Why the film still resonates, more than half a century on
The first thing a New York Times reader would have learned about Casablanca was that Humphrey Bogart would be replacing Ronald Reagan as the leading man. Reagan, it was reported, had been called up for service in the Army, and would be unable to play opposite Michele Morgan. The film was described only as a story of "American war refugees in French Morocco."
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Casablanca's premiere. It's been said that during production the film was expected to be the first of many patriotic wartime studio flicks, but not much more. In retrospect, it's hard to look at the superb cast and crew and expect something less than what was eventually produced. (You don't hire Michael Curtiz and Max Steiner and crank out disposable agitprop.) Of course, the cast would change from those listed in early reports. Ingrid Bergman eventually earned the leading actress role, and as we would learn years later, Reagan was never even considered to play Rick Blaine.
Casablanca is a thoroughly American film (though it features only three actors born in the United States), and upon release, was very well-received. "Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap," wrote Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, and his review was not an outlier. But it's striking to see how many of the reviews were filtered through a prism of war and jingoism. Variety: "'Casablanca' will take the b.o.'s of America just as swiftly and certainly as the AEF took North Africa." The Times: "It certainly won't make Vichy happy -- but that's just another point for it." Somehow such remarks work to cheapen the film, as though it were graded on a curve because of the flag. The closest Casablanca ever comes to a rallying cry is Rick lamenting, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." The film is a product of its time, yes, but it's a great film because it is also a product of all times.
One reason for the film's enduring resonance is its absence of a moral compass. Rick is a fallen idealist. He fought fascism on two continents, and lost each time. He knew love once in Paris, but lost at that, too. At some point, Rick surveyed the sorry world around him and finally did the math. This grim assessment is shared by Louis Renault, the local police captain, who spends the entirety of the film on the winning side -- regardless of whom the winner might be. ("I'm shocked -- shocked -- to find that gambling is going on in here.") The motives of Ilsa, Rick's old flame, are no less nebulous. Is she merely manipulating Rick, rekindling their love as an expedience to retrieving a pair of visas? Or does she truly love him, and is she really preparing to leave her husband at the expense of the French Resistance?
Amid the political and emotional chaos of Morocco, a nightclub owned by Rick is the lone holdout of metastability. Part of the richness of the film is that each of the bar's patrons seems to work not in service of the narrative, but rather, in service of his or her own cause. Every character, it seems, could be the subject of a movie just as compelling as Casablanca. Rick's Cafe Americain attracts that kind of crowd.
In art, great works tend either to annihilate form and replace it with something alien and spectacular, or to take an existing form and craft its ideal such that, as Raymond Chandler wrote, the work "exhausts the possibilities of its form and can never be surpassed." Moby Dick and Citizen Kane best represent the first category. The Great Gatsby falls in the second. So too does Casablanca. To quote Amadeus, "Displace one note and there would be diminishment."
This opinion is not unanimous. Pauline Kael wrote of Casablanca, "It's far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism, and you're never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously." But that's probably the worst you can say about it (and if anyone could have found something worse to say, it's Kael). To some extent, she's right. Nobody ever walked away from a screening of Casablanca and said, "Well, I don't get it." Not with regard to its reputation as a great work, nor to the nature of its characters or plot. It's not a challenging work. But its universal themes and accessibility are inseparable from its place in the American film canon.
Isaac Asimov once related the anecdote of a woman seeing Hamlet for the first time and dismissing it, saying, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together." The same joke can be applied to Casablanca. I first saw the film in my mid-twenties, and was astonished to learn that I already knew the screenplay -- I just didn't know it in the proper order. Every year, the American Film Institute comes out with a top-100 list. In 2005, jurors compiled votes for the 100 best quotes in film. Casablanca could have filled the entire list twice over.
(Ugarte: You despise me, don't you? / Rick: Well, if I gave you any thought, I probably would.)
In her autobiography, Ingrid Bergman recalled of Casablanca, "We were shooting off the cuff. Every day they were handing out dialogue and we were trying to make some sense of it. Every morning we would say, 'Well, who are we? What are we doing here?' And Michael Curtiz would say, 'We're not quite sure, but let's get through this scene today and we'll let you know tomorrow.'" And maybe that's why Casablanca is even greater than the sum of its already considerable parts. Because the unhappy uncertainties on a set at Warners informed the anxious ambiguities at a cafe in Morocco. From that we recognize our own immutable apprehension about identity and life.