The 1943 Best Picture Amounts to More Than a Hill of Beans
Casablanca holds a special place in the collective consciousness of Americans. Cinephiles and casual filmgoers, and even those who don’t ever go to the movie theater, hold the work up as an exemplar, such is its revered position in the zeitgeist. How many times has somebody started their personal impression of some other film with, “It’s not Casablanca, but...?” Is the 1943 Best Picture that good? Did it deserve to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ top accolade that year? Has it earned the right to be considered a classic of American cinema?
The short answer to those last three questions is, “Yes.” A slightly longer reply would be, “Hell, yes!” A more involved response comprises the paragraphs that follow.
As trumpeted by its title, the film takes place almost entirely in the Moroccan port city. In early December 1941, prior to the United States’ entry into the Second World War, American expatriate Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) resides in Casablanca, proprietor of a successful nightclub. Like its environs, Rick’s Café Americain plays host to a mixture of people with varied backgrounds and aims, from all over the globe: German soldiers and officials pressing their case in unoccupied French Morocco; French forces walking the line between freedom and Nazi expansionist designs; petty criminals preying on the considerable transient population; and refugees fleeing the war, many of them hoping to abscond from Casablanca so that they can reach the neutral U.S. The agglomeration of nationalities, of oppressors and tyrannized, of aggressors and victims, provides a natural dramatic tension that suffuses the story.
For his part, Rick Blaine plies his trade with professionalism and studiously avoids politics. He never drinks with patrons, and more than once, he declares that his interests rest only with his own well-being, or as he puts it: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” In a city teeming with Nazis, pro- and anti-Vichy concerns, and desperate refugees yearning to escape to freedom and safety, Rick adheres to a strict policy of personal neutrality. For reasons never quite made clear, he cannot return to America, and he shows little inclination to involve himself in the plights of those who seek to depart Casablanca and cross the Atlantic to the United States. It is not a measure of his callousness, but one of self-preservation. In a dangerous and chaotic world, Rick has carved out a safe haven for himself, and he works hard not to put his tenuous security at risk—that is, until two unexpected visitors reach the city.
Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried), an influential leader of the resistance against the Nazis, arrives in Casablanca after escaping a German concentration camp, where he’d been held for a year. A woman accompanies Laszlo on his journey, and not just any woman. Before the Nazis had invaded Paris eighteen months earlier, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) had been romantically involved there with Rick. They had resolved to leave the French capital together, by rail, before German tanks rolled into the city, but Ilsa never appeared at the train station. She sent along only a note telling Rick, without explanation, that she could not go with him—or even ever see him again.
One of the reasons that Casablanca succeeds as a film lies in the twofold nature of its conflict. On the one hand, Rick must deal with the unexpected reappearance in his life of a woman he loved and wanted to marry. On the other, the circumstances of their meeting revolve around the importance of Ilsa’s traveling companion—and current romantic partner—to the globally critical effort to defeat the Third Reich. It is vitally important that Victor Laszlo find his way out of Casablanca, something he will not do without Ilsa. Without wanting to, Rick ends up in the middle of those efforts.
The film operates brilliantly in all its aspects, from the conspicuous features of writing, acting, and directing, to the less obvious artistry of editing, cinematography, art design, set decoration, and music. Adapted from the unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein’s screenplay works because it perfectly draws its characters, their struggles, and the enveloping geopolitical havoc. The script contains numerous iconic lines—such as “Round up the usual suspects”; “Here’s looking at you, kid”; and “We’ll always have Paris”—but it is so much more than that. All of the characters, from the main cast to the secondary players, are written in recognizable and believable detail, and their interactions carry the story forward with ease and eloquence. Even the MacGuffin that drives the plot delivers: the two letters of transit, signed by a general and unable to be rescinded, are contrivances of the original playwrights, but are utterly believable in the context of the film.
On top of that, Casablanca has a droll sensibility. Comedic moments are, perhaps surprisingly, sprinkled liberally throughout the story, relieving the tension and the dramatic life-or-death consequences of the choices that the characters must make. The mostly dry humor serves to ground the story and the players, and it succeeds because of the intelligence behind it. Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains speak many of the better lines, and because both the actors and the characters they portray are smart, the lines land to considerable effect.
Although neither won an Academy Award, Messrs. Bogart and Rains deservedly received nominations, in the categories of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Mr. Rains’ Captain Louis Renault heads Casablanca’s police prefecture. Unapologetically corrupt, with an eye for young women and no compunctions about using his position of authority to force their compliance, Renault is easy to paint as only a villain. Like the other denizens of the city, he is motivated by survival and self-interest, but that doesn’t mean he approves of the Nazis, or that he wouldn’t oppose them if he could.
The Academy did not reward Ingrid Bergman with an Oscar nomination, but it easily could have; her strong, radiant performance as Ilsa Lund justifies the depth of the love that both Rick Blaine and Victor Laszlo feel for her. Likewise, the film’s costars contribute effectively to its story and ambience with realism and style. Paul Henried shows freedom fighter Laszlo to be a good and capable man, driven to defeat the Third Reich and well suited to the task. Nazi General Heinrich Strasser, as played by Conrad Veidt, embodies the evils of Hitler’s Germany. Sydney Greenstreet—as Ferrari, a black marketeer and owner of the Blue Parrot nightclub—and Peter Lorre—as Ugarte, an unctuous, two-bit huckster—inhabit their characters as neither heroes nor villains, but add layers to the setting and serve the overall story. Even the supporting players embody their roles in ways that elevate Casablanca: S.Z. Sakall as Carl, the Hungarian manager of Rick’s Café American; Madeleine Lebeau as Ferench expat Yvonne; Dooley Wilson as Sam, the American bandleader at Rick’s; Joy Page as Annina Brandel, a Bulgarian refugee; John Qualen as Berger, a member of the underground resistance; and Leonid Kinsky as Sascha, a Russian bartender at Rick’s. They are all directed masterfully by Michael Curtiz, who took home an Academy Award for his efforts.
Casablanca also looks beautiful. Shades of gray dress and deepen the film’s sets, and Arthur Edeson’s carefully choreographed black-and-white cinematography, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, helps develop the moods of individual scenes. The movement of the camera and the shots it picks out are sometimes surprising, as when the lens tracks Rick into his office, apparently peering at him through one of its walls, where he strides out of view, leaving only his shadow to reveal him opening a safe.
Music, too, plays an important role in Casablanca, not just in terms of the soundtrack, but how it affects the characters. Although not written specifically for the film, “As Time Goes By” remains inescapably tethered to it. Employed as a leitmotif for Rick and Ilsa’s feelings for each other, the song recurs several times, tying the pair together, as well as linking the two stages of their relationship—in Casablanca in December 1941, where they struggle to resolve their renewed emotions, and also in a flashback to Paris in June 1940, where the couple first met and fell in love.
In the end, the film explores themes of love and responsibility, of self-interest and nobility, of the powerful problems life can impose and the simple joys that can lift people. Casablanca is that rarest of cinematic gems: a true five-star film. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you, because you still have the opportunity to discover it for yourself. If you have seen it, isn’t it about time you watched it again?
***** (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III