“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
“Casablanca” is remembered as the motion picture industry’s happiest accidental success, and there’s much evidence to suggest the film deserves that reputation. This was a motion picture of meager ambitions: tight budget, hastily scribbled lines, an ending even leading lady Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until the last moment. It should have been a fiasco.Yet in a display of jaw-dropping magic, these elements combined to create a sly, wistful, sizzling romantic drama and one of the greatest films ever made.
Surely there are scads of essays and reviews to support this claim, but it’s better to speak from the heart. And “Casablanca” reminds this heart why directors keep making motion pictures: because they create worlds outside our own, with characters with hurts and longings that mirror our own yet seem so much bigger. We have room to explore all our feelings in these worlds. “Casablanca” reminds this heart why people love movies: because a cherished few take us on journeys we don’t want to come back from. “Casablanca,” adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” takes us on such a trip, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman leading the way. The film captivates so partly because of their talent and their palpable chemistry; they don’t make onscreen pairings like this anymore. They don’t make leading men like Bogart anymore, either, actors who exude charm and crack wise while hinting at emotional damage that’s nearly beyond repair. When Bogart bites into lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he doesn’t leave a crumb behind.
Thus, Bogart is a fine choice to lead the A-list cast of “Casablanca.” Bogart is Rick Blaine, a scornful merican expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Rick runs Café Américain, the local watering hole with a back room for gambling, and his ever-so-slight nods determine who sees that back room. His café is home of sorts for the downtrodden and the ones who trampled on them: Nazi officials like Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a member of the German army, and self-serving local police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains); underhanded wheeler-dealers like Signor Ferrari (first-rate character actor Sydney Greenstreet) and small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre, always a delight), who stole coveted letters of transit — a free pass from German-run Europe to Portugal to the U.S. — from two murdered couriers; and refugees hoping to get to America. Rick welcomes them all, but he’s loathe to take up any cause that doesn’t benefit him … until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman who burned him, turns up at the café wanting papers for herself and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid). This is the one thing that flaps the seemingly unflappable Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Bogart’s weary, wry delivery of that famous line remains unmatched. It also suggests Ilsa’s reappearance is about so much more than letters of transit.
So many iconic lines are there in “Casablanca” that the movie nabbed six of the 100 spots in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.” There must have been a cap to let other films in, for nearly every snippet of dialogue is exquisite enough to deserve a spot. Every line has a purpose. Unearthing old hurts or covering them up. Generating intimacy or backing away from it. Kowtowing to German authority or subverting it. “Casablanca” is one of the rare films with a script where every line feels deliberate and faultlessly placed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography offers stunning backlighting for a script like this, with his palette of blacks and grays surrounding Bogart — the lighting in Bogart’s drunken scene with pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) is masterful — and special lighting used to envelope Bergman in a hazy cloud. Details like this do more than set the mood; they provide a look for the characters that is potently unforgettable.
The performances, too, are the kind that don’t fade. Bergman’s Ilsa is innocent and yet has seen too much, sagged under the weight of the mistakes she’s made. Her beauty is ethereal, undeniable, but it’s her spirit and her will, dented though not broken, that beguiles us. She’s bewitching, and still she finds her match in Bogart, an actor renowned for his ability to play cynics ready with a quip and a cigarette. He deserves more attention for what he can do with his face, at once handsome and remote and amazingly expressive. Every time he says “here’s looking at you, kid,” those eyes make it different. Just as every time we see “Casablanca” it is different. It is never less incredible.
(Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 10+ years to watch “Casablanca” again, discover it’s awesome and have to revise your Top 100 list. Again.)