Anyone who has spent more than a couple of hours in my company is probably aware that my favorite movie of all time is 1942’s Casablanca.
I have waxed rhapsodic about this film so many times in the past that when I am asked why I choose this film over all others, I can rattle off a quick list of the qualifications that elevate Casablanca above any other movie in Hollywood history: quotable-fabulous-beautiful-inspired-and-OMG-Humphrey-Bogart-has-never-been-so-hot!
Indulge me a little fangirl moment here while I start waxing anew.
As beloved as Casablanca remains today–it has twice appeared in the top three films of all time as ranked by the American Film Institute–it wasn’t always considered so, and the source material upon which this classic is based (the 1940 play Everybody Comes to Rick’s) languished in pre-development hell for a couple of years until producer Hal Wallis championed the project. The screenplay, credited to the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch, was incomplete as shooting began; numerous writers contributed to its completion, including the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, and Wallis himself, who reportedly pitched the film’s immortal concluding line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And still, with all the issues that emerged from trying to put the sucker together, the screenplay for Casablanca remains one of the best ever written. Frankly, the script is beyond compare, filled with some of the most engaging dialogue this side of Shakespeare.
There’s a reason so many quotes from this film have made their way into popular culture over the years: you can’t help but repeat these amazing lines. “Play it, Sam.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The list of classic lines just goes on and on.
The film’s spot-on casting, featuring a mostly international cast of acclaimed film and theater actors, wasn’t always a given; there was much doubt, especially, that Bogart, known up until that time as “the” go-to movie tough in films such as The Petrified Forest, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon, could play convincingly in a leading romantic role. Ingrid Bergman was still relatively unfamiliar to American audiences, despite her success in her native Sweden and in her initial Hollywood production, the well-received Intermezzo: A Love Story (an English remake of her most successful Swedish film). And, by some accounts, Paul Henreid was so unpleasant to work with that his co-stars found themselves unwilling to make future films with the man.
Yet none of this showed on screen. Bogart thoroughly epitomized the rough-hewn tenderness that makes Rick Blaine one of the most fascinating heroes in film history. Bergman’s luminescent beauty did not detract from her deceptively simple performance as the romantically torn Ilsa Lund. The chemistry between the two leads lights up the screen and really makes you believe that these two people are madly in love with one another. And Henreid is pitch-perfect in the thankless role of straight arrow Resistance leader Victor Laszlo.
The supporting cast is similarly well-chosen, especially Claude Rains as the sly, shifty French Captain Renault and Peter Lorre as ill-fated Ugarte. In addition, the movie features two of my favorite character actors, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (I wax rhapsodic about these two here), both of whom are simply magnificent. All in all, Casablanca’s performers are unparalleled, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles. Can you picture, for example, Ann Sheridan or Hedy Lamarr as Ilsa (as originally proposed)? Or George Raft or Ronald Reagan as Rick? It kinda makes you shudder to even consider it, doesn’t it?
Despite some of the issues–an incomplete script, a cast no one trusted to deliver the material–surrounding its production, the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year (in addition to awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director). Though critical reception of the film upon its release was warm (but not effusive), over the years, Casablanca has rivaled Citizen Kane for the top position on many film critics’ “Best” lists (though, like every film, it is not without its detractors).
One of the things that those critical of Casablanca cite as evidence for their position is the “schlocky romanticism” (to quote Pauline Kael) that permeates the film. And yes, despite its war-torn setting and the intrigue surrounding the plot, it is most decidedly a romance, first and foremost. But the film transcends the typical trappings of romance.
This is Romeo and Juliet yanked into the modern world, with our American Romeo making the ultimate sacrifice–forgoing his own future happiness–for the sake of another, ensuring that his Swedish Juliet can remain free and continue the life his love unknowingly disrupted. Yet the inherent melodrama of such material does not weigh down the plot; Rick’s choice, we see, is the only reasonable one to make, the only way in which he can release himself from his self-exile in northern Africa and return to his freedom-fighter roots–to return to life, as it were. His redemption comes not only from the cliched “love of a woman,” but at the hands of his former lover’s husband, the man who helps to remind Rick that there are larger battles to fight, that the tangled romantic ties of these ultimately ordinary people “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
All of this to say, there’s a reason why this film has become one of the most beloved classics of all time and, in my humble opinion, tops every other movie ever produced in Hollywood. It’s not just that it’s romantic, or that the performances are so moving, or that the script makes the latent writer in me want to do backflips down the interstate. It’s that the film touches something inside every single one of us. It’s a story of human experience. It’s a reflection of secret desires, of the fight for redemption that, at one time or another, all of us must undertake in order to better ourselves and the world in which we live.
Really, it’s just damn good, and that’s all that’s left to say about it.