To this day Casablanca is regarded as one of the most iconic and well-regarded films in Hollywood. Michael Curtiz directed and Hal B. Wallis produced the 1942 Warner Bros. movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and featured Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. The Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, wrote the screenplay, which was an adaptation of an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. If the Epsteins sound familiar, that is because I reviewed another one of their masterpieces, Mr. Skeffington. There is not a moment wasted in Casablanca, and its subtlety and complexity make it especially important to pay close attention when watching this movie.
Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who owns a nightclub and gambling venue in the heart of Casablanca in northern Africa. The year is 1941 and Casablanca has become the hub for the Vichy government, Nazi personnel, and refugees. During WWII, the southern part of France, which was not yet occupied by the Nazis, was governed by the Vichy. Marshal Petain led the Vichy, and he encouraged an armistice with Hitler’s Germany. As a result, subterfuge is rampant and no one knows whom they can trust. Although Blaine claims he is neutral on the politics going on around him, his history reflects otherwise. Before Casablanca, he trafficked arms to Ethiopia during their war with Italy, and he fought on the loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War. One night, his former lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up at his nightclub with her husband, the famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Blaine is infuriated. Many years ago, Ilsa had unexpectedly disappeared from his life, and now she is recruiting his help to get her and Victor safely out of Casablanca before the Nazis have a chance to imprison Victor. At first Blaine refuses to get involved, but when Ilsa explains her sudden disappearance all those years ago, Blaine becomes conflicted between his love for Illsa and saving Victor from imprisonment. Blaine understands that he is the only one who can really help them, because just before their arrival, Ugarte (Peter Lorre) delivered transit papers to Blaine’s nightclub. These transit documents would allow anyone to leave the country. Blaine was supposed to hold onto the papers until Ugarte could sell them. However, because Ugarte is a petty thief, he is discovered and killed.
Blaine is caught in the middle between Illsa and her husband and the corrupt Vichy Captain, Louis Renault, performed by the renowned character actor Claude Rains. World War II is heating up and everyone’s life in Casablanca is in jeopardy. No one is safe and few can be trusted. Blaine realizes that he can no longer be neutral. He has to take a stand or the people he loves will be imprisoned or killed.
Despite the fact that Casablanca is a black-and-white film and has none of the special effects that my generation has grown accustomed to, the movie keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat until the very end. There are many reasons why this movie is so powerful. For example, the cast includes many incredible actors. Humphrey Bogart was not conventionally handsome, and he was fifteen years older than the beautiful Ingrid Bergman. Yet, there was a believable chemistry between them. Bergman had starred in other Hollywood films before Casablanca, but her role as Ilsa Lund solidified her career. In fact, during the span of her career she won 3 Academy Awards, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress. Bergman’s portrayal of Lund was a combination of grace, passion, and strength. Before his role as the Czech Resistance leader, Paul Henreid was a vocal opponent of the Nazi Regime. He was even listed as an official enemy of the Third Reich. Peter Lorre, another unforgettable character actor, was Austrian and had to escaped Nazi Germany. Although Lorre has a smaller part in Casablanca, he always finds an interesting way of portraying his characters. English actor Claude Rains actually fought in World War I and was blinded in one eye from the poison gas. Rains’ style of acting is so versatile that he can play almost any role. In Casablanca, he plays a wily and corrupt police official. Even though he doesn’t play a respectable figure, Rains is captivating in every scene. He doesn’t even need to say a word because he is an expert at conveying emotions with his eyes. Subtlety is one of his strengths and, in a movie that is about political corruption and subterfuge, Rains is perfect for the role.
Max Steiner wrote the music for the film. Steiner wrote music for some of the biggest movies in Hollywood, one of which I reviewed earlier, Little Women. He also composed the music for Gone with the Wind. However, in this movie, it’s Herman Hupfeld’s song “As Time Goes By” that most people remember. The song originally came out in the early 1930’s with moderate success, but it wasn’t until Casablanca that the song became legendary. Even people who have not seen the movie recognize and have at least heard parts of this song.
Oddly enough, no one anticipated the effect Casablanca would have in Hollywood. When it was released, the movie had moderate success and accumulated many positive reviews. Casablanca was one of those films, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, that evolved into an iconic movie. There’s no scientific answer I can give for this result, but I feel that the story is relevant for any generation. Bogart’s character, Blaine, is relatable. Though he is brave, he doesn’t really want to put his life at risk. A series of events force Blaine to make a decision, and that’s when the audience gets to see what kind of person he is. War or even just hard times have the tendency of revealing a person’s true nature. Casablanca has survived the test of time partly because the film continues to resonate with people. This movie is one that should be on anyone’s list of “must see” films.