Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Few American films have ever been held in such universally high regard as Casablanca. I have to admit that the movie was a blind spot in my education on cinema until this viewing. I have certainly been hearing about Casablanca my whole life as it has been referenced, parodied, and paid homage to across film & television. It’s full of witty, memorable lines (“Here’s looking at you kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the world…”) and a brilliant cast who are perfect for their parts. Humphrey Bogart was cemented as a film icon with this picture, and he will always be remembered for the role of Rick Blaine. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the picture after watching it, a bit worried it had been overhyped since its release, but I was pleasantly surprised with what a fantastic film is it.
Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs a nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Wealthy Europeans have been on the run from Vichy France and are awaiting visas & transport to America, hoping they beat the Nazis to the punch. The clientele of Rick’s bar are entangled in all sorts of conspiracies and nefarious plots, but that’s to be expected in a place like this. However, the tone changes dramatically when Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) arrives to take control of the French colony. He is aided by local police Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in flushing out those sympathetic to the Resistance movement.
Rick’s life is personally upended with the arrival of Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), his former lover in Paris, the woman that caused him to flee the city with his piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). Ilsa is with her husband Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), a renowned Czech Resistance leader who escaped the concentration camps. They seek visas but have their pick-up thwarted when Strasser & Renault capture their contact. Ilsa figures out Rick has the much-needed papers to allow her and Victor to escape. Rick must decide if he’ll let his feelings for her to get in the way of her survival.
There is no doubt Casablanca was Michael Curtiz’s high mark as a director. It’s his sharpest, best edited, written, and acted film and his directorial choices played a big part in pulling it off. One of the best things he manages to do in the first ten minutes is perfect world-building. Through voice-over narration and small vignettes, Curtiz establishes the uneasy tone of the city. It’s clear that some people are attempting to scam others and that trust is a hard thing to come by. You have to be on your toes and rarely tell anyone why you’re really there.
While the dialogue can feel peppered with 1940s era slang, the film’s overall feel is very modern. This is mainly because its themes are incredibly universal. They focus on sacrifice for the greater good and the idea that to love someone doesn’t mean to possess them. It’s also a profoundly gloomy film, the shadow of the Nazis hovering over every second. This is made even more harrowing when you realize the historical context; the war was ongoing when the film was released, three years out from D-Day, so Hitler’s defeat was not a guaranteed thing. Strasser tries to probe Rick for his sentiments on the idea of a Nazi-occupied United States, which was a genuine fear at the time.
Bogart is perfectly cast in a role that would essentially typecast him for the rest of his career. Rick is a cynic, hiding a broken heart beneath layers of sarcasm and feigned disaffection. Bogart’s Droopy Dog face is the perfect accent to show a world-weary man living on the edge of civilization and possibly riding out the end of the world as he knows it. Throughout the story, we see the layers peeled back to better understand how much of his persona is a facade, something he’s had to build up for survival’s sake. It’s also evident how Bogart’s acting persona shaped future performers like Harrison Ford or Tom Hardy. They all possess that same hangdog yet charming air.
This is also a picture with a stellar supporting cast. Ingrid Bergman is pitch-perfect as Ilsa to Bogart’s Rick. Giving a very underrated performance here is Claude Rains as Renault. Over the last year, I’ve happened to see four of his films (The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, and The Adventures of Robin Hood), and he was just one of the great character actors of his day. Rains always appears to be enjoying every second he’s on camera, giving performances that are full to the brim. In every scene of Casablanca in which he appears, Rains is memorable, and he makes Renault into one of the most complex figures in the story. His may be the best performance of the entire film. In stand-out supporting roles, you also have Bogart’s alumnus from The Maltese Falcon, Peter Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet.
What I loved most about Casablanca was the complete absence of hesitation in telling a story with a bittersweet ending. If this were a modern film, they’d paint Victor as an abusive, unlikable character so that they could justify Ilsa and Rick running off together. Big studio films of the modern era shy away from upsetting audiences and choose to deliver algorithmically tested stories, focused grouped until they lack all sense of personality. This script is totally okay with leaving the full resolution of our characters in question; they have made it through this moment, but what about the next? Rick doesn’t appear to have plans to flee the city, so he will weather the war out here. How that plays out is a big unknown, but it adds to the valor of his sacrifice.