(SPOILERS) I’m not sure, way back when, that I went away from Casablanca on first viewing recognising it as the all-time classic for which it is so acclaimed. Perhaps it was just too hallowed to be viewed with unprejudiced eyes. I enjoyed it well enough, but my reaction wasn’t comparable to first sight of the similarly lauded Citizen Kane. And as Humphrey Bogart movies went, I was much more persuaded by The Maltese Falcon. Nevertheless, subsequent visits have served only to elevate its status and confirm the hype was right. You can see very clearly that Casablanca was just another studio picture that somehow separated itself from the pack to earn a status for the ages. But you can also see just how and why it deserved such singling out.
One thing that always impresses me is that Casablanca was made mid-World War II – well okay, only a year in if you were America – because it has in its bearing such an air of confidence and knowledge of continuance, in spite of the threats both existential and physical impinging on the titular city and its inhabitants. It thus occupies a unique space, a timeless pocket or bubble. Which is to state the obvious, that it is, after all, a studio picture and a fantasy, yet it also managed to ride a wave of positive publicity on the back of Operation Torch’s success, in which the allies took the city (Western forces landed in Morocco in early November 1942, and the picture scrambled for release at the end of the same month).
Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz reputedly invested his own knowledge of desperate refugees haggling to escape oppression for similar sequences pocking the picture. But as much as everything stops in its tracks for a clash of national pride – as the Germans sing Die Wacht am Rhein only to be drowned out by a rendition of La Marseillaise – and even though it is undoubtedly positioned as one, Casablanca never feels didactic in its function as a wartime propaganda picture. I suspect that’s partly because it’s so knowing, even if its Germans are two-dimensional, but also because the war is very much the backdrop; much as it fuels and infuses each character’s actions, it is not the essence of the story.
Curtiz, for whom prolific was an understatement, had already overseen two pictures that year including Yankee Doodle Dandy. That film received eight nods including Best Picture at the fifteenth Academy Awards; Casablanca (which was properly released in 1943) received eight nominations including Best Picture at the sixteenth. It isn’t for nothing that he’s acclaimed as “Hollywood’s greatest director you’ve never heard of” (as one of the Blu-ray release extras informs you). Curtiz’ career took in more than 150 films between 1912 and 1961, and if Casablanca is obviously his best known, other still-feted offerings include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945) and We’re No Angels (1955).
Of course, were more of a light shone on his career, it might come up that Curtiz seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed drowning extras on Noah’s Ark (1928). It’s well known he rubbed just about everyone he worked with up the wrong way, but he clearly got results and then some, and that’s generally what counts in Hollywood (until you get caught and from there publicly sacrificed). If he worked with what were frequently four-square studio system storylines – he was said to be entirely lacking when it came to plot savvy, relying on wife Bess Meredyth – there was no doubting his visual virtuosity. Indeed, probably his greatest skill was ensuring you don’t really notice his direction, even though, when you do examine it, his expertise is readily apparent. You do notice the compositions, though, and Casablanca, in collaboration with director of photography Arthur Edeson, is an incredibly beautiful film (Edeson worked on the previous year’s The Maltese Falcon, which also featured Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre).
While Bogart had graduated to leading man status over the course of 1941, this was the first time he ascended to romantic partner, shorn of gangster trappings. Sure, Bogart’s still a tough guy, but Rick Blaine leads with his brains and only goes in for some shooting – a Nazi dog who deserves it!; see Michael Powell’s very good The Spy in Black for a less black-and-white Conrad Veidt German – at the very end.
The love triangle here makes for the perfect heroic loner figure, as Woody Allen recognised in Play it Again, Sam. There’s Blaine. There’s Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman, who apparently had been doing not very much at all when she got the call). And there’s Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid didn’t think much of Bogie’s acting chops, but then, that’s probably why the latter was a star and the former wasn’t so much). There’s a perfect balance of polite tension between them, and if the nature of Ilsa’s dilemma is an inevitably upstanding one – under the auspices of the Hayes Code, it couldn’t be otherwise – the unfolding is no less compelling for her implied behaviour. Laszlo is impossibly decent of course, but Blaine wins our respect for being equally honourable underneath it all and having attitude with it; echoes of this could be found later in the Luke-Leia-Han of Star Wars. Only with added incest.
While Rick’s dilemma and noble sacrifice – and the way he speechifies it – is everything to the enduring status of Casablanca, it isn’t actually the part I get the biggest kick from. Indeed, one of the few elements of the picture I think is possibly inessential – diehards will doubtless denounce such an idea vigorously, particularly as it underlines they’ll always have it – is the flashback sequence of Rick and Ilsa together in Paris. I’d argue it’s possibly more evocative left to the imagination.
No, the best part of the picture is the Epstein brothers’ dialogue, whereby every line is a gem. And most particularly, the dialogue given to Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, the equal and opposite, or not so much, force to Rick. It’s entirely appropriate that “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” ends the movie when Louis has earlier professed “If I were a woman… I would be in love with Rick”. The great thing about coming to realise how marvellous Claude Rains performances are is that he was in a lot of films – eleven with Curtiz alone – so even when you’ve seen a lot, there are a lot more to enjoy. For me, Louis is the most relishable part of Casablanca, an irrepressible flow of upbeat amusement, no matter who he is with, be it Germans – “You repeat Third Reich as if you expected there to be others” he is told – or Bogie: “That is my least vulnerable spot” Louis replies when Rick informs him a gun is pointed at his heart.
Pauline Kael predictable struck a contrary note in her review – “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism” – and started at it by attesting Bergman became a popular favourite when Rick “treated her like a whore”. Which I suppose he did, but she can’t have it both ways when she also admits “you’re never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously”. The ending apparently caused much stress it terms of just how it would play out; that it was decided on the fly makes its extraordinary elegance all the more impressive (Selznick ultimately nixed plans for a further scene with Rick and Louis acknowledging the Allied invasion of North Africa).
The ending itself offers comfort amidst danger, so reflecting that Casablanca takes place in a cocooned world, safe beneath its noirish hues and battles of wits; the war can only intrude so much. Even as they have ended their stay there, it’s crucial that Rick and Louis will always remain, part of this beguiling moment in time. Such filmic artifice is absolutely the key to its enduring appeal. William Friedkin called it “The most iconic American film ever”, and if Kael is right, in as much as it isn’t deep and its themes of honour and sacrifice are at best clunky, Casablanca defies such limitations; Curtiz fashioned a contender for the most perfectly pitched melodrama ever. So no, there's absolutely no need to seek out a version in full colour, with a happier ending.