Casablanca has earned itself an enduring place in the hearts of movie lovers everywhere. It’s an indisputable classic considered by many to be among the greatest films of all time. I’d readily agree, but not solely for the movie’s status in American film culture. I find Casablanca endlessly charming because of its stellar performances and its delivery of such a timeless tale of love and loss.
The script, based on the unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” features the growing menace of Nazi Germany and the staunch isolationism of the United States. The story takes place in French Morocco in December 1941, where refugees of war sought an escape from the Third Reich to the safe haven of America. Rick Blaine, our protagonist, runs a café in Casablanca and takes pride in being on nobody’s side (“I stick my neck out for nobody,” is his mantra). The arrival of Victor Laszlo, a Nazi resistance leader, and Ilsa Lund, Rick’s old flame, forces Rick to recognize the war raging around—and within—his café and prompts him to make a heavy sacrifice for the greater good.
It is a superb film, which boasts among the strongest casts I’ve ever encountered on screen. The performances are uniformly powerful and affecting: the solitary, brooding Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the enigmatic Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the smug Captain Renault (Claude Rains)—the list goes on and on. The cast members play off each other beautifully. Sparks fly as personalities and motives clash.
Another appeal that the movie has is its rapid-fire dialogue. The movie debuted in 1942, while sound film was in its relative infancy. Filmmakers during this period began to take full advantage of the asset of sound, and films became dialogue-driven rather than using a mainly visual narrative style. Director Michael Curtiz implements the emerging technology with expertise. The quick rapport between the characters drives the plot—if you don’t pay attention, you can miss a crucial plot point inlaid in an aside between passing characters. Smarmy remarks and snappy retorts are tossed across card tables and over drinks. In a perfect example, the slimy character Ugarte (Peter Lorre) inquires of our hero, “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick replies offhandedly: “If I gave you any thought, I would.”
A professor of mine defined four qualities a movie needs to be considered a great work. First, it has to address significant themes, and love, sacrifice, and war are among the most significant of themes. Secondly, it has to have noble language, and while the characters of Casablanca may not be quoting Shakespeare, the passion and fervor in their words is real. Also, the work has to speak across the ages, and the universality of the film’s themes makes it timeless. Finally, the film has to speak to you personally, and frankly, the “La Marseillaise” scene which so beautifully embodies man’s unquenchable devotion to freedom and country gives me chills every time.