REVIEW: Casablanca [1943]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: January 23rd, 1943 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Michael Curtiz
Writer(s): Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch / Murray Burnett & Joan Alison (play)

“Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.”

This is doubtfully a remark to make my case, but although I remembered very little about Casablanca from my first viewing years ago—besides Sam the piano player starting “As Time Goes By” at Ilsa’s request to procure Rick from the other room of his café—it really is one of the best films ever made. From Michael Curtiz’s direction, to Max Steiner’s score, to Arthur Edeson’s gorgeous black and white, to the cast’s ability to infuse humor into a very serious subject, there is no flaw to be seen. One of the most beloved cinematic romances, it would be a disservice to belittle the political intrigue involved as well, especially considering the movie was released in 1942, as Germany was still looking to progress further into Europe and beyond. So timely and so blunt in its position, credit must go to Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, along with the playwrights of “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” for which it is based. Not only have many of their lines become signature classics and part of our lexicon, but the full story has also been able to transcend its time period and remain relevant today.

There is a reason Sam (Dooley Wilson) is so cautious to play the song his boss Rick (Humphrey Bogart) has forbidden him to play. The beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) is not only the companion of the infamous rebel Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), already a survivor of a concentration camp and numerous other close calls as he disseminates his anti-Nazi rhetoric, but she is also an old acquaintance of Rick’s. That song can only serve to bring back the memories of Paris years ago, a time when the hardened, cynical bar owner was happy, smiling, and in love. We know he is jaded just from his demeanor of a man willing to help patrons if they have some value for him in return, someone who refuses to drink with customers, and a rebel himself no longer with his heart in the fight. Something deep seeded in his past has made him this way, but what it is we won’t find out until a well timed and placed flashback filling in the blanks of the sexual tension between these two leads. It’s not that the cold as ice façade is a bad thing; it has served the American well.

Rick is respected by his employees and patrons, trusted by nefarious criminals because he hates everyone, and is able to get along with local authorities being he has less scruples than they. But we see the hurt in his eyes, the depression he has long ago dismissed and buried beneath the exterior of a man both feared and accepted as an outsider left to languish in the port city of Casablanca, the last free French province before a plane ride to Lisbon and eventually the golden shores of America. Admittedly, though, we don’t question his motives; we revel in his matter-of-fact attitude and completely deadpan sarcasm. You watch clips of Bogart and you won’t ever get the true effect of his greatness. There is a unique manner about him with a power unrivaled by anyone playing opposite. His delivery is perfectly timed and metered, making everyone around him follow suit and talk in turn. With that sort of commanding presence, you don’t ask his motives, you accept them. That is, until the beautiful blonde sashays in with a wanted man—the couple becoming the impetus for all that follows.

German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has come especially for Laszlo’s presumed arrival. He has no jurisdiction yet, but the way WWII has been going, the feeling is that it’s only a matter of time. As such, French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) must acquiesce to his demands and play along in the sense that Laszlo cannot be allowed passage to Lisbon. The Germans have missed their chance to capture this enemy too many times and without a written visa from the Captain—a womanizing gambler who knows how to use his position for fiscal gains and pleasure—he has nowhere to go until the Third Reich finally makes its way to Morocco. Unless, of course, he had letters of transit signed by someone with higher authority, papers that just so happen to have been stolen from a murdered German couple and currently in the possession of Peter Lorre’s squirrelly yet ambitious Ugarte. They could in fact be the very reason Lazlo has come at all. Unfortunately, Renault knows all this and has orchestrated an arrest of Ugarte at Rick’s as a display to Strasser of his policing.

But, as with everything in Casablanca, nothing is as it seems. The papers aren’t on the criminal and while everyone can guess Rick has them, no one will ask, knowing they’ll only get a sharply barbed retort back. So, over the course of the rest of the film, we watch as secrets, relationships, and allegiances are uncovered. Motives are changed and improvised as truths come out to clarify past actions and current feelings. The love triangle at the center of all the politics begins to weigh heavy on the plot as the one man who can rally troops from all of Europe against Germany has his fate resting in the hands of the man who loves his wife. How much is love worth when the whole of the world lies in the balance? Rick is a cynical bastard, no question, but those close know there is something hidden beneath the surface. Renault may be playing nice with Strasser to save face in case the man becomes his new boss, but he is friendly with Rick enough to know the square-jawed loner has a soft side. The beauty of Bogart is that no matter how stone-faced he can deliver lines, there is still softness in his eyes, a compassionate soul unable to be kept silent forever.

Despite everything being shrouded with an earnest edge, you may be surprised in how funny Casablanca is. Rick’s is obviously an inspiration for the Tatooine cantina of Star Wars, an air of joviality inhabited by people of all walks of life and nationalities—many on the wrong side of the law. The city is a halfway house for transplants on their way to freedom; everyone has an angle and pickpockets and gougers prey on the naïve. But amidst it all lies Rains and Bogart, looking down to make a handsome living and playing God to the masses. They may speak about one day getting out, but deep down there is no other home than this desert town. Their rapport almost trumps that of the romance and natural chemistry of Bogart and Bergman. It is a love worth fighting for and in another brilliant move of writing is the choice that could serve to end the war for either side. It may be pompous of the film to regard itself as being a story of victory, but its success and lasting effect on filmgoers for the past half century prove otherwise. Love and war becomes the intimate struggle at hand and the ultimate choice of two famously wrought icons crafted by genius artists.

[1] Humphrey Bogart with Peter Lorre.
[2] (L to R) Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart
courtesy of
[3] Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman

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