Today’s cinema adventure: Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as a pair of former lovers who are reunited amidst the turmoil and intrigue of the title city during the early years of World War II. Frequently classified as film noir, this iconic gem is really more of a romance, though it shares many features- the cynical tone, the shadowy lighting, the focus on corruption and betrayal- with the then-still-developing noir genre; but classification aside, the fact remains that Casablanca is one of the handful of films that can be indisputably called an iconic classic, an example of Hollywood’s golden era at its finest, and one of those cultural touchstones that never seems to lose relevance, despite the passage of years and the changing attitudes of society. The reasons why are intangible; examining its elements individually, there seems no reason why it should have more power than any other relatively well-made pot-boiler of its time, and its production history was famously messy, with continual changes and second-guessing by its writers and producers that should logically have resulted in a complete muddle. Instead it was, well, Casablanca. It’s an example of one of those fortuitous combinations of people and circumstance that can only be ascribed to fate.
Though it may not be possible to fully explain the mystique of Casablanca, it is certainly easy to understand its initial success within a historical context. It depicts a place where justice and decorum are merely a façade, creating the illusion of a level field in the deadly game of manipulation being played underneath; where sentiment and desperation are weaknesses to be exploited in the pursuit of shameless self-interest; and where law and diplomacy exist only to serve the powerful in the enforcement of their will. In this cutthroat arena, Rick- a worldly-wise American expatriate- is the champion player, a representative of the “lost generation” who has transformed his disillusionment into a badge of honor, and who thrives in the niche he has carved for himself because he maintains a strict policy of isolationism- as he puts it, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” It’s a strategy that works- at least until a romantic shadow from his past re-enters his life and forces him to choose between his self-protective shroud of indifference and a chance to use his position in the service of a greater good. It was a perfect metaphor for an America that was hesitant about entering WWII after becoming jaded by the long and painful hardship of the Great Depression, and to make the allegory crystal clear, the story is populated by an assortment of international characters in various states of uneasy alliance with an ever-more-insistent Nazi presence.
Of course, if Casablanca were only notable for its heavy-handed political parallels, it would never have stood the test of time and would be remembered only as a piece of pro-war propaganda. It is so much more than that. The backdrop of then-timely politics serves as a stage upon which a timeless and universal drama is played, in which a man, burned and haunted by the disappointment of his past, rediscovers his humanity; and the cornerstone which allows him to do so is also the primary reason for Casablanca‘s enduring popularity- the iconic romance at the heart of the action. Rick and Ilsa are without question one of the most famous pairs of star-crossed lovers in the history of film, perhaps even more so than Rhett and Scarlett. Their story tugs at the heart of anyone who has loved and lost- which means, of course, everyone- and the connection is all the stronger for those who have had the experience of losing it due to the intervention of larger forces beyond their control. Seeing this tender couple, played so perfectly and with such exquisite chemistry by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, find their opportunity to be together in the middle of the momentous events swirling around them is both bittersweet and cathartic, and their famous, final exchange on the foggy nighttime runway is surely one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting scenes in the history of cinema.
The romance may be the centerpiece of Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa are fully realized characters on their own, too. Bogart, though he had been active for years as a second-string movie thug and had recently made a promising splash in The Maltese Falcon, here established once and for all the screen persona which made him one of Hollywood’s most durable stars. His Rick is the ultimate smooth operator, classy but rough-edged, sophisticated but down-to-earth, confidant but unassuming; one look and you know he is not only the toughest and most dangerous guy in the room, he’s probably also the smartest. To complete the picture, his wisecracking irony and his stoic demeanor do nothing to hide the noble and sensitive heart that beats inside him; it is clear from his very first moments onscreen that he is a man of honor, kindness, and charity, no matter how enmeshed he may seem in the dirty politics of Casablanca, and when he is revealed as a romantic and a champion of the underdog, it comes not as a surprise but rather as a triumphant confirmation of what we already know. It’s a role that seems tailor-made for Bogart, in retrospect, and it is virtually impossible to see how anybody else could have pulled it off. Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, though not as defining a role for her as Rick was for Bogie, is nevertheless one of her most memorable creations; she is, of course, beautiful, but she also radiates sadness, nobility, compassion, and sophistication; at the same time, she wears her own shade of the resigned, hard-edged irony that colors Rick’s persona, and watching it melt away as their rekindled love transforms her into a passionate woman is one of the key elements of Casablanca. Besides all that, she also deserves a lot of respect for being able to credibly deliver some of the most ridiculously corny lines ever written for an actress.
Of course, Rick and Ilsa are not the only memorable characters on the scene: the entire cast, comprised of several of the era’s most familiar stock players (many of whom were real refugees from the Nazi Reich), turns in superb and memorable performances, far too many to mention here. It would be an unforgivable oversight, however, not to make special note of Claude Rains, as the charmingly corrupt police prefect, Renault, whose friendly rivalry and good-natured banter with Rick provides a grounding counterpoint to the love story, and whose heart of gold ultimately breaks through his cynical armor. Also iconic are the delicious turns by film noir staples Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; the former as Ugarte, an unlucky black marketeer who seeks assistance and refuge at Rick’s nightclub (though he knows Rick “despises” him), and the latter as Signor Ferari, a bold-facedly opportunistic rival club owner with whom Rick has a grudgingly mutual respect. Dooley Wilson projects loyalty, patience and heart as Rick’s trusted piano player- and his warm rendition of the signature song, Herman Hupfield’s ”As Time Goes By,” is one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Conrad Veidt serves as the primary villain of the piece, an arrogant and bullying Nazi colonel whose deference to the local status quo is abandoned whenever it stands in the way of his absolute authority; a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance in a caricature of a role, delivered by one of Germany’s greatest actors, who, sadly, passed away soon afterward. Finally Paul Henreid manages the seemingly impossible task of making the character of Victor Laszlo- the underground resistance leader seeking escape from the Nazis through Casablanca, and Ilsa’s secret husband- not only believable in his too-good-to-be-true nobility but likable in spite of his position as the man standing between the film’s beloved romantic leads.
The many other delights of Casablanca are obvious in every frame. Most noticeable is its rich visual design, beautifully captured by Arthur Edeson’s lush black-and-white cinematography, which features a synthesis of exotic and stylish elements into a mythic landscape that contrasts modern utilitarianism with decorative antiquity, a continual and elaborate play of shadows, and fantasized notions of its mythic locale. The Casablanca of this film bears little resemblance to the real-life city which shares its name; it is pure Hollywood fantasy, designed to evoke the danger and intrigue associated with it in our imaginations. Rick’s café, a place where Western elegance is imposed upon the Moorish sensibilities of its architecture, provides the central base for the film- it feels familiar without being quite safe, an oasis in the harsh (but still irresistibly romanticized), foreign atmosphere which makes up the rest of the city. It’s a triumph of artistic design, influenced by Hollywood glamour and German Expressionism, and executed by Art Director Carl Jules Weyl and Set Decorator George James Hopkins. The costumes by Orry-Kelly similarly provide a distillation of the early forties visual milieu, giving us timeless styles flavored with fantasized exotica; in particular, the powerful simplicity of Bogart’s white-jacketed evening wear, which became an instant classic, still represents the epitome of elegance in male fashion. The musical score, by the legendary Max Steiner, is perhaps his definitive work, with its interpolation of familiar European anthems and the romantic melody of “As Time Goes By” into his own highly flamboyant and evocative compositions, and goes a long way toward setting the heightened tone which has burned Casablanca into the collective consciousness of subsequent generations.
All this excellent artistry is in the service of the film’s now-revered screenplay, by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on an obscure play, called Everybody Goes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. It is now well-known that constant rewrites kept the actor and crew uncertain throughout production, with Bergman, for instance, never knowing during filming who she was supposed to be in love with, and nobody certain of how the film would end. This no doubt contributed to the cast’s loathing for the project at the time, and their belief that they were almost certainly making a horrible dog of a movie; fortunately, they were wrong. Loaded with now-familiar classic lines, marked by excessively melodramatic dialogue which nevertheless wins us over by its sheer audacity and the committed, straight-faced delivery of the cast, it’s a screenplay that transforms its time-specific scenario into a tale of eternal significance, an exciting and emotionally resonant portrayal of love and idealism blossoming in a hostile environment. The full power of these themes, however, might still have been lost or obscured without the contribution of Michael Curtiz, a versatile workman of a director who is often overlooked by cinema scholars despite an impressive and prolific body of work; with the skill of a master he weaves all the disparate threads together into a cohesive package, which revels in its intricately embellished atmosphere and its lush moods even as it drives its intrigue-laden plot at a steadily building pace towards its immensely satisfying conclusion.
Casablanca is full of memorable scenes: the capture of Ugarte, the arrival of Ilsa at Rick’s and the flashback to their romance in Paris, the cafe patrons drowning out the singing Nazis with a rousing chorus of “La Marsellaise.” Indeed, more than almost any other film, it seems a progression of one remarkable moment after another; but, finally, it is the ending that sticks with us. Rick and Ilsa’s farewell on the runway hits us in a place that the artificial thrills of the plot cannot, and it feels so right that it is impossible to believe that any other ending was ever considered. Then, right on its heels, there is the not-so-surprising defection of Captain Renault from the dark side, just in time to walk off into the foggy night with Rick for “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The emotional wallop is potent; and maybe the reason it hits us so hard has to do with the choice that affects us all, at one point or another, to serve our own needs or to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. In a world full of suspicion, greed, and deliberate cruelty- or even just a world where nobody wants to look like a sucker- it’s a tough choice to make, and maybe Casablanca affects us so deeply because it lets us believe in the notion of “doing the right thing” even when everyone else is afraid to. In a way, it’s a bridge between the noble sentimentality of a world long gone- if, indeed, it ever existed- and the hard-edged realism of the modern era. We are still human, after all, even in an inhuman world, and (as the song so aptly expresses it) “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”