Routinely described as one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly one of the most enduringly popular, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca is a film that has become so much more than a mere two-hour celluloid love story during the decades since its initial release. Its characters, lines and images have been so commonly referenced elsewhere in pop culture it would be an incredibly tough task to list all of the examples (though there is an attempt on IMDB in relation to film and TV), and even though I have only just watched the film for the first time every ten minutes or so I felt like I was re-visiting an entirely familiar source. Casablanca is, of course, the home of several cinematic scenes and lines of dialogue that routinely pop up on lists that supposedly detail the very best of both, and with these coupled with memorable performances and music it’s not exactly difficult to see why it is cherished by so many.
Shot in a Hollywood studio during the summer of 1942, and set in December 1941 in the Moroccan city of the title, Casablanca is a fairly straightforward (not an insult) romance that examines the notions of freedom and free will, featuring two iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the couple negotiating their way through the tail end of a wartime fling. Bogie – two inches shorter than Bergman and standing on platforms or sitting on cushions in many of their scenes together – attempted his first ever romantic role with Rick, an American who has retired from the business of helping freedom fighters battle fascist forces, having previously operated across Europe and Africa. By the end of 1941 he is running the popular Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, an establishment attracting a variety of locals and others passing through the city, all looking to drink, gamble and have a good time.
The film – which was based on an unproduced play called Everybody Comes To Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison – benefits from the intriguing setting. In 1941 Morocco was still under French rule, but the Germans had gained control of northern France and were battling Allied forces (with Italy) across most of North Africa. The Americans, meanwhile, had not yet entered the war, and refugees from Europe were using Casablanca in order to get to Lisbon in a roundabout way, where they could then travel on to the USA. As such Rick’s café acts as a microcosm of the wider theatre of war, with the power struggles taking place within the establishment between an American, a Frenchman, a German and a Czech fugitive reflecting the wider, bloody fighting going on outside. Rick protests his neutrality throughout, despite actions to the contrary, but ultimately he has to choose and publicly declare his side. His country would soon follow suit.
From his own carefully-run base Rick helps to facilitate the movement of refugees out of the city, all under the watchful eye of corrupt local official Captain Renault (Claude Rains). When a crook named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) murders two German officers for their valuable letters of transit (which allow the bearers to travel freely around Germany-controlled Europe), it results in an increased Nazi presence, with Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, ironically a German Jew who left his own country for the sanctuary of the USA) taking a particular interest in the comings and goings at the bar. Chiefly Strasser is interested in Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a well-known Czech Resistance leader, and his wife Ilsa Lund (Bergman), who show up with the intention of flying on to the US via Lisbon. Rick, in possession of the requisite letters of transit, is in a position to help Ilsa and Victor, but there’s just one sticking point: Ilsa was Rick’s lover in Paris, and jilted him at the station for an unknown reason when he fled the city in 1940.
There’s certainly plenty of chemistry between Bergman and Bogart, and their initial on-screen meetings sizzle with tension as a result of the jilting, which is shown in flashback. The awkward and coincidental reunion leads to the famous request by Ilsa for piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play their song, As Time Goes By, as well as Rick’s maudlin complaint ‘Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine’. The sentimental but perfectly-realised romance at the heart of the film is actually a standard love triangle, with Laszlo largely in the dark about his wife’s past until the later stages of the film, but it holds the viewer’s interest thanks to some excellent writing and some fine acting. Bergman and Bogart make a great pair of doomed lovers, him snarling and her glowing, their wartime Romeo and Juliet unable to escape circumstantial fate, while Henreid – often criticised for his performance – makes a sacrifice of sorts as the unremarkable and stiff third wheel. (And yet he is central to my favourite scene in the film, while Bergman and Bogart take a backseat.)
Freedom, or free will, remains relevant to the story from start to finish. Casablanca is most obviously concerned with the freedom to travel across borders, but the concept is central to all of the various plot strands. There are several characters who wish to leave Morocco and are unable to do so, including Rick, who states at one point that he cannot go back to America (for reasons that are never made clear). Additionally it is obvious that Rick, for all his stand-offish ways, has a strong sense of loyalty to his staff in the café, especially Sam, who accompanied him when he left Paris as a spurned wreck. Rick therefore feels that he cannot leave his employees in the lurch, although the decision is eventually taken out of his hands when the bar is shut down by the authorities.
Rick and Ilsa both seek another kind of freedom: they are not at liberty to re-start their previous relationship as Ilsa is married to Laszlo, who she previously thought had died in a concentration camp; she is now trapped in a relationship with a man she admires, rather than loves. Elsewhere Captain Renault is no longer free to act as he please in his own city as the cold Strasser exerts his own influence over Casablanca, and it takes Rick’s extreme action at the end for Renault to realise that there is a way out of the situation he has found himself in. The ‘trapped’ characters are eventually given their freedom as a result of the sacrifices of others: Ilsa and Laslzo receive theirs from Rick, as do the young Bulgarian couple who win enough money to buy their way out of the country from a loaded roulette game. Rick is granted freedom by Renault turning a blind eye to the murder at the end of the film, though admittedly it is little recompense for a nobly-broken heart.
Interestingly, Morocco itself isn’t ‘free’ in this film, and the country remained under French protectorate until the mid-1950s. As such there is real subtext to the famous, rousing moment mentioned above, in which SS soldiers singing Die Wacht am Rhein are drowned out by a tubthumping rendition of La Marseillaise. Many of the extras used in the film were actually refugees, and some reportedly burst into tears at the end of this moving scene, which is arguably the finest in the film. It’s ironic that Rick’s patrons are singing a song about fighting for liberty in a colony that they themselves have been ruling for decades.
Alongside the two key performances, the initial success and enduring appeal of Casablanca is surely due to its script, which is packed with lines that are reassuringly familiar today. Aside from those mentioned above, the film is also home to Rick’s famous proclamation that ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’, as well as his wonderful and oft-repeated ‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid’. And so much more besides: it was pleasing to discover that Casablanca’s script is filled with witty asides and one-liners, many of which haven’t become quite so famous.
It’s surprising that the script feels as tight as it does, given that Casablanca went through a long process of re-writes. Burnett and Alison’s play was initially adapted for the screen by Julius and Philip Epstein, who left before the job was finished in order to work with Frank Capra. Howard Koch picked up the baton in their absence, and wrote 30-40 pages (eventually unused, though Koch disagreed), before the Epsteins returned to finish the screenplay. Julius Epstein later claimed that the script had ‘more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined’, and it’s hard to disagree, but crucially he added to his point by stating ‘when corn works, there’s nothing better’.
Casey Robinson was hired for three weeks of re-writes, and several lines were even added by producer Hal Wallis after the film had wrapped, necessitating some dubbing from Bogart just before it was released. Despite the plethora of writers its impossible to find discrepancies or mis-matching material, and it’s little wonder that Roger Ebert wrote that the film’s script is ‘wonderfully unified and consistent’. (As an interesting aside, in 1982 the writer Chuck Ross retyped the screenplay, changing the name and some other details, before sending it to 217 agencies. Only 85 read it, and of those 38 rejected it outright, 33 generally recognised it (but only 8 specifically as Casablanca), three declared it commercially viable, and one suggested turning it into a novel.)
Interestingly Curtiz – who was second choice for the folding chair as William Wyler was busy – is not celebrated to the same extent as the writers, despite winning the Academy Award for Best Director the following year. While there are many great lines and scenes in the film, it is perhaps lacking in truly memorable single shots, at least in relation to the amount of praise the movie has received. Curtiz explained that he wanted his images to express the story, rather than stand alone, though it has been suggested he had little input regarding the plot. He made a couple of other very good films – most notably Yankee Doodle Dandy – and worked solidly up until his death in the early 1960s, while second unit director Don Siegel went on to achieve acclaim for films like Hell Is For Heroes and The Shootist, as well as the Clint Eastwood collaborations Dirty Harry, Two Mules For Sister Sara, Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled and Escape From Alcatraz.
Curtiz’s lasting achievement is in combining all of the great elements of Casablanca – marrying the performances, screenplay and soundtrack together – and thus overseeing what is arguably the quintessential cinematic romance. I expect I’ll watch it again someday. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson, Joan Alison, Murray Burnett
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt
Running Time: 102 minutes