Casablanca is a great romance, a stirring wartime adventure, a suspenseful action movie, and in the end, a terrific buddy movie. It’s listed again and again on the top ten lists of critics and fans alike. Its snappy lines are repeated by movie buffs the world over. All in all, a great movie.
World War II has engulfed Europe, reaching all the way to Rick Blaine’s Café Americain in French-held Morocco. The Nazis have overrun France and are heading into its unoccupied possessions in Africa, and all kinds of people are trying to escape them by way of Casablanca.
The plot revolves around “letters of transit” that will provide safe passage by air to Lisbon, and then to America, a rare and precious commodity indeed. And even though Blaine (Humphrey Bogart in his first romantic lead) is an embittered expatriate who would prefer to sit out the war in his café, the tightening conflict eventually forces Rick, and everybody else, to take sides.
The Cast of ‘Casablanca’
Bogart is wonderful as the mysterious café owner with a past, set up in the nightclub business with his longtime friend and piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson). As we meet his employees, we see Rick’s not quite the cynic he pretends to be. All are clearly refugees under his protection. The emotional Russian bartender, the polished French croupier, the grandfatherly German waiter, and of course, Sam, make Rick’s café the only place to be.
His haven is disrupted when his one-time love Ilsa (the luminous Ingrid Bergman) arrives in the company of a world-renowned resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), whom the Nazis would very much like to get their hands on. She’s looking for safe passage, first from Rick, who believes she jilted him for Laszlo, and then from the marvelous Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, the owner of the rival Blue Parrot.
Claude Rains nearly steals the movie as Captain Renault, the deliciously corrupt prefect of police, who accepts money and the favors of especially lovely refugees to arrange escapes. Peter Lorre (Ugarte) runs a cut-rate smuggling trade, and Conrad Veidt is a first-rate Nazi villain.
Bogart and Bergman shine in their only screen pairing, but it’s the flawless direction and ensemble cast that make this movie, from the nameless pickpocket in the opening sequence to the elderly Jewish couple earnestly fracturing English phrases as they prepare for the passage to America. With just a few spare lines of dialogue, a glimpsed gesture, a few moments of screen time, the characters are fully sketched, and Rick’s café seems very real.
A big-budget film for its day, Casablanca was shot almost entirely on sound stages and the studio lot. Based on the unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” the screenwriters essentially made the story up as they went along, and no one knew exactly how it would end – which may have added to the film’s very real suspense and freshness. In fact, the famous last line of the film wasn’t even recorded until three weeks after shooting ended.
As every review of Casblanca is required to note, nobody in the film ever actually says the infamous line: “Play it again, Sam,” in reference to Rick and Ilsa’s song, “As Time Goes By.” Both characters ask Wilson to play the song, but never use those precise words. Nevertheless, the misquote abounds, and was cast in cement by the 1972 title of Woody Allen’s film, Play it Again, Sam.
Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz stitched together Casablanca’s complicated plot with a sure hand, and won the Best Director Oscar. The movie is clearly a metaphor for American involvement in World War II, which may have had something to do with Curtiz’s European beginnings and the political leanings of the writing team. (Although Curtiz left Europe long before the rise of the Nazis, some members of his family died in Auschwitz.)
While he made other well-regarded films such as Mildred Pierce and The Sea Wolf, Casablanca is undoubtedly his master work.
Casablanca is thrilling on the first viewing, and so richly textured it rewards watching over and over. The dialogue is clever, touching and dryly funny by turns, utterly irresistible. See it once, and then see it again.
Year: 1942, black and white
Director: Michael Curtiz
Running Time: 102 minutes
Studio: Warner Brothers