Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Having been born at a time when the events of World War II had already become ancient history, I will never fully grasp the horror of this period which my grandparents and great-grandparents had the misfortune of living through. For close to a decade, the whole world went mad. Human lives were being snuffed out by the millions and the living, when not subject to physical or mental torture, spent every waking moment under constant fear. Nazi Germany, arguably the most evil entity ever unleashed by Man, enjoyed a stranglehold over the countries of Europe. I and those of my generation have the advantage of knowing the outcome, but there was a time when no one was sure if the Nazis could ever be defeated. Rebellions popped up here and there, some being squashed quickly while others endured. Somehow, in the middle of all the madness, hatred, persecution and genocidal bloodshed, there still lay room for love.

The time is December 1941. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a nightclub owner in Casablanca, Morocco. Unable to return to the United States (for reasons which the movie never reveals), Rick chooses not to involve himself in the politics of the war, and on the surface appears to have a heart made of stone. Captain Louis Renault of Nazi-Occupied France believes Rick to be a sentimentalist, and his suspicions are confirmed when the rebellious Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) shows up with his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Rick and Ilsa had a brief romance which ended in Rick’s heart being broken in Paris. Laszlo had been expecting to meet with a man named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) to pick up letters of transit for himself and Ilsa, unaware that Ugarte has been arrested for the murder of two Germans from whom he’d stolen the papers. What Laszlo also does not know is that Ugarte had given the letters of transit to Rick to keep safe just before he was taken away. With these papers, Laszlo can escape to Lisbon and the resistance will still have its leader. Without them, he’s a dead man. Still bitter over how things ended in Paris, Rick is faced with choosing between his own feelings and the future of the free world.

Before “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart had not been known for playing romantic leads. Actually, he hadn’t really been known for playing very many heroic characters of any kind. Rick is both his most virtuous and relatable. Ilsa is easily the most iconic role in the stellar career of Ingrid Bergman. Hers were among the most expressive eyes in Hollywood history. Without her having to say a word, you can see the conflicted emotions felt by Ilsa as she is faced with breaking a man’s heart no matter what choice she makes. Together, Bogart and Bergman’s chemistry produces what is quite simply the greatest love story ever filmed. The bittersweet climax of “Casablanca” is right up there among my favorite scenes of all time. Even a heart made of stone would melt just a little.

The supporting cast is full of great actors as well. Claude Rains, famous for the title role in 1933’s “The Invisible Man,” plays Captain Renault as a man of flexible morals. Especially amusing is the scene where he shuts down the club, citing illegal gambling, and then proceeds to collect his own winnings. Paul Henreid was well established by the time of “Casablanca,” and still was worried about the impact his performance in this movie would have on his future film prospects. Henreid and Bogart did not get along, with Henreid accusing Bogart of not being a particularly good actor and Bogart calling Henreid a “prima donna.” That Henreid wouldn’t even take the job unless he shared top billing with Bogart and Bergman didn’t help his case. Conrad Veidt, who sadly died just over two months after the New York premiere of “Casablanca,” was a veteran of the Silent Era, which included featuring in the 1920 classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He brings just the right amount of menace to the role of Major Strasser.

“Casablanca” came at a time when the world was at its worst and painted a picture of defiant hope. The Third Reich appeared as unstoppable as it was advertised to be, but even the Nazis were incapable of conquering over all. “Casablanca” was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Picture, and has appeared on countless lists for all-time greatest films over the last 70+ years. The movie also serves as a reminder that matters of the heart have their place and time, and sometimes it’s best to leave them there. That’s not to say that you should shut yourself down like some emotionless automaton. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to hold dear those who’ve parted ways with you. But, there comes a point when you have to admit to yourself that the answers to who did what to whom and why aren’t going to make any difference. So let that old song be a reminder of happy times, instead of allowing yourself to be consumed by despair and grief.

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Comments
  1. dirkmalcolm says:

    It will continue to be on those lists because its such a wonderful film.

    Great review – thanks!

  2. Sylvia Williams says:

    Glad you chose this incredible classic for your V-Day review. I especially admired your opening paragraph. Well done!

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