Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt
Even with the roughest exteriors set out by people apathetic to anything not concerning them, surely one thing will always be able to penetrate the shell. At times the wear down happens gradually and in the immaculate Casablanca, it just so happens to walk into your gin joint on one random night.
With World War II raging on, Nazi Germany has expanded its reach and has left many trying to flee to America. The safe and neutral place to accomplish this has become Casablanca, Morocco where many visit Rick’s Café Américain run by American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). He stays out of any sort of politics and remains completely unattached to anyone until he meets once again with Isla Lund (Ingrid Bergman) as she seeks his help.
Staying neutral in World Wars has always been a fascinating decision for me, as these nations may be aware of the atrocities happening on either side and choose to simply not participate. It could be for a plethora of reasons, but in the case of Rick, it just so happens to be apathy. He runs the most well-known gin joint in all of Casablanca and many know the rules of his establishment. He never has drinks with his patrons and he approves who gets to illegally gamble in his backroom. As an American, Rick represents his country inadvertently by practicing isolationism in unoccupied France. However, just like in both World Wars, America gets pulled into it eventually, as does Rick with the re-introduction of Isla Lund in his life.
Everything happens in a flash as Casablanca has become the place where refugees purchase a visa to travel to North America through Lisbon, Portugal. Ilsa enters with her husband, a fugitive Czech Resistance leader named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) hoping to meet with someone to obtain a visa. Ilsa recognizes the piano player of the club as someone from her past and asks him to play her favorite song, “As Time Goes By.” Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player, feigns ignorance about the song because he remembers her as well but then decides to play and sing the tune. It gets Rick’s attention as he approaches his piano player and locks eyes once again with the woman he once loved in Paris.
Watching Casablanca became an educational experience of how perfect a screenplay can be at setting up the players and having every line have its own payoff. Every single piece of dialogue serves to either further establish the characters or push the story forward. It beautifully pierces through the mysterious personas these characters want to present to the world and reveals their most insecure moments in a completely organic manner. The wittiness of the dialogue particularly held by Rick and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), skates by on topics not usually permitted to be spoken on at the time.
The character of Rick Blaine becomes increasingly more fascinating as the story continues as we see the difference between what he presents to the world and the genuine pain he hides every single day. He becomes the moral gray area in Casablanca, where French refugees seek help, and Germans linger without the power to assume control. In his past, Rick ran guns in Africa and also helped fight along the resistance fighters against the Spanish fascist regime. He’s a veteran at battle and after what happened in Paris, he no longer wants any other troubles in life. Relationships with women never last and the only true friend he has comes from his piano player, Sam. For all of the work he puts into creating these rules for his establishment, moments of sentimentality sneak out when helping specific people in their refugee process and when he emotionally breaks down when they close for the night. Ilsa certainly plays a major part, because everything they experienced together in the past comes rushing back. Humphrey Bogart uses his suave and sleek nature to bring even more gravitas to this character. The legendary actor walks the fine balance of this role and produces such a vulnerable performance as a leading man.
So many intricacies exist in this story and it wraps together perfectly because of the characters established. Along with Rick, we also see several incredible scenes from Captain Louis Renault, who runs the police unit of Casablanca. He plays the game as much as Rick in running an unoccupied area but still being cordial with the Nazis. He can brownnose better than anyone and get himself a favorable result whenever he wishes. The relationship between him and Rick becomes more fascinating to follow than the romance, if I’m being completely honest. Rick and Louis share some of the greatest moments this screenplay has to offer and their scenes bring the most resonance.
The love story stems from a tragedy of circumstances and once Ingrid Bergman appears on-screen everything instantly gravitates towards her as Ilsa. She finds herself married to a great and respected man in Victor Laszlo. He leads a resistance and the Nazi Germans genuinely fear the impact he can have with uniting people and giving them hope for change. Laszlo represents a movement and the Germans have made sure he will not leave Casablanca and make his way to the United States. Everything gets complicated emotionally for Ilsa when she walks in Rick’s club and locks eyes with the man she used to love. The pain and weight of her past meeting her present comes through Bergman’s performance in her acts of desperation and pleas.
Each character in Casablanca has their own aims and it becomes fairly clear for everyone except Rick. He weaves through this story within the gray area, which makes every move he makes surprising. He could keep his rugged nature like he has for much of the film and then instantly decide to be sentimental and help others. It makes him the most interesting character in the entire story, which typically does not happen in these leading man roles in my experience. We have to wait until the very end to truly crack this character and understand his motives in life.
The amount of quotes that have come from this film and permeated our culture speaks to the prominence of this feature. From “Here’s looking at you, kid” to “We’ll always have Paris.” Every line of this legendary movie provides some sort of resonance. Even the moments alone, where Rick ponders seeing Ilsa once again and asks Sam to play their song. He says “You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can.” The first real moment of vulnerability for Rick and one where we begin to understand him.
Ultimately, Casablanca remains a story about freedom and the will of people to fight back against a fascist regime. The freedom comes in the form of resistance but also the personal freedom of Rick as he finds initiative in his life for the first time in years. The love triangle taking place could fill its own story but it beautifully underscores the greater plot happening around them. The film is jam-packed with so many thrilling moments, including when the Marseillaise gets played by the house band and sung by the patrons, as Nazi soldiers attempt to drown them out. If I were forced to choose one film to be the perfect film in history, without hesitation this feature would be my choice. The apex of classic Hollywood and one that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so because of its universal ideas and incredible character work.