Without a doubt, “Casablanca” is a film classic. Withstanding the test of its nearly 70-year history, “Casablanca’s” themes of love, national pride and sacrifice are as relevant in today’s consciousness as during wartime 1942.
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, “Casablanca” is based on an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Set in French un-occupied Casablanca during the height of World War II, the film opens with quick shots of multi-national, mostly desperate people in the teeming city of Casablanca. Most need Letters of Transit to safer lands, and they will pay great sums of money, bribe officials or offer sexual favors to obtain these Letters. Nightclub owner Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) tellingly states that selling humans is Casablanca’s leading commodity.
French Capt. Renault (Rains) oversees the city, and naturally pays respects to the arriving German Major Strasser (Conrad Veigt), whose army now occupies Paris. Strasser has come to intercept underground freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo (Henreid) and his beautiful wife, Ilsa (Bergman).
It’s not long before all converge on Rick’s Café Americain. We are introduced to Rick (Bogart) from behind, as he signs his signature to a gambling voucher. Rick is all business and has a neutral foreign policy; “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That is until Rick runs into his former love, Ilsa, listening to piano-playing Sam (Dooley Wilson) sing the memorable, “As Time Goes By.” Rick’s isolated detachment is about to come crashing down. He can no longer be isolated from the world; he must now choose sides in love and war.
Under the skilled and fast-paced direction of Michael Curtiz (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”), the camera moves with the characters through the populated, complex Casablanca world to its heart-racing finale. Pairing with cinematographer, Arthur Edeson (“The Maltese Falcon”), the film’s look is bright and searing in the city’s bustling square. But as the conflicts escalate, the lighting takes the style of film noir, with dark shadows flowing over those “trapped,” or partially lit interiors where the troubled Rick and Ilsa meet. A favorite shot is that of Ilsa standing in the shadows of Rick’s upstairs apartment, her face fully reflected in the mirror, as her husband Laszlo is downstairs. Ilsa is caught in a duplicitous moment.
Interestingly, “Casablanca” was scheduled simply as one of the 50 films produced a year by Warner Bros. The script adaptation was even written factory-like with four screenwriters – brothers Julius and Philip Epstein (known for brisk plotting and sarcastic wit); Howard Koch (who fleshed out the politics); and an un-credited Casey Robinson (who polished the romance). The script’s ending was constantly being changed. Ironically, it’s the finally agreed upon ending that gives the film its final punch that lingers with audiences long after the credits roll.
In the climatic scene at the airfield, Rick tells Ilsa, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” illustrating the wartime themes of sacrifice of self for a greater good. The dilemma of whether Ilsa will end up with Rick (passion) or Laszlo (duty) still keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. And the bittersweet outcome is what resonates with audiences, especially in today’s world full of civil unrest and uncertainties.
The momentous sum of all the parts of “Casablanca” is why the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It is also why the film was named number 2 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best films in 1997 and then a decade later, number 3. “Casablanca” continues to endure as a powerful romantic classic. As original playwright, Murray Burnett has noted, a classic is something that is “true yesterday, true today, and true tomorrow.” “Casablanca” indeed fits this definition.
“Casablanca” is 102 minutes and not rated. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.