“Casablanca” is often referred to by critics as America’s most beloved movie. The subject of what makes it so has been endlessly dissected and examined; conversations which have yielded a myriad of valid points that all ring true. Yet, after watching the film, it seems the protracted scroll of writings on the subject of “Casablanca” is not articulated in a way that fully delivers a satisfying answer as to why it works so well. The film has a unique charm to it that you can’t quite put your finger on, even though everything that has been said or written comes collectively close. I think it’s this elusiveness that attracts viewers to “Casablanca,” ultimately bestowing upon the origins of the film’s beloved qualities a sentiment personal to each viewer that all the essays and criticisms can never fully capture.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca,” in a way, became the little film that could. Based on an insignificant, unpublished stage play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” Warner Brothers purchased the screen rights and moved into production under a new moniker: “Casablanca.” Despite the respected cast and crew, no one involved in the production conceived this as a project bearing any extraordinary qualities. It was simply a film like any other, thus attracting little expectation. But upon its release, “Casablanca” became that undervalued; overachieving draft pick for Warner that went on to score Eight Academy Award nominations, eventually taking home three, including Best Picture for 1943.
Set in French-controlled Morocco during WWII, “Casablanca” follows American expatriate Rick Blaine, a hard-boiled cynic who runs a popular nightclub and gambling den. "Rick's Café Américain" attracts a tossed variety of clientele, including European refugees, Nazi officials and the only woman he ever really loved: Ilsa Lund. Her darkening Rick’s doorway complicates his allegiance to being an island and living by his personal code, which he repeatedly sums up as not sticking his neck out for anyone. When he comes into possession of two letters of transit, he is confronted with the decision of whether or not to give them to Isla and her husband, thus connecting him back to the mainland.
One reason “Casablanca” is such an intriguing picture is the theme of adopting a duplicitous nature for the sake of survival .When these characters and their dueling motivations collide at Rick’s gin joint, it creates an interesting suspense, wondering who will cave and act according to the dictates of their true selves. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then war time generates a need for individuals to invent an alter ego in order to protect their interests. Several of the main characters exhibit double-dealing qualities to guard what is personally at stake. In the case of Rick, his hardened exterior of neutrality becomes an obvious ruse for his true sense of nobility and justice. For Ilsa, her commitment to her husband and his work as a Nazi resistance leader work overtime to restrain her true feelings for Rick, which, incidentally, she also conceals from her husband. Finally, the corrupt Captain Renault continually acts to appeases Nazi officials, but harbors a sympathetic adherence to anything opposing the Third Reich.
And while this suspense may be the pulse of the film, its beating heart is the thwarted romance between Rick and Ilsa. To fill the audience in on their romantic past, a series of flashbacks chronicles their short, yet meaningful time together in Paris. Aware of the oncoming invasion by the Nazis, they resolve to flee Paris together the next day. However, Rick is left soaking in the rain on the train platform, as Ilsa proves to be a no-show, leaving Rick unable to heal as his wondering what happened to her picks away at his wound.
When Ilsa finally does show up, with a husband, no less, the audience begins to churn over the possible explanations just like Rick has been doing for so long: Did she get tripped up by the Nazis on her way to the station? Did she get the wrong departure time and platform? Was she just funking with Rick’s heart for some nefarious purpose? Or is she just a classic two-timing hussy getting her kicks on Route 66? Whatever the reason, it simply turns out not matter because it’s Ingrid Bergman, and the guilt and pain scrawled across her angelic face would soften any man’s heart. Rick proves no exception, and as their muddled past becomes untangled through explanation, their romantic link is once again reunited, which only serves to amplify the heartbreak when Rick heroically sacrifices his second chance with Ilsa for a greater cause.
However, having said all of that, I can’t feel too sympathetic toward Rick for being left on the platform in Paris. From the outset, Rick and Ilsa’s number one relationship rule was to not ask each other questions about their pasts. So effectively they each fell in love with an illusion. Illusions are dangerous people because they don’t have any flaws, not at first, anyway. But when those flaws are inevitably discovered, the reality can be crushing. If a guy like Rick is going to open his heart so extensively to someone he doesn’t even know, he is taking a risky and foolish move, which doesn’t engender a lot of compassion for his tricky situation.
In realizing Rick and Ilsa, Bogart and Bergman generate a cool, effortless chemistry, that feels subtle and realistic, which seems unique in a film from an era where onscreen romances tended to drip with melodrama. Instead, their love is grounded and relatable, but ultimately torn apart by the unreal circumstances of WWII. Ironically, it’s this cleavage of their love that makes Rick and Ilsa such an unforgettable onscreen couple because it creates a foggy and fascinating terrain through which they must traverse, not knowing what will await them on the other side.
Legend has it that during production, two scripts existed with alternate endings, one with Rick boarding theplane and one where he remains behind in Casablanca. Apparently, the cast did not know which version would be chosen for filming up until the day they shot the scene. They obviously made the right decision to go with the version that ends up in the film. If Rick had boarded that plane with Ilsa, it would have turned the experience into another happily-ever-after affair like so many others. Not that there is anything wrong with that. However, Rick’s decision to put ideals first exhibits a restraint, elevating their relationship to bittersweet status, making it distinctively haunting. Ultimately, I think the filmmaker’s choice boiled down to courage over commercialism. In going with the latter, they displayed a commitment to the accuracy of the story, which is something I think that viewers appreciate when they watch “Casablanca.” It’s not necessarily the happy ending, but it’s the truth and it respects the audience enough to be able to handle it just fine.
If the dialogue is indeed the lyrics to “Casablanca,” then “As Time Goes By” is literally and figuratively the film’s tune. The American Film Institute ranked it second on their list of the 100 greatest songs used in cinema. It’s simply irresistible and perfectly encapsulates the mood of Rick and Ilsa’s bittersweet romance, particularly given its message of enduring love. And no matter how much time goes by, “Casablanca” will always prove that the problems of three little people do amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world, especially for current generations and those still to come.
Favorite Line: “Casablanca” produces such a laundry list of notable quotables that it’s difficult to settle on just one. Of course “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of beautiful friendship” are all classics. So for the sake of going against the grain, I’ll say my favorite line is uttered near the end of the film when Rick is holding Captain Renault at gunpoint, coolly threatening him to put down a telephone, saying, “I’ve got my gun pointed right at your heart.” Unfazed, the corrupt Captain Renault wittingly responds, “That’s my least vulnerable spot.”