Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Casablanca is the greatest Hollywood movie ever made. I say that not discounting Citizen Kane, quite possibly the greatest film ever made, because Citizen Kane was made outside the studio system by a second tier studio. At the risk of sounding even more hyperbolic, Casablanca is a perfect movie. Its screenplay was named the best screenplay ever written by the WGA in 2006 and is expertly directed, wonderfully acted and marvelously shot and edited and is to this day, 73 years after its release, endlessly entertaining, moving and quotable.
Casablanca…is to this day, 73 years after its release, endlessly entertaining, moving and quotable.
The story centers on Rick (the often imitated but never duplicated Humphry Bogart), an American expatriate who runs a saloon, Rick’s Café American, in Casablanca, Morocco during the early days of World War II. A man named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) asks Rick to hold on to stolen letters of transit that cannot be questioned (that had been stolen from two murdered German couriers, and of which we are informed at the very beginning of the film). Rick takes the letters for safe keeping, but Ugarte is arrested and later murdered, leaving them in Rick’s possession. Ugarte had been arrested by another of Rick’s so-called friends, the Prefect of Police Renault (Claude Rains). Renault says he staged the arrest in Rick’s for the patrons’ entertainment, but it really was to impress Major Strasser (Conrad Viedt), a high-ranking German officer sent to Casablanca to apprehend or detain one Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Resistance leader and escapee of several German concentration camps. Laszlo enters with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the woman who broke Rick’s heart in Paris before the occupation. Laszlo needs the letters of transit to escape with Ilsa, Rick doesn’t want to give them to him because he is still bitter about being left at the railway by her, Strasser and Renault are charged with keeping Laszlo in Casablanca (or killing him) and Ilsa is torn between her love of her husband Laszlo and Rick, whom she had fallen in love with after learning (falsely) that Laszlo was dead.
Bergman, in only her fifth English-language film, shows that she’s much more than just a very pretty face.
The letters of transit are, of course, the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s famous name for the device in the plot that everyone in the picture cares about wholeheartedly but no one in the audience cares about at all) designed to throw these characters together, like the statue in The Maltese Falcon (this film also reunites three of the stars from that picture: Bogart, Lorre and as Ferrari, leader of the black market in Casablanca, Sidney Greenstreet, and though Bogart shares scenes with both Lorre and Greenstreet, the three are never in the same scene together). They matter insofar as the plot is concerned, but the picture is all about the intertwining of relationships and how people can change when properly motivated.
One of the many miracles of this film is the script. Written by twins Julius and Philip Epstein with Howard Koch, the script was famously not finished at the time production began. Stories of pages being delivered onto the set for that day’s filming were corroborated by the Epsteins in interviews. Things were even being added after production wrapped, including the iconic, oft-quoted ADR looped line at the end “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” There were drafts before shooting began, but they were constantly being rewritten and revamped by the three writers and others who did not get/take credit for their work. This could account for us being told twice of Rick’s background of anti-Nazi activity running guns to Ethiopia and fighting against Franco in Spain. That is inconsequential considering the plot they crafted and the lines they concocted for these brilliant actors, and not just the stars. The writers managed to create little scenes for the character actors like S.Z. Sakall, Madeline Lebeau, Leonid Kinsky, and Curt Bois, fleshing out their characters in ways that most films wouldn’t have even bothered with. They also broke down some filmic barriers by making Dooley Wilson’s Sam the piano player Rick’s best friend, with him through everything. The only troublesome bit of dialogue is spoken by Bergman when Ilsa asks “Who is that boy on the piano?”, using the American pejorative of calling adult black men “boy,” something a woman from Sweden would likely not do, even then.
With a script like that, any group of actors would have made it sing but the five principles here make it a symphony. Bogart proved his mettle as a lead actor in The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra but here he showed he could play the romantic lead, something studio heads were more than skeptical of considering he’d spent nearly a decade as a heavy in gangster pictures. Bergman, in only her fifth English-language film, shows that she’s much more than just a very pretty face. She more than holds her own with Bogart, she lights up the screen (with help from cinematographer Arthur Edeson) in every scene she’s in. She says more with her furtive glances than most actors could with a thousand words and when she cries, it’s hard not to join her. Henreid, who was not and never really became much of a star (who turned to directing after being blacklisted), also does fine, often inspiring work as Laszlo. He fought for above-the-title billing despite barely being known, but as he was perfectly cast, he got his wish. As for Rains, Greenstreet, and Veidt, there were few better. Rains was splendid as Renault, the jovial and predatory Prefect of Police. Then there was Dooley Wilson. A drummer by trade, not a piano player to any degree (you can tell by the way he just flops his hands up and down on the piano), but a marvelous singer, no one has or ever will sing “As Time Goes By” like Wilson. Add to that his performances of “Knock on Wood” and “It Had to be You” and the myriad of other songs he sings and you have one of the greatest soundtracks of any film (in addition to Max Steiner’s fantastic score). Not only does he sing to perfection, he plays the faithful friend so wonderfully you almost feel like he and Bogey have been best friends for ages.
The next greatest part of Casablanca is its oft-forgotten director, Michael Curtiz. Nowadays thought of as a functional studio director, Curtiz is responsible for a vast number of classics and deserves to be remembered as one of the greats. He has a distinctive flair in his direction, using elaborate camera moves, pushing in on actors to give them dramatic close-ups as well as cutting to them. He also preferred medium and long shots, utilizing the frame as much as he could to give the actors space to breathe. He was one of the flashiest directors working in classic Hollywood with his own distinctive style that managed to break out from the studio stamps.
Casablanca is more than just one of the greatest films ever made, or the greatest Hollywood film or even more than a perfect film. It’s not just a movie to watch and knock off a list, it is the movie. It is beyond a masterpiece, it is essential viewing for anyone who has ever uttered the words, “I love movies.” Anyone is perfectly able to disagree, everyone is entitled to their opinion, even when it’s wrong.
Casablanca is more than just one of the greatest films ever made, or the greatest Hollywood film, or even the perfect film. It’s not just a movie to watch and knock off a list, it is the movie. It is beyond a masterpiece and essential viewing for anyone who has ever uttered the words, “I love movies."