Release Date: January 23rd, 1943 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Michael Curtiz Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
ith the coming of the Second World War, the steadily more restricted occupants of Europe turn toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon is the primary escape point, where journeying from Paris to Marseille, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train along the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco, provides an opportunity for liberation. In Casablanca, the wealthy, influential, or simply fortunate ones can obtain visas to Lisbon. Others, however, continue to wait, stalling capture by the police for as long as possible.
It’s the end of 1941 when two German couriers carrying official documents are murdered and their killers pursued into Casablanca, where all refugees, liberals, and suspicious characters are routinely investigated for forged or expired papers. Although Casablanca is considered unoccupied France, German Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) of the Third Reich arrives in town to throw around his significance and to supervise the arrest of the fugitives. His mission is to halt their departure to Lisbon indefinitely, trampling on jurisdictional authority if necessary.
Ugarte (Peter Lorre) sells exit visas to the highest bidders and is now in possession of unquestionable letters of transit, which he plans to unload for enough money to finally leave the godforsaken Casablanca altogether. For safety, he has them looked after by Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a perpetually disinterested, isolationism-minded soul who doesn’t particularly like the corrupt extorter, but runs Rick’s Café Americain, the primary club and neutral meeting place in the city. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” states Blaine coolly to the local chief of police, Capitaine Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who is himself a man of shifting, monetarily obtainable allegiance. It’s a line he’ll repeat more than once, though each time it begins to lose its certainty. “I’m only a poor corrupt official,” Renault comments when betting on the intended seizure of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a concentration camp escapee searching desperately for a way out of the country, accompanied by lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).
Beneath Rick’s cynical shell, at heart he’s a sentimentalist – which leads the investigatory German leaders to inspect his motives. While Laszlo was a Prague newspaperman openly speaking out against the Nazis, Rick has a checkered past for helping the losing side of political and governmental gambits. With Ilsa harboring a secret history with Rick (a relationship in which they reveal nothing about themselves, hoping to preserve an unaffiliated affair) leading up to the Nazi invasion of Paris, a tragic love triangle is formed. Bogart and Bergman’s onscreen romance is sensationally cinematic, exchanging quotable dialogue (“Here’s looking at you, kid”), tearful emotions, and meaningful stares, presided over by the iconic song “As Time Goes By,” keyed by piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). Their communications are divinely executed, demonstrating the actors’ incomparable skills – and director Michael Curtiz’ flair for romantic drama scenarios.
In a place of civil unrest, violently opposing factions, threats of paranoia-fueled apprehension, and wartime tensions, a complex love story unfolds, involving putting the wellbeing (and the cause) of the many above the happiness of an individual and sacrificing knowledge for the sake of preserving attachment. In a multilayered manner, it applies to more than Rick and Ilsa, as the unscrupulous Renault morally contaminates young women that pass through the prefect’s office. It’s also an opportunity for flawless character development, moody cinematography, gripping scripting, and absorbing wordplay, examining impulse, rationale, changing ideals, a rarified interpretation of destiny, and the essence of humanity.
Character actors Lorre, Rains, and Sydney Greenstreet (as Signor Ferrari, a competing bar owner, poetically cryptic linguist, and leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca) are equally spectacular as supporting players, imparting nuances that make their roles inspiringly authentic and unique. Even waiter Carl (S.K. Sakall), Russian bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey), and Dooley Wilson are grandly unbound from artificiality. No role is wasted, no shot overdone or overlong, and nearly every moment absolutely unforgettable. It’s no wonder that “Casablanca” is regularly regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, frequently topping critics’ lists and earning the 1943 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
– Mike Massie