Casablanca(1942) is undoubtedly the most beloved American motion picture ever made. With a dream cast top lined by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and a crew led by eminent director Michael Curtiz and producer Hal B. Wallis and an endlessly quotable script designed by more than five writers, the movie’s genius lay in its ability to fit not only the needs of wartime audiences but also of audiences who came many decades later.
Gone With the Wind(1939), Citizen Kane(1941) and Casablanca(1942) are the holy trinity of films from Hollywood’s golden age. Each being a definitive representation of a certain facet of American cinema. Gone with the wind represents the past, both in its subject matter and in its making: it’s a throwback to a time when Hollywood believed in the philosophy of ‘bigger is better’ and proved it; It’s also a reminder of a time of mad mavericks and huge risk takers; a time when Producer was king: he took huge gambles on films he truly believed in, and didn’t hesitate to bet his last penny on a dream project. Citizen Kane represented the future of American cinema. It foreshadowed the auteur theory and ‘New Hollywood’ of the late 1960’s and 70’s, where the chief creative force behind a film will be the director- as opposed to a producer, like David O’ Selznick, whose creative and financial instincts drove Gone With the Wind. Orson Welles, the wunderkind, crafted a film that bore his stamp in every department, thus announcing the director as the ultimate star of a picture. Casablanca is a curiosity in the midst of these two films. It is a studio assembly line product nourished by the individuality of the people working in front and behind the camera. It is undeniably a film of the “present”: A film about WWII made during WWII, but one that has somehow managed to transcend that topicality and to remain appealing years after it has been made. While the factors that make Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane brilliant may be visible to even a lay viewer, what make Casablanca a classic is a mystery, at least on a first glance. The first two films are like gigantic machines, where the parts that run the machine is more than visible; in the case of Gone with the wind, it’s the sheer scale, scope and romanticism that makes it great, while for Kane, it’s the extraordinary artistry that broke several existing filmmaking rules and made new ones that makes it great. As for Casablanca, its parts are invisible: we see the sum of the parts, the cumulative effect, which is much much more than its individual parts.
In 1942, when Casablanca was being made, the “film genres” were very much in their place. There were the Westerns, musicals, swashbucklers, Screwball, romantic comedy, romantic Melodrama, Gangster drama, Mystery thriller, the social problem picture, war drama, epics, and with the successful release of The Maltese Falcon(1941), the private eye\Noir genre was also established. There were also specific actors who were most suitable for each of these genres. What makes Casablanca so special is that it does not belong to any specific genre, or rather, it combines elements of several genres, without the makers ever consciously intending to do so. In hindsight, this made the film timeless, and gave it an appeal that transcends specific audience demographics. Though broadly termed as “Melodrama”, the film plays out mainly as a wartime thriller, with the elements of romance, humor and mystery in abundance. The film contains intermingled themes of lost love, social narcissism, self-preservation, and patriotism. The film begins with a Documentary like Newsreel footage showcasing the refugee problem in WWII Europe circa 1941, before landing in the exotic city of Casablanca, where we see refugees lined up to escape to America. Without wasting any time, the film also sets up its central mystery- referred to as the “McGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock: it relates to this item called “Letters of Transit” that’s necessary for anybody leaving Casablanca. Two of these “official documents of passage” are stolen from the German couriers, who were murdered during the theft. The Vichy police is after the murderer, and they finally track the murderer down to “Rick’s Café Américain”, a fancy, upscale nightclub and secret gambling den. The identity of the murderer is not revealed, nor does the police, under the command of Captain Louis Renault, the unabashedly corrupt, womanizing prefect of police, arrest him immediately; they wait for the arrival of German Gestapo Major, Strasser, who will be arriving in Casablanca later; Renault wants to arrest the murderer in front of Strasser to showcase the efficiency of his administration.
The Café is owned by the expatriate American, Rick Blaine; an embittered, disillusioned cynic of a man, who in the past used to be an idealistic soldier for the anti-Nazi cause, but now has become a self-centered, non-political, misanthrope whose philosophy is: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He has quite an opportunistic friendship going on with Renault. Rick’s café is a melting pot for the city’s various nationalities; refugees, black-marketers, gamblers, thieves, everybody in Casablanca comes to Rick’s . Shady deals are struck and illegal sales of visas and other valuables are happening all the time at the café. So, it’s natural that Signor Ugarte, the man who murdered the couriers and stole the “Transit letters” will also be coming there; that’s the only place he can sell the Visas for a big price. Ugarte, who has known Rick since he arrived in Casablanca, considered himself a close friend of Rick; Rick, on the other hand, despises Ugarte for leaching on the poor refugees by selling them Visas at exorbitant prices. Ugarte gives the visas to Rick for safe keeping until his buyers arrive later that night; he is going to sell them for a price big enough that’ll enable him to leave Casablanca forever. Alas! he doesn’t know that his goose is already cooked. Renault informs Rick that he knows Ugarte is the killer of the couriers and he is going to be arrested in the café, and that Rick shouldn’t try to save him. Rick is unconcerned about Ugarte’s fate; the only annoyance he expresses is regarding the activities of the Café being disturbed during the arrest. As planned, after the arrival of Strasser at the Café, Ugarte is arrested; he tries to shoot his way out of trouble, and then begs Rick to hide him, but Rick is unmoved by his plight and coldly looks on as the police drag him away; he just keeps repeating his mantra: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But we soon realize that Rick isn’t that much of a cynic and politically neutral as he makes himself out to be: while chatting with Major Strasser, Rick could not hide his contempt for Nazis and their politics, even though he does not explicitly oppose Strasser’s views, and does his best to appear nonchalant.
Now that the mystery of the theft of “Transits letters” is cleared, the filmmakers introduces a new mystery- with the introduction of resistance leader, Viktor Laszlo, and his wife, Ilsa Lund, who are on the run from the Nazis and have landed up in neutral Casablanca looking for a passage out of Europe. The film is structured as a series of mysteries; solving one immediately paves way for a new one. This keeps the film suspenseful and interesting at all times. The moment Ilsa walks into the café with her husband, we feel there’s going to be trouble, because Sam, Rick’s piano player, gets really disturbed on seeing her – and so does Ilsa on seeing him. After Laszlo, who’s a committed ant-Nazi soldier, moves away from the table to make contact with a member of the underground resistance, Ilsa summons Sam to her side and ask him to play an old song that they are familiar with, “As time goes By…”; on hearing Sam singing the song, Rick comes out to confront him; it appears that Rick had forbade Sam from ever playing the song; and as he angrily reprimands Sam for playing the song, Rick comes face to face with Ilsa. Their eyes lock and we see Rick’s face filling up with hatred. But before they could say something to each other, they are joined by Lazlo and Renault. All of them sit down to talk, and from their subsequent conversation we understand that Rick and Ilsa knew each other when they were in Paris before the war. We also get hints that maybe they were more than just friendly acquaintances, as they seem to converse in rather cryptic language in front of Lazlo and Renault regarding their days in Paris. It’s soon revealed through a flashback that Rick and Ilsa were indeed lovers in Paris, but then Ilsa betrayed Rick by not keeping her word to accompany him out of Paris when the Germans marched in. Rick has been bitter and angry since then; even when Ilsa comes back to the Café later that night to explain herself, Rick angrily insults her and turns her away, refusing to hear her side of the story.
So, as we see, even the central romance between the lead protagonists is used by the filmmakers to keep building up the mystery; first, the question is how do these people know each other?; then the mystery shifts to why did they break up?- and this part is stretched to the maximum, with information about their romance dished out in razor sharp slices; and the most dramatic and highly emotional moments in the film arises from solving this mystery. After seeing what her betrayal has done to Rick, Ilsa realizes that there’s no way she can reconnect with him. She takes consolation in the fact that she and Lazlo will be soon out of Casablanca, so she doesn’t have to see Rick anymore. But fate has other plans: Lazlo and Ilsa need ‘letters of transit’ to leave Casablanca- they were planning to purchase those letters from Ugarte, but he was killed; now, Rick has those letters, and Rick makes it very clear that he will not sell those letters to Lazlo for any price, the reason Rick gives for this is: on account of Lazlo’s wife; obviously, Rick is now looking for some payback for the injury that Ilsa caused him. Now, Ilsa has no other option, but to go back to Rick and try to reason with him to give them the letters. So, in true McGuffin fashion, the “letters of transit” once again becomes the device that brings these ex-lovers together and propels the plot forward. On meeting with Rick, Ilsa tries every trick in the book, including pulling a gun on him to convince him to give her the letters, but Rick is so full of hate that nothing works with him. In the end, Ilsa breaks down and admits that she still loves Rick, that’s when he thaws, and softens enough to listen to her side of the story. Ilsa tells him that during their romance in Paris, she was under the impression that her husband, Lazlo, was dead, but on the day they were to leave Paris together she got news that Lazlo was alive and needed her help- this explains her betrayal. Now, she offers herself to Rick in exchange of helping Lazlo escape from Casablanca.
Of course, now the final mystery to be solved is how this love story is going to end?. who’s going to end up with whom?. Will Ilsa abandon her husband to be with Rick, or will Rick become that classic movie hero (that he had so uncomfortably hidden underneath his cynical shell) and sacrifice his love for the ‘greater cause.’ It’s not difficult to guess what the outcome will be, but kudos to the makers for milking the last ounce of suspense and emotion out of a predictable setup. One thing that helps them immensely is the fact that up to this point all the characters in the film are brutally unsentimental; whether it’s Rick , Renault (or even Ilsa & Lazlo), they view the world through very practical eyes. But this is the moment when their sentimental side is unleashed. Rick lets Ilsa get on the plane with Lazlo, Ilsa, despite being in love with Rick, decides go off with her husband because he needs her by his side to continue his good work, and Renault helps Rick in killing Strasser and escaping from Casablanca, because he starts valuing friendship and country over and above his survival. Rick, who started out as selfish, cynical & individualistic, is now a warmhearted romantic, patriot and a team player, who sets aside his selfish interests for the greater cause- similar to what USA did at this time, by ending its policy of isolationism and joining the Allies in their fight against the Axis powers. Rick’s character transformation, which mirrors America’s transformation, and Bogart’s almost effortless embodying of it is a real highlight of the film. The themes of redemption and ‘doing the right thing’ at the right time no matter the consequences are something that appeals to the audiences across time and geographical boundaries; that’s one of the reasons for the film’s enduring appeal. Almost every character in this film is redeemed , or transformed through the course of the film- even Lazlo, who’s dedicated to his cause, realizes that he needs the love and support of a women like Ilsa to continue his fight. The character of Rick as a stand in for America, Ilsa as a stand in for a besieged Europe, Lazlo standing in for the Allies fighting against the Nazis and Casablanca itself standing in for a world torn apart by war, with most of the events in the film recreated as a sort of metaphor for the events taking place in the world at the time gives this film an epic dimension and provides the film with an astounding emotional highpoint at the end. Rick shooting Strasser and saving Ilsa & Lazlo mirror America finally taking the plunge and saving Europe from the Nazis and Fascists in WWII- this is incredibly prescient for a film made in 1942, when the war was still raging in Europe and nobody knew who would win; this is another reason why this film has endured for so long.
Then there is the film’s fantastic cast made up mostly of actors who were exiles from Europe, which gives the film verisimilitude and a strong emotional thrust. Bogie, Bergman and Rains are fantastic, but it’s in the casting of minor roles where the film really scores: Curt Bois as a pickpocket, John Qualen as a resistance leader, Peter Lorre as Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet as Rick’s rival, Ferrari, and the absolutely delightful S.Z. Sakall as a waiter at the café adds humor, poignancy and texture to the film. But the highlight on the acting front is the chemistry that Bogie manages to whip up with, both, the luminous Bergman (embodying Ilsa’s pain and romantic confusion) and the smooth & witty Claude Rains (perfect as the charming opportunist Capt. Renault). It also helps that the writers have stuffed the film with some of the most quotable dialogues ever, brimming with wit & emotion. ‘We’ll always have Paris’, ‘I was misinformed’, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’, ‘ I am shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’, ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’, ‘Oh he’s just like any other man, only more so’, ‘I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one’, ‘Round up the usual suspects‘, and, of course, the often misquoted, ‘Play it again, Sam‘. Apart from “The Godfather” or “All about Eve,” i can’t think of any other film with so many famous lines. Bogart as Rick Blaine delivers one of his definitive screen performances; along with Sam Spade, this is Bogart’s finest hour as an actor. Of course, he’s not an actor in a strictly “Actor’s studio” sense, because Bogart is Bogart on every film. Bogart had a very stylized ‘style’ of acting , as was the case with every actor from Hollywood’s golden age, that perfectly suited the zippy, hardboiled, economical dramas that Warner Bros churned out with great regularity. He was tough & no-nonsense and moved with swiftness and confidence through every frame; he also talked very fast and had an ability to turn even the most banal lines into a ‘punchline.’ Bogart and Rains were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, but they did not win. Nevertheless, their performances and their delightful bantering is the most entertaining aspect of this film. The film transformed Bogart into a genuine superstar, he was already a star after “The Maltese Falcon,” but this film proved Bogart could be romantic, sexy and sensitive.
Bogart was also the perfect actor for a director like Michael Curtiz, who was famed for making very fast-paced movies, no matter the genre. “Casablanca” is just about 100 minutes long, but look at the amount of themes, characters and plot points that are covered in such a short time span, it’s truly mind-boggling. Curtiz, who directed this film with such flair, was one of the greatest and most prolific ‘invisible stylists’ from Hollywood’s golden age. He made films as varied as “Captain Blood,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Adventures Of Robin Hood”; the very year he made “Casablanca” he also made the James Cagney musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” for which Cagney won an Oscar. I am sure that Curtiz’s experience handling a wide range of genre pictures must have come in handy in directing this film that’s a mixture of several genres. Curtiz has directed this film with a lot of style, mood and atmosphere; every frame is filled with lots and lots of visual detail, the more pronounced elements being cigarette smoke, fog and dazzling interplay of light and darkness. But the style is not overpowering , or not something that calls attention to itself . The style is very smooth to the point of being invisible, it hits you on a subconscious level rather than the surface level. Of course, then there is the pace that is imparted to the narrative, with the editing being razor sharp to the point that there’s absolutely no ‘dead air,’ not a singe scene that doesn’t advance plot or character. Max Steiner’s music that mixes danger, exotica and romance also adds to the film’s atmosphere.
Curtiz was also very good at creating entertaining set pieces (just watch the action scenes from “Robin hood” or “The Sea Hawk”), but since this is more of a chamber piece, with most of the action taking place inside the Café, Curtiz could not create those elaborate action-driven sequences. Instead, he creates a very different (and even greater) kind of an action sequence: “the battle of the Anthems,” where we see the Germans and the French dueling by singing their respective national anthems, “Die Wacht am Rhein” and “La Marsellaise.” It’s truly one of the greatest set pieces in movie history, something that gives the audience a real emotional high. Curtiz, despite being a studio ‘journeyman’ director – he was not an auteur like Orson Welles or even John Ford, still managed to make great films on which he could put his directorial imprint; and “Casablanca” is truly the greatest example of a ‘movie by committee”- that was what the golden age Hollywood studio system was. The chief creative force behind this film was Warner’s executive producer, Hal B. Wallis, who was instrumental in getting the script written (and rewritten countless times), casting the actors, and then whipping the film into shape in post-production. The film is not an imperfect classic by any standards, it does have its flaws: Paul Henreid’s ineffective ‘mechanical’ performance as Lazlo may be excused because the character itself is rather a straight arrow, and very few actors stands a chance against Bogart, but the characterization of Ilsa is undoubtedly the weakest point of the film; Bergman’s star charisma manages to hide some of the character’s shallowness, but it’s one of the most inconsistent characters ever to grace a classic film, really galling for something that’s considered in the top 3 greatest American films ever. One can also argue that “Letters of Transit” is a very weak plot device, because the Germans are so powerful that they can stop Lazlo from leaving the country, transit letters, or no transit letters. But that’s what McGuffins are for, as Hitchcock defined it, it’s something that everyone wants, but it’s of no real value on its own. The film was also made at a time when America had just entered the war, so maybe people were not aware of the might of Germans in Europe. But then, again, “Casablanca” was not some passion project from an obsessed auteur trying to make his magnum opus, it was a studio assembly line product, just one among the 52 pictures that the studio was releasing in theatres that year. The script was constantly rewritten on the sets at the instance of several voices coming out of the studio management, and so many studio writers were working on the film simultaneously – that explains some of the character & behavioral inconsistencies you can find in the film. But the fact that such a great film emerged from such a collective filmmaking process is a testament to the greatness of Hollywood’s studio system. Ultimately, Casablanca‘s greatest achievement is that despite not being in anyway experimental or cutting-edge, and simply being a very well made conventional, mid-budget, star-driven Hollywood studio film, it works brilliantly on many levels.