There are few movies that can legitimately claim to be among the best loved of all time but Casablanca is surely one of them. It’s got one of the all time great screen romances, perhaps the greatest anti-hero, a faultless ensemble cast and an unparalleled script. If you’ve somehow come this far without ever seeing Casablanca, I’d really recommend taking this opportunity to go and see it up on the big screen as it was originally intended.
The story revolves around Humphrey Bogart’s iconic Rick Blaine, a cynical and drunken bar owner in the city of Casablanca who goes to great lengths to distance himself from the World War raging on elsewhere (“I stick my neck out for nobody”). Casablanca itself has become a notorious stopping point on the refugee trail as people of all nationalities arrive there to await passage to neutral Lisbon and thus freedom. Though in theory run by the Vichy French government, the arrival of Nazi officers and the fawning attitude of the Vichy officials means that the city falls squarely under the sphere of Nazi influence. The German officers arrive and politely interrogate Rick who despite their provocation remains as aloof and indifferent as ever as this choice piece of dialogue shows:
Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Ahhhhh a diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.
The arrival in Casablanca of legendary Czech resistance fighter Victor Lazslo is obviously not warmly welcomed by the assembled Nazi officials. Though unable to officially detain or imprison him in Vichy territory, they put pressure on chief of police Captain Renault to ensure he never leaves Casablanca. Laszlo isn’t alone however; he has with him his beautiful young wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Upon walking into the bar, Ilsa greets Rick’s friend and piano player Sam and asks him to play an old favourite “As Time Goes By”. When Sam acquiesces and plays the tune it causes an angered Rick to march over and demand he stop immediately. Rick’s eyes meet Ilsa’s and his face drops immediately. The look of hurt and scorn on his face tells us that somewhere in their past, these two star crossed lovers parted ways and it was Ilsa who turned Rick into the man he is today.
The rest of the film charts Laszlo’s attempts to obtain the ‘letters of transit’; a slip of paper signed by General De Gaulle which guarantees safe passage anywhere in Vichy territory to anyone who owns them. The letters arrive into Rick’s possession and so he now possesses the ability to help or hinder his former lover’s partner. Will he set personal issues aside? Will he stick his neck out once more and pick a side in the conflict? You’re never completely sure what is going through Rick’s head but looking through the tough exterior we see a heartbroken old romantic who was once an active player in various noble causes.
The film’s ending is the stuff of celluloid legend. On a foggy airstrip, the film’s major characters all gather in a captivating denouement with their respective fates all up in the air. Victor and Ilsa are unsure whether they will be able to escape. Ilsa is unsure whether she will stay with Rick or go with Victor. Captain Renault is seemingly wavering between his loyalties to Vichy France and the side of the resistance. Rick however remains as level headed and cool as ever and ultimately makes the ultimate personal sacrifice and thinks of the greater good. He forgoes his own happiness and realises Victor, and thus the resistance movement, needs Ilsa to keep him going.
The film was released back in 1942 at a time when the United States was wavering on getting involved in the mostly European based conflict. The filmmakers were clearly trying to reach out to the American audience and highlight the need for their country to join the good fight. Rick was symbolic of America as a whole, just as the various other characters in the story were themselves symbolic of other nations, governments and movements. Casablanca is on the surface a simple love story but is underneath a metaphor for allied defiance in the face of German bullying (see the inspiring singing of ‘La Marseilles’ in response to the German officers loud and unwelcome singsong in the bar), and America’s inability to remain neutral any longer. As Victor says to Rick, “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
The script may embrace its sentimentality and schmaltz in parts but it also possesses some of the finest dialogue you could hope to see. From Captain Renault’s “I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the Romantic in me.” To back and forth’s such as :
Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?
Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would.
As well as being infinitely quotable, the movie also packs a faultless cast full of stand out performances. There’s Sydney Greenstreet as shifty nightclub owner Signor Ferrari, Conrad Veidt as the villainous Colonel Strasser and S.Z. Sakall as the Carl the friendly waiter (who himself fled Nazi Germany in real life and lost three sisters to the concentration camps) Special praise must also be given to Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault, the crooked police chief with an eye of ladies, described by Rick as “just like any other man, only more so.” He’s a fascinating character, seemingly only looking out for number one and allying himself with whoever is in charge, he ultimately becomes integral to Rick’s master plan.
Whether you’re a die-hard romantic or a black hearted cynic, there’s something to enjoy in Casablanca. 70 years on and it remains as popular and powerful as ever.
“Here’s lookin at you kid.”