Blog Directory CineVerse: Here's looking at you, Casablanca

Here's looking at you, Casablanca

Sunday, November 20, 2022

This week, one of the most cherished films in the classic Hollywood canon marks an 80th anniversary. What makes Casablanca so timeless, and why is it worth celebrating eight decades later? The CineVerse group attempted to answer these and other key questions about this 1942 standout earlier this month (listen to a recording of our group talk, click here; to listen to the current Cineversary podcast episode on this film, click here). Below is a summary of our major discussion points.

Why is Casablanca worth celebrating 80 years later? Why does this movie still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • Casablanca could be the finest example of a studio assembly line product being churned out during the golden age of Hollywood. Many scholars and critics marvel at the picture’s construction and quality, particularly considering the luck and happenchance nature of its making and reception. Consider that Casablanca was filmed in under three hurried months. Many screenwriters, including Casey Robinson, were called in to help doctor the screenplay. Several of the actors didn’t care for the director or each other. Furthermore, this was just another production on Warner Brothers’ docket, with no great expectations from the makers involved. And the U.S. getting involved in World War II and the Nazis entering Casablanca shortly before the film’s release made the movie timely and relevant to modern audiences.
  • It boasts an outstanding ensemble cast, including colorful supporting characters portrayed by veteran character actors. This film could have the most effective lineup and the deepest bench of any picture up to that time or even since, thanks to the inclusion of Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Joy Page, John Qualen, and Leonid Kinskey.
  • Casablanca features top-notch behind-the-camera talent, too, among them director Michael Curtiz, crafty producer Hal Wallis, skilled writers Howard Koch and brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, genius composer Max Steiner, ace director of photography Arthur Edeson, and savvy future director Don Siegel.
  • The ending is not predictable. In fact, it’s exceptionally complicated, ambiguous, and poignant, and the fact that the conclusion was written at the last minute, with the actors unaware of how the denouement would unfold, speaks to how affecting and seemingly spontaneous some of the performances are.
  • The dialogue is surprisingly cynical and often sparse, which has helped make Casablanca evergreen. This film is among the most quotable in history, enriched with a multitude of great lines, including:
    • "Here's looking at you, kid."
    • "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
    • "We'll always have Paris."
    • "Round up the usual suspects."
    • "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
    • “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
  • It checks the boxes in several categories: It’s quite possibly the best romance film, the most patriotic movie, the most perfectly cast, and maybe the best screenplay ever.
  • With its genre-blending, Casablanca offers something for everyone: romance, melodrama, comedy, music, action, and even political commentary. Thematically, the film also beautifully melds idealism, intrigue, and romance. And tonally, the pessimism is offset by humanism and sentimentality.
  • Arguably, this is the film that reminds most Americans, nostalgically, about World War II, in that its plot greatly involves that strife and was released just after the United States got involved; thus, it wistfully evokes a bygone, unforgettable era that history and posterity won’t allow us to forget.
  • Its centerpiece song “As Time Goes By” further helps make Casablanca ageless.
    • Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert wrote: “The song wisps the characters away from the past where love was easy and time seemed to float. The song elicits the same reaction for viewers because as it plays, we remember the joyful experience of the whole film and escape into the pleasant simplicity of The Golden Age of moviemaking—as much a product of an unsound but strangely proficient and industrialized studio system the film may be. As time goes by, the song and Casablanca itself stay with us and mature through nostalgia and their enduring hypnotic spell.”

In what ways was Casablanca influential? Were any movies or filmmakers inspired by this work?

  • Casablanca represented a sea change in American movies for its time. It helped steer Hollywood toward a new era of moral sophistication in which the protagonist’s motivations and past actions are blurry and suspect. Rick exudes the classic traits of a prototype anti-hero, at least until the story’s close. Some believe this approach prefigured the onset of film noir and its darkly-tinged characters capable of both virtue and vice.
  • The emotionally complex and unresolved conclusion may have inspired later films. It’s not a classic Hollywood happy ending for its time: There are no easy choices, nor is there a clear resolution.
    • Neither Ilsa nor Rick knows what the other is thinking or feeling about one another, and no one necessarily “lives happily ever after.” Every major figure has to ultimately make sacrifices by the conclusion, but doing so guarantees their redemption as characters and our admiration as viewers.
    • We don’t know by the end whom Ilsa loves more; she has not professed her undying amore for one man. Nor do we know Rick’s true motivations: Is he giving up on Ilsa because he knows he can’t compete with Laszlo? Is he enacting some kind of emotional revenge on her for Ilsa abandoning him? Is Rick selflessly choosing the greater good?
    • The ending involves a painful decision and a conflict between personal love and political idealism. If you interpret the conclusion as a straightforward propagandistic moral that sacrifice is necessary to win the war, you may believe that it’s an upbeat and inspirational ending. But if you are more heavily invested in Rick and Ilsa’s love story, it’s hard not to feel torn and somewhat deflated after she flies off with Lazlo. True, there's a lighthearted capper in how Rick befriends Louis with the hint that they will escape to freedom together, but we are left to ruminate on “what-ifs” and “if-onlys.”
    • Ultimately, the finale suggests that the crux of the whole film rests on the sudden, developing friendship between Rick and Louis, and how that relationship, per DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson, “acts as a ballast to Rick’s relationship with Ilsa…The film is really a political romance between Rock and (Louis), as they circle and test one another to see who’s worthy and who’s not. When it comes time to act, their combined cool saves the day. Each makes a dramatic choice to step away from their cynical detachment and take a stand. With these two sharpies in charge…we know there’s hope for the future.”
  • Films inspired by Casablanca include Passage to Marseilles (reuniting Bogart, Curtiz, Rains, Lorre, and Greenstreet), To Have and Have Not, Sirocco, The Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca, Play it Again, Sam, and Havana.

What is noteworthy about the filmmakers, especially the choices of producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz?

  • While he was considered a journeyman director who wasn’t known for stamping his films with a particular style, Curtiz has an impressive curriculum vitae, helming several other classics such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Angels With Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, Life With Father, and White Christmas.
  • Hal Wallis is often credited with being the primary creative force behind Casablanca, curating the story from a failed stage play and guiding its construction carefully by choosing the director, writers, cast, and crew responsible for its creation.
  • The film moves effortlessly and invisibly between shots and scenes thanks to a steadily moving camera, an economy of well-composed shots, and terrific old Hollywood studio system talent that knew how to manufacture a product efficiently.
  • According to Turner Classic Movies writer Bret Wood: “Casablanca embraced what is now known as "invisible style." Rather than dazzling the eye with eye-catching visuals and histrionic acting, it seduces the viewer by creating a seamless, lush universe that gradually envelops the audience. Hardly an effortless accomplishment, "invisible style" required an absolute mastery of the various cinematic elements by its collaborators.”

What major themes or messages can be culled from Casablanca?

  • Selfless sacrifice. Each major character, by the end of the film, must choose to forfeit something for the sake of defeating the Nazis: Rick chooses to let Ilsa go; Ilsa decides to get on the plane with Lazlo, and Louis elects to protect the three lovers.
  • The choice of neutrality in both love and war. Rick and Louis must decide whether or not to fight the Nazis, and Rick and Ilsa have to choose whether to rekindle their romance and remain together or sacrifice for the greater good of the war and her marriage.
  • The inescapability of the past. Rick, Isla, and Louis cannot evade their memories or their previous romance. Rick is reminded of Ilsa by music and her re-entry into his life; Ilsa is torn between her past lover and her current lover; and Louis realizes that he, like Rick, must leave Casablanca and join the French resistance after aiding Rick.
  • The power of good luck. Gambling, and the promise it offers to those seeking to escape Casablanca, is prevalent at Rick’s café, where wagers are made and games of chance involving human lives are played. Recall how Sam sings the song “Knock on Wood,” which is a reference to a popular idiom that means you hope good fortune will persist.
  • Political allegory. The film plays like a well-timed fable about America’s stance on World War II. Before 1942, the United States, like Rick, tried to remain neutral and sidestep the world conflict. (Remember Rick’s line: “I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America,” which is a veiled reference to this isolationism.) But following Pearl Harbor, and after Elsa suddenly re-enters Rick’s life, more Americans, like Rick, embraced the ethical value of sacrifice and the importance of political idealism over personal desire and self-preservation.
  • The anti-hero turned hero. Rick is one of cinema’s most memorable early anti-heroes throughout most of the movie in that he has positive and negative qualities; he’s a multifaceted, mysterious personality (as evidenced by how many names he is called by others) with a shady past and seemingly selfish motives. “I stick my neck out for no one,” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in” are two telling lines delivered by Rick. But once he makes the moral decision to help Laszlo and Ilsa, he becomes a heroic figure.
  • Living in exile. Casablanca is a city replete with foreigners, most of whom can’t return home due to the war. America represents a promised land on the far side of the desert, while Casablanca symbolizes a purgatorial oasis in the desert, with Rick’s Café standing as a neutral sanctuary for all.
  • A classic lover’s triangle.

What is Casablanca’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Casablanca’s greatest present to film fans could be its proud pedigree as a standout in the romance genre. It placed tops on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Love Stories Of All Time List for good reasons.
    • The tortured romantic tale at the heart of this movie, the bittersweet backstory involving Rick and Ilsa’s whirlwind relationship, and the array of conflicting feelings and wartime motivations that tug at them from different directions after she reenters Rick’s life—including jealousy, attraction, anger, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, patriotic pressure, and altruism—coalesce to create an emotionally resonant cinematic experience.
    • But what particularly helps distinguish this work from other romantic dramas of its era, or any era, is that there is no obvious happy ending. Soul mates though they may be, Ilsa and Rick must part, for the greater good, before the credits roll. However, their unselfish choices make their characters all the more deserving of empathy and appreciation. Instead of expressing idealized romantic affection they ultimately demonstrate unconditional love by letting each other go and realizing that their personal story doesn’t even warrant a trifling footnote in the pages of history that are being written. Theirs is a love where time, place, and circumstance conspire against them, and it is these oppositional forces that add crucial dramatic weight to the narrative and the performances.
    • Part of the brilliance that buoys Casablanca is that it’s a film of temporal relevance for 1942—a time when the tides of war were in the Nazi’s favor, uncertainty about the global conflict and its repercussions prevailed, and a mysterious foreign locale with an exotic name like Casablanca could concomitantly command both the box office and newspaper headlines. Using this intriguing setting and topical context as the backdrop of a love story provides a priceless gravitas that has helped Casablanca defy Father Time and the dustbin of popular entertainment irrelevance.

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