What’s So Great About Casablanca? Ask a Film Professor.

What’s So Great About Casablanca? Ask a Film Professor.

We often hear that Casablanca is one of the greatest movies ever made, but why? What’s so great about Casablanca? Julian Cornell, professor of film studies at New York University, explains, Michael Curtiz is from Casablanca. I think it’s one of those films you can hold up as an example of the virtues of the classical Hollywood style. It’s an example of popular entertainment that’s also art, but it’s in no way pretentious. It clearly is a work of art, but it never says to you, this is a work of art. The film is set during World War II, just before Pearl Harbor in 1941. It’s unclear which direction the world will go as America stalls on deciding whether to enter the war. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine becomes the embodiment of America itself. His final decision to take action and fight for the common good, abandoning his isolationist stance, is a clear metaphor for the US’s wake up call and entry into the war. Ex-lovers Rick and Ilsa cross paths in the wartime purgatory of Casablanca, Morocco, while the German hold is tightening. We’re viewing the global citizenry through the lens of the American expat, but around him is a melee of all sorts of temporary refugees. Everybody’s stuck, waiting to get out. The rotating searchlight wanders around and around, illuminating at random, not finding anything. The uncertain fates of this melting pot of people reflect the state of the world in the middle of the struggle. Among the movie’s audience, too, no one yet knows who will prevail, who will be the lucky ones, and if society will emerge with any of its morals, values, or dignity intact. Ilsa’s and Rick’s love story aligns with the timing of the war. Early shots of the romance in pre-occupied Paris show the two in their own, intimate world. But this oblivious bliss is brutally cut short by the German tanks crashing in, the cruel world announcing it will no longer be ignored. In the plot, we later learn this is also when Ilsa finds out that Laszlo is still alive. But the matched timing makes it feel as if it’s the Germans, the horror of the war, that separates the two. We’re already involved in World War II when the film comes out, But already, by the time the film is released, people are beleaguered. How do you maintain a commitment when the world is literally falling apart? How do you maintain a commitment? How do you maintain a connection with other people? If you think about the story of Rick and Ilsa, it’s one of the iconic movie romances, but the couple doesn’t get together. Rick and Ilsa don’t end up together at the end, because there’s something more important. What’s more important is that notion
of commitment itself. The notion of the world, and your responsibility to the community. “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble. But it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is a film about morality. It’s asking the question, should we go on striving to be good people, to fight the good fight? When darker shadows are overtaking society, this moral question is embodied in Rick. What he’s great at doing, in this particular film, is conveying the sense of a man who’s been broken, who was once an idealist, but is now a cynic, and the cynicism is cover for his romanticism. The exchanges between Rick and the true cynic, Captain Renault, an unapologetic opportunist who cares for no cause, elaborate directly on this theme. “Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell, you’re at heart a sentimentalist.” And the film’s plot converges on Rick’s moral dilemma. Does he choose love and his personal happiness, insuring the death of Victor Laszlo, the light of the cause of the resistance, or does he give up his true love forever for the good of the world, and the work only Laszlo can do? Of course, Rick’s final choice reveals his true character, once and for all. “…in the names of Mr. and Mrs. Victor Laszlo.” Cinematographer Arthur Edison’s noir- and expressionism-inspired lighting visualizes the weary mind of a world at war. Rick is usually shown in noirish side lighting: half light and half dark, representing his split self at a crossroads as he chooses between his idealistic and cynical selves. Shadows on Bergman’s Ilsa, too, shows she’s equally torn between love and duty. The intrusive lines on their faces look like prison bars, reflecting that Rick and Ilsa are trapped by circumstance, unable to pursue their love. The light on Ilsa’s face is meanwhile given a remarkably soft look, through the use of gauze to make her skin look flawless, as well as to emotionally evoke love, nostalgia, and regret on her face. Tiny lights even lend her eyes an impossible sparkle. Comparatively, Laszlo is lit brightly, to suggest that he’s a bright light of inspiration to those around him. He has the incandescent, unshadowed face of a man who never doubts his firm faith in his calling. As Rick and Laszlo talk in Rick’s office, Rick’s face is part in shadow, whereas it looks as if a special beam of light shines on Laszlo. Even when Elsa talks of Laszlo and his inspirational work, a subtle light flashes over her. Perhaps the most important secret to Casablanca’s greatness is the key to most great movies. The writing. A sign that a movie is important is that we can quote from it, even if you’ve never seen the movie. “Round up the usual suspects.” “Play as time goes by.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world… …she walks into mine.” Based on an unproduced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the adapted screenplay was a team effort. It illuminates deep truths about human existence, reveals character, advances plot, and speaks to the social context as America entered the war. This is pretty much everything a screenplay could ever be asked to do, and we barely noticed the philosophy lesson since we’re so entertained. Because Casablanca is such a critically acclaimed classic, we might forget that it’s chock-full of hokey melodrama. Writer Julius Epstein said it had “more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined, but when corn works, there’s nothing better.” Umberto Eco notes the irony that the film boils down to a mash-up of cliches. He points out, “Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves and celebrating a reunion.” Still, the filmmakers didn’t expect Casablanca to become such an iconic classic. Warner Brothers rushed the November 1942 Premiere, in order to take advantage of publicity around the Allied Invasion of North Africa, a few weeks earlier. Director Michael Curtiz wasn’t even the first choice. That was Roman Holiday’s William Wyler. But while Curtiz is held up as the anti-Auteur, his direction tends to not get enough credit. Curtiz is definitely underrated, but if you look at his filmography, it’s like one classic after another. And very often, what you find is he’s taking the parameters of a genre and finding the artistic potential in them. It’s a wonderful example of narrative economy. There wasn’t a detail introduced by Curtiz that doesn’t matter. An example of this is the scene at the
beginning of the film, where they “round up the usual suspects,” another phrase that we are familiar with from Casablanca. There’s a couple that turn their heads and watch the plane move, and they say, “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on the plane.” Those two characters become central to the story, because it proves to Renault when Rick helps them that he’s been right all along, that Rick is an idealist. He sees them in need, he can’t just look away, he has to do something. And you reflect back. You’re like wait, that’s the couple from the beginning of the movie, and here they are again. The other thing is he does mix genres at a time when you typically didn’t do that. There’s a lot of film noir elements. There’s a lot of German expressionist elements. There’s obviously melodrama. The film even has documentary elements. Then, there are the performances. Humphrey Bogart is one of those actors, that, if you see one of his movies, you could think he’s always playing himself. But watch his performance in Casablanca, how detailed it is. He’s very meticulous about his performance, and that’s why it’s so memorable, because it’s very precise. Bogey and Bergman prove actors can play falling in love with just a look. As Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa listens to As Time Goes By for the first time, watch how she takes us somewhere far away. It’s just a subtle movement of her eyes. Paul Henreid’s Laszlo, who seems at first the oblivious, one-note, holier-than-thou idealist, suddenly lets his curtain drop at moments, revealing he’s not missing a beat. “I wonder if you know that you’re trying to escape from yourself, and that you’ll never succeed.” It’s one of those films that exemplifies the notion there are no small actors, there are only small roles. Because every single actor gets one scene to show their stuff, and one scene where their character does something important and memorable. The pace of the film is extraordinary for a film from 1943. It really crackles, it just moves. And he doesn’t dwell on shots. Every shot has all of this visual information, but you’re not given a lot of time to process it, which is why it holds up to repeated viewing, because you’ve missed so much of it. And what he basically is doing is showing how dramatic the stakes are at the time. Again, the world is literally falling apart, and the pace of the film conveys that urgency. [la] La Marseillaise wait hearing Hearing Herman Hupfeld’s As Time Goes By practically brings us to tears. Play it again, Sam. Oh, and by the way, that quote’s never actually said verbatim in the movie. “If she can stand it, I can. Play it.” “Still a story without an ending. What about now?” It’s the wrongness of the world that means true love can’t be together. Curtiz’s melodrama bows to documentary. The reason Casablanca is perhaps cinema’s best ever love story, is that in the end, the love story must be subverted by the painful reality of the external world. Casablanca acknowledges there are things more important than true love when people are dying in concentration camps. Rick’s and Ilsa’s lesson is the one the US has just learned. As Rick watches his true love fly away, he’s stopped running away from his true self, the sentimental idealist. For Rick, it’s the beginning of a beautiful self-awareness. “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” For more, subscribe to ScreenPrism.

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  1. This is why the studio era of the 1930s-1950's was so great. It wasnt just the stars on screen. Great directors and composers such as Michael Curtiz and Max Steiner, both did their part to make Casablanca an enduring classic that is still talked about 77 years later!

  2. For me, it's the scene where the French "sing down" the Germans in the club, that is particularly powerful. Only with cooperation, can we overcome tyranny.

  3. The first time I watched Casablanca was on tv and I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Then I watched it at the cinema and finally understood all the fuss.
    It is a perfect film, romance, dancing, music, comedy, amazing dialogue, incredible acting and beautiful costumes.
    I have lost count how many times I have watched it and it always feels like the first time.
    Thank you for posting this video.

  4. Why struggle against Evil ? Might as well ask why we breath… Rick's Dialog with Laslow spells out why ultimately we are all compelled to do good.
    It's like asking why we draw our next breath, because We Must.

  5. Young people today can't read the note shown at 2:20 because it is written in cursive script. I can imagine them watching this and having to ask someone, "what does that say?". On the other hand, it's probably a mute point because, sadly, young people today don't want to watch black-and-white movies. They don't know what they're missing.

  6. I started this video, paused it, went and watched Casablanca for the hundredth time and fell in love all over again.

    Such a great movie…thanks for making this…good stuffs!!!

  7. Rick: "Remember, Louie, this gun is pointed directly at your heart."
    Louie: "That…is my least vulnerable spot."
    Sometimes I'll fast forward to that scene just to hear Raines say that. I don't know of any movie that has so many memorable lines.

  8. It was shown to my husband when he was doing his PhD. Had nothing to do with his subject but it’s his favourite film so he was delighted.

  9. My great uncle sat through this during a massive bombing raid in their area. Not one person left the cinema

  10. Jesus, all the famous lines from this film. You can’t even count them.
    I knew what they were, before I even watched it, I didn’t even know they from this.
    This movie has become a part of culture, even if most people don’t know it.

  11. The emotions of the crowd when they rise to sing the French anthem was more than just good acting. Many of the extras in that scene were refugees who had left Europe to get away from the German occupation.

  12. I came to this video immediately after watching the film. It’s becoming one of my favourite movies now

  13. Originally a "B" movie, the part of Rick (Bogart) was cast and written for Ronald Reagan. I don't really know if this story is true, but it's fun to immagine it that way.

  14. I watched it again (!) on an Air NZ plane the other day. A movie that is 77 years old and that's as good as the very first day it was released. Can you believe …

    Re: "wake up call"=stick your robotspeak mindless cliche up your ass!!!
    And it would have been so much better with Ronnie Raygun in the role of Rick, as he did in the film ALGIERS when he looked into the limpid pools of Hedy Lamar and intoned, "Come with me………………………….TO THE CASBAH!"

  16. Fun Fact : the movie was based on the novel noir theatre play EVERYBODY COMES TO RICK´S. A really sinister play with a dark end without the so much beloved happy end of the movie. Just mentioned tor comparison.

  17. There was a similar theme in a great Star trek episode with Joan Collins where he had to let her die to stop Hitler or something like that. Best and most moving episode of that show.

  18. Wow! That was the best explanation of a movie that I have ever seen of one of my favorite movies. Thank you!

  19. By 1942 Bogart had a long history of playing gangsters. There are hints that he may have been a gangster and that's why he fled to Casablanca. Audiences at the time very likely expected Rick to run off with Elsa so I'm sure they were surprised when Bogart broke with his long-term Tough Guy character. A brilliant movie

  20. The first time that I saw Casablanca on a movie screen happened in a recently restored old school Chicago theater ( whose name escapes me at the moment )
    The 50th Anniversary Print of the movie had just been released and the theater was showing it to celebrate their re-opening ..Most of the audience was dressed in the way that the original Casablanca audiences would have been dressed and like Rocky Horror audiences , most of the audience knew every single line in the movie
    Casablanca is a great movie that really needs to be seen at least once in a big movie theater

  21. I hated movies from this time period. When the only black peoples in film were maids and butlers. We were entertainers for the good white folks but never socializing amongst them as equals.

  22. There are only 3 Americans in the whole film.
    Can you name them?
    I will give the most obvious: Humphrey Bogart

  23. VERY nice. I guess I missed a few symbolisms. I have to watch it again right away. No wonder Ingrid looked so sweet, the lighting. Aaaaahhh…..
    This is getting more relevant in the days of Trump.

  24. My only favorite romantic movie till "Fault in our stars" came along. Now I have two favorite films in romance genre to prove that I'm not against romance on screen! 🙂

  25. Excellent video. Another thing about the movie is how we can feel the uncertainty of the characters in not knowing how it will all turn out.

  26. This is all made-up nonsense. The movie was originally a play called, "Everybody goes to Rich's," which lasted 21 weeks on Broadway. It was remade into a movie. All the high-falutin language is made-up nonsense. It was a movie made to make money for all concerned. Never watch this channel again.

  27. Back in 2003 i was in england. I went to the 1£ shop. I saw the book casablanca 2. About what happens next in the story. its actually a good book. Though its a good thing it wasnt made into a movie.

  28. my favorite film. from a time when filmmakers used film to move people to do the right thing. to teach and to think what is just and right

  29. I think it was Orson Welles who found an explanation of the greatness of this movie. He said : " when a movie has some clichés it is a mediocre movie , but when a director succeeds to make a movie with a quick constant succession of clichés it only can be a masterpiece because suddenly the clichés are no longer clichés " !And by clichés , I mean the famous lines too ! Casablanca has the greatest numbers of famous citations /clichés of all movie history !

  30. Excellent work. Thank you. One quibble about diction: you don't mean "melee"—which carries the connotation of combat. Given the passivity of Casablanca, mix, melange, multitudes are all better choices. Frequently the more pretentious word is the wrong word.

  31. Very well made, the one element you left out is, Ingid Bergman and others involved with Casablanca recalled it was the most chaotic and confusing experience of their careers – the script was constantly changing, the ending we see was only decided upon practically the day of shooting it, she was quoted as saying she was very depressed during the last phase of filming because she was certain it would be the worst disaster or her career

  32. when i saw the movie, I was like, "ok, it's about the german invation and fight of the resistances against germany and they sang la marseillaise in the french COLONY. They even cried for its freedom in front of colonized moroccans. fine"

  33. No one was raving about Casablanca until Woody Allen made Play It Again Sam. Before that it was just another Bogart film.

  34. I have texted my local theater to bring back some of these classics to the movie theater. The wife and I saw Wizard of Oz for the first time on big screen and it was wonderful. But Casablanca and others of that genre we have only viewed on TV and even the big screens of today do not do them justice.

    I told the theaters they are missing out on the older generation, who would love to view these classics and the outstanding acting in the theaters in lieu of all the special effects movies.

  35. If they made it today Ingrid Bergman would be a lesbian and Humphrey Bogart would be trans….. the movie would be s*** but at least we would be woke

  36. I watched this movie one time. That was enough. I do like Claude Rains, though. As time goes by, As Time Goes By is sickening.

  37. Only three Americans were cast in the film. Most of the other actors were refugees from eastern Europe who had escaped the Nazis. If you look at their faces when they sing La Marseillaise they didn't need to act. The emotion and the tears were genuine.

  38. My favorite movie of all time. Just a small point this video didn't cover. They actually started filming Casablanca BEFORE the script was completed and the writers were sending down pages as the movie was filming. Ingrid Bergman asked them several times, "Who should I play up to? Who will I end up with?" The writers replied, "We don't know, so play to both of them." I think that had a great deal to do with Bergman's brilliant and believable performance of a woman torn between two men, because she really didn't know who she would end up with. Also, just as a point of trivia, the writers had nearly reached the end of the script; Rick had shot Major Strasser, Louie had witnessed the shooting and the French police had arrived in force. How to end the movie. Should Rick go down in a blaze of gunfire? Should he be arrested and face the gallows for his heroism? They were silently thinking when suddenly they looked at each other and in unison said, "Round up the usual suspects!" And so was born the beginning of the 'beautiful friendship' between Rick and Louie.

  39. True Classic, my favorite line is from Rick: I remember every details the Germans wore grey and you wore blue…..classics

  40. No mention of Peter Lorre's key role in the film and his great performance? You have to establish Rick's cynicism and yet this is not mentioned.

  41. I m the only morrocan that did'nt know about this film ?😂 worse i ve grown in Casablanca and never heard of it 😂🤦‍♂️

  42. Why do think that the US entry into the war was a good thing? What good has it brought to t he world? The ideology and the systems of government that prevailed in the war ended up completely destroying the West. Once healthy, cohesive nations have become nihilistic shitholes where marriage and family are ruined, people are dying out, morality is relative and cynical, and millions of people from alien countries and cultures are not only allowed to come and replace the indigenous people, but this is celebrated. Make no mistake, the forces that won in WWII were the same ones that orchestrated our gradual self-annihilation. I wish fascism had prevailed, it was a much healthier option.

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