“Casablanca” (1942) is, for many people, the quintessential classic film, the ultimate cinematic product of Hollywood’s golden age. Enshrined in our cultural consciousness, it has imparted immortality to its actors and images, particularly to its stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and that final scene in the fog beside the waiting plane. Packed with great performances and unforgettable lines, “Casablanca” bears repeated viewing, especially when you’ve seen it enough times to look beyond its two dazzling leads and appreciate its subtler charms.
Under the direction of Michael Curtiz, Bogart and Bergman play out the fractured romance of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, two lovers tossed together and then apart by the capricious winds of fate. At Rick’s café in Casablanca, their paths cross once more, but the presence of Ilsa’s husband, Victor (Paul Henreid), complicates their efforts to clear the air and rekindle the flames of the past. Around them, Casablanca bristles with the desperation of refugees and the menace of Nazis intent on gaining control. Victor and Ilsa are in danger, but in Casablanca, nobody can be trusted, perhaps not even Rick himself.
Bogart gives the defining performance of his career as the jaded American, a world-weary, streetwise survivor whose bravado conceals his better qualities, sometimes even from himself. With his white jacket and guarded expression, Bogart is the embodiment of a very particular masculine ideal, not necessarily handsome but mysterious, wounded, and irresistibly sexy. His character’s hard exterior juxtaposes and complements the perfect softness of Bergman’s Ilsa. Neither of them is much of a talker; their stories are told largely through expressions, movements, and heavy silences that hang in the air. The film leaves many things left unsaid, between Rick and Ilsa, between Ilsa and Victor, even between Rick and the characters who seem to be his friends. For a movie punctuated by songs, shots, and sly lines, “Casablanca” can be surprisingly quiet, and that is part of its enduring appeal. The silences make those moments of sound all the more striking; we are allowed to anticipate their arrival and savor them when they come, from the first notes of “As Time Goes By” to Captain Renault’s order to “round up the usual suspects.”
Beyond the iconic performances of its stars, “Casablanca” offers more nuanced pleasures in its exemplary supporting cast. Each character has a well-defined, individual personality, sometimes expressed in just a few short scenes. Claude Rains proves particularly outstanding as the inscrutable French captain, Louis Renault, who either gives or receives almost all of the best lines in the picture. Louis watches the action unfold with feline attention, and Rains manages to make him charming, even though we know he is a corrupt official who trades exit visas for sexual favors from pretty, desperate women. Paul Henreid is perfectly and impossibly noble as Victor Laszlo; we understand why Ilsa is drawn to him although we ultimately prefer Rick as the more flawed and therefore more human of the two. Attention to detail descends all the way to minor characters like Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), a local good-time girl, and Sascha (Leonid Kinskey), the comical bartender who works for Rick. Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, and the wonderful Dooley Wilson round out the cast, each bringing something crucial to the mix that makes the picture work so well. There’s an embarrassment of riches here, with so many of Hollywood’s finest supporting players on the scene. One could almost tell the entire history of classic film with this singular cast. Appropriately enough, they are as international a crew as the denizens of Casablanca themselves, and some of them had left their homes precisely because of Hitler’s rise and the threat of the Nazi regime.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, “Casablanca” won three, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Bogart lost Best Actor to Paul Lukas for “Watch on the Rhine” (1943), and Rains lost Best Supporting Actor to Charles Coburn for “The More the Merrier” (1943). History, however, has more than repaid the film and its stars for those defeats. If “Casablanca” is your ideal film, be sure to see other examples of Michael Curtiz’s best work, including “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), and “Mildred Pierce” (1945). See Bogart at his best in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), and “The African Queen” (1951). Catch Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight” (1944), “Notorious” (1946), and “Anastasia” (1956). Be sure to track down more movies featuring Rains, Lorre, Veidt, and the rest of the supporting cast. Many great films owe their success to the talents of those admirable men.
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