One of the most enduring of all movie classics, Casablanca is the kind of a film that finds a way to stand out, even amongst a catalog of so-called "perfect movies". As a writer, I can tell you it's the kind of movie I will watch, and be crushed by. The reason for that is that the screenplay, in particular the dialogue, is so completely and perfectly achieved that one cannot imagine anyone ever writing anything better.
Every word that comes out of every character's mouth for just about the entire running time is an absolute joy. Based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's play Everybody Comes to Rick's, Casablanca is a marvel in that, at the time, it was not treated by Warner Bros. as anything special. It was one of the many flicks that were put on the WB assembly line in 1942, and got no special treatment. Twin brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, along with Howard Koch, were brought in to adapt the play, and that was that.
Granted, the Warners did bring on one hell of a director. Michael Curtiz was fresh off Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he had been nominated for the Oscar. He had also been nominated three other times, for Angels with Dirty Faces, Captain Blood and Four Daughters. He was no run-of-the-mill Hollywood hack, to be sure. And he was able to take that magnificently adapted screenplay and translate it into on-screen gold. In fact, this would be the one that finally netted him that coveted statuette.
Of course, he also had some help in this regard with one of the most enviable casts ever assembled. Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari (reportedly the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt, of all things); Peter Lorre, perhaps the finest character of his age, as Ugarte; Conrad Veidt, a star of German expressionist cinema in his earlier years, as the Nazi Major Strasser; the always delightful Claude Rains as the cynical yet lovable Capt. Renault; and of course, Ingrid Bergman, a classic leading lady if ever there was one.
And then there's Bogey. A rising supporting player for years during the 1930s, Bogart had become a big star the previous year thanks to The Maltese Falcon. But in Casablanca he achieves absolutely immortality. As Rick Blaine, one of the most famous characters in movie history, he owns the screen. His world-weary brand of leading man would become a touchstone for generations of actors. Not an actor of classic good looks, he made up for it with performances of an excellence that appeared to come effortlessly. Casablanca may feature the very best of these.
With Bogart, Bergman and the rest on screen, reciting the lines written in that unbelievable script, there is a level of artfulness achieved that is fairly awe-inspiring. This is typically the go-to film that people mention when referring to or even thinking about films of this era, and when you watch, you can understand why. Again, the writing is so spot-on, and the actors dispatched to bring those words to life are beyond reproach.
So many things work so well, in so many scenes. The chemistry between Bogart and Rains is especially enjoyable, with its ceaselessly wry and witty repartee. The classic climactic scene at the airport between Rick and Ilsa, perhaps quoted more than any movie scene, ever. The general boldness of staging such a frank film about World War II, during the actual war itself, which maintains its integrity and casts the Nazis in an appropriately disapproving light, without devolving into crass jingoism.
Of course, we also have "And Time Goes By". To discount that song as a major part of what makes the film work is to really miss something special. Ironically, the song was not written for the film, and had actually been floating around for nearly a dozen years, a minor Rudy Vallee hit of the early '30s. In fact, by the standards of the great American songbook, it's probably nothing particularly special, but for some reason, when used as the main leifmotif of this film, and when performed on screen by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam (as in, "Play it again, Sam") it achieves something very special. Thanks to this film, it's become one of the most famous songs ever written.
Casablanca is the type of film in which the actual niceties of the plot fade into the background. You're so caught up in the power of the characters, the music of the dialogue, and the boatloads of atmosphere, that who did what to whom becomes less important than the way it's done. Perhaps this is what has given the movie its longevity--it holds up to repeated viewings over decades, because it's not about the destination, but the marvelous journey.
By the 1940s, the Hollywood system had gotten the whole movie-making thing down to a fine science, and Casablanca is the ultimate example of this. It is a beautifully burnished gem of a motion picture. It is, simply put, the ultimate romantic motion picture. It is what American cinema is all about.
NEXT UP: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)