Directed by: Michael Curtiz || Produced by: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson || Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson
Music by: Max Steiner || Cinematography: Arthur Edeson || Editing by: Owen Marks || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 102 minutes
Perhaps one of the few films in history that rivals, or in some instances, even surpass the quotability and iconic nature of Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939), is Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, released only a few years later in 1942. Casablanca is as reserved and focused as Gone with the Wind is vast, sprawling, and epic. Despite having the biggest international conflict in history as its backdrop, Casablanca could not feel more subtle or low-key. The ruthless ambitions of the Third Reich clash with the national pride of the Free French at Rick’s Cafe Americain; the threat of Nazi persecution remains the narrative’s primary conflict, but the way all these subplots are portrayed narrows the story’s lens on the character of Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, who established his recurring role of the hardened, cynical hero in this classic film.
The defining feature of this narrative is the romantic relationship between Bogart’s protagonist and his former sweetheart in Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund. Casablanca features a love-triangle, but both it and the political subtext of Rick’s Cafe (the main setting of the film) are subdued and dramatic rather than other-the-top or melodramatic. The cast’s acting is also more subtle, realistic, and reminiscent of modern Western acting as opposed to the theatrical stand-and-deliver style popular during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The international conflicts and interpersonal schemes are easy to follow, often compounding upon each other and reinforcing one another thematically. The love-triangle’s backstory is integrated through flashbacks and makes Bogart’s protagonist more sympathetic. The manner in which every major character is humanized adds considerable depth to the narrative and helps to avoid sociopolitical pandering. Though Casablanaca was made during one of the most patriotic eras in America’s history, as well as that of the Allied West in general, it maintains a sense of maturity not often appreciated in classical filmmaking. The sheer volume of infinitely quotable lines doesn’t hurt its charm and intelligent demeanor either.
Altogether, Casablanca is as skilled an exercise in efficient, minimalist filmmaking as Gone with the Wind was in long-winded romantic epics. Both are hallmarks of classical American romantic filmmaking, films that emphasized the fluidity of editing and invisible cinematic storytelling over the flashy jump-cuts and wandering tracking shots of the later American New Wave era. Indoor and outdoor sets blend with another as easily as night and day settings, depicting an almost dreamlike narrative whose tone remains emotional and yet detached at the same time, much like Bogart’s protagonist. The film’s use of black-and-white photography (still the default film stock for motion pictures at the time), emphasizes this invisible editing and surrealist mood.
Casablanca’s straightforward script and direction are what make it such a resounding success, and the film stands toe-to-toe with the best of the best classics, be they romantically inclined or otherwise. Bogart carries the story’s emotional core on his shoulders, portraying his character’s rise to the occasion as he sheds his burdening cynicism and finds new purpose in life. It’s this cinematic combination of blunt, efficient storytelling with nuanced characters and emotional themes that make Casablanca an enduring hallmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The minimalist nature of Casablanca and its complicated characters represent Hollywood’s best romantic cinema. The film’s great pacing, biting dialogue, and effective editing combine to make it one of America’s leanest, most highly toned dramas. Humphrey Bogart, considered one of the greatest actors in history, stars in his best role as the now classic hardened cynic who trades pessimism for compassion by the story’s end.
Play it again, Sam, for old time’s sake. Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” It’s like “ Luke, I am your father,” instead of, “No, I am your father!”