1940s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Michael Curtiz, Review

Casablanca: A Second Look

Damn…do I love this movie.

It really does seem to represent the peak of the entire studio system. Made just a few years before the system began to collapse because of post-war influences like the DOJ’s efforts to break the vertical integration of the market, forbidding studios from owning theater chains which cut heavily into their profits which, when, combined with the increasing power of individual stars and directors (because of tax changes from a decade before that had made it less enticing for large weekly salaries and changed the general ethos on payment of stars to profit sharing to avoid income taxes), meant that long term contracts were quickly becoming a thing of the past and the machine-like mechanisms of the studio system couldn’t operate nearly as smoothly as before. However, Casablanca was made right as Warner Brothers was hitting its own stride organizationally, having managed to build a solid foundation through the 30s by focusing on low-budget, gritty crime films with a later push into prestige pictures as represented by The Life of Emile Zola.

Casablanca is actually not one of WB’s prestige movies. It’s a wartime thriller starring Humphrey Bogart who had recently made himself into a key WB star with The Maltese Falcon, but was cheap compared to other WB stars. Ingrid Bergman was gotten from David O. Selznick on the cheap. The supporting cast didn’t cost much. Michael Curtiz was a contract director (not to demean his skill, for he was one of the top contract directors at WB). The writers were all contract writers going through the same convoluted writing and rewriting process largely dictated by the producer, Hal B. Wallis, who was operating in his comfort zone of genre and star. It really is the consummate example of how the studio system actually worked.

And the studio system was arguably never better.

Taking a topical story (WB’s specialty for more than a decade), giving it a noirish veneer (also a WB specialty), and perfectly using its stars (including its newest addition to that roster, Bogart), Michael Curtiz used the skill he had honed over decades as a WB director to bring together everything in the frame. The film simply looks great from start to finish, using shadow, depth of field, specific lighting, and diffusion to help tell the story visually, relying heavily on performance from a script that heavily uses nostalgia and regret to tell a story steeped in metaphor that more effectively urges the audience to involve in the fight than Mrs. Miniver did more explicitly.

Of course, it’s an entertainment first and foremost, and it’s just fun to watch. The key performance in terms of pure entertainment is Claude Rains as the corrupt French Captain Renault, given almost all of the best lines and gleefully taking advantage of every single one. The romantic triangle between Rick (Bogart), Ilsa (Bergman), and the saintly Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) is just detailed enough in background and so well written in the moment while giving Rick the kind of multi-faceted approach where his choice around Ilsa ends up reflecting his choice around the war. It’s really wonderful how it all plays out, giving a perfect path for Rick to go from cynic to romantic, even if the cynic was just a façade.

That the Academy decided to award it Best Picture feels like something of an aberration to me, though. I love it, and it’s obviously well-loved and has been for decades, but it’s the kind of movie that the Academy accidentally overlooks. I mean…they don’t honor well-beloved classics, right? Still, it was a popular war movie in the middle of WWII, embraced by critics and audiences, and the work of an upstart studio that had made good. It was well worth the award.

Also, the whole letters of transit stuff still makes no sense, but I don’t care.

Rating: 4/4


8 thoughts on “Casablanca: A Second Look”

  1. This is a great movie, everything really came together for this one, with a great cast in both the lead roles and the two character actors in Lorre and Greenstreet, probably Raines is closer to a leading man, but also first rate. My only tiniest teensiest quibble has always been that I think Henreid is kind of a stiff, not sure how much of that falls on the actor and how much on how the character is written. But very minor problem, a top movie of all time for me.


    1. Victor Lazlo is a hero. A real life hero. He is on the run from literal Nazis who want him dead.

      I’m not a girl, but I get it. He may be a stiff, but he does stuff. Also, not being a girl, my gauge of men and their relative attractiveness may not be accurate, but I get the sense that Henried id a prettier man than Bogart.

      My problem is with the complete muddle of why Nazis care about letters of transit signed by Charles de Gaulle.


      1. Because they are Germans and Germans follow orders? (I have German ancestry, that’s who we are :)) That’s one of those things where I just go with it, don’t worry too much about it.


  2. letters of transit, are the only way, someone can escape being deported back to Germany, or Vichy France or Horthy’s Hungary in michael walsh attempt at a sequel, heresy, as times goes on, he sketches out rick’s back story, he was a gangster fleeing a hit back home, who could never go back, and where lazlo and company end up in the move against heydrich,
    as part of the resistance, possession of the letters of transit are invaluable,


  3. I had seen this film, last before I saw his take on the lockhart affair, which leaves reilly out entirely, and is too indifferent to the consequences of communism, and his charge of the light brigade, which inverts the timeline to give a rational to such a crazy endeavor, they are going after the mastermind of the indian mutiny, that came after,


  4. This is shorter than Mrs. Miniver, which I will get to ASAP, tonight hopefully. But yeah, this might be a perfect movie. And perfect movies just don’t happen very often. You can quibble about fictional letters of transit (it’s a MacGuffin but it’s used consistently) or about Victor Lazlo being a stiff, nearly sexless machine man or about Ilsa being a slut or the relatively poor acting skills of Madeleine Lebeau…all nit picks. This movie works.

    It moves fast, gives actors meat to chew on, uses supporting actors well (Sidney Greenstreet is far more affable here than in the Maltese Falcon), gives us imperfect people all tested and most of them pass the tests in the end.

    What makes it work best for me are the characters. They have the illusion of depth and relationships. You see how people react to Rick, to Ilsa, to Sam. Their affection towards each other makes them feel more real and makes us like them too. Pickpockets die heroes, corrupt cops turn anti-Nazi, heartbroken drunks forgive and are redeemed….and all with a backdrop of flawless cinematography, appropriate music, clear antagonists who are themselves internally consistent.

    This is of course one of my top 100 favorite movies and it might be the ‘best’ of them all.


    1. It’s everything people say they want in a movie. It’s got the pew pews. It’s got the kissing. It’s got the laughs and the wit. It’s got the melodramatic emotion, balanced by a cynicism that doesn’t quite get people too worked over the melodrama.

      It’s the moviest movie of all the movies, and it’s just grand entertainment.


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