- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on the stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
- Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Leonid Kinsky, Madeleine Lebeau, Joy Page, John Qualen, S.Z. Sakall, and Dooley Wilson
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#3), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#85), 3 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Michael Curtiz, Screenplay), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Humphrey Bogart, Best Supporting Actor – Claude Rains, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
- Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on TCM App, Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
I think that this was the second time in my life that I sat down and watched Casablanca, and yet there is more than one scene in it where I can just recite all the dialogue along with the movie. That is because the movie has somehow become perhaps the most iconic thing ever produced by Old Hollywood, so much so that I watched many parodies and homages before I ever saw the original. It is the product of numerous writers (three credited, with several apparently uncredited), a studio director mostly uninvolved in the writing process, and a bunch of high-quality actors, the majority of whom were in fact European refugees of one stripe or another. None of them particularly thought they were working on something special, but the end product was immediately recognized as something great when it came out. The critic Andrew Sarris, perhaps the biggest American proponent of the “auteur theory” that holds directors are basically the authors of their movies, called Casablanca the theory’s biggest exception. It is a movie as a collective miracle.
Perhaps the greatest force that took Casablanca out of the control of its various participants is that it’s a movie about a war that everyone involved was still living through. Not a propaganda movie about heroic soldiers, which the studios made plenty of, but the story of regular people on the run, the same kinds of people many of the people involved actually were. Having had a partial script based on an unproduced play on its docket for a bit, Warner Bros. made a quick decision to rush the project through production after the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942. The movie first premiered in 1942 and went into wide release in early 1943 (though it’s very specifically set in 1941 before the American entry into World War II). I was struck on this viewing how the entire plot works as a sort of anti-isolationist metaphor. The lone American, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is eventually tempted into joining against the Nazis because he is too inextricably linked to Europe through his personal history to avoid taking sides. When he finally does start to help, the Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) shakes his hand and says, “welcome back to the fight,” a line that’s hard to read as a reference to anything other than America standing by its same allies as in World War I.
It feels extraneous to actually describe the plot, but I’m going to anyway, because I wonder how many people my age have actually seen this movie. Bogart plays Rick, an American ex-pat running a bar in 1941 Casablanca, Morocco. As described by the movie’s opening narration, refugees from the Nazi takeover of Europe often escaped Marseille via boat to Morocco, then waited there for exit visas to neutral Portugal, from which they could then escape to the Americas. The resulting strange, slightly desperate milieu is nominally presided over by Captain Renault (Claude Rains), theoretically a representative of “unoccupied France” but mostly in things for himself, it seems. Rick’s is one of the primary gathering spots, maintained by his assiduously neutral stance toward all parties.
Then Rick’s old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar with her new boyfriend, Laszlo, sending his carefully crafted existence for a fatal loop. As he famously drunkenly slurs, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, why did she have to walk into mine?” There is then an extended flashback to their time together in Paris, which ended with Rick (who was already on the Nazis’ “naughty list” for past activities) fleeing and Ilsa standing him up at the train station. Laszlo in particular is a target for local Nazi liaison Strasser (Conrad Veidt), and Rick happens to have just come into possession of two MacGuffin-y “Letters of Transit” that might be able to get Laszlo and Ilsa to safety. He is torn between desperately wanting her while also not being quite a bad enough guy to betray Laszlo so that he can leave with her himself. In the famous ending, Rick has Ilsa leave on a plane with Laszlo and stalls the Nazis long enough at the airport for them to take off. He ends up shooting Strasser, at which point Renault looks at the body and tells his deputy to “round up the usual suspects,” (a line that inspired the title of a later popular movie). Rick and Renault then walk into the fog discussing how they will now join the resistance, with Rick noting, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
There is a school of thought that Casablanca is not actually that good a movie (the popular critic Pauline Kael famously argued this), that there are too many random side characters and the plot is not very compelling. This view holds that most viewers are blinded to how much of a “shaggy dog” the movie really is because of all that iconic dialogue and such. I don’t think I agree. There’s a reason all of those scenes are famous and it’s because they work spectacularly well. The movie also has a life and vitality that I personally think is missing from your average studio movie from this area, a life likely lent by the cast and crew connecting to the material on a personal level. Director Michael Curtiz was a European Jew who would lose much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. Henreid was an Austrian who had been acting on the English stage at the time of the Anschluss and now couldn’t return home. Veidt was a famous German silent film star who had fled the Nazis with his Jewish wife and (ironically?) ended up continuing his career playing a bunch of Nazi villiains in Hollywood. Most of the extras and smaller characters were played by refugee actors, as well. Even the small part of the croupier in Rick’s little casino is played by Marcel Dalio, the Jewish star of great pre-war French movies like La Grande Illusion and La Regle de Jeu.
The most obvious manifestation of this feeling is in the scene where the patrons of Rick’s Bar spontaneously break into “La Marseillaise,” which the Germans try to counteract, unsuccessfully, by singing their own national anthem. The camera cuts to show a close-up of Madeleine Lebeau (Dalio’s wife), playing Rick’s jilted girlfriend Yvonne, with tears streaming down her face as she sings. This was a scene shot with a bunch of French refugees at a time when France was under Nazi occupation with no end in sight. All their tears were real.
One area where Casablanca really sets itself apart is with some of the best, gauziest close-ups in an era full of them, and the best of these all go to young Ingrid Bergman. If the romantic triangle works, it is mostly because of her performance. Her chemistry with Bogart in particular feels real (Roger Ebert wrote that she “paints his face with her eyes”). Bergman was a Swedish actress who had recently been brought over to Hollywood to star in an English remake of her prior Swedish role in Intermezzo. She went on to a long and successful career on both sides of the Atlantic, including three Oscars and several starring roles for both Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman (no relation, just to be confusing). She also played the original lady getting “gaslighted” in the movie Gaslight, among many other enduring roles.
If you’re someone who’s seen Casablanca all through the culture for all these years but never actually sat down and watched it, I would definitely recommend it. It still works as well as it always has, probably better than you’re thinking if you only really know that last scene. It’s now available streaming in multiple places, so you don’t have to rent anything. Some of the great movies are due for a re-evaluation, for good or ill, but I’m not sure Casablanca is one of them. It is still itself just as much as it always was.