This movie is rated #2 on the list of the greatest films of all time by AFI. It stars Bogart and Bergman, both at their best, as Rick and Ilsa. Borgart is Richard “Rick” Baines, owner of “Rick’s Café Americain” in Casablanca, Morocco. It is the first few days in December 1941 when the movie opens. Rick presents himself as a worldly, wise, tough, cynical café owner who has a rule that he never drinks with the customers. His close friend and associate, Sam, plays the piano and sings at the Café.
Casablanca is under French rule; however, even though this is “unoccupied France”, the Germans have defeated France and occupied Paris. Casablanca is filled with unsavory characters trading in documents, sometimes stolen, that will help a person get out of the country and make their way to Lisbon and from there to the United States. Rick’s Café is where many of these people hang out. Besides being a café, it also has an illegal gambling room. Most of the scenes are shot in the café.
The United States has not yet entered the war. However, we in the audience watching the movie know that December 7th and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that will pull America into the war, soon to be labeled by President Roosevelt as “a day that will live in infamy”, is about to take place. The movie was released in 1942 in the midst of the war. However, no one thought they were making a masterpiece as they stumbled their way through making the movie. Much of the script was being written as the movie was being shot and no one knew the final ending until after the actors had all gone home! They then brought Bogart back to say the final words of the film. This was meant to be just one of some 50 films that would be made by the studio that year.
Why does this movie work so well? Was it the script? Well, that was a part of its success. However, a remake years later was a dud and failed miserably. So, obviously you can take a great script and make a mess of a movie. Was it the actors, the direction, the script? What makes this movie great is that everything about it falls together into a gestalt; it becomes a classic because it is more than the sum of its parts. It is about mystery and intrigue that keeps you wondering what is going on. But, more than anything, it is one of the greatest romance stories ever brought to film. And, it is the final moments, the ending that makes this movie and this romance so successful.
You see, Rick was once in love with Ilsa in Paris. The Germans were about to take over the city and Rick had to move on. His love, Ilsa, was to meet him at the train along with Sam. She doesn’t show up. We learn all of this in flashbacks. We first meet Ilsa when she walks into Rick’s café in Casablanca with her husband. She sees Sam first and asks him to play her song, which is “As Time Goes By”. (Max Steiner, who created the music for the movie, keeps playing lines from this song over and over throughout the movie to help make it a signature song.) Sam tries to avoid playing it but gives in and when he does Rick comes angrily over as he has told Sam never to play that song. Rick and Ilsa meet! We in the audience don’t know the history between them, we only find that out later. But it is immediately obvious that they are powerfully, emotionally, connected.
But you won’t see them in bed, they will not have more than a few kisses. Most of the powerful emotions are expressed through looks. Bergman is marvelous in this regard and so is Bogart. She has a luminous quality in this and in many of her other films. Before this film, Bogart had been seen mainly as a gangster or a tough guy. (I highly recommend that you see him in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, or in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Key Largo, or The African Queen, or The Caine Mutiny, or….he made a lot of fine films!) This film presented him as a tough guy and cynic---on the outside. But, we see that he is really sensitive, patriotic, caring and this role helps change the way audiences and studio bosses related to him so that he got roles where he was the romantic lead. Part of the credit that this film becomes one of the greatest love stories on film goes to the censors. Because of censorship, they kept any bedroom scenes out of the film and left it to your imagination. Remember, you have a wonderful imagination, which is often under worked. Another reason the film works is that it is shot in black and white. The lack of color enhances the drama of the film, creates great opportunities for shadows and helps make the movie great.
The rest of the movie isn’t all that important. We find out about their romance in Paris, why she disappeared (she thought her husband was dead when she was with Rick in Paris and then found out he was alive and needed help), and how they need to get out of Casablanca because her husband is a leader in the resistance to German forces. All of this is interesting, but what makes it work is the snappy, crisp script and the great supporting cast that make the script come alive. Claude Rains is outstanding as the police chief who is Rick’s friend and none of the supporting cast is anything but first rate.
But what elevates the film to a classic is that final scene. Bogart has led Bergman to believe that he has arranged for her husband to leave so that he can continue to fight the Nazis but that Rick and Ilsa would remain behind to continue their love affair. At the last minute he lets her know that she is going with her husband. He tells her that she is getting on the plane with her husband Victor because she is a part of his struggle to win the war. If she doesn’t go, he tells her: “You’ll regret it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” Ilsa asks: “What about us?” (They clearly are deeply in love with one another.) Rick says: “We’ll always have Paris.” He goes on to say that he has a job to do. In short, they both have important jobs to do to help win the war. Rick: “I’m no good at being noble; but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
So, this is one of the greatest ever love stories! But it is built on sacrifice and values worthy of those sacrifices, on living up to your mature responsibilities and not just letting passion take over.
After Ilsa and Victor’s plane takes off and they are safe, after Bogart kills a Nazi Major to ensure their success in front of the police chief, the police chief tells his subordinates to round up the usual suspects, instead of having Rick arrested. The final scene has the two of them walking off through the foggy night at the airport having decided to leave Casablanca and join the free French forces to fight against the Nazis. The final line is delivered by Bogart, which is: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
You see, neither the cynical police chief nor the cynical café owner are really cynical. They only put on that façade. We have learned along the road that Rick helped the Ethiopians when they were invaded and the Spaniards during their civil war---he has always done the right thing when the time comes to act. The police chief says of Rick after he has Ilsa and her husband leave: “You’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Rick responds: “Seemed like a good time to start.” But, in reality, Rick has always been a patriot! But, even now he will maintain the façade of being casual about those things that are really important to him---and to us all.
The movie was nominated for everything. It won the Academy Awards for Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Picture, and Best Screenplay (remember the screenplay was being written as they shot the film by several people---Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). It was nominated in a number of other categories. Bogart lost out as Best Actor and Rains as Best Supporting Actor but we don’t even remember the roles or the movies they lost out to anymore. Bergman was nominated that year for Best Actress but not for this movie, she also starred that year in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The movie was originally based on the unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The writer of the play says that when he wrote the patriotic scene in the café where they get up and sing the French song and drown out the Germans singing their song, he cried. Many a person viewing that scene feels the tears flowing. One of the reasons they renamed it Casablanca was because the year before a successful movie was named Algiers.