Image source. Copyright Warner Bros., 1942.
Where do you begin with a movie like Casablanca? People have written about it so many times already that nothing I write here will be original. But I’ll try. Citizen Kane may be more thoughtful. The Godfather may be more dramatic. But no movie beats Casablanca in simple, bewitching charm. This is Hollywood at its peak.
The plot really doesn’t matter much, but for those unfamiliar with the movie, Casablanca takes place in the titular Moroccan metropolis in the midst of World War II, when a host of shady Vichy France and Nazi characters populated the otherwise peaceful then-French protectorate. American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, in his defining role) runs a fairly successful gambling casino. A former soldier in the Italo-Ethiopian and Spanish Civil War, Rick nowadays tightly clenches his banner of neutrality – as he puts it, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman, also in a defining role) and her husband, leading anti-Nazi rebel Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive in Casablanca, desperate for any way to escape the clutch of the Germans. By a collection of coincidental circumstances, Rick has the very transit letters they need. And unfortunately for Victor and the hopes of the Resistance, Rick and Ilsa aren’t just passing acquaintances. They have a long history that Rick isn’t going to let go of easily.
What’s remarkable about Casablanca is that it’s remarkable at all. The movie screenwriters, the Epstein twins, made most of the pieces of iconic dialogue at the last minute. If you had told anyone on the set in 1942 that, almost 75 years later, Casablanca remains the single greatest product of the otherwise-mundane Hollywood studio era, you probably would’ve been laughed out. And when it comes down to it, you can see why. Casablanca doesn’t blaze new trails like Citizen Kane. The plotline is a standard ménage a trois, the villains reflexively one-dimensional with thick German accents, Humphrey Bogart his standard “tough guy turns loving” persona. There are no deep revelations on life or death or war, and given the movie was released right in the midst of World War II, the uplifting ending comes off as a rather blatant appeal to our wartime patriotism. In so many ways, Casablanca is lucky to have survived so long.
But we wouldn’t have luck any other way. Casablanca retains a level of romantic, starry-eyed allure that no other film can meet. We idealize Hollywood as a place where the movies were made, and Casablanca is the movie more than any other. Part of it comes with the great quotes – “round up all the usual suspects,” “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Play it, Sam.” The performances by Bogart and Bergman, even if they’re not Brando-esque method acting, create human characters within the bounds of their archetypes. The comedy, particularly from Rick’s effeminate, happily corrupt policeman friend Louis Renault (Claude Rains), is golden.
But above all, Casablanca wins because of all its little moments and seemingly random touches that suffuse the film with a glowing charm. Rick and Ilsa’s first glance. La Marseillaise. The questionable closing of the casino. Rick’s lucky out at the very end. Sam. The confrontation. The flashback to Paris. And of course, the tender, nostalgic theme song, “As Time Goes By.” So much of what makes Casablanca endearing lies in these details, details that don’t mean much on their own, but when strung together, imbue the movie with a gentle wit and humanity that really make it shine.
At its core, Casablanca is a love story that sweeps us up with its simple evocation of who we ought to be. Unvarnished altruism, unhampered courage, the spirit of selflessness…the movie moves us with the pure sacrifices these three people are willing to make. Without any pretense at something greater, they manage to figure out what’s best for them and the war all at once. Who could not be touched? These are wonderful characters on the screen, humanitarians who start out Scrooge-like but, in the time of great crisis, live up to the needs of the moment flawlessly. They are the kinds of human beings we wish we were.
I’ve watched Casablanca five times, and each time, I find myself wanting to give it another go. There’s so much to adore, acting, music, dialogue and all. Watch it, and you’ll instantly find yourself collecting favorite moments, exchanges and hilarious character mess-ups. You’ll fall for this movie again and again without getting bored even once. Time may go by. But years from now, Casablanca will remain as sweet and gloriously inspiring as always.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet
Running Time: 102 minutes
Produced by: Hal B. Wallis
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Based on the 1940 Murray Burnett and Joan Alison play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.