Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Casablanca (1942)
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The classic and much-loved romantic melodrama Casablanca (1942), always found on top-ten lists of films, is a masterful tale of two men vying for the same woman's love in a love triangle. The story of political and romantic espionage is set against the backdrop of the wartime conflict between democracy and totalitarianism. [Note: The date given for the film is often either 1942 and 1943. That is because its limited premiere was in 1942, but the film did not play nationally, or in Los Angeles, until 1943.]

With rich and smoky atmosphere, anti-Nazi propaganda, Max Steiner's superb musical score, suspense, unforgettable characters (supposedly 34 nationalities are included in its cast) and memorable lines of dialogue (e.g., "Here's lookin' at you, kid," and the inaccurately-quoted "Play it again, Sam"), it is one of the most popular, magical (and flawless) films of all time - focused on the themes of lost love, honor and duty, self-sacrifice and romance within a chaotic world.

Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (1972) paid reverential homage to the film, as have the lesser films Cabo Blanco (1981) and Barb Wire (1996), and the animated Bugs Bunny short Carrotblanca (1995). The line "Play it again, Sam" appeared in the Marx Brothers' A Night in Casablanca (1946). Clips or references to the film have been used in Play It Again, Sam (1972), Brazil (1985), My Stepmother is an Alien (1988), and When Harry Met Sally (1989).

Directed by the talented Hungarian-accented Michael Curtiz and shot almost entirely on studio sets, the film moves quickly through a surprisingly tightly constructed plot, even though the script was written from day to day as the filming progressed and no one knew how the film would end - who would use the two exit visas? [Would Ilsa, Rick's lover from a past romance in Paris, depart with him or leave with her husband Victor, the leader of the underground resistance movement?] And three weeks after shooting ended, producer Hal Wallis contributed the film's famous final line - delivered on a fog-shrouded runway.

The sentimental love story, originally structured as a one-set play, was based on an unproduced play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison - the film's original title. Its collaborative screenplay was mainly the result of the efforts of Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. In all, six writers took the play's script, and with the models of Algiers (1938) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) to follow, they transformed the romantic tale into this quintessential classic that samples almost every film genre.

Except for the initial airport sequence, the entire studio-oriented film was shot in a Warner Bros. Hollywood/Burbank studio. Many other 40s stars were considered for the lead roles: Hedy Lamarr, "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan, French actress Michele Morgan, and George Raft.

[Note: It's an 'urban legend' that Ronald Reagan was seriously considered for a role in the film. The Warner Bros. publicity office famously planted a pre-production press release in The Hollywood Reporter on January 5, 1942 (it was also released to dozens of newspapers across the country two days later), stating that Reagan would co-star with Ann Sheridan for the third time in Casablanca (1942) - in order to actually encourage support for the soon-to-be-released film Kings Row (1942) with the two stars.]

And pianist Sam's role (portrayed by "Dooley" Wilson - who was actually a drummer) was originally to be taken by a female (either Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, or Ella Fitzgerald). The lead male part went to Humphrey Bogart in his first romantic lead as the tough and cynical on-the-outside, morally-principled, sentimental on-the-inside cafe owner in Casablanca, Morocco. His appearance with co-star Ingrid Bergman was their first - and last. As a hardened American expatriate, Bogart runs a bar/casino (Rick's Cafe Americain) - a way-station to freedom in WWII French-occupied Morocco, where a former lover (Bergman) who previously 'jilted' him comes back into his life. She is married to a heroic French Resistance leader (Henreid). Stubbornly isolationist, the hero is inspired to support the Resistance movement and give up personal happiness with his past love.

The Hollywood fairy-tale was actually filmed during a time of US ties with Vichy France when President Roosevelt equivocated and vacillated between pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support. And it was rushed into general release almost three weeks after the Allied landing at the Axis-occupied, North African city of Casablanca, when Eisenhower's forces marched into the African city. Due to the military action, Warner Bros. Studios was able to capitalize on the free publicity and the nation's familiarity with the city's name when the film opened.

It played first as a pre-release engagement on Thanksgiving Day, 1942 at the Hollywood Theater in New York. [On the last day of 1942, Roosevelt actually screened the film at the White House.] Its strategic timing was further enhanced at the time of its general release in early 1943 by the January 14-24, 1943 Casablanca Conference (a summit meeting in which Roosevelt broke US-Vichy relations) in the Moroccan city with Churchill, Roosevelt, and two French leaders - DeGaulle (the charismatic Free French leader) and General Henri Giraud (supportive of Marshal Petain). [Note: Stalin declined the invitation to attend the so-called 'Big Three' Conference.]

The big-budget film (of slightly less than $1 million), took in box-office of slightly more than $4 million. It was considered for eight Academy Awards for the year 1943. [Actually, it should have competed against Mrs. Miniver (1942) (the Best Picture winner in the previous year), since it premiered in New York in November of that year. However, because it didn't show in Los Angeles until its general release that January, it was ineligible for awards in 1942, and competed in 1943.]

The nominations included Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Best B/W Cinematography (Arthur Edeson, known for The Maltese Falcon (1941)), Best Score (Max Steiner, known for Gone With the Wind (1939)), and Best Film Editing (Owen Marks). The dark-horse film won three awards (presented in early March of 1944): Best Picture (producer Hal B. Wallis), Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Bogart lost to Paul Lukas for his role in Watch on the Rhine. And Bergman wasn't even nominated for this film, but instead was nominated for Best Actress for For Whom The Bell Tolls (and she lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette). Bogart had made three other films in 1943: Sahara, Action in the North Atlantic, and Thank Your Lucky Stars.

Plot Synopsis

At the film's beginning, the credits are displayed over a political map of Africa. In the first five minutes of footage, the introductory details are succinctly communicated by a stentorian narrator. Over a crude, slowly-spinning globe and a zoom-in shot toward Western Europe, a doom-laden, ominous voice-over, similar to the March of Time newsreel narrations [by Westbrook Van Voorhis], explains the turbulent Nazi takeover of Europe, the coming of World War II, and the frenetic stream of political refugees (superimposed over the globe) from persecution out of Hitler's besieged Europe to Vichy France and North Africa:

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully or desperately toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly...

A three-toned relief map of the land mass of Axis-occupied Europe spins into the frame, showing the opposing sides in the conflict:

  • Light Tone: Allied Powers: Great Britain, the British Empire, and her allies (including the Soviet Union)

  • Middle Tone: Neutral Nations: Sweden, Switzerland, Eire (Ireland), Spain, and Portugal. Unoccupied and neutral zones include the southern portion of France and French North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and French Morocco)

  • Dark Tone: Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, their allies (Hungary, Rumania, Slovakia, Croatia), and conquered territories (Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and parts of Poland, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia). Northwestern France is German occupied

European refugee trails and torturous escape routes are developing - a bold line is drawn from the city of Paris to Marseilles in Vichy France. The line finally reaches to Casablanca on the coast of neutral French Morocco, the setting for the film, where refugees (unless they are wealthy or influential enough to acquire quick-exit visas) are victimized by predatory, corrupt Vichy bureaucrats:

And so a torturous, round-about refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran [in Algeria], then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait and wait and wait.

The camera descends from a mosque into the crowded, stucco-walled coastal city of Casablanca, a way station city (an upscale concentration camp) technically ruled by neutral Unoccupied France - located out of war-torn Europe. The story is set in early December 1941 in a city (and cafe), in a dangerous, far-off locale that is a microcosm of the wartime world.

More important details regarding the setting and characters are telescoped very precisely and economically - information about the theft of transit letters, the political and social situation in pro-Vichy Casablanca, the arrival of the Nazi commandant and his friendship with the self-satisfied Vichy policeman, the crucial daily flights to Lisbon, and the central importance of Rick's Cafe.

[The film's opening montage was created by Don Siegel, later known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971).] In a medium closeup shot, a French-accented police officer reads a teletype report to all officers (over the radio) about the Tuesday, December 1, 1941 murder of two German couriers and the theft of official important documents they were carrying:

To all officers. Two German couriers carrying important official documents murdered on train from Oran. Murderer and possible accomplices headed for Casablanca. Round up all suspicious characters and search them for stolen document. IMPORTANT.

The French police, not the Germans, have the jurisdiction and authority to investigate the crime that occurred in Unoccupied France, a neutral country.

During a round-up of suspects by police gendarmes in the city, the precarious situation of a collection of refugees (those in European clothing in Casablanca) is set up by a few short scenes:

  • The open-air city market, a scene of intrigue, is teeming with black marketeers, smugglers, thieves, spies, double agents and refugees who desperately seek to obtain tickets (exit visas) on the daily plane to neutral Lisbon.

  • During a roundup by the French police, one fleeing civilian suspect (Paul Andor) with expired identification papers who refuses to halt is shot in the back and falls dead beneath a wall poster (Je Tiens Mes Promesses Mem Celles Des Autres - "I Keep My Promises, Just as I Keep the Promises of Others") of Marshal Philippe Petain, the dictatorial French head of state in Vichy France. The suspect dies clutching a resistance handbill bearing the Cross of Lorraine symbol - revealing his membership in the Free France Organization headed by Petain's arch rival, General Charles De Gaulle.

  • The camera pans down from an etched-stone slogan above a doorway: "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), the slogan of the French Republic - an outdated, tarnished sign that hadn't yet been replaced by the Vichy Government. The many suspects are herded into a police-station building bearing the sign: "Palais de Justice."

  • At an open-air cafe, a dark, wiry pickpocket (Curt Bois) preys on an English couple, stranded in the Vichy-controlled area. As he informs them that the "scum of Europe has gravitated to Casablanca" and warns them to "be on guard" for "vultures," he lifts the gentleman's wallet.

  • An arriving plane flies over the rooftop sign of Rick's Cafe Americain as a crowd of refugees covetously watches it pass overhead. Among many faces that turn skyward and yearn for freedom in the Americas, a Bulgarian couple, Jan Viereck (Helmut Dantine) and Annina Brandel (Joy Page) hopefully wonder aloud: "Perhaps tomorrow, we'll be on the plane."

But the refugees are mistaken - it is not the single-engined, high-winged plane from Lisbon, the gateway city, but one with a swastika bringing the new German Nazi/Gestapo commander Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). The Gestapo Major is ready to assist in the investigation of the murdered German couriers and pressure the French Police to do their duty. In the honor guard of assembled dignitaries, the Nazis exchange "Heil Hitlers" with outstretched arms. Then, the local Vichy puppet Chief (Préfet de Police), the sophisticated Capitaine Louis Renault (Claude Rains) with his police cap tilted jauntily, already identified by the pickpocket as a Parisian womanizer who takes advantage of "beautiful young girl(s)" among the refugees, greets the disdainful and arrogant German Nazi:

Renault: Unoccupied France welcomes you to Casablanca.
Strasser: Thank you, Captain. It's very good to be here...(Renault introduces his aide Lt. Casselle, and is brusquely intruded upon by Italian Capt. Tonelli.) You may find the climate of Casablanca a trifle warm, Major.
Strasser: Oh, we Germans must get used to all climates, from Russia to the Sahara. But perhaps you were not referring to the weather.
Renault: What else, my DEAR Major?

Renault assures him that everything is being done to find the murderer of the two German couriers with their valuable letters of transit: "Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects." The witty Prefet of Police informs him that the suspected killer's identity is known, and that his arrest is being staged, in Strasser's honor, later that night at Rick's Cafe Americain - a gambling den. Renault states that the cafe is the center of everything that happens in Casablanca, in a tribute to the film's source: "Everybody Comes to Rick's." [Later flashbacks reveal that Rick left Paris in June of 1940 - remarkably, he was able to set up a prosperous cafe/casino in only 18 months.]

The scene quickly dissolves to the cafe that evening - at one edge of the airport runway. An airport's beacon light sweeps across the exterior of the cafe - resembling a prison's circular searchlight to emphasize the forced confinement of everyone in the city. Below a lit sign Rick's Cafe Americain, a Moroccan doorman lets the guests into the fashionable, upscale club. When the door opens, the smoky, Moorish atmosphere of the Cafe Americain is revealed. For a crowd of varied nationalities, black pianist Sam (Arthur "Dooley" Wilson) jauntily sings and plays big band swing music typical of the 40s: "It Had To Be You" and "Shine." [In reality, Wilson was not a piano player but a drummer, so his piano pieces were played off-camera by a studio pianist, and he faked the piano-playing.]

The camera eavesdrops on various groups found at different tables to introduce the activities of those stranded in Casablanca. Refugees attempt to escape from Nazi pursuit, hidden by the jovial, hectic and festive atmosphere in the cafe. Shady deals are being made by greedy black marketeers and the desperate, hopeful clientele of all classes and races speaking in various accents.

  • One man bemoans the endless waiting to leave Casablanca: "Waiting, waiting, waiting. I'll never get out of here. I'll die in Casablanca."
  • A woman sells her smuggled diamonds in a glutted market to a Moor: "But can't you make it just a little more, please?" She accepts 2,400 in Moroccan francs (about $72) as the price.
  • In hushed tones, others make secretive travel arrangements to get out: "The trucks are ready. The men are waiting."
  • At another table, a man tells a second man about escaping on the fishing smack Santiago: "It leaves at 1:00 tomorrow night, here from the end of the Medina. Third boat...and bring 15,000 francs - in cash. Remember, in cash."
  • The camera quickly pans by two Chinese refugees speaking an Oriental language to each other.

In a private gambling room, Carl (S. Z. Sakall, mis-typed in the credits as S. K. Sakall), the genial German headwaiter tells one of the affluent female customers that Rick, the uncaring and sole proprietor/owner of the cafe, doesn't socialize or accept invitations to sit with the clients. Class distinctions are non-existent among those living in the chaotic world of the 1940s:

Carl: Madame, he never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen it.
Female companion: What makes saloonkeeper so snobbish?
Gentleman: Perhaps if you told him I ran the second largest banking house in Amsterdam.
Carl: The second largest? That wouldn't interest Rick - the leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen --
Gentleman: We have something to look forward to.
Carl: -- and his father is the bellboy!

Cynical, disillusioned, embittered, self-centered, and an exiled loner, Richard "Rick" Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) makes a delayed entrance in the film - in a foreground closeup, only his hand is first viewed scrawling/scribbling a signature of authorization/approval across a check for an advance of 1,000 francs: "OK - Rick." Then, the camera reveals the objects in front of him - an ashtray with a smoldering cigarette, an empty glass, a chess board, and a pen. It slowly follows his arm up to his immaculate white tuxedo to his sober face as he drags on his cigarette. Presiding over the gambling tables in the gaming room, Rick drinks and sits by himself, playing a solitary game of chess. His main functions in the casino are to sign checks and vouchers and to occasionally break up fights. Expressionless, he has learned how to survive and be vigilant in the hostile environment.

Moments later after a commotion develops at the entryway to the private gaming room, Rick argues with a pompous, bullying German banker (Gregory Gaye) who has been denied access. The cafe owner stands firm and pre-empts the bumptious, indignant customer from presenting his calling card - and he demonstrates his anti-German dislike by ripping it up. Refusing to be intimidated, Rick doesn't explain the reason for refusing to do business with him - just a cryptic conversation to deflate him and dispose of him:

Rick: Your cash is good at the bar.
German: What? Do you know who I am?
Rick: I do. You're lucky the bar's open to you.
German: This is outrageous. I shall report it to the Angriff.

Italian-born Guillermo Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a slimy North African black market dealer in extra-legal items, weasels his way into the gambling room. He nervously observes Rick's anti-German insult, questions the evasive American's origins - and his cynicism, and then expresses sympathy for the "two German couriers" that were murdered:

Ugarte: You know, Rick, watching you just now with the 'Deutschebank' [the German banker], one would think you'd been doing this all your life.
Rick: Oh, what makes you think I haven't?
Ugarte: Oh, nothing. But when you first came to Casablanca, I thought...
Rick: You thought what?
Ugarte: What right do I have to think?..(hypocritically) Too bad about those two German couriers, wasn't it?
Rick: (disparagingly) They got a lucky break. Yesterday, they were just two German clerks. Today, they're the Honored Dead.
Ugarte: You are a very cynical person, Rick, if you forgive me for saying so.
Rick: I forgive you.

Rick is contemptuous of Ugarte's "cut-rate" business of selling exit visas for half of Renault's price - and Ugarte senses it, with a sad tone. Ugarte explains his plan to leave Casablanca once and for all:

Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?
Rick: Well, if I gave you any thought, I probably would.
Ugarte: But why? Oh, you object to the kind of business I do, huh? But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn't help them. Well that's not so bad, through ways of my own, I provide them with exit visas.
Rick: For a price, Ugarte, for a price.
Ugarte: But think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's price. I get it for them for half. Is that so parasitic?
Rick: I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.
Ugarte: Well, Rick, after tonight, I'll be through with the whole business, and I'm leaving finally, this Casablanca.
Rick: (quipping) Who'd you bribe for your visa, Renault or yourself?

Ugarte shows Rick two non-rescindable French General-signed letters of transit out of Casablanca that allow their possessor to travel without a regular passport or visa. [The pronunciation of the General's name is muffled - whether the irrevocable letters of transit were signed by General Charles DeGaulle or General Maxime Weygand, the military-Vichy commander in French N. Africa, is in question. Weygand would be the more accurate and likely one to issue irrevocable letters of transit - although they probably never existed.] His display of the visas insinuates that he killed the German couriers. His plan is to sell them and make a fortune - "more money than even I have ever dreamed of." Chain-smoking nervously, small-time operator Ugarte trusts only Rick and explains his criteria with an ironic compliment: "You know Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me you are the only one I trust."

Ugarte temporarily entrusts the letters of transit with the trustworthy cafe proprietor. Ugarte hopes that Rick admires him: "Rick, I hope you are more impressed with me now, huh?" With a slight sneer on his face, Rick tells Ugarte that he has heard a rumor that the two murdered German couriers were carrying letters of transit - implying that Ugarte was involved in their demise. Ugarte commiserates sarcastically: "Oh, I've heard that rumor too. Poor devils." Rick compliments Ugarte: "Yes, you're right, Ugarte. I am a little more impressed with you," referring to Ugarte's bold murders to get the exit visas, as well as a little disgust that he would have gone so far. Rick hides the two priceless letters of transit for him, secretly stashing them in the club's upright piano while Sam sings and plays: "Who's Got Trouble? - Knock on Wood" - the song title provides commentary that is pregnant with meaning.

The king of the Black Market and rival Blue Parrot cafe proprietor, a large-figured Senor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), enters the cafe. Immediately after the song ends, the white-suited, large man offers to buy the cafe - an offer that he has made (and had rejected) numerous times. Rick isn't interested in selling, so Ferrari offers instead to buy the contract of Rick's piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson in his film debut), and then criticizes Rick for his "isolationist" policy:

Rick: It's not for sale.
Ferrari: You haven't heard my offer.
Rick: It's not for sale at any price.
Ferrari: What do you want for Sam?
Rick (looking down and with understatement): I don't buy or sell human beings.
Ferrari: Too bad. That's Casablanca's leading commodity. In refugees alone, we could make a fortune, if you work with me through the black market.
Rick: Suppose you run your business and let me run mine.
Ferrari: Suppose we ask Sam. Maybe he'd like to make a change?
Rick: Suppose we do.
Ferrari: My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world, today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?

Sam is asked about his loyalties, and steadfastly wishes to remain with Rick ("I like it fine here"). Rick is ultimately detached from politics.

Rick is also divorced from romantic associations and commitment. At the bar, a cute, infatuated French bargirl Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau) confrontationally begs for his interest, but his alcoholic mistress no longer figures in his life:

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That's so long ago, I don't remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Rick orders his crazy Russian bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) not to serve Yvonne any more drinks, and then orders Sascha to call for a cab to get her to leave quietly and go home. Outside, the rejected, drunken mistress tells him: "What a fool I was to fall for a man like you." After putting her in the cab with Sascha, he turns and sees Renault relaxing on the front patio terrace at one of the outdoor tables. The opportunistic police Capitaine Renault, who enjoys a social friendship with Rick, has witnessed her send-off. He resents Rick's easy way with women and wryly observes that maybe his chances with the discarded Yvonne will now improve:

How extravagant you are - throwing away women like that. Some day they may be scarce. Oh, I think now I shall pay a call on Yvonne, maybe get her on the rebound, huh?

Rick politely calls Renault promiscuous: "When it comes to women, you're a true democrat."

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