ON CLASSIC CINEMA Here’s looking at you
Why Casablanca remains a classic for the ages
Certain films are guaranteed to be at or near the top of every “greatest movies of all time” list you’ll ever read: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Vertigo and of course Casablanca. Perhaps you can name it as one of the most well-known love stories in cinema, or you recognize actors Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or you’ve heard one of its many famous lines (“We’ll always have Paris”); Casablanca is one of those films that has so permeated cinematic culture that nearly everyone has some level of awareness of it.
So why is this the case? It’s memorable in just about every way a movie can be memorable; its script, story, and characters. Made in 1942, the film is set during World War II in unoccupied Casablanca, a restless place where refugees come to find visas to flee the war, and where the distinguished Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs an upscale saloon. One fateful evening, chance brings the lovely Ilsa Lund and her husband Victor Laszlow to his bar in search of the proper papers to take them to America. We soon discover Rick and Ilsa have once been in love, and as tensions rise in Casablanca more and more is revealed about their past. The heart-wrenching ending reveals whether or not they will choose their love despite past misunderstandings and obstacles the war has set in their paths.
The film’s appeal even transcends its surface action, romance, politics, and drama. Casablanca is a film about how people react to circumstance beyond their control, the fine line between what could have been and what has to be, and the distinction between one’s fate and another’s obligation. These themes are part of what makes a war-time romance relevant to audiences today. The decisions the characters make can be questioned because they breach deeper principles about life and love. Whether or not you would get on the plane in the final scene really is a question of what matters most to you, of what you value in your life.
The interactions between the characters is another large part of what makes the story special. It’s the nostalgia, chemistry, and tension between Rick and Ilsa, the connection between the two bridged by the pianist Sam and his song “As Time Goes By” (“play it again, Sam”), Rick’s wry bitterness pierced by unexpected sentimentalism, and the unlikely friendship struck between Rick and Captain Louis that leaves such a lasting impression. Bogart himself was one of the greatest actors of his time, known for such films as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and in Casablanca forms one of the most famous on-screen couples in film.
And finally, by far my favorite part of the film, let us examine the script. Casablanca uses dialogue as its most important narrative tool; every line is meticulously crafted to convey the spirit of the person saying it. The script — written by Koch and the Epstein brothers — is sharp, witty, and dynamic, and for this Casablanca is regarded as having one of the best written screenplays of all time. It won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay (as well as Outstanding Motion Picture and Best Director). Take this exchange between Louis and Rick, as they sit under the moonlight outside of Rick’s cafe:
Louis: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.
Rick: It’s a combination of all three
Louis: Then what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Louis: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Also, consider Rick’s classic comment the night he sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” This is the type of film that is a true joy to listen to, and is more than worth taking a step back to appreciate the dialogue.
Casablanca’s influence is far-reaching, from the impact it’s had on other movies (take The Usual Suspects or the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera), to its now iconic story and its many famous quotations that consistently make “top movie quotes” lists. It stands the test of time as a classic; for those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it for its cultural significance and artistic elements . And for those who have watched it, play it again.
Casablanca was released in 1942 by Warner Bros. Pictures, and was directed by Michael Curtiz.