When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.
When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.
The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.
There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.
Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.
Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.
Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.
When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.
His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.
Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.
Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.
She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.
Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.
Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.