Released in 1942, “Casablanca” enjoyed only decent reviews and box-office returns. Now, almost seventy years later, it has been widely considered one of the best films of all time. However, looking at it from today’s perspective, does the film really deserve all the praise it’s received? Instead of looking at “Casablanca” the classic, let’s just look at “Casablanca” the film.
The movie begins with an introduction to the city of Casablanca, a Moroccan town where escapees of Nazi-occupied France try to obtain exit visas to America. It’s a shady place. “Be on your guard. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere,” warns a pickpocket before as he lifts a man’s wallet. The hotspot in town is Rick’s Café Américain, a club where patrons can get not only drinks, but possibly exit papers out of town.
Rick, a star-making character for Humphrey Bogart, is the indifferent owner of the Café. No one truly knows him; he never gives anyone the chance. Rick exists as a callous enigma while all around him escapees are being arrested by the Gestapo and any sort of anti-Nazi resistance is being crushed. In his eyes, it’s not his problem. We learn more about Rick with the arrival of French Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid. With Henreid, is the beautiful Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, who is revealed to have been romantically involved with Rick.
The rest of the story details Ilsa’s love for Rick, Laszlo’s dedicated nationalism, and Rick’s ultimately crumbling cynicism. The story is legendary, and honestly, rightfully so. The deep, insightful character study is a marvel, but it is the film’s beautiful understanding of loyalty and love that make “Casablanca” such an unforgettable story. However, a novel can have a good story, but it takes a heck of a lot more to make a good film. Without good actors, the brilliant story could have tilted towards either underplayed boringness or overplayed cheese. Luckily, the film finds the happy-medium between the two extremes thanks to its stellar cast.
Bogart, who had already found a reasonable amount of fame from “The Maltese Falcon,” here, as Rick, perfects the cynic-with-a-heart character that gave him such an iconic career. He uses his emotions so sparingly that when it comes time for any sentimentality, (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) we can see straight through to his heart. The other outstanding performance doesn’t come from lead actors Bergman or Henreid, who are both good enough for their rolls, but from Claude Rains as the Moroccan Chief of Police. The smile never leaves Rains’ face while talking with Rick, making even the most subtle lines downright hilarious, but when drama unfolds, he handles it brilliantly. Other smaller characters such as sketchy visa-dealer, Ugarte, and wise piano man, Sam, are brought to life quite wonderfully by Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson, respectively.
A beautiful story and breathtaking cast can make a very good film, but what pushes “Casablanca” past very good and into phenomenal is the amazing direction by Michael Curtiz. The clever camerawork and emotional lighting and shadows create a sort of quasi-noir film style that takes everything fantastic about the film and elevates it to extraordinary.
Whether “Casablanca” is one of the best films of all time, that’s really not for me to say, but thanks to a wonderful story, brilliant performances from the whole cast, and wonderful direction, I can say it is a downright phenomenal film. So does “Casablanca” really deserve all the praise it’s received all these years? Absolutely. ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★.