WFTB Score: 20/20
The plot: American bar owner Rick Blaine lets anything happen in his joint, so long as he can drink alone and doesn’t have to take sides in skirmishes which reflect the war raging in Europe. However, the arrival of an inspirational resistance leader and his beautiful wife makes Rick re-evaluate his position.
It’s not easy to assess the real value of Casablanca. For one thing, watching the film from the comfort and peace of more than sixty years’ distance means we engage with the film completely differently to the audience of 1943, caught up in the middle of World War II. For another, so much of the script has passed into common parlance that to hear phrases like ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ and ‘Of all the gin joints…’ in their original context is actually rather odd.
And yet Casablanca remains a brilliantly fresh viewing experience. Eschewing the modern practice of giving characters five or ten minutes of ‘normality’ to establish themselves before anything happens, Curtiz opens with a fast-moving, violent sequence, portraying Casablanca as a seething, unbearable waiting room full of refugees, desperate to get visas to fly to Lisbon and from there to America. The film runs at 99 minutes and for the first twenty or so it hardly pauses for breath as it introduces the main characters, interspersing them with snatches of desperate conversation. Casablanca is run by corrupt police chief Renault (Claude Rains), a charmer with a weakness for ladies and money; he allows Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to run a casino in his decadent café americain so long as the odds are stacked in his favour.
The character of Rick is teasingly drawn out. He is presented as a cynic and a drinker: ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ is his mantra. Yet, we are told about previous fights against fascist forces in Europe, although he puts a mercenary slant on his activities. Into this equation comes (in)famous Resistance figure Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), with whom Rick had a passionate affair in Paris weeks before the city was occupied by Nazi forces. As the Germans close in on Lazlo, Rick is presented with a choice: he can save himself and Ilsa, giving Victor up to the Nazis; or he can secure their freedom at the expense of his own livelihood.
This tension drives the film, and Bogart is absolutely brilliant in the lead role. Hard-bitten on the surface, Bogart’s nuanced performance shows him to be angry, romantic and humorous, his drunken self-pity contrasting with the flashback to his carefree life in Paris. Opposite Bogart, Bergman’s Ilsa is luminescent, and she deftly portrays her confusion over Rick and Victor, whom she thought was dead when she met Rick. Henreid’s Lazlo is an impressive figure and you can see why people would follow him, especially in the amusing and rousing stand-off between Germans at the piano and his prompting of the band to play the Marseillaise. Rains’ Renault, meanwhile, is a perfect study of amorality. Mention should also be made of Dooley Wilson as loyal pianist Sam and Peter Lorre in a brief but iconic role as ill-fated opportunist Ugarte.
The best acting in the world would be redundant without dialogue, and the script of Casablanca is truly great. So many lines stand out that it is pointless to repeat any more of them here; they are clever and cutting whilst remaining true to life, and it is notable how generously the quips are shared between the cast. That said, Bogart’s speech sending Ilsa and Victor to freedom tops everything else, with every line seemingly a well-loved classic. The three writers thoroughly deserved their Oscar, alongside the ones for Best Picture and Best Director.
Whilst Casablanca convinces completely as a personal love story, and is memorable for its extraordinary dialogue, it attains classic status because the film is a microcosm of and a metaphor for the political situation at the time. Rick is America, reluctant to become involved in World War II; Renault represents Vichy France, too ready to comply with the orders of the Nazis, whilst Lazlo obviously represents those fighting for a Free France. Renault’s binning of the Vichy water at the film’s conclusion is blunt symbolism, but given the drama that has preceded the event it must have been a stirring action; you can only imagine the galvanising effect that Casablanca must have had on civilian and military personnel of all nations at the time of release.
Of course, there are things (apart from the subject matter) that date Casablanca: the picture ratio, the quaint special effects, the incidental score which is intrusive and overbearing for today’s tastes (not including the fabulous As Time Goes By, of course). However, none of these would have been noted in the 1940s and none of them really matter now. The talents of the actors, the grandeur of the story – the sacrifice of love when duty calls – and the quality of the script all cement Casablanca’s place in cinema history. For, as much as technology and possibilities in film-making move on, those fundamental things still apply.