally, as far as major supporting roles go, there’s German actor Conrad Veidt as Nazi officer Heinrich Strasser, the closest thing ‘Casablanca’ has to a villain; Veidt had fled the Nazis in the 1930s, before World War II had even started.
The cast of ‘Casablanca’ is mostly of European extraction, no doubt meaningfully at a time when Europe was being torn apart by several fascist regimes. Even if taken as a propaganda piece (which ‘Casablanca’ certainly is, to an extent), one can’t help but notice not only how seamlessly the actors work together, but how these actors’ real-life experiences inspired a genuine urgency in the film’s plot, as well as its thesis.
Who Wrote This, Anyway?
The story of ‘Casablanca’ is rather simple, even insular, but that wasn’t always the case; the screenplay was based on a play, titled ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’, which to this day has never been produced for the stage. The play was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, and adapted by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein (the Epsteins were twin brothers), and Howard Koch. One might think adapting a three-act play would be straightforward, but due to a combination of censorship and creative license, the process of translating the play for the screen proved rather arduous. The result is a screenplay that’s remarkably streamlined — a script that was constantly being reworked and refined, until it shone like a fine jewel.
The plot, such as it is, involves Rick as the expatriate owner of a cafe/nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco; Europe has been at war for a couple of years now. Early in the film, Rick receives two (illegally obtained) transit papers from Ugarte, a little rat-like character who is soon detained by authorities, never to be seen again. What use does Rick have for transit papers? He doesn’t plan on going anywhere, and he claims to have no stake in what is to be done about the Nazi menace. Of course, Rick used to be a gunrunner in Ethiopia (against the Italian fascists), and during the Spanish Civil War (against the Spanish fascists), so he’s only fooling himself by claiming neutrality.
Then, as if conspired by the universe, Ilsa comes to Rick’s. Rick and Ilsa used to be lovers, during a time when Ilsa believed her husband Victor Laszlo (a legendary resistance figure) to be dead; but that was in the past, and now Ilsa needs Rick’s help to get Victor out of Casablanca. Hmm, two transit papers — enough for Ilsa and Victor to leave the country. Now, there’s no in-movie reason as to why Victor simply can’t leave Casablanca by himself, since it’s not like he needs Ilsa’s company — but then we wouldn’t have a movie. The point is that Rick is now caught in a tough position, between wanting Ilsa to stay with him, and wanting to help Victor in fighting the Nazis.
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‘Casablanca’ is, at its core, about a man torn between wanting to serve his own wants and the needs of the world; at least on an emotional level, the conflict is quite effective, not to mention poignant. For their efforts, Koch and the Epstein twins won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Who the Heck Is Michael Curtiz?
Despite having directed one of the most famous American movies in the history of Cinema, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone (aside from those who take movies Very Seriously, anyway) who knows of Michael Curtiz. Like most of the actors in ‘Casablanca’, Curtiz was a European immigrant (Hungarian, to be more specific), who had come to work in Hollywood prior to the start of World War II. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Curtiz would prove himself to be something of a chameleon, directing dramas, musicals, and action pictures — seemingly without fuss; while he directed many movies before and after ‘Casablanca’, it’s this particular movie that would stand as his crowning achievement.
The look of ‘Casablanca’ is subtly expressionistic, being shot in stark black-and-white at a time when Hollywood productions had already started moving toward color cinematography; I’m reminded of a top-tier joke where Rick asks rhetorically, “Are my eyes really brown?” The cafe is filled with deep shadows and dark grays, and you might notice at some point that the cafe’s internal geometry seems to be whatever the film requires of it. The whole movie feels almost like a dream, and an unusually vivid one that lingers in the mind for a few hours. True enough, Curtiz’s directorial choices fall more in line with German filmmakers from the ‘20s and ‘30s, rather than American; watch ‘Casablanca’ and F. W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’ together, and you may be surprised by how much the two have in common.
How Shall We End This?
Between 1942 and 1945, there was no shortage of American films that served (in part, if not entirely) as moral support in favor of the war effort — yet ‘Casablanca’ stands head and shoulders above the rest. Without having reinvented the filmmaking wheel, or even having excelled too strongly in any one aspect (except maybe its water-tight screenplay), ‘Casablanca’ went from being seen as a “good movie” to a classic. ‘Casablanca’ remains a classic because of its characters, its humor, its sincere pathos, its dreamy romance, and its ever-relevant call to action against the forces of tyranny.
Whereas a true trailblazer like ‘Citizen Kane’ can be personified as an artistically-minded twenty-something, hungry to push the limits of its medium, ‘Casablanca’ is more like a sage-ly artist forever in respectable middle age, never too young or too old; watching ‘Casablanca’ is like watching a well-seasoned craftsman at work.
‘Casablanca’ is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
By Brian Collins
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