Casablanca – Here’s Looking at You, Kid

In the early 1940s, the world was at war. Again. In the United States, as well as other warring powers, both good and evil, nearly all available resources went to the war in some way. Men, women, and materials were mobilized in huge numbers, the like of which we hadn’t seen before, or since.

While it was not only the physical aspects of war, it was also the psychological aspects that were put into motion. This included the impacts of film. Many movie stars were told simply that they were best utilized at home, making movies and keeping morale up. Conventional wisdom tells me that most of these films were used as propaganda in order to keep spirits up.

But conventional wisdom also tells me that many of these films lacked the creative muscle and vision of their counterparts both before and after the war. That sentiment, though, does not apply to this week’s film: 1942’s Casablanca. While this film is a subtle epitome of American exceptionalism, it pulls at you moral fibers, and embraces a very brutal war on an unusual, but effective, way.

There are no clear-cut winners and losers in this film. And, just like when it was made, the outcome of the war was uncertain. In general, though the film is told through the point of view of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), and American expat who runs a very successful nightclub. One day, he runs into Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), an old flame.

While Rick and Ilsa have come to grips with their unexpected reunion in exile, the story plays out beautifully as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe must come to grips themselves with their own crumbling realities.

Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, won the 16th Academy Award for Best Picture, and judging on this film’s flat release, it was clearly a win that looked ahead to the future. Casablanca spoke volumes to audiences during the war and still speaks to them today. It was not successful at first, but it is more loved as time has passed. By now almost 80 years later, this is one of the best films ever made.

Now, for the rest of rest of the movie:

Plot
From a narrative standpoint, Casablanca pulls you in right away. But that narrative needs a push, first. A narrator literally explains why people show up in Casablanca: to catch a plane to Lisbon, Portugal to get on a boat to escape to America. There’s a catch, though: only those who can afford to leave Casablanca are able to do so. So, since people are stranded, Casablanca becomes a frustrated melting pot.

Here, Rick Blaine, who runs the very profitable nightclub Rick’s, decides to drink his broken heart away. Meeting Ilsa again shakes up both their lives. The two fall in and out of love again and, right up to the end, I kept waiting for a catharsis, a happy ending. But, it never comes. Rick sacrifices his love for Ilsa, who is married to anti-Nazi fighter Victor Laszlow (Paul Henreid), in order to fight tyranny. This is a cause that is, of course, bigger than either of them.

Sacrifices play a huge role in this film. Just for the refugees to even get to Casablanca requires a ton of risk.
This resonated with audiences at the time and even today. The war effort required every citizen to give up many luxuries in order to win. Many sacrificed themselves and their live to it. It’s not often that the main theme of a love story is sacrifices, but Casablanca is the better for it. It’s aged like a fine wine. 1.

Writing/Dialogue
Casablanca is based on the unproduced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and John Allison. The adaptation, written by Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch, won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

The writing is what I expected out of a film from the 1940s: the dialogue is very terse and full of terrific quips. For all the seriousness that this film conveys, it’s really quite funny. Rick is responsible for most of that humor, with such great lines like, “when it comes to women, you’re a real democrat.”

I seem to be on a hot streak of films that prominently feature languages other than English. Casablanca is not an exception. Since the city plays host to a wide variety of people, many languages are spoken, including French and German. This script was brilliant and it’s one of the film’s strongest elements. 1.

Sound
Max Steiner did the music for Casablanca, the same composer for Gone with the Wind three years earlier. Casablanca’s music was perhaps the most unexpected part of this film for me. It, like Gone with the Wind (which we’ll get to soon) was broad and sweeping. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. This was fairly typical for movies of the time. But the music was very odd for the same reason. As I’ll talk about in the cinematography portion, this film was heavily influenced by the noir genre. Therefore, it was a very serious film, or it was shown to be serious. And yet, with such a wide score almost didn’t fit with the film. Don’t get me wrong it was beautiful. However, the tone of the narrative paired with the score is just weird.

One thing of note that saves the score, here, is its use of As Time Goes By. Early in the film, Ilsa convinces Sam, the pianist at Rick’s nightclub, to play the song. I was enamored by both Ingrid Bergman and the song. This is one of Casablanca’s most famous scenes. And it helps to tie the film together during the entire 102-minute run-time. The melody from As Time Goes By is played over and over again in the film. And this helped to underscore the entire movie. 1.

Set Design
Although Casablanca is set in Casablanca, Morocco in December 1941, the film was shot primarily on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California, and at various sites around Arizona. Yet, to make this film look like the actual Casablanca took a lot of skillful design, research, and time. Palm trees, traders, and even parrots help to add a bit of realism to this film.

The set design, and how well it’s done, speaks volumes to what movie magic was back then, in the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” and even today. It didn’t matter that the entire movie was shot on the west coast. All that mattered is that you felt you were there. 1.

Cinematography
Arthur Edeson was Casablanca’s cinematographer. The camera work is mostly unremarkable, meaning that it doesn’t rely on fancy shots or unique angles to get the message across. Each shot is purposeful and the shots don’t linger one bit too long. It’s edited much more like a modern movie. This is different from other films of the day which in which shots would take too long to develop and the camera would overstay its welcome. Casablanca is not that way.

Additionally, the film is heavily influenced by film noir, which is a topic that I’ve discussed in other movies like No Country for Old Men and The Godfather. The basic gist of film noir is the use of light and shadow to help place items in a scene. Rather than just brightly lighting everything in a shot, shadows can tell as great a story as the lights can. But interestingly enough, I first picked up on the noir elements of Casablanca when I noticed the cigarette smoke. Since he’s a 1940s man, it’s natural that Rick smokes heavily during the film. The lighting allows the smoke to get between the light and the shadow, entering a void that brings special attention to its randomness.

Finally, color movies were available at this time, but Casablanca’s cinematography was done so well that this movie is WAY better in black and white. It wouldn’t be anywhere close to the same movie with the addition of color. 1.

Acting
When the performances of Casablanca are discussed today, there are really only two performances of note in the film: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. For both of these actors, this is the role that defined both of their careers.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the chronically indifferent and crabby American expat who, after being deserted by Ilsa Lund in Paris, finds his way to Morocco, running the most well-known nightclub in Casablanca, Rick’s. Rick’s famous for saying that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anybody, that he, like the United States before Pearl Harbor, was aggressively neutral in all disputes. He welcomes all customers, regardless if they’re refugees or Nazis.

But Rick, also like the US, had to make a choice and pick a side. And along the way, he becomes both sympathetic hero and classic villain. He betrays his allies for his own gain, but he also sacrifices his own happiness, his own love, for the greater good. He loves Ilsa, but thankful more for the time he had with her, rather than the time he could have with her again. He’s got a good heart, but it doesn’t show until well into the third act. His role was so good that he was nominated for Best Actor for his part.
Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, Rick’s counterpart. In an era in which many female roles were defined by a $1 million smile and an empty blonde head, Bergman’s portrayal of Ilsa is one of a $10 million smile and, more importantly, a complicated personal life that makes her a very complicated character. Without a doubt, she shines in Casablanca, sometimes literally, but she’s faced with conflicting motivations about love and life. She’s the prize at the end of the tunnel for Rick and her actual husband Victor Laszlow (Paul Henreid), but the war forces her to choose with whom she’d rather be with. Both she and Rick get swept up in this idea that the only thing that matters in the world is their love or their memories. But, that’s wrong. As Rick puts it, their problems don’t amount to “a pile of beans” in the grand scheme of things.

But Ilsa also recognizes what’s the most important to Europe, and the rest of the world, that is eroding away quickly. She, like Rick, is neither totally villain or hero in Casablanca, but rather a mixture of both. Her beauty and her innocence is tainted by a love triangle and the world she finds herself in. She must manipulate, threaten, and conjole, while also coming to grips with her past and breaking Rick’s heart. On her mind is enough stress to shear a slab of granite, but Ilsa continues to drip with class while she handles her life, finally accepting that she and Rick can’t be together.

Interestingly enough, Bergman was nominated for Best Actress at the 16th Academy Awards, but not for Casablanca, but rather for the adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Regardless of this, all of Casablanca’s power to ensnare the imagination comes from the outstanding performances of Bogart and Bergman. 1.

Directing
Casablanca was produced by Hal B. Wallis and his first choice to direct was William Wyler. But Wyler was unavailable, so it went instead to Michael Curtiz. This proved to be the best choice for the movie as I think Casablanca would be just another forgettable movie had anyone else directed it.

It’s amazing to think about how much of Casablanca is just a simple melodrama and a cliche. But it’s whole purpose is to tell a story. Cliches can be powerful if given to the right person to tell them. At the same time, though, Casablanca is much more than a cliche.

At its heart, Casablanca, was a mirror image of America during World War II. Sacrifices had to be made in order to keep the war effort afloat and that meant that the entire grim reality of the world at war had to be examined by every man, woman, and child.

Curtiz holds the mirror in Casablanca so well that we hardly know he’s doing it. There is no sense of right and wrong in this film, but there’s only a person’s beliefs and moral code. Therefore, it blurs the lines of morality and erupts within each of its characters, not just Rick and Ilsa, deep introspection into what he or she believes is right or wrong. That is the true nature of sacrifice in Casablanca; what’s the true cost of war? What does it really do to those who have to live through it. You’re either on the plane to Lisbon, or in Casablanca, waiting for Atlas to drop the Earth on his foot.

Quite simply, a normally unremarkable war-time film became so much more than that thanks to its director. And he also hold a mirror to us, too. To this day, Curtiz forces us to choose what side we fall on and question where our moral compass points. It’s brilliance in everything this film does makes it last generations. And that, dear readers, is why Casablanca is one of the greatest movies ever made. 1.

Bonus Points
I don’t think I can say a film is one of the best ever and NOT give it a 10.
Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Notes
Casablanca won the 16th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 2, 1944 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. This was the first Oscars to be held in a large public place but the Academy also gave out free passes to men and women in uniform. Casablanca beat out For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, and Watch on the Rhine for Best Picture. This was the last Academy Awards until 2009 in which there were more than five Best Picture nominees. Sidney Franklin presented the award. In all, Casablanca was nominated for eight awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Writing, Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music. It won three: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay).

Other notable winners that night were Paul Lukas winning Best Actor for Watch on the Rhine, Jennifer Jones winning Best Actress for The Song of Bernadette, Charles Coburn winning Best Supporting Actor for The More the Merrier, and Katina Paxinou winning Best Supporting Actress for For Whom the Bell Tolls. Jack Benny hosted the ceremony.

Final Notes

Last night was the 90th Academy Awards from Los Angeles. Finally! Congrats to The Shape of Water for taking the big prize and Guillermo Del Torro for winning Best Director.

What a great ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel rocked the house and the show was all about empowering women, which, on it’s own is a terrific message, but one needed in Hollywood now more than ever.

Because of time constraints, I can’t give a whole lot of detail about the ceremony as it ran past my bedtime. However, check out this recap from The Washington Post about last night’s events. Also, here’s a full list of the winners.

If I were to follow the format for reviewing movies for this post, then The Shape of Water comes up in four movies. However, it’s not out yet, so I’ll have to schedule it a little later in the year.

If you’ve paid attention, I was supposed to do 1964’s My Fair Lady this week. However, I could not stream it and had to track down a physical copy. So, like the swap between The Hurt Locker and The Last Emperor, I switched these two. Additionally, I’ve got some family coming to town this week, so I’m taking a break. My next post will be Monday, March 19.

After My Fair Lady, the string of great movies continues with The Greatest Show on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, The Life of Emile Zola, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, and How Green Was My Valley.

7 Comments

  1. I am slowly working my way through the top 250 movies of all time. This being one of them. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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