The most beloved Academy Award Best Picture winner of all, this romatic war melodrama epitomizes the 194os craze for studio-bound exotica, with the Warners lot transformed into a fantastical North Africa that has far more resonance than any mere real place possibly could. Casablanca also offers more cult performers, quotable lines, instant clichés, and Hollywood chutzpah than any other film of the movies’ golden age.
Humphrey Bogart’s Rick (“of all the gin joints…”), in white dinner jacket or belted trenchcoat, and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa (“I know that I’ll never have the strength to leave you again”), a vision in creations more suited to a studio floor than a desert city, moon over each other in a café-casino as that haunting tune (“As Time Goes By”) tinkles in the background, transporting them back to a simpler life before the war soured everything. But the best performance comes from Claude Rains as the cynical but romantic police chief Renault (“round up the usual suspects”), a wry observer of life’s absurdities who is at once an opportunist survivor and the film’s truest romantic—fully deserving of the famous final moments (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”) that show it is he not Ilsa who is the fitting partner for Rick’s newly-dedicated-to-freedom hero.
Also memorable in an enormous supporting cast: Paul Henreid’s Czech patriot Victor Laszlo, leading the scum of the continent in a rousing rendition of “La Marseilleise” that drowns out the Nazi sing-along and restores even the most ardent collaborationists and parasites to patriotic fervor; Peter Lorre’s hustler Ugarte, shyly admitting that he trusts Rick because the man despises him; Conrad Veldt’s heel-clicking Nazi villain Major Strasser, reaching to make a phone call he’ll never complete; Dooley Wilson’s loyal Sam, stroking the piano and exchanging looks with the leads; S. Z. Sakall’s blubbery majordomo Carl, a displaced Austro-Hungarian sweating despite the ceiling fan; and Sydney Greenstreet’s unlikely Arab-Italian entrepreneur Ferrari, squatting befezzed on what looks like a magic carpet. Even the extras are brilliantly cast, adding to the lively, seductive, populated feel of a movie that, more than any other, its fans have wanted to inhabit—an impulse that fuels Woody Allen’s charming homage in Play It Again Sam.
Curtiz tells a complicated, gimmicky story, weighted down with exposition and structured around a midpoint Paris flashback that breaks most of the screenwriting rules, with so little fuss and so much confidence that the whole assembly seems seamless even though it was apparently rewritten from day to day so that Bergman did not know until the shooting of the final scene whether she would fly off with Henreid or stick around with Bogey. Lasting cult greatness came about through its attitude, but also its rare sense of the incomplete— made before the war was over, it dares to leave its characters literally up in the air or out in the desert, leaving its original audiences and the many who have discovered the film over the years to wonder what happened to these people (whose petty problems don’t amount to hill of beans”) during the next few turbulent years.
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1942, Genre – Drama, Country – U.S.A, Language – English / French / German, Producer – Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner, Director – Michael Curtiz, Music Director – M.K. Jerome, Jack Scholl, Max Steiner, Cast – Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veldt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page, John Qualen, Leonid Kinskey, Curt Bois