By Nathan Stone
Word Count: 1810
Summary: A review and critique of the beloved classic
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Michael Curtiz
Personal rating: 4.0 Stars
The old saying goes, “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” The same thing holds true for legends. Legends, particularly in our scientific facts dominated world that holds the microscope’s eye as the final arbiter of truth, find themselves on the outside looking in; they are embarrassments and holdovers from a “less enlightened age.” At the same time though, they are still needed to fill in the holes in our hearts. At some level, we are all storytellers and, excepting the most cynical of people, we all hold a secret desire for some legends, at least, to be proven true. As the ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart is told, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
At seventy-five years old this November 26, Casablanca is one of our modern legends. Chances are that even if someone does not spend his free time watching the old black-and-whites, he will recognize the title and be able to quote at least one of the countless quotable lines from the dialogue; Humphrey Bogart in trench coat facing Ingrid Bergman on a fog-bound runway is instantly recognizable even if someone has never seen the movie, and it is consistently cited as either the greatest movie ever made or the second greatest (after Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane). All in all, not a bad run for a movie that was not made specifically to be a timeless classic.
The fact that Casablanca became the movie that it is, is a small miracle in and of itself since the movie benefitted really more from luck (or Providence) than from any overarching plan. The seed of Casablanca began in the minds of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison who, in 1939, started writing a play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s which dealt with the world-weary owner of Rick’s Café Americain, who recaptures his idealism to help his former lover, Lois, and her anti-Nazi crusading newspaper editor husband, Victor Lazlo, escape to Lisbon. The key to their freedom even comes in the form of letters of transit which Rick hides in a piano for a small-time crook named Ugarte. Rick’s Café Americain was loosely based on La Belle Aurore, an actual nightclub situated on the Cote d’Azure, France’s Mediterranean border, which Burnett visited in 1938. He and Alison were unsuccessful in finding a taker for their play and so they ended up selling the script to the newly-emerging movie studio powerhouse, Warner Brothers, for $20,000. The script came to producer Hal Wallis, and seven screenwriters were given the task of turning the script into a movie, though most of the work was done by Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, Philip and Julius. Koch deepened the characters that Burnett and Alison had created, making Rick, for example, a sentimentalist, a fact that is plain to Captain Renault (Claude Raines) and which he expresses to Rick in their first scene together. Although they did not work well together personally—Wallis was forced to act as intermediary—Koch and the Epsteins balanced each other well, the former downplaying the latter’s comedy, and the Brothers (as they were known in Hollywood) taking out some of the more acute politicizing, such as the scene where Lazlo forces Renault to toast, “Liberte! Equalitie! Fraternitie!”
Despite the multiple hands on the script—or because of it—dialogue was still being added and changed in July of 1942, a month before shooting ended. Famously, the ending of the picture presented a particularly knotty problem until, as the story goes, the Epstein brothers, driving to the study together, realized that Rick had to shoot Major Strasseur (Conrad Veidt) of the Gestapo and that Captain Renault would then let Rick go. Even then, however, there were ambiguities; Ingrid Bergman recounted years later that she was never told whether Isla Lund was really in love with Rick or her husband, Victor Lazlo, and since there would be a subtle difference in interacting with the man she loved and the man she merely admired, she eventually had to settle for something in the middle, an ending that always broke the heart of an actress who lived for her work. The script was in such a state of flux that, according to Bergman, there was even an ending scene where Ilsa stayed with Rick, though it was never shot.
The fluctuation meant that many of the immortal details of Casablanca could have never happened. Bogart’s famous ending line—“Louie, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship”—was only recorded and added in after the principal shooting was over. The song “As Time Goes By” perhaps the most recognized aspect of Casablanca, almost did not make it into the final cut; Max Steiner, the movie’s composer, convinced Hal Wallis to replace it with another song. The only thing that saved the day was the fact that replacing the song would have meant re-shooting scenes with Ingrid Bergman who had already had her hair cut short for her role as Marie in For Whom the Bells Toll and Wallis did not think a song reason enough to pay for a custom-made wig for Bergman. On top of everything else, most of the cast did not, in fact, get along well with each other; Bogart (who had had much more fun making 1942’s Across the Pacific) was in a depressing marriage; Bergman wanted the roll of Marie; director Michael Curtiz is remembered for being a bully for which other members of the cast, such as Peter Lorre, played practical jokes on him.
With the deck stacked against it, it is a little miracle that the movie managed not only to get made but that it cemented itself to its current position. Even more astounding in that regard is that, unlike some of the epics made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as The Ten Commandments and Gone with the Wind, Casablanca was not intended as a classic but was, instead, a run-of-the-mill movie, the kind which all the studies were producing for the war effort. What has made it last for seventy-five years? The casting is essential. Today, it is impossible to think of anyone else but Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blain, or Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, or Claude Raines as Louie Renault, but it wasn’t impossible back in 1942, even if Bogart and Bergman, at the very least, were always in the mind’s eye for the film. But every actor and actress was perfect in their respective role, regardless of how small. Peter Lorre’s Ugarte has only four hundred words of dialogue and yet has left an indelible mark on movie history; even virtually forgotten performers such as Joy Paige (Annina) or Curt Bois (the Pickpocket) have secured a niche in history. Bogart and Bergman, the stars around which everything else circles, of course, have reached legendary status; Bogart’s image, for better or worse, is the world-weary knight errant in trench coat (an image started sans the coat in The Maltese Falcon), while Bergman is now the “princess” torn between duty and love. They may have played roles similar to Rick and Ilsa prior to Casablanca, but it is here that they reached their acme, in that regard.
It is in Ilsa’s torn heart, however, that the real power of Casablanca is manifested and the reason why it has become a classical and a legend. As Howard Koch said in an interview he gave in the late Eighties, people love Casablanca because “It has something that people can’t find in values today.” That’s probably just as true in 2017 as it was in 1989. In a generation and culture that emphasize the “I” above and beyond everything else, Casablanca has, at its core, putting the other before you—Rick places the good of the just cause and Ilsa’s own good above his own personal happiness; Ilsa puts her duty to her husband above her love for Rick; Renault puts his friendship and the good fight above the “prevailing wind” that happens to be blowing from Vichey; and, of course, Victor Lazlo places the crusade against the Nazis above his own life. Nor are these decisions or traits added to the end of the movie; we see hints of this goodness and nobility throughout the movie so that, for example, even though Rick claims to stick his neck out for nobody, he sacrifices of himself so that Annina and her husband can leave Casablanca whole—both in body and soul—and he allows Lazlo into his club from the start, despite Lazlo’s infamy in Nazi Germany and despite Rick’s own knowledge of the ruthlessness of the Reich.
If these elements had been made in any other movie—and they were, particularly during World War II—the movie would still have been good, but it might not have reached the heights that it has. More than likely it would have been a movie seen and known only to movie buffs, with more “enlightened” people shrugging it off as simply a product of its time. But Casablanca escapes this pitfall through the mythical nature of its setting. It is true that the movie’s setting, in a concrete location in an actual time during real, historical events, is about as far from mythical as one could conventionally imagine, but it is in the characters, again, that this mythological aspect comes into existence. We enter into the world of Casablanca and are introduced to these characters in this brief slip of time from their lives, but who are they and why are they here? Why did Rick have to flee America? What does Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) do that is so loathsome? What is the story between Rick and Yvonne, and who is she? How did Rick and Sam (Dooley Wilson) meet and how did their friendship become so strong? These are just some questions that are never answered, never even raised because these questions are just as nonsensical as asking when Zeus’s birthday was. By only seeing what the movie shows us—no complicated backstories or psychological profiling or social commentary—the characters of Casablanca take on a mythic dimension, as real as the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, which is why all attempts at recreating that world whether on TV in the Fifties or Eighties or putting Everyone Comes to Rick’s on stage in 1991, failed miserably. No one at the time knew it, but they had caught lightening in a bottle where every member of the audience could take heart and inspiration from mythological figures portrayed by some of the greatest actors and actresses ever to grace the screen. Not exactly bad for a wartime movie. Which is why Sam will always play it.