Casablanca (1942). 102 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (as Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (as Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (as Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Veidt (as Major Heinrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (as Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (as Signor Ugarte), S. Z. Sakall (as Carl), and Dooley Wilson (as Sam).
I am constantly amused by how warmly and universally well-received by general audiences Casablanca is—not because I think it deserves otherwise, but rather because it is difficult for any film to endure for so long in the mind of the public at large as an unequivocal classic, and not just as a classic among many, but to many people the definitive classic film. And yet the same people go to such great lengths to diminish it while they praise it, asserting that it was merely a B movie (it was not), or that it was only one of hundreds of films produced that year and thus not conceived of as anything special in its time (the first part of that statement is correct, the second part is only perhaps correct). Both of these claims have now become clichés.
At least those clichés are typically offered out of admiration for the film. It must be admitted that among movie critics, Casablanca has been subject to less loving reviews, from Pauline Kael, Umberto Eco, and Roger Ebert, for example. Kael located in it a “schlocky romanticism” (and she was paying it a compliment), and Eco called it “a mediocre film.” Additionally, Ebert noted that while the movie’s narrative and performances are outstanding, it does not contain many exceptional images. Yet I maintain that the movie is actually exceedingly well put together and makes use of sharp dialogue, complex thematic and structural elements, and layered performances. That is to say, Casablanca is not merely a well-loved film but an impressive, well-made, and mature romance.
During World War Two in Casablanca in Vichy-controlled French Morocco, American and former gun-runner Rick Blaine operates a nightclub that caters to European refugees under the watch of Captain Renault, a surprisingly autonomous Vichy official, and various Nazis. All of the refugees are struggling to obtain exit visas so that they can travel to Portugal and from there make their way to the United States. The process of obtaining visas is complex and underhanded, but Rick comes into possession of special letters from General de Gaulle authorizing the safe transport of two passengers to Lisbon. Rick soon learns that his former lover Ilsa Lund has appeared in the nightclub with her husband, resistance leader and concentration camp survivor Victor Laszlo; Ilsa and Rick had an affair in Paris just before the Nazis conquered France, and she abandoned him in a train station as he fled south. Devastated by her reappearance, he learns that she and Victor are planning to escape to Lisbon together but are in need of visas. When Rick learns that Ilsa still has feelings for him, he must make the decision either to give the letters to Ilsa and Victor or else use them to escape with Ilsa himself.
Even those who criticize Casablanca still maintain that it is rich in dialogue, and indeed, the dialogue is one of its primary attractions. The characters are constantly speaking in clipped sentences and guarded formulations, both to protect themselves from Nazi interlopers and to preserve themselves from romantic bruising. The result is that everyone sounds very chic and mysterious. As they talk elliptically, they utter some of the most iconic lines in movie history, including “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “We said no questions,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Everybody goes to Rick’s,” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Weirdly, its most famous piece of dialogue is universally misquoted: what we know as “Play it again, Sam” actually is said first by Bergman as “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By'” and subsequently by Bogart as “If she can stand it, I can. Play it.” Because all of these lines (including the incorrect one) have been absorbed by our culture, for a modern film-goer, seeing Casablanca for the first time is already a familiar experience.
While the film’s language may be well known and cherished, however, it is true that compared to other exceptional movies of its time, such as Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca lacks breathtaking images, clever transitions, and complicated camerawork. Still, the shot of Bogart and Bergman speaking their last lines to each other at the airport at the end, with their hats interlocked, is often reproduced and very beautiful, and the sign at Rick’s club is instantly recognizable. There is also the striking scene where Rick takes Victor into his office and disappears into a shadow on the wall; director Michael Curtiz frequently made thoughtful use of shadow in his movies, with prominent examples in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood (1938) and the horror film Doctor X (1932).
But do not let Casablanca’s lack of complex images convince you that Casablanca is not a complex movie. On the contrary, it is thoughtfully constructed. Consider, for example, how cleverly put together its opening title sequence is. The movie begins with dramatic music that conjures up the exotic spirit of 1930s adventure movies and plays over a map of the world centered on the African continent. This might lead one to think that the movie will be a story about African exploration replete with stereotypical natives, animals, clothes, and foods. But in fact, most of the activity takes place in Rick’s Cafe Américain, a nightclub that would be at home in any major metropolitan area in the United States. Even the Blue Parrot run by Signor Ferrari across the way from Rick’s, with its live parrot on a perch outside and its regional coffee fare, feels expatriate. Signor Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet, dons a fez, but he is a rotund Englishman who specializes in the selling of exit visas.
The music, then, is in part ironic: even though we are promised some measure of adventure in the opening credits, the location is too familiar, too ordinary to the characters we see, most of whom have been stranded in French Morocco beyond what they ever wanted or imagined possible. Whatever would in other circumstances seem exotic and other to these non-natives has lost its punch. Their tourism is a distraction: it is not their bodies but their minds that are on the move, and that movement stretches backwards to the place that they are running from (Nazi Germany) and forwards to the place that they are running to (Portugal and the United States). This mental (and sometimes physical) movement is a fundamental thematic and structural element that runs throughout the film.
I would say that the characters in Casablanca are trapped in a kind of hell from which many of them do not escape (“You will find that life is cheap in Casablanca,” we hear Major Strasser say), but their existence in the North African city reminds me more of the Western Christian concept of purgatory. This would make Nazi Germany and the United States as the hell and heaven, respectively, that the characters are caught between. Such a conceptual alignment cries out for a comparison with Dante, whose medieval Divine Comedy set the standard for literary explorations of the afterlife; but interestingly whereas most people would agree that Dante’s vision of hell is the richest and most amusing of his treatments, with his depiction of purgatory and heaven seeming fairly tame in comparison, in Casablanca it is clear that the great turmoil resides in, and the place to be dramatically is, the in-between state. In the immobility of the middle, the past, present, and future collide, and with nothing but time to kill as characters sweat under Vichy and Nazi observation, inner turmoil simmers and rises to the surface. And yet, it should be noted, none of the characters are obviously being punished for or purged of anything. Indeed, apart from the Nazis, it is hard to think of anyone in the movie who is truly and obviously bad. Many of the characters, such as Captain Renault, are deeply compromised, but even he, we see, is capable of good deeds, such as when he helps Rick to escape in the movie’s last scene. The war, the movie offers, is full of complicated heroes, and Rick and Renault are just two among many.
Much as the characters are preoccupied with looking backwards at Nazi Germany, looking forwards to Portugal, and languishing in the middle in Morocco, Casblanca’s romance is fundamentally constructed around other triples: a love triangle that must determine in the present whether a relationship from the past will flourish again in the future. Figuring out which time period to value most—past, present, or future—is the central dilemma of protagonists Rick and Ilsa. Casablanca’s love triangle is intricate not merely temporally but also politically and erotically, involving tensions between isolation versus collaboration, resistance versus the status quo, and romantic love versus war-time duty.
The lead actors convey their characters’ layered problems with great skill. Ingrid Bergman’s emotional close-ups are lessons in how to portray conflicted feelings, and we can understand perhaps why she is so good at doing this: as is well known, Casablanca was shot in sequence, and the script was still being written as filming progressed. Bergman did not know which man, Rick or Victor, she was going to end up with until they shot the final scene. Bogart as the bruised and heartbroken hero has close-ups as powerful as Bergman’s. In this way, close-ups become moments of truth in Casablanca and in Rick’s case, opportunities to see that the man who, as he is fond of telling us, “sticks his neck out for no one” is actually fairly vulnerable, in spite of his hardboiled talk. Paul Henreid as Victor is not given the frequent close-ups that Bogart or Bergman are, but Victor, in spite of the fact that he has smuggled himself out of Europe and is attending clandestine resistance gatherings in Casablanca, is nevertheless entirely straightforward; his inner life is his outer life, and it is hard to imagine him in shots that reveal private turmoil. So while we can perhaps understand why Ilsa is with him, we can also see how she is well matched with Rick through the language of the camera.
The movie’s supporting actors are all outstanding as well, from creepy, desperate, and world-weary Peter Lorre; to conniving Sydney Greenstreet with his ever-present mixture of politeness, opportunism, and general malaise; and S. Z. Sakall, who is always delightful and humane. Almost all of these supporting players were actual refugees from the European front. Sakall, who plays the waiter Carl, fled Hungary for America when the Nazis came to power but lost three sisters, among other family members, in concentration camps. Many of these refugees were prominent film actors before they left Europe. For instance, German actor Conrad Veidt, who plays Major Strasser, portrayed the somnambulist in the supremely influential Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); after escaping from the Third Reich, he ironically spent many years playing Nazis in Hollywood films. The cast’s real-life experiences as displaced Europeans must have influenced their performances—from the emotional sequence where Victor Laszlo tells Rick’s house band to strike up the Marseillaise to counter the German officers’ repugnant singing, to the palpable desperation of Rick’s customers as they whisper to each other over drinks in an early scene when the camera pans through the club.
The actors’ circumstances combine to make for a deep historical subtext, but what makes Casablanca seem especially mature is the way that it unites its non-European protagonist Rick with this subtext at the movie’s end to make a broader statement about the universality of exile in this period. Although Rick plays with isolationism of both a political and emotional nature, he eventually acts selflessly to further the war effort in his own way, forging a connection between himself and allied resistance movements that revisits his participation in Spanish insurrectionist politics years earlier. Through his decisive actions in the last scene, Rick goes on the run with Captain Renault and chooses to become a fugitive, much like the other characters in the film. In this universe, everyone—even the hero—is sent down an indeterminate road with no easy resolution and ends his story by running into the arms of a new conflict. This deferral of closure is part of what makes the story feel so honest, so adult, and so very sophisticated, whether we have lived through the 1940s or not. Surely that is only one of the reasons why today, 75 years after its release, Casablanca seems more wonderful than ever.