Casablanca (1942)

Classic movies are classics for reason, just as in literature.  Also, just as in literature, being a classic doesn't always mean that the movie will appeal to everyone.  Citizen Kane is one that comes to mind.  It is a classic not so much for its story - which is quite good to begin with - but because of many of the cinematic innovations Orson Welles used for the first time, or borrowed from filmmakers outside of the United States, to bring his movie to fruition.  To put it in perspective, Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are also classics for many the same reasons, and watching either of them for reasons beyond the technical brings the entire idea of what classics mean into question. 

There are those times when the reason a movie is considered a classic is just because it holds up so well and the majority of people, despite the age of the film, antiquated story telling or technical limitations of the time, still continue to watch and like it.  Casablanca is one of those.  

Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is an American ex-pat who owns a popular club in Casablanca.  Morocco us still under French rule despite the German occupation of Paris, as a small part of France run by a puppet government exists and is technically neutral.  This means Casablanca is a stop on the route for those refugees escaping World War II, as with an exit visa they can fly to Lisbon, Portugal, and on to the United States.  Rick turns a blind eye to all this, happy to run his club and leave the politics to people like Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the local corrupt police chief, who makes sure all the young ladies have a chance at a visa. 

Renault is now in a pickle because of the arrival of Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) who is in Casablanca due to the theft of travel documents after the death of two German couriers on the train from Oran in free French-held Algeria.  The papers, signed by General Charles de Gaulle and just needing to be filled in with names, are thought to have made their way to Casablanca, as has a dissident named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) that Strasser would like to see permanently waylaid if not killed.  Where Rick comes in is that Laszlo has brought his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), a woman with whom Rick has a past.  Having come into possession of the documents Rick must choose between his love for Ilsa or making a decision that would alter his life in Casablanca forever. 

When I first saw Casablanca it was at the opening of the Harkins Shea 14 theaters in Scottsdale, Arizona.  For opening weekend they played nothing but classic movies and, at the time, I had not seen most of them.  This was when I had begun to not only broaden my horizons with movies but literature, so I figured whether I liked them or not I still had to see them once.  With Casablanca I was afraid that I was in for a melodramatic love story that I would find unbearable.  Instead, I found where about 90 percent of the classic movie quotes come from as well as a story that was part romance and part spy thriller.  

This does reunite much of the cast of The Maltese Falcon, with Bogart again in the lead and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet playing bit parts.  The direction is by Michael Curtiz, based on an unproduced play written by Julius and Philip G. Epstein called Everyone Comes to Rick's, which Warner Bros. bought and had Howard Koch adapt into a screenplay.  Bogart thought little of it and at one point discussed with Bergman ways of getting out of the movie.  The budget was low due to being made during World War II, reusing many sets from previous Warner Bros. movies with only Rick's Café Americain being new.  Instead of a full airplane prop at one point it was a cardboard cutout with little people filmed in forced perspective. 

Despite everything against it Casablanca turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1942 and decade after decade appears on lists of best movies ever made, sometimes topping them over 80 years on.  Keep in mind when I first saw it on 35mm on a decent size screen it was already just over 50 years old and, if anything, my estimation of the movie has gone up over the last three decades.  I find more to like every time I see it, and the reason I watched it again is because of the Sea of Tranquility podcast mentioning it as one of the 4K restorations that one needs to own.  They were right, of course, as the current disc available from Warner Bros. is the best I've ever seen it and, try as I may, that airplane does not look like a cardboard prop surrounded by dwarfs.  It looks real enough - I'm sure the fog helped - but a movie that would have looked cheap in someone else's hands shines in Curtiz's.  

The center of the movie is Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and they work so well on screen it is surprising there wasn't something else going on when the filming stopped, as Bogart's then-wife was worried about.  In truth, they rarely spoke off the set, and if anything Bogart was more concerned with his long-distance chess game than he was with chasing skirts.  Still, this pairing worked better than anyone involved would have expected, and it is most likely the professionalism of both actors that led to this.  What could have been a laughable potboiler is rescued by two of the best performances of all time.

This is helped along by Claude Rains, providing the needed comic relief as Renault, and Dooley Wilson as Sam, Rick's constant companion and piano player.  Another thing that one has to respect the movie for is that Sam, though an employee of Rick, is never put in a subservient role.  He is also neither a buffoon nor a minstrel.  He is an integral part of the action and the only true friend that Rick has in the world.  Then, of course, there is Conrad Veidt, whose anti-Nazi stance forced him to flee Germany.  During the war he typically took on the roles of German villains in order to make sure the American public remembered what they were fighting against. 

Pretty much everyone involved in this movie is long gone, but it is one of a handful of films whose lasting reputation is deserved.  As a play I can see how it would not have been received well, and the original script was often laughed at when sent around in the late 1970s to see what the reaction would be, often from producers who did not know what it was and thought it was a bit too talky and old fashioned.  There have also been attempts to remake the movie or do a sequel over the years, but apart from a television prequel, a novel and the Pamela Anderson sci-fi vehicle Barb Wire, none of them have come to fruition.  That is because the story of Rick and Ilsa ends where it should and, despite the movie becoming a huge hit, it is one of those things that will never happen twice. 

Casablanca (1942)
Time: 102 minutes
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt
Director: Michael Curtiz



  1. It's a great movie and so many quotable lines. I read a biography of Ingrid Bergman about 20 years ago and when it came to Casablanca it was a miserable shoot. In large part because they were basically revising the script a lot and every morning there'd be new pages for the actors. If you ever watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" it's a guy who's sort of pulled into the Matrix and a lot of the imaginary parts take place in Rick's bar with the late Raul Julia playing the Rick character. Those parts aren't too bad for a cheap PBS movie in the early 1980s.


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