- Directed by Michael Curtiz
- November 26, 1942 (Hollywood Theatre) / January 23, 1943 (United States)
An American expatriate in Morocco must decide whether to help a former lover and her husband escape the Nazis.
This is a great film with the legendary Humphrey Bogart and the amazing Ingrid Bergman as the former lovers Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund respectively. There is undeniable legendary chemistry between the two from their first seconds on screen together. There is a reason this movie is still talked about today. They both acted their asses off in this movie. You believe they are Ilsa and Rick. You feel their highs and lows and Rick’s struggle comes through.
Rick is a cynical and wounded soul who finds himself in Morocco running Rick’s American Café which attracts everyone from Vichy French to Germans to refugees looking to escape to then neutral America. Despite his cynical exterior, prior to running his café, he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. In Casablanca Rick skates on the edges of the local law while maintaining a legitimate business front.
Because of past experiences, Rick bans the song “As Time Goes By” from being played by his friend and house pianist Sam (Arthur “Dooley” Wilson) because it connects to so many painful memories Rick will never put behind him. Interestingly that song is sprinkled throughout the movie in one form or another. Sometimes it is romantic and sometimes it is simply haunting with a hint of danger. The song was written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931 and became famous when it was featured here.
Rick’s troubles begin when Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with plans to sell “letters of transit” at the café that allow the bearer to travel around German occupied Europe freely and thus they could make their way to neutral Portugal. These are priceless to the refugees in Casablanca many of whom have been waiting there for years for such a thing. Ugarte persuades Rick to hold them prior to sale but is arrested by the police before he can arrange anything.
Claude Rains plays Captain Louis Renault who leads the local police for the Vichy government. He is a bit of a scumbag that he uses his position to extort sexual favors from women in order to get much coveted visas. They do not outright say such due to film censors of the time but a few bits of well-crafted dialogue let you know. Despite his terrible nature, through the talent of Rains, you come to somewhat like Renault. He is an opportunist and a garbage person but there is something likable there.
Rick is surprised to find his former lover Ilsa in his establishment. She is seeking the very papers that Rick has that could get him killed if the authorities find them in his possession. Ilsa is not alone but is there with her husband Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). Rick refuses to sell at any price and when Victor wants to know why Rick instructs him to ask his wife.
What I described up to this point sets up the entire film. There is a love triangle with World War II in the backdrop. There is intrigue and danger and the threat of Nazis. We have action and a battle of wills. It is a game of cat and mouse as Rick must not only decide what to do but also not get caught with the blank visas because it will mean he is a dead man.
Other significant players in this film are Conrad Veidt as Nazi officer Major Heinrich Strasser. Veidt inspired the initial look of The Joker based on his appearance in The Man Who Laughs. Veidt was a German refugee that identified as Jewish in solidarity with his last wife whom he spoke some of the most beautiful words about another human being that I have ever read. The man was a great actor that was also an interesting person that passed way far too soon.
Sydney Greenstreet plays club owner Ferrari. Greenstreet may not be as big of a name as Bogart or Bergman, but he had a very good career despite starting late in life. One of his better-known roles includes The Maltese Falcon which also featured Bogart. He stole scenes there but not so here.
In the beginning of the film, to show the front that Rick puts on and to show how he is still hurt from Ilsa, he discards a young woman named Yvonne. Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, was a French refugee who had left Nazi-occupied Europe with her husband Marcel Dalio who played Emil the croupier. She was the last surviving cast member and died on May 1, 2016. Just an interesting bit of trivia.
There is a scene in this film referred to as the “duel of the anthems.” It is when Strasser, while at Rick’s, decides to lead a group of officers in singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine”). Lazlo, a fugitive Czech Resistance leader, gets the house band to play “La Marseillaise” with Rick’s approval.
Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Louis V. Arco, Trude Berliner, Ilka Grünig, Ludwig Stössel, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Wolfgang Zilzer, Madeleine Lebeau, and Marcel Dalio were all individuals working on the film who were fleeing the Nazis. These were refugees playing refugees and the scene reportedly had an emotional resonance for all involved. Some were said to have been moved to tears.
It took me quite some time to finally get around to seeing this. The Blu-ray had lingered in my collection for around three years or so. I admit to on many instances pulling this one out and then putting it aside for something I had seen a few times the preceding twelve months because, ya know.
The ending is deservedly considered classic. The idea was originally to have Ilsa leave her husband for Rick but back then that was not something that would get past the watchdogs. A little creativity was needed to come up with something that worked. What we got was something with passion and pain and heartache and danger. Some of the most iconic lines between two characters are spoken in the closing moments.
Michael Curtiz made such films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Sea Wolf, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas, King Creole, Life With Father, Jim Thorpe-All American, and We’re No Angels among many others. He was prolific and produced a great deal of quality in his career yet you do not here him mentioned among great directors. And that is a shame. This is just such a well helmed film. It is the kind of cinema magic that not everyone can make happen. The right stars and the right director and the right script made something special.
Casablanca is a piece of classic cinema that probably cannot be praised enough. It is a great film that has it all and it all is spectacular. This is a must see!