As time moves along, things change: Our fashions, our music, the technology in our lives. But Casablanca is a film that is timeless. People will watch this film centuries from now and be affected by it’s brilliance. Part of the reason the story is so timeless is that it discusses World War 2, arguably the greatest conflict in the history of our planet. But Casablanca is so brilliant for this reason: The film shows the conflict of war, but it doesn’t show a single battlefield. Casablanca’s premise is that everyone, not just the Soldiers fighting, are effected by war and tyranny.
And this is where Rick Blaine comes in: The time is December 1941. America is officially neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and Germany. One particularly apathetic American, named Rick, lives in the Vichy French colony Morocco. The American own’s Rick’s Café Américain, a high end casino, frequented by the Nazis and Vichy French, as well as an endless number of refugees, hoping to escape Nazi Germany. From Casablanca, the refugees can fly to neutral Portugal and then to America. Casablanca is under control of the Vichy French, who are loyal to Hitler, in theory anyways.
Rick maintains he is neutral in the war. He doesn’t care if the Nazis or the Brits win, so long as his cafe is making money. But every so often, he shows his human side. Rick has some highly coveted transit papers in his possession, that can guarantee his safe exit from Casablanca to Portugal. Out of the clear blue, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick’s cafe. Rick and Ilsa had a wonderful history together, living in Paris in 1939. Ilsa left Rick as the Nazis were occupying the city, without any explanation. To complicate matters, Ilsa is now married to Victor Laslo, a resistance leader against the Nazis.
The local Nazi leader, Major Strasser, will do anything to keep Laslo from leaving Morocco. Now here’s where RIck’s dilemma comes in: Does he give the transit papers to Victor, to help continue the resistance movement from America, or does he use them himself to escape… possibly with his lost love?
The vast majority of the film’s characters barely speak above a whisper. You know all of the character’s motives, be they altruistic or selfish, but they are not always implicitly stated. The characters have intense conflicts with each other, but they do not scream at each other in the least. This goes against almost every film in the modern era, where everything is over the top and it seems everyone is screaming at each other.
And these characters all well-aware they are all involved in the struggle for the direction of humanity, in their own way. But their understated style makes the film, and it’s legendary dialogue, that much more memorable.
To me, Casablanca is the best film ever made. Much of the reason this film is so spectacular is the film’s unforgettable cast and their performances: Bogart, Bergman, Paul Henreid as Lazlo, Conradt Veidt as Strasser, Sidney Greenstreet as Ferrari, a friendly rival nightclub owner, Peter Lorre as the petty thief Ugarte, Dooley Wilson as Sam, (who never heard the phrase ‘Play it again Sam,’ contrary to popular opinion) and my favorite, the extremely corrupt but unpredictably charming Vichy police Captain Renault, played to absolute perfection by the timeless character actor, Claude Rains.
Casablanca also has one of the 5 best scenes in cinema: While Rick is ambivalent to the world around him, throughout the film, he ultimately shows he is no friend to the Nazis, nor are his customers. Some Nazis come into Rick’s, order a few rounds and they start playing a German song on the piano.
Laslo, who detests the Nazis for obvious reasons, is in the cafe. He instructs the house band to play the French National anthem, in a bold act of defiance. Confused, the head of the band looks to his boss Rick, who quietly nods to play the anthem. A small battle of the bands ensues. However, the Nazis are drowned out when everyone in Rick’s stands and sings with the band. That scene brings a tear to my eye every time I see It. Even though Rick is a very bitter and sad man, he knows to fight for what is right when the time comes. The reason that scene is so powerful is that you have to believe every customer in Rick’s knows their life is in danger by challenging the Nazis, but they do so anyways.
I could go on and on about why this movie is so powerful. Here’s the underlying brilliance of Casablanca: The raw emotion and the conflict of war plays out in the film’s smallest of details: The performances, the camerawork, the music, everything in this film is so meticulous and precise, choreographed and planned out to perfection. And when a film pays as much attention to the most precise of details the way director Michael Curtiz does with Casablanca, it’s the beginning of a beautiful movie.