“Casablanca is The Movie.” – Roger Ebert
The ever-elusive category of “timeless classics” has meant different things at different points throughout our history. When we are talking about cinema, an art form which has been evolving since its conception, what do we exactly mean when we call a film timeless? Is the label a testament to the fact that the film has the incomprehensible ability to continue to move audiences even after 78 years of its release? If that is the case, Casablanca truly is a manifestation of cinema’s potential which transcends the limitations of time and still retains its status as one of the most beloved films of all time.
Set in 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbour, Casablanca is an unbelievably potent metaphor for transition. Both time and space in the city of Casablanca, situated in French Morocco, have been reduced to ornamental concepts. The second World War had turned Casablanca into an embarkation point from where desperate refugees would go to Lisbon and then to the “new world”: America. Throughout the film, America operates as a symbol of freedom and hope for the people who have fled persecution and death. For this reason, Casablanca has often been referred to as a propaganda film and it is true to some extent. The apogee of the dominant studio system in Hollywood at that time, Casablanca is a fine example of what the studio system was capable of conducting. Since it was a studio production, Michael Curtiz’s filmmaking style is often dismissed as formulaic and too reverent to the sacrosanct traditions of Classical Hollywood Cinema. Called an “anti-auteur”, critics have accused Curtiz of focusing on the economy of shots rather than the art but such generalisations do great injustice to Casablanca. Arthur Edeson, the cinematographer of other classics like The Maltese Falcon, uses stunning visual narrative to accentuate the actual story with a pleasant chiaroscuro inspired by film noir and German Expressionism. This conflict between light and dark on the screen becomes an allegorical one as well, signifying the impending moral war.
Based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, a team of writers worked on the adapted screenplay which meant that there were a lot of inputs coming in from different places, collected and streamlined by Curtiz. There is an old legend that the ending of the film wasn’t written until the last day but it is highly unlikely that this actually happened because of the meticulous nature of the studio system. However, Ingrid Bergman confirmed this in an interview: “Till the very end, they did not know what the picture was going to be. And then cutting it all together with all the difficulties and the arguments and the re-writes, here comes this absolutely beautiful movie.”
Our iconic protagonist is Rick Blaine (played by the legendary Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American expatriate who runs a posh joint in Casablanca. Serving alcohol and gambling opportunities to a variety of people, Rick comes off as a cynical man whose motto is: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Although we are told that he was a sentimental rebel before he came to Casablanca, running guns to Ethiopia and fighting the fascists in Spain, this Rick has been subjected to intense disillusionment by an unspoken history which would surface soon enough. As the film shows us, everyone is waiting in Casablanca to get out of there but only the rich and the elite have enough money to pay for exit visas. In a world that would soon be further destabilised by unabashed violence, buying your freedom becomes a survival instinct. Rick gets his hands on two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle, an item which is structured in the narrative as a MacGuffin by the writers of the play as well as the film. However, there is a slight historical inaccuracy here as de Gaulle was the head of the Free French government in exile at the time and letters signed by him would have amounted to nothing. Despite that, it is important to remember what those letters stand for: sanctioned freedom, safety and the possibility of having a future.
In what has been celebrated as one of the several iconic scenes in Casablanca, the beautiful Ilsa Lund (played by Bergman) walks into Rick’s café and commands the audience’s attention. Her partner is Victor Laszlo, an active revolutionary working for the Underground movement against the Nazis. Interrupted by dreamy musical interludes, we see that Ilsa already knows Rick’s talented pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) and we can sense that the weight of a secret past weighs on them. She asks him to play the wonderful theme song of the film, Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By”, but he is hesitant about revisiting this painful past. Wilson magically suspends time while singing a song about passing time, provoking Rick to barge in and look into the lachrymose eyes of Ilsa. This is just one of the many examples of Casablanca’s screenwriting achievements. It cannot be denied that the film has a lot of elements of corny melodrama but the way the writers let the subtext dictate the narrative flow is something most aspiring writers should take note of. We are not assaulted with irrelevant histories, we are allowed to drift to the source of the trauma through an alcoholic’s recollection of his heartbreak. The production team never thought that Casablanca would become a cinematic phenomenon. Time has proven that audiences have fiercely connected to the memorably unfulfilled romance of Rick and Ilsa, a love story which is about the recognition of higher causes and the selfless sacrifice of the idea of love in order to create a better future where others will be free to love.
In many ways, Casablanca is a film that is aware of its intentions. It oscillates between the suspenseful anxiety of a film noir and the shameless emotional manipulation of a melodrama, brilliantly facilitated by Max Steiner’s (who also wrote the scores for other iconic works like King Kong and Gone With The Wind) impeccable score. Of course, national identities naturally form a vital part of the concerns of a film about WW-II. There is one wonderful scene where the Nazis are singing a patriotic anthem and Victor Laszlo comes in to subvert the Nazi authoritarianism by orchestrating a beautiful performance of “La Marseillaise”. The fact that such overtly cinematic demonstrations have been relegated to the realm of clichés doesn’t change a thing, we are still moved by it. As Umberto Eco noted: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us, for we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”
After everything is said and done, Casablanca boils down to a populist didactic morality about individual and cultural identities. Rick trades in the cloak of the disillusioned rebel for the moral high ground of a sentimentalist, helping a young Bulgarian couple to pay for their visas and offering to pay his employees even after his café is shut down by the local Police Captain Renault (played by Claude Rains). He sticks his neck out for his lover and her husband, kills a Nazi and ensures that the Underground movement maintains its crucial momentum. The beautiful ending does not just mark the selfless termination of Rick and Ilsa’s story but it also denotes the beginning of a new chapter in those characters’ lives as well as the history of our civilisation. If Rick is symbolic of America’s initial distance from the second World War, Casablanca’s ending tells us that the exigency to address the moral demands of the collective conscience cannot be ignored anymore. Rick and Captain Renault (who suddenly undergoes a redemption arc) walk away into the fog, the ethereal realm of the future which is too murky to be deciphered but glimpses of hope exist in the form of the scattered airport lights. As the two comrades begin their journey together into the great unknown, Rick delivers the iconic final line of the film:
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.“