100 Greatest Films of all time – 7: Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)  Directed by: Michael Curtiz   Produced by:  Jack L Warner and Hal B Wallis   Screenplay by: Julius J Epstein, Phillip J Epstein, and Howard Koch. Based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison   Starring:  Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and Arthur “Dooley” Wilson Oscar Count: 3 (Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Also nominated for Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Rains), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score).

In many ways, it’s fascinating that Casablanca has had the success that it has with everyone. Most modern viewers, when looking at a film like this (or any old film) thinks that it is standard fare, when, in fact, all other films have copied its influence.

But that’s not the case with Casablanca. When it was released, it did not break any new barriers, nor was it noticeably different from most Hollywood romances. It did win Best Picture, but languished in relative obscurity after that. Even then, it did not captivate people in the same way it does now. Bogart did not win Best Actor, even though his Rick is now often named as one of the best film characters ever. What is now one of the most quoted (and misquoted) films of all time had good reviews when it was released, but had to wait a decade before it became the American filmgoer’s rite of passage.

Usually, films that win such initial acclaim (and actually receive the Award for Best Picture) date quickly. How many people still consider The English Patient to be great cinema? So what happened in the case of Casablanca? And why is it still considered not just one of the greatest films of all time, but the template that every single blockbuster film should follow?

Because Casablanca is the most emotionally honest American film ever crafted. It is one that captures an important time – a time that America still looks upon to justify every single political action since 1945. Sure, nothing in the script DISCUSSES that. But that feel good mentality is still present, and still affects everyone who views the film after decades of seeing the film influence every other studio picture in the world.

It is necessary to explain that preceding statement with two parts. First, the meticulous dialogue manages to strike that rare balance between profound and natural. So much of the script has entered the popular lexicon (“Of all the gin joints in all the world…”) that the film seems to have been deliberately designed to be profound. But it wasn’t. What the characters say feels as natural as any action they perform. What the lines indicate is just how much torment each of the characters are going through. They are trying to understand things far greater than themselves. It seems profound to audiences because they realize Rick has perfectly articulated the individual response most had to the Second World War – and to unrequited love.

Secondly, the best way to examine Casablanca’s influence on the world is to address the most common complaints about the film and its plot. Of course, Casablanca has not survived with a perfect record; nothing has. No one less than Umberto Eco once penned that the film “is a comic strip…low on psychological credibility.” That may be true, if Casablanca was ever intended to be a human interest piece. It is not. Casablanca is, and always has been, a giant allegory for the American experience in World War II. It was a war that the nation did not enter with great enthusiasm, but one in which (according to many) they were offered the last time to demonstrate their heroism. That is what happens with the misanthropic Rick, who has a great romance (the 1920s, when America emerged as a superpower) to having it end (the stock market crash) to potentially meeting a situation that could save his reputation, but only after much damage (World War II). So, yes, the film is written in broad terms. But those terms are how America officially remembers World War II. Thus, they are appropriate for Casablanca. On a literal level, it is insultingly simple. But on an emotional level, it is perfectly accurate.

And that is why the film is still remembered, because it is the most poignant work that captures the American attitude from 1939-1945 – and even into the Cold War. America cast itself as a reluctant hero, who sought to do the right thing because. That is not necessarily how it turned out. But films are not meant to capture any literal truth. They are designed to capture an emotional truth. Casablanca, completely by accident, managed to do so better than any other American film. The multitude ofCasablanca’s imitators having been trying to capture that emotional truth for seventy years.

The best scene in the film, or at least the one that is most well known, is the “play it again Sam” scene. Or rather, the “play it. Play ‘As Time Goes By’” scene. This is one of the most misquoted scenes in history. But, perhaps due to this piece of trivia, it is also one fo the most well-known individual scenes in film history. But what does it accomplish? As Casablanca is an emotionally driven film, this is the scene that sets up those responses in the most direct way. Everything about the characters of Ilsa and Rick are stated – from Rick’s desire to forget the past to Ilsa’s romanticism of the past and her unconscious desire to feel so in love again. It has nothing to do with the allegory I outlined above, but seriously – what else will the modern viewer pick up on?

Did You Know: It has long been rumored future U.S. President Ronald Reagan was considered to play Rick. This is not the case – such reports were planted to keep the actor’s name in the press. Bogart was the only person ever considered for the role.

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