‘Casablanca’ Review: Hollywood’s Golden Age at Its Very Best
It’s been 80 years since Casablanca was first released. One could argue that that’s a milestone moment for cinema in general. After all, few movies have been more treasured over generations, with such a legendary, almost mystical status. So reviewing it today? No pressure, right? Directed by Michael Curtiz, from a screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, the movie is an enduring classic that has been watched and rewatched by millions over the decades. There’s really no point in worrying about spoilers for this film (80 years is long enough) but we’ll still try to keep them to the minimum. Now let’s take a look back.
On November 26, 1942, Casablanca premiered before audiences at the Hollywood Theater in New York City. It’s important to remember that the film is a war movie made during a war. It fit the times and filled a genuine need of its audience. While it didn’t become a runaway hit, it had a solid box office run. The premiere was timed to coincide with the Allies capturing the city of Casablanca. The movie went wide at the same time as the Casablanca Conference (January 14-24, 1943), released on January 23, 1943. It was banned in Ireland until 1945 (over issues of wartime neutrality) and butchered by the censors in Germany, where it premiered in 1952 (the plot was changed entirely to remove all reference to the Nazis and the war until a restored version was released in 1975). Over the years, the movie’s reputation has only grown. It’s won Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s in the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute named it the second-best American film in 1998, and the third-best film in 2007. It’s got Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. There are doctoral theses written on this film. There’s really no questioning its importance. That said, let’s start with the difficult part.
Has Casablanca aged well over the last 80 years? All things considered, yeah, pretty much. There’s a scene early on where Bergman’s Ilsa Lund refers to Dooley Wilson’s character Sam as “the boy who plays the piano.” But considering its time, that could have been a lot worse. On the other hand, Bogart’s Rick, the central protagonist, takes a stand against the commodification of human lives. It’s a key element of his personal code of honor, balanced out by his oft-repeated policy of not sticking his neck out for nobody. As you can imagine, he changes that policy, which is the whole plot of the film.
There are a few historical inaccuracies (or just plain inaccuracies, considering its story was set in its present). No resistance leader would have been able to easily flout Nazi control and freely walk around in public in the real Casablanca, which was firmly Vichy French (and therefore, German) territory at the time. You could excuse that with the argument that the inclusion of Claude Rains’ Captain Louis Renault, the prefect of Casablanca who maintains a loose definition of the law, sort of loosens up the actual control the Nazis have over the city. In any case, the “letters of transit”, which are the prime MacGuffins of the plot, could not have been signed by Free French General de Gaulle (as it is in the English version). But honestly, you don’t even notice those things.
So what’s it like watching Casablanca for the first time eighty years after its release? Black and white cinema is a whole other domain of cinema, and Casablanca is a prime example of how to make it shine. The lighting and composition of the scenes are brilliant. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson was already a celebrated veteran, having worked with Bogart previously on The Maltese Falcon.
Rick is an American club owner in Casablanca with a mysterious past and a cynical worldview. The world he has built for himself is shattered when Ilsa Lund walks into his place on the arm of a wanted Resistance leader. There was a love story once between them, but this isn’t it. This is what happens after love has died. Despite his anger towards Ilsa, Rick still feels drawn to her, somewhere still loving her. And Ilsa is the same, torn between her love for Rick and her devotion towards her partner Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a hero of the Resistance. There are no easy answers, and both of them dread the choices they may have to make. As Rick himself observes in the now-immortal line, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
There are so many clichés, archetypes, and golden age tropes in this movie that it actually makes it even more engaging. It’s almost like a fable, a Hollywood parable. There’s a political allegory in it as well, with Rick often being considered a representation of America, with the title being cited as evidence (“casa blanca” literally translates to “white house”). One of the key things about the movie is that almost all the key characters are people who refuse to make a choice. Rick refuses to interfere in the tragedies that occur around him on a daily basis (except on rare occasions), Ilsa refuses to choose between her two loves, and Captain Renault refuses to align himself fully with either the Nazi-controlled Vichy French state or the Free French government-in-exile. The one person who truly has made his choice even before he enters the story is Laszlo, and it’s his choice to devote everything to the resistance movement that forces everyone else to pick their sides.
You can tell where the plot’s going, but it’s a joy getting there. There are snappy and sarcastic lines balanced with the emotional and poetic. When you finally reach the anticipated but still-moving climax, it’s cathartic in the most melancholic way. And yes, there’s another eternally quotable line: “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
And then there’s the ending, after all the characters have made their choices and set off on their new paths. This is a good place to note the importance of Captain Renault, the man with the most power in the story and therefore, the most decisive decisions to make. The ending entirely rests on him and what he chooses to do when faced with a crossroads. It leaves you feeling renewed, with the promise of more to come (not necessarily in a “sequel plug” kind of way, even though sequels have been considered). As perhaps the movie’s most famous line of all puts it, it’s “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Since the time movies were first invented, they have been described (often in an accusatory way) as “an escape.” Casablanca certainly is an escape, even for its characters. It’s a moment in time, frozen in celluloid, where they exist briefly, hovering in the limbo between the world that was and the world that would be. Is it a perfect film? Maybe not, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a world you’ll want to inhabit, knowing that it has to end. They’re people you’ll remember, even if it’s with a tinge of sadness. Hollywood (and the world) has come a long way, changing and changing over and over again. But no matter what, we’ll always have Casablanca.
You can now stream Casablanca on HBO Max. Additionally, Warner Bros. released the film on 4K Ultra HD on November 8, 2022.