What more can be said about the most beloved movie of all time? That it’s one of the greatest films in history? Well, that goes without saying, even though it has been mentioned countless times. Casablanca proves problematic for modern critics precisely because it so timeless. It has rightly been hailed as one of the true masterpieces of the screen for so long now that all praise seems to have already been given long ago. Even the folklore, true or not, has been repeated endlessly.
Maybe what is due for examination is a study on why it is so great and how its power has worked for generations. Strangely, the writer spring-boarding this examination was not a film scholar but a semiotics professor, Umberto Eco. Eco made perhaps the biggest breakthrough in understanding how the magic of Casablanca works. Casablanca is a collection of clichés. Everything in the movie was already a familiar trope by 1942. There is the story of a man turned cynical by the loss of love, a couple reuniting in danger, a woman choosing between two lovers, a locale in a state of transition, flashbacks to happier times, and a race against time. All of this is familiar, but it works. In fact, that may be the very reason Casablanca has such a special place in our hearts. It is the ultimate film containing everything we love about the movies, the romance, the adventure, and even the comedy. When all of these clichés get together, they transcend themselves and create something absolutely amazing.
In part, this happens because of a clever script and brilliant acting. But there is also something else at play, a mysterious quality that makes Casablanca so great. It is a world unto itself that can only exist in the movies. That’s why its magic can never be recreated.
Casablanca was filmed on the backlot of Warner Bros. Studio, but the setting was French-controlled North Africa in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is also the setting for the stories of the great Albert Camus, also concerned with human nature in the face of extraordinary situations. Casablanca captures the agony of waiting, as all the people we meet as the film opens are desperately trying to find visas to America. These opening shots introduce us to the main antagonists, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and the smarmy Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains in his most memorable of many roles).
Then we are taken to Rick’s Café, which has become so iconic and cinematic by now, that it feels like a place that can only exist in the movies. It’s a little world separate from the war. The introduction of Rick Blaine himself is amazing. We get a glimpse of his cynicism when he scribbles simply ‘OK’ on a check before the camera tilts up to his face. The nuance of Humphrey Bogart’s performance, even when he’s not saying a word, tells us a lot about Rick through fine characterization. Rick is an influential character, and though his influence is understated, shades of him appearing in various places.
Everything Bogart does adds to the character. Not one line is wasted. Rick’s attitude (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) is an allegory, as is everything else in this movie, about America entering WWII. But this is very subtle. Casablanca exists on the sheer strength of its characters.
But even the minor characters are well-developed. This movie is the ultimate example of how diverse characterizations can create a masterpiece. Take Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau). She is a woman of heartbreak and wants to see more of Rick in her life. Capt. Renault is highly influential as well. His shadow can be seen as late as Col. Landa in Inglourious Basterds. He is extremely self-serving and swayed more by the prospect of victory than ideology. Of course, he is also a womanizer and offers his help to refugees, as long as the women “pay” him for his help. Veidt’s Strasser, meanwhile, is the iconic sophisticated Nazi.
Indeed, no one in Casablanca, with the exception of Laszlo, is particularly honest. Everyone (including Rick and Ilsa) are haunted by dark secrets. Curiously, they are all motivated to good for different reasons, not all of them admirable. Rick eventually does the right thing. Rick does the right thing because deep down inside he is a sentimentalist. Capt. Renault, however, sways towards whichever side has the upper hand. Even the weasly black-marketer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) professes to help people escape but, as Rick reminds him, for a price. Of course he doesn’t mention that he bumped off two German couriers to gather the transit letters. Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) runs the rival Blue Parrot Club and stoops as low as trying to buy Sam from Rick. He does end up helping Victor and Ilsa escape, for a hefty sum of course.
The clearest proof of the film’s solid characterizations is Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo. His character also demonstrates how to do a love triangle right. The greatest thing the writers did was not making Victor an unsavory man. This make’s Ilsa’s ultimate decision a real hard one to make. For all intents and purposes, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor are happily married. But the movie understands that to be romantic and have an impact, things cannot last forever. This brings poignancy to the triangle.
Laszlo is a ridiculously understanding man. He knows from the start that his wife and Rick shared a past in Paris while he was in a concentration camp and presumed dead, but he stays quiet. Meanwhile, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund is clearly the strongest link in her relationship with Rick. She was able to confront her memories and accept them in a way that Rick was not.
The male relationships in Casablanca are just as interesting. In the friendship between Rick and his piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson), Sam represents the voice of reason. Renault also has a hidden admiration for Rick. They play tennis with their wit.
There is also an inevitable competition between Rick and Victor, but Rick knows that they must forge a friendship somehow. It must be hard for Rick, heartbroken over Ilsa, to deal with the other man in her life. Who does Ilsa really love? She’s obviously in love with Rick. What she has for Victor is admiration and respect. Victor is fighting for a great cause and truly loves her. He proves this when he tells Rick that if he won’t give him the letters of transit then at least to be sure his wife is safe.
Rick, meanwhile, is letting his personal feelings cloud his thinking. He is self-absorbed and, as Ilsa surmises, he is taking revenge on the world because a woman hurt him. Rick, as we all know by now, changes. Ilsa will always know how much she hurt him and Victor will always know how much his wife loves Rick. This is what makes their situation so poignant.
Not enough can be said of Ingrid Bergman’s performance. There was something almost pious about every role Bergman touched, and this is especially obvious in her performance as Ilsa. Ilsa is a woman of courage who has witnessed many atrocities. Bergman makes this the characters cause to act. However, the brilliance of Bergman’s performance is that through her we can see the heartache that Ilsa tries to hide. Her priority is selfless participation in the war effort, making her one of the first female characters strong enough to put commitment to a just cause above her romantic interests.
In part, the sincerity of the performance comes from Bergman’s first-hand view of the Nazi’s rise to power while filming movies in Germany. She, like many others in America and elsewhere (“I bet they’re sleeping all over America,” Rick says at one point), had underestimated the power of the Third Reich and now felt it was her duty to motivate support for the Allied Forces. In doing so she gave one of the most earnest performances in the history of movies.
Is Rick initially glad when Victor is arrested and is it his guilt that motivates him to do the right thing? Hard to say, but it would have been all wrong if Ilsa stayed with Rick at the end. This would have killed the film’s theme of self-sacrifice. Rick is sacrificing for a greater cause than the troubles of three people. The ending of Casablanca is, then, not so much happy as ambiguous, the very fog that covers the airport representing the uncertainty of the future.
Earlier, the film had used a sequence showing French Resistance fighters defiantly singing La Marsellaise in front of Nazi officers, as a way to rally the Allied forces to shut up and out-sing the Third Reich. Casablanca tells a love story with a sense of urgency in the background. It’s the devotion of the three lead characters to each other and their cause that makes Casablanca the perfect movie that it is. There is so much to say about this film that no single article could ever do it justice. Fortunately, it is the kind of movie that can be watched over and over again, with something new coming to the surface on each viewing. Casablanca is the rare influential film that hasn’t inspired many later movies. Even the great François Truffaut refused an offer to remake the film. Filmmakers realize that you can’t match Casablanca. Its influence lives on in quotations (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) and memories. A masterpiece cannot be improved on.