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Casablanca Review Essay

On paper, perhaps it doesn’t sound so much: the woman who broke a man's heart walks into his bar — "of all the gin joints in all the world"—with her husband. But "the problems of three little people" are compounded by wartime intrigue in a dangerous, mysterious locale. You must remember this: you can't trust anyone who doesn't love Casablanca. Never mind that screen writing mavens use it as a model for structure and narrative, or that it received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The fundamental thing is that everything in the film's magical, melodramatic combination of patriotic wartime sentiments, desperate refugees and star-crossed lovers works beautifully, every time.

Casablanca is almost certainly — to the astonishment of those involved in its somewhat chaotic production — the most enjoyable wannasee-again-and-again picture ever made. As Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey once wrote, "Though not the best movie ever, it's the best friend among American films." Every time you see it, one or another gem of dialogue from the treasure store of worldly witticisms and ironic exchanges strikes you anew. (Rick: "I came to Casablanca for the waters." Renault: "What waters? We're in the desert." Rick: "I was misinformed.")

Casablanca began as a play, Everybody Comes To Rick's, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Burnett got the idea from a European trip in 1938, when he became aware of refugees in flight from Nazism and observed the colourful crowd in a nightspot in the South of France — the inspiration for Rick Blaine's French-Moroccan 'gin joint' (an expression Bogie himself substituted for 'cafe').

In the first of many twists of fate, the play came into a Warner Bros studio reader's hands on December 8,1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. As the US declared itself at war. studios raced to get patriotic pictures into production. Two weeks later, Warners' executive in charge of production, Hal Wallis, decided to make the film, changed the title to evoke the exotic romanticism of the studio's hit Algiers, and announced it as a done deal before contracts were signed (Burnett and Alison reputedly receiving a record $20,000 for the rights to an unproduced play).

Contrary to myth and some curious publicity ploys, Humphrey Bogart was always in Wallis' mind for Rick, and sibling screenwriters Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein were briefed to tailor it to him. When the Epsteins went to work on Frank Capra's Why We Fight documentary series, they were only half done with Casablanca, to which they would return. Howard Koch (who had scripted the most famous radio broadcast in history, the panic-inducing adaptation of The War Of The Worlds for Orson Welles) was brought in.

The self-sacrificing love story that is the soul of the film was the Epsteins' providence. So, too, was the smart, cynical humour that brings the supporting cast and background figures to extraordinarily vivid life. Uncredited, Casey Robinson (screenwriter of several hits, including Now, Voyager) re-wrote the Paris flashback sequences that reveal Rick's love affair with lisa Lund and his heartache. But the plot of Casablanca is a political thriller, and it was Koch (whose literate liberalism later saw him blacklisted) who dealt with that. He tackled Bogart's concerns about Rick's background, fleshing out the embittered, enigmatic, idealistic but ultimately heroic character that Bogie personified with immortal style.

Ilsa was another problem. Originally she was an American gold-digger who wrecked Rick's marriage but dumped him for the richer Victor, to whom she was mistress, not wife. The censors would have gone bananas, and the filmmakers wanted her sympathetic, hence the notion of a vulnerable, dispossessed European duty-bound to her husband. Algiers beauty Hedy Lamarr was unavailable, so Wallis negotiated with David O. Selznick to borrow Ingrid Bergman (in exchange for Warners actress Olivia de Havilland). With the script still incomplete, Bergman fretted that she didn't know which man she would end up with. But it is one of those rare miraculous accidents that Bogie and Bergman, although he was standoffish to her off-camera, are sublime together on screen.

Paul Henreid, then starring with Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, was less than thrilled about what he saw as the preposterousness of playing a Czech Resistance leader who would escape a concentration camp to turn up in Morocco, elegantly dressed for sophisticated sparring with Nazi officials. However, he gritted his teeth and did it in return for prominent billing and Warners' help with his visa status. Conrad Veidt, an outspoken opponent of Nazism who had narrowly escaped Germany, far from resenting typecasting as Major Heinrich Strasser actually had it in his contract that he exclusively play villains, so adamant was he that playing suave Nazi fiends would help the war effort.

Emigre director Michael Curtiz, not so much an artist as a supremely skilled craftsman who imposed himself in many genres, had a perfectionist — some said tyrannical — personality on sets. He also had an infatuation with Americana and its emotional sentiments that unified all of Casablanca's elements and creative talents into its fast-paced, atmospheric, utterly captivating whole. Warners' boast that people of 34 nationalities collaborated on the film may have been an exaggeration, but it certainly embraced a great many. There is no better example than Casablanca of the Hollywood melting pot. The film created a world in miniature, in which basic universal desires, sins and impulses, for bad and good, are enveloped in glamour, suspense and style.

Casablanca is universally beloved because it presents the most admirable, inspirational myth of Americana in its romantic idealism: Rick's redemptive surrender of Ilsa for the greater good, and his departure to join the fight for right. The first time you see it is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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The most iconic War romance in cinema history and deservedly so. This is a perfect blend of a tight script, stylish cinematography and cult performances from Bogart and Bergman

The classic wartime romantic melodrama Casablanca has been tested by time and passes with flying colors. An accidental success of the studio system assembly line, it carries as much weight today, if not more, as it did in 1942. Its poignant and stirring love story is timeless and eternal. The rich and smoky atmosphere and chiaroscuro lighting, the lush black and white cinematography, and main themes of loss, honor, self-sacrifice and redemption in a chaotic world perfectly reflected the dark and pessimistic WWII social climate, and are still perfect seventy years later.

Rick Blaine’s (the unimitable Humphrey Bogart) tough, cynical, and efficient exterior is an imperfect armor, barely covering the core of sentiment and idealism. His ultimate sacrifice in the service of something greater than himself is instantly appealing. He becomes a true romantic hero worthy of the other characters’ and the audience’s admiration. The emotional effect on viewers warming in the glow of Rick’s gallant heroism is the thought that perhaps we too could achieve greatness through great sacrifice. The film’s ending is not happy, but it is hopeful. True love does not conquer all. It does, however, elevate its characters to higher levels of humanity. And this stands at the core of Casablanca, distinguishing it from the majority of noir films that chronicle the dark side of human nature, basking in their own deep shadows of gloom and disenchantment. The movie dares to rise above the dark atmosphere of the war years, demonstrating that nobility and honor are still alive and well, and run a café in the unoccupied French province of Morocco.

***This is a short analysis of the film. It contains spoilers.

Casablanca is not a film noir per se, but it reflects many elements of the genre, mainly its setting, mood, cinematic style, and typical romantic lone hero. Most of the action takes place in the title city of Casablanca. The urban environment of transients is over-crowded and decadent, a hotbed for crime and corruption in which the hopefuls wait for their chance to escape to Lisbon, eyes expectantly drawn to the sky (“Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on that plane”) and the less fortunate steal, beg, bargain, and otherwise traffic in human misery. The men and women who stop in Casablanca on their way to a better life never want to be there. The war affects everyone: “the leading banker in Amsterdam is the pastry chef; his father is the bellboy,” a loyal employee of Rick’s informs a customer. The police force, represented by Nazi-collaborating, corrupt official Capt. Luis Renault (Claude Rains), knows that “human life is cheap,” and so is honor. Cops round up suspects even when they already know who committed the crime, shoot people and then decide whether to call it suicide or resisting arrest, expect to win at roulette tables in illegal establishments, ask for sexual favors in return for signing documents, and generally “blow with the wind” in providing support. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), as leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, holds a very high position of influence and is considered “respectable.” In a world in which crime is a daily constant and the corrupt prosper, in which man-made laws are meaningless, the good and just must abide by laws higher than themselves.

In the world of Casablanca feelings and concern for others are dangerous. The lone outsider hero sticks “[his] neck out for nobody,” because that is the safe thing to do. A tough and cynical shell is a wise defense mechanism. The movie’s protagonist doesn’t let on too much about himself; his eyes are brown (“really?”) and his nationality “drunkard.” He has no past—last night is “too long ago to remember”—and no future—tonight is too “far in advance.” He has been hurt and is by choice an exile in Casablanca. We know he is an American, but people speculate about why he left the country, with theories ranging from “[absconding] with the church funds” to “[running] off with a senator’s wife,” to having killed a man. The protagonist gives nothing away, claiming it’s actually “a combination of all three,” and assuring Capt. Renault he came to Casablanca for the waters: “The waters, what waters? We’re in the desert.” Rick was “misinformed.” He projects a façade of mystery and disinterestedness and hides behind heavy clouds of cigarette smoke because he wants to forget what happened with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris, although he remembers every detail: “the Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” Rick objects to the shady surroundings, activities and “cut-rate parasites” of the city and is sometimes disdained by his own occupation, calling his Café Americain a saloon.

The cynical veneer is easy to see through as soon as his lost love walks into his café, “out of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world.” When he says he’s the only man he fights for these days, one wonders whether he is trying to convince Renault or himself. The French official always suspected Rick was “at heart a sentimentalist.” His transition from a cynic to an idealist is conveyed cinematically through the brilliant development of the low-key lighting. In the earlier scenes, when we believe he is a part of the mercantile underworld of the city and only cares about his profits, he if often harshly lit, or lit from beneath by the light of a lamp or match, appearing sinister. As he starts to open up, and we discover his relationship with Ilsa through a series of flashbacks, his face is more softly lit.

The women of Casablanca, represented by Ilsa and Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), are fundamentally different, falling into two separate categories. Yvonne is an archetypal film noir dame, able to constitute “an entire second front,” as Renault points out.  The main female character is not exactly a typical femme fatale, although she is completely aware of her power over Rick, and could manipulate him into getting the transit visas, and tries in every way possible to convince him to hand them over: she cries; she explains; she threatens. Her motives are pure, but she is, nonetheless, “nothing but trouble.”

When the leader of the underground movement and concentration camp escapee Laszlo (Paul Henreid) encourages the entire café to sing the Marseilles in a rousing scene, a close-up of Ilsa’s face demonstrates that she remembers why she loves this man, although quite differently than she does Rick. In the end, she gets on the plane with Victor Laszlo, “where she belongs.” She also sacrifices her own happiness for a better cause. In this way, all the main characters are redeemed. Even Capt. Renault, by deciding not to arrest Rick for killing Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), and symbolically throwing the bottle of Vichy wine away, discovers his backbone and straightens his moral compass. This one good act atones for all the petty crimes he has committed.

The setting and plot of Casablanca don’t have much to do with reality, but then again, not a lot of the best noir films do. Shot mostly in the studio, in a pure, dreamlike black and white world of light and shadow, the film projects its own image of the troubled war years. It is a testament to its greatness that it is still as loved today as it was in that time. Its characters are unforgettable and timeless, its lines infinitely quotable (“Here’s looking at you kid”). According to Casablanca’s hero, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” but Rick and Ilsa’s problems certainly amount to a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans for the viewers.

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