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.