Out of all the movies in my top ten, this is probably the one that pops up most in others. It’s been a staple of American cinema pretty much since its release and when it won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1942. It’s well loved by nearly everyone who sees it, and I think it’s easy to see why.
In my mind there are two major reasons why both I love this film and why it’s so beloved 76 years after its release: dialogue and the expert mixture of cynicism with romanticism.
First Things First
The movie nominally takes place in the city of Casablanca during World War II, but it’s a version that seems fairly divorced from reality. The central plot device in the movie are a pair of letters of transit signed by Charles de Gaulle that will allow anyone carrying them to leave the city on the plane for Lisbon where they’ll be able to find a way to America. The letters of transit were a complete fabrication of the writers of the original stage play that the movie was based off of.
The movie’s larger geopolitical picture is, quite simply, a fantasy. It makes a certain amount of sense that the wildly corrupt Free French prefect would allow almost anything to happen in the city as long as he got his cut, but the Nazi presence feels almost benign compared to what one might expect from what a Nazi would actually do with that kind of presence in a city and confronted with possibly losing a high priority target like Victor Laszlo.
But, that’s not the point. Casablanca isn’t about World War II, the political realities of the war, or even the relationship Free France had with Nazi Germany. No, the movie is about two people, and those around them that affect their relationship.
That being said, I’m hoping we all know the story of Casablanca, so I’m going to skip a plot summary. Instead, I’m going to dive into the qualities that have helped the movie last so long.
Apparently, the cast thought the dialogue was silly and unnatural as they filmed it. One thing’s for sure, no one speaks with this much wit in real life.
The script for Casablanca is the sort of high-octane, clever, dialogue driven script no one really writes anymore. Diablo Cody was in the same league with Juno a while ago, but audiences seem to want naturalistic dialogue in most circumstances. They’ll allow some room for things like period pieces, but overall there’s an insistence that everyone talk like they would in real life.
Which is a shame, although if everyone had the kind of constant one-liners that Rick, Ilsa, and Renault life could be significantly more fun.
The movie is well-known for its great exchanges, having six quotes in the AFI’s list “100 Years…100 Quotes”, more than any other movie in the list. There’s the simple stuff like “Here’s looking at you, kid,” (an invention of Humphrey Bogart as he taught Ingrid Bergman English on set), but Claude Rains’ Renault has all of my favorites. Out of context, the “shocked” line is funny for the pure absurdity of it, but in context it’s even funnier.
Cynicism vs. Romanticism
I think this is really why the movie endures through the decades. It portrays a rather complex portrait of balancing the cynicism brought upon by loss and melancholy with the need for Romanticism in the world.
Rick starts the film as, what looks like, a pure cynic. He doesn’t talk about his past and seems only concerned with keeping his bar open in such a tumultuous city with such a (poor) corrupt official in Renault. In the opening act, though, we see signs that there’s more to him than that. Renault talks about some of Rick’s past. He participated in two smaller wars by running guns, and in both the side he chose lost. The implication is that Rick was a romantic, but his behavior in the scene is designed to make it look like he’s left it all behind. He says, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” twice in the first twenty minutes.
All things considered, he probably would have continued on this path with the kind of behavior that leads him to idly stand by as a man he’s friendly with is rounded up and taken away to surely be shot, but the source of his cynicism arrives. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) arrives in Rick’s place and Rick immediately begins to change. He drinks with customers (which he never does), he helps a young Bulgarian couple win at his own roulette tables so the young woman won’t have to sell her body to Renault for the help they need to leave Casablanca.
Eventually, it all culminates in that side of Rick, that he has tried to suppress for years since Ilsa left him to return to her presumed dead husband Victor Laszlo, completely taking over. He removes himself from his shell and becomes completely selfless. Instead of using the letters of transit for himself, he gives them to Laszlo.
This move could mean one of two things, both related. It could mean that Rick has become a patriot, as Renault calls him, and is now fighting for a cause much like he used to, but it could also mean that he simply knew that Ilsa would never be happy with Rick if she knew that Laszlo was dead. He’d have her, but he’d be the architect of her husband’s death. There couldn’t be any love there, so he does what’s right and walks away. The yearning to be a better man amidst a hostile world is appealing to many people.
Casablanca 2: Electric Bugaloo
Let me take a moment to talk about the very end of the movie. Ilsa and Laszlo have flown away. Rick has shot the main Nazi character. Renault has covered for Rick’s actions, and the pair walk off into the fog, beginning a beautiful friendship. I don’t want to be the “get off my lawn” cynic, but if that got made today there’d be work on a sequel before the movie opened, just in case it was successful. That sequel would possibly put Renault as the main character because he’d test really well in screenings, and Rick and Ilsa would end up together.
It wouldn’t destroy the original, but it’d spit on it.
The beauty of that ending is that it allows us to imagine what could be, but also it ends that part of Rick’s story at the exact right moment. He’s completely changed from cynic to romantic, and we don’t need to see anymore.
Warners wanted a sequel immediately after release (called Brazzaville), but they never made it. Also, can you believe that Madonna tried to remake it once? Ashton Kutcher would have been Rick. At least studio executives have one movie they refuse to try and remake, at least for now.
The Studio System
The making of the movie, which seems to wonderfully designed and assembled, was apparently a mess. Aside from the aforementioned distaste the actors had for the dialogue, there is the famous story of Humphrey Bogart being called to set to stand in a place and nod, for a reason he had no idea. It ended up being Rick telling the band to play the Marseilles. There were also rumors of multiple endings for a while that are largely untrue (although this joke from The Simpsons always puts a smile on my face), but there was an attempt to extend the ending with shots of Rick and Renault on an Allied ship invading North Africa (ugh, just try to ruin everything why don’t you). I’m glad Claude Rains was apparently unavailable.
But, it was a studio picture and probably the best example of what the studio system did well. They had contract players they just pulled into pictures they thought would fit, hired directors who were technically competent and unflashy, and writers who could churn out quality work. When this system came together well, it ended up creating absolutely wonderful entertainments. It’s not how every movie should be made, but it could work very, very well.