Casablanca • Hollywood's Pinnacle

Greenscreening Series #14

November 17, 2022

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Casablanca (1942) directed by Michael Curtiz



A cynical expatriate American cafe owner struggles to decide whether or not to help his former lover and her fugitive husband escape the Nazis in French Morocco.

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Why Casablanca? (tl;dr)

  • Casablanca is probably the pinnacle of the Hollywood Studio System. The script is widely regarded as the greatest ever written. The American Film Institute ranked Casablanca number 3 on its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, behind Citizen Kane and The Godfather, and at the top of its list of the 100 Greatest Love Stories.

  • The film contains the greatest concentration of iconic lines in film history, perhaps only equalled by The Godfather. "Here’s Looking at you, kid." "Play it again, Sam.” “Of all the gin joints in the world..." “Inspector, round up the usual suspects.” "We'll always have Paris." "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life." "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

  • Casablanca is a film that succeeds in spite of itself. The film isn't terribly original, as it's largely derivative of spy and romance films of the time. Much of the script was rewritten during production, and many scenes were highly improvised. Legend has it Ingrid Bergman didn't know which guy Ilsa would end up with until the day they were shooting the finale. But somehow it works tremendously, and the film contains many moments of brilliance. Thus, to this series' ongoing question of "what is a movie," Casablanca answers something like "movies are happy accidents," or "movies are like jazz."

  • The studio had modest expectations for the film and rushed it out to take advantage of the Allied invasion of North Africa. The film was a massive success and dominated the Academy Awards the year of its release, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with five other nominations.

  • The film succeeds as popular entertainment, but has a lot to say about the time in which it was released. It's set right around the US entry into World War II, and with the protagonist Rick maintaining neutrality in the face of an escalating war, many view Casablanca as a story of America waking up to its responsibility to act. The title, after all, literally means "White House" in Spanish. But it's also a love story with a true dilemma at the center, challenging the very notion of "true love" synonymous with Hollywood.

  • Pay attention to what we know about who Rick is and how we learn this information. Note the many ways he's known by those around him; different characters call him by different names.

  • Like Stagecoach, Casablanca works in spite of being chock full of clichés. As Umberto Eco wrote about the film, “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.”

  • Once again, we see the influence of German Expressionism in the production design, and see some of the hallmarks of film noir used here, even though Casablanca is a spy romance. Light and shadows are used to symbolize the main characters' inner conflict over their dilemma.

  • The climactic scene was featured in The Great Movie Ride at Disney's MGM Studios.


Play it Again

The first time I saw Casablanca was in high school. I was familiar with the film, probably from The Great Movie Ride and from seeing it on lists, like its appearance at number 3 on AFI's 100 Greatest Films. It's also one of those films that just exists in American culture and our collective memory as an acknowledged classic.

When I saw it, I thought it was ok. I wasn't blown away by it.

I had seen The Godfather by that point, and likely also Metropolis, and was developing a palate for classic movies. But this one didn't make sense. It's a bit corny, full of melodrama, and doesn't have the weight and seriousness I expected in a great movie. And I'm not alone in thinking this; the film is generally regarded as elevated light entertainment in a serious setting - a fairly typical love triangle set against the backdrop of WWII.

But over time, I became more appreciative of the movie. The I saw films that resembled Casablanca, the more I appreciated what it was up to. Studying the script, I saw alongside the corn some fairly well-balanced elements, an excellent story structure, and tremendous dramatic stakes. When I saw Humphrey Bogart in other films, many times I would think, "he was better in Casablanca." The film may show its age, but if you're in the mood for classic Hollywood, you could do a lot worse.

And then I saw it again and enjoyed it a lot more.

Casablanca may be light, but it deals with heavy issues like how we deal with loss, our relationship with the past, and what it means to love and be loved. Bogart and Ingrid Bergman play lovers reunited years after separating. The first time through, it's clear things aren't finished, and there's awkwardness around their shared history. But the film holds up to repeat viewings because we participate in the shared history and more deeply understand the characters' inner turmoil.

As Roger Ebert wrote, "the next time we see it, every word between Ilsa and Sam, every nuance, every look or averted glance, has a poignant meaning. It is a good enough scene the first time we see it, but a great scene the second time."

I think this participation in a collective memory with other viewers and with characters is one of the wonderful parts of films, especially those that deal with memory and lost love. Familiarity with the story makes close re-watching even more enjoyable, because sometimes you realize you've misremembered details, or you notice things you hadn't seen previously that make the story richer. Casablanca certainly does this, but also Citizen Kane, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Princess Bride come to mind for me. I'd love to hear if there are other films that you have this kind of relationship with.


Round Up the Usual Suspects

For modern audiences, seeing Casablanca can feel a bit too familiar, even cliche. The plot is unoriginal; it's a classic romance-spy thriller mashup. It's fairly melodramatic. The characters are all common types.

Its best moments and best lines have been absorbed into the culture, so they might even make us laugh rather than thrill us. Consider the image of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing face to face on the tarmac; this has been reproduced countless times and has become a kind of shorthand for screen romance. You may even know Bogart's speech word for word. So perhaps more than any other film, Casablanca is tough to see as its original audience would have.

Except(!) all of Casablanca's tropes were familiar to audiences at the time as well. WWII was giving Hollywood a dramatic background for its melodrama, and there was a series of films involving romance in the midst of espionage and the wartime underworld. Casablanca was meant to capitalize on this tradition. Its title was supposed to evoke Algiers, a spy thriller from a few years prior, itself a loose remake of the French poetic realist masterpiece Pepe Le Moko, which was set in the Casbah in Algiers and involved a suave underworld protagonist not unlike Rick.

And let's not forget that the main characters were classic Hollywood types. That's what people wanted. Typecasting works.

In Casablanca, we have Rick, the cynical protagonist running from his past, staying neutral as a way to avoid getting hurt again, ridiculously competent at his job, and effortlessly cool. Rick is basically a precursor of James Bond, Indiana Jones, John McClain from Die Hard, Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name, or countless other heroes who get pulled in to save the day.

Rick's former lover, Ilsa, enters the film and blows up his newfound sense of stability. "Of all the gin joints in the world, she has to walk into mine," Rick says. Of course she does, even though it makes no sense that a fugitive leader of the Resistance would walk around so openly in a place full of Nazis. Of course Ilsa still has feelings for Rick and ends up just as conflicted as he is. It's a classic, contrived romantic setup. The setting may be a little different, but the stakes were familiar then and now. And yet (or, as a result), people love it.

Casablanca was also capitalizing on and reflecting uncertainty about the world as it descended into war. And how could it not? Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was the refuge of exiled artists from around the world. The European situation was on everyone's mind.

Producer Hal Wallis assembled many of Warner Bros. talent from around the world in Casablanca, including Hungarian exile Michael Curtiz to direct. Wallis cast Peter Lorre (who had worked with Fritz Lang on the international hit M), Sydney Greenstreet (who had made his film debut in The Maltese Falcon a year earlier, after decades on stage), Conrad Veidt (who had been a major star in Germany and who earlier in his career was the sleepwalking killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Marcel Dalio (the star of Renoir’s Rules of the Game). And Wallis traded star Olivia de Havilland to David O. Selznick for one picture with a relative newcomer from Sweden, Ingrid Bergman.

David Denby wrote in The New Yorker about this magical melting pot of talent coming together in an artistic fight against fascism:

"The commissary at lunch, with its mix of nationalities and accents, may not have been all that different from Rick's Café. The people there are all desperate for work, desperate to find a home, yet happy to be alive and stuck in an absurdly sunshiny place in a naïvely optimistic country. The combination of European bitterness and American joy made Casablanca possible. America will save Europe. American movies will save Europe."


As Time Goes By

Casablanca was a surprise hit. It did fine at the box office, but surprised Hollywood by winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with five other nominations.

Already 42 when the film came out, Bogart had spent his early career in gangster films and in early films noir. After a breakthrough critical success with The Maltese Falcon (1941), he had more options, and was looking to escape typecasting. The studio encouraged him to pursue roles as a romantic lead. Bogart was fairly skeptical of his sex appeal, especially as a 5'5" man over 40, but this insecurity may have helped him differentiate as a more vulnerable lead than almost-too-perfect actors like Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Bogart even expressed skepticism that a woman like Ingrid Bergman would find him attractive, and later reflected that it was her acting ability that made him attractive to audiences. After the success of Casablanca, Bogart became the highest paid actor in Hollywood during WWII, and his career raised new heights as he transitioned to being a romantic lead alongside a film noir regular.

Ingrid Bergman is also great in Casablanca. Watch how subtle gestures or a change in where she's looking can convey so much about her character's thoughts. Bergman makes it look effortless and natural, but it's terrific acting. It also helps that she looks amazing - Curtiz photographs her with a soft-focus glow, hiding any potential flaw and giving her look (and therefore her character) an almost angelic purity.

Bergman became an international star, only to fall out of favor with audiences in 1949, when she had an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini and became pregnant. Remember, these were the days of morals clauses and the Hays Code, and people believed that Bergman was essentially her characters -- she was the pure Ilsa, she was the nun in The Bells of St. Mary's. Bergman was even condemned on the US Senate floor, and Hollywood refused to cast her for much of the 1950s, while she was with Rossellini. After they separated, she returned to Hollywood and had further great success, ultimately receiving six Best Actress nominations during her career.

Casablanca was revived several times during the 1950s, and eventually found new life on television. It became an annual tradition to air Casablanca on network TV, and by 1977, it was estimated to be the most-screened film in television history. This partly explains its enduring appeal. Like Singin' in the Rain, its ubiquity caused a massive number of people to fall deeply in love with the film through repeat viewings.

Casablanca was loosely remade a few times, beginning with Humphrey Bogart vehicles in the 1940s. Its classic scenes and lines have been referenced in countless other films and television, ranging from Looney Tunes to the Pamela Anderson film Barb Wire (1996).


The Greatest Screenplay Ever Written?

Andrew Sarris, one of the leading proponents of auteur theory, wrote that Casablanca is the most decisive exception to the theory. That is, Casablanca is great despite not having the central authorial voice pushing its level of artistry. Director Michael Curtiz didn't have a particularly unique style across his films, and while he was certainly competent and Casablanca looks great, the film looks like any number of classic Hollywood studio pictures.

Without an obvious auteur, people have looked elsewhere to understand the source of Casablanca's greatness. Most have settled on the script as the unifying force of its artistry. It's now widely regarded as the greatest script ever written. And so of course, authorship of the script has been a source of debate and even litigation.

Casablanca started as a play that was never produced, called Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the play for an unprecedented amount at the time, $20,000, equivalent to about $200,000 in 2020.

Within the Studio System, scripts were often written by committee, and Producer Hal Wallis first gave the assignment to twin screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, who wrote the first draft. They delivered much of the iconic dialogue and the wit, while also trimming a bunch of fat from the play.

After the Epsteins moved on to another assignment, Wallis asked Howard Koch to write a draft. Koch had worked on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play and the Oscar-winning Sergeant York. Koch is credited with adding more of the political angles to the script and the melodrama.

Yet another writer, Casey Robinson, helped sharpen the love story.

Even into production, the Epsteins kept revising the script. Dialogue was written and rewritten hours or minutes before shooting a scene. Bogart added or modified lines, with the support of director Curtiz.

After the film’s release and success at the Oscars, the writers argued over credit. Koch was the main instigator, in both interviews and memoirs writing as if he had taken the major first pass at the story and script, with only minor adjustments. He took so much credit, in fact, that the playwrights Burnett and Alison sued him.

Thus the script gives more weight to Casablanca as an example of the genius of the Studio System. Somehow the greatest screenplay ever written was actually created through the teamwork of a variety of writers contributing their strengths to iterate towards a finished script. More than eight different writers were paid for their work on Casablanca. It is the consummate team effort. As Koch finally wrote, after decades of taking an outsized amount of credit, "I have an almost mystical feeling about Casablanca. That it made itself somehow. That it needed to be made and that we were all conveyors on the belt, taking it there."

The screenplay has only grown in fame and importance over time. The Writers Guild of America voted it the greatest screenplay ever written in 2001. It is one of the most studied scripts of all time, used to teach screenwriting to countless students and writers. Two screenwriting gurus, Syd Field and Robert McKee, put Casablanca at the center of their books and workshops. And yet, one of the biggest lessons that this script can offer aspiring writers is never taught: Sometimes, it takes a village.

Further Reading / Viewing

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