When watching the indispensable, canonized piece of cinema history that is “Casablanca,” one might find themselves asking why this film is so beloved. It’s greatness doesn’t have some easily definable innovation that anybody can point out even if they haven’t seen it. “Casablanca” doesn’t have the me-against-the-world virtuosity of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” the Shakespearean grandeur and elegant violence of “The Godfather,” or the rollercoaster thrills and/or sexual torment of Alfred Hitchcock’s best work. It doesn’t have any great thematic aspirations; it was directed by Michael Curtiz, a gun-for-hire, not an auteur. The script was based on an obscure play, and was being written as the film was shooting, and as a result the whole movie almost devolved into chaos. And there’s a fact that this movie is basically a melodramatic love story about a guy trying to secure paperwork for his ex-girlfriend and her husband during World War II and not much more; not exactly the template for true art, on the surface at least.
So why is “Casablanca” a masterpiece, an absolutely perfect movie that everyone who has even a passing interest in the form needs to see? For all the reasons I listed above. “Casablanca’s” greatness is truly organic because it doesn’t come from any notion of “importance.” It is great because every facet of the production; the acting, directing, and writing are all astonishingly precise. Few movies achieve pure perfection, but this one definitely does.
As I said, the plot is simple. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate who runs a popular nightclub in Casablanca, a sort of hub city in Morocco in the early days of World War II. As Rick’s loyal friend Sam (Dooley Wilson) delights the nightly crowds with his singing and piano playing, the world of Casablanca is a constantly shifting menagerie of refugees, thieves, con men and countless others who are displaced by the spreading conflict, and are looking to put back their lives. Rick himself is in a state of self-imposed purgatory; he doesn’t interact with customers and doesn’t care about anybody’s problems. “I don’t stick my neck out for nobody” is the mantra that he repeats, and he means it; even if it means giving up a patron named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) to the police, led by the gleefully corrupt Captain Renault (Claude Rains) after he is accused of murdering two German couriers who were carrying important letters of transit. Whoever has these letters can escape to America with no questions asked.
These letters become very important when a beautiful Norwegian woman walks into Rick’s bar one night. We don’t know who she is at first, but Rick becomes very upset when she asks Sam to play her favorite song: “As Time Goes By.” It wakes Rick out of his prolonged stupor and we find out who this woman is: her name is Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and she wants the letters of transit for her and her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a noble French revolutionary who spent time in a concentration camp for publishing anti-Nazi articles, so they may escape to America. Meanwhile, the nefarious Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and the Nazi horde are making their way to the city to keep Laszlo from leaving.
Why does Ilsa’s appearance have such a profound affect on Rick? Why does the romantic anguish of “As Time Goes By” bother him so much? It’s because Rick and Ilsa had a brief affair the year before when they were both living in Paris. When they agreed to take a train out of France after the Nazis invade, Ilsa abandons him for reasons unknown, with Rick leaving both Paris, and his wounded heart, behind. Therein lies the conflict of “Casablanca”: does Rick help the woman who gave his life meaning, and yet ripped his heart to pieces, leave for America with someone else? Or does he continue to close himself off, with only booze and the bitterness of his memories of Ilsa to keep him company?
Again, this love triangle is nothing innovative from a storytelling standpoint, but “Casablanca” transcends the simplicity of its story with impeccable contributions from everyone involved. First, there is the water-tight, gorgeously written script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. The film is beautifully paced; this script is a masterpiece of construction, allowing the characters and plot to develop in just the right way. We always know what each character wants and what’s at stake. And then there’s the dialogue: movies just aren’t written like this anymore. There are so many perfectly written, crackling lines that this film is a pleasure to listen to, not just watch. “He’s just like any other man, only more so.” “The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” “We’ll always have Paris.” The movie remains remarkably quotable because it is a reminder of screenwriting that wasn’t taken over by snark or look-how-clever-I-am wordplay (ex. Cody, Diablo). Robert Mckee (well, Brian Cox playing Robert McKee at least ) said in “Adaptation” that “Casablanca” had the “finest screenplay ever written.” I’d still give the nod to “Chinatown,” but this comes damn close. The director Curtiz doesn’t get in the script’s way; his straightforward, efficient direction gives the movie its propulsive narrative thread that has helped it endure for so long. He succeeds in recreating the film’s unique atmosphere. The city of Casablanca is a melting pot, and the cavalcade of cultures makes the city such an exotic, lively setting. The same goes for the Club Americano, the watering hole that provides a respite to the people whose homes and livelihoods no longer exist. Along with some beautiful, shadowy black-and-white cinematography and a lively, romantic score, “Casablanca” is its own, self-contained world.
But it’s the characters that make the film so special. Rick is such a defeated soul, with his white tuxedo distracting from how gray his worldview is. Ilsa’s reappearance rips away the scars of apathy that formed over his heartsick wounds. Ilsa is still clearly guilty over abandoning Rick; all she wants is to move on to a new life with Victor in America, but when she confronts Rick she realizes she still loves him. All of these characters are part one of the greatest screen ensembles. Bogart, who had playing a burned-out romantic down to a science, was born to play Rick Blaine. His dry, slightly nasal voice and slouched soldiers add as much to the character as the dialogue does. Bogart’s captivating and deeply moving portrayal slowly breaks down Rick’s reserve and reawakening his broken heart, which now has been emboldened with the maturity to realize that he must let go the only thing he ever loved. Bergman’s performance is equally brilliant. Her beautifully expressive face (emphasis on “beautifully,” holy cow. But I digress) conveys anguish, fear and guilt, sometimes all at once. When she reveals why she didn’t meet Rick at the train station that fateful day, both of them are crushed by it. Victor Laszlo is a stiff but honorable man, and Ilsa truly loves him. But Bergman never lets Ilsa become spineless and indecisive. Her natural intelligence gives a dose to maturity to her conflict. This film is the kind of romantic drama that doesn’t exist anymore; it deals with adults whose life experiences make their romantic desires clear-eyed but no less powerful.
This film also has one of the finest supporting casts ever assembled. Peter Lorre (who co-starred with Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”) is a nasty little weasel as the murderous Ugarte. Sidney Greenstreet (also from “Maltese Falcon”) as Ferrari, a rival club owner who wants the letters, is as untrustworthy and wily as his stomach is large (he was the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt). Paul Henreid turns Victor Laszlo into a noble, tragic figure. He is what makes the central love triangle truly work because he really might be a better match for Ilsa than Rick. And Claude Rains is nothing short of brilliant as Renault, a cop who clearly relishes playing both sides of the law with sinister glee.
When we reach the final scene at that fog-covered airstrip with the Nazis closing in and Rick urging Ilsa to get on a plane and not live a life defined by regret as he has, “Casablanca” completes its journey as the ultimate tragic romance, one that puts the drivel by Nicholas Sparks and Stephanie Meyer to the utmost of shame. Rick realizes that if you love someone, you have to let them go. 70 years later the world still loves “Casablanca,” but we’ll never have to let it go.