There are two types of people in the world: those who have seen Casablanca, and those who claim that they have. Well, I am proud to say that thanks to Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies, I have moves from the latter category into the former. Casablanca – much like Gone with the Wind (which I’ve definitely “seen”) – is one of those time-tested classics that is maybe too famous for its own good. The 1942 film from director Michael Curtiz has been referenced and parodied so many times that you almost begin to wonder “what’s the point?”
Still, my own compulsive behavior dictates that I must watch the film. Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, a nightclub owner in the French-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. Casablanca is full of refugees hoping to escape the growing Nazi threat, but few ever get to leave. Enter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a leader of the Czech Resistance who has attracted the attention of German Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and obsequious-yet-conniving local police Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). Strasser suspects Laszlo and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), will attempt to escape Casablanca, and hopes for Rick’s cooperation in assuring that doesn’t happen. Everything seems a-okay, but a secret history between Rick and Ilsa will end up throwing everything into upheaval.
The performances – particularly those by Bogart, Bergman, and Rains – are what keep the film relevant as we continue our unceasing trek into the 21st century. Bogey’s (I call him that because we’re close) effortless stoicism and masculinity helped make him a star, and while it’s always present, there are moments of vulnerability wherein we see just how deeply he was hurt by Ilsa. Likewise, Bergman plays her role with the muted emotional conflict one might expect from a woman who is quietly torturing herself over a past that she can’t control. Rains, though, brings the funny, which prevents Casablanca from the being the maudlin and self-serious moral tale that it could have easily devolved into.
In a way, Casablanca is as much a love triangle between Rick, Ilsa and Renault as it is one between Rick, Ilsa and Victor. Renault presents himself as a hopeless cad, but there is more to his unceasing admiration of Rick than can be stated explicitly. A beautiful friendship, indeed.
In the end, Casablanca doesn’t have a whole lot else to rest on. You can’t fault it for that though, as it has become the original that all subsequent romantic dramas have copied. Unfortunately that means it suffers over time. It is such an important film that it is almost distracting. The famous lines of dialogue (“of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the worlds, she walks into mine”), the memorable music (“As Time Goes By” performed impeccably by Dooley Wilson), and the iconic images (Bogey waiting forever in his damp trench coat) have taken on a life of their own to which Casablanca almost can’t live up.
The film succeeds regardless – how could it not? Its story of an essentially good man whose self-interest tempts him down a dark path is one that will always be interesting if done well. And Bogey does it better than most. He doesn’t have all of the quick banter you might see in something like The Big Sleep. But he doesn’t need it. Casablanca deserves it’s classic status, and if you’ve been lying about the fact that you haven’t seen it, stop it. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Get it? Because he says that in the movie? Forget it.