Many of the films I’ve watched so far have all had their moments. The memorable scene that people think of when they think of the film. Every time I watch Casablanca, I am always struck by just how much of the film has branded itself onto my memory. You can’t deny how deeply the film has soaked into our subconscious and into a culture. Film posters have emulated Casablanca’s iconic poster (The Good German is a great example) and some films would have never existed without Casablanca (yeah, I’m looking at you Play It Again, Sam). While it’s original intentions might have been propaganda, the film has transcended that to become one of the best films to have ever been made.
Set in Casablanca in the early years of World War II, we are introduced to Rick Blaine. Owner of a very popular night club, Rick’s Cafe Americain, he is perceived as cold and keeps his distance from the people around him. When a patron, Ugarte, is captured for the murder of two German Officers, Rick finds himself in possession of two letters of transit. With the appearance of Major Strasser (a high ranking Nazi official), the local police, lead by Captain Louis Renault, are on alert to an important arrival. Victor Laszlo, an important Czech underground fighter, makes his way to Casablanca with his wife in an attempt to flee to America. Much to Rick’s surprise, Laszlo’s wife turns out to be Ilsa Lund; a woman Rick fell head over heels in love with while in Paris. With Captain Renault and Major Strasser tightening their hold around the couple, Rick must make a difficult and pain decision: to help or stick his neck out for no one?
The iconic performances in this film have managed to stick to our pop culture psyche. What’s more interesting is the fact the casting was considered pretty “unremarkable” at the time. Michele Morgan was the first choice for Ilsa, but was asking too much money. Many thought the idea of Humphrey Bogart playing a romantic lead was laughable. Yet, in that magical serendipity that these movies all have, everything seemed to work. While I love the rugged, hard Rick, it is Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault that makes the movie for me. From the moment he comes on screen, you know that he isn’t someone to trust fully. What really makes the performance is the subtext that Rains brought to the character. With the strict “Production Code” enforced, many of the more “colorful” aspects of Renault’s character had to be cut. Yet, without saying much you can still look at Renault on screen and know right away what he’s about.
He also has some of the best lines/moments in the film. A personal favorite is when he’s closing up the club for having a “gambling den”. He feigns being shocked and disgusted when a worker for the club pays him his winnings. He quickly thanks the gentleman, then goes back to closing down the club. A combination of excellent writing and Rains performance makes my favorite character in the film. Peter Lorre’s cameo (even thought cameo’s weren’t really a thing then) always tickles me. In the same way Steve Buscemi is recognizable to modern audiences, Peter Lorre was a well known character actor who played the “underworld” archetype. While his screen time in the film is short, he leaves a very lasting impression.
In addition to the performances, you can’t talk about the film without the mention of both the writing and music. On another AFI…Top 100 list, six Casablanca quotes were listed as part of the top All Time Movie Quotes. The film was based upon an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison. It was brought to the screen by Julius J Epstein & Philip G Epstein and Howard Koch. The script went through some rewrites from it’s inception, most of the rewrites due to the Production Code enforcing the standards they had set. As equally important is the music in the film. Max Steiner was responsible for the original music in the film. What I’ve noticed, the more I watch the film, is how brilliantly the music is woven into the film. At different moments, you can hear a few bars from the German national anthem and French national anthem. Of course, As Time Goes By, has become synonymous with the film. Written by Herman Hupfeld, it was used in other films and Broadway shows, but not until Casablanca did it become famous.
What seems to be forgotten about the film is that is wasn’t made as pure entertainment. Made after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was part of the films coming out of Hollywood that were used as part of the war effort. In fact, it was released almost a month after the Allies invaded Casablanca. You can also see other touches in the film that point more toward propaganda. In an attempt to make the film more marketable to the foreign markets (at least, the ones we weren’t at war with), if a shady character wasn’t a Nazi or German, they were Italian. The pick pocket (“Vultures, Vultures!”) who is seen throughout the film was purposefully made to be Italian. While not as bad as some of the other propaganda from the time, it’s still interesting that such a well loved film was purposed in this way originally.
It’s hard to watch this movie and not find something you like in it. Moreover, every time I watch it, I find something new and interesting. The fact that repeat viewings only make the film better really speaks to why it’s lasted as long as it has. Despite the fact it was considered an unremarkable film when it was made, it has proven to be one of the greats to have come out of that time in Hollywood. It’s a standard that many other films hold themselves to and will always be an example of what happens when all the elements are perfect.