Take a poll of the most iconic movie scenes in history, and a lot of the same answers will pop up: Dorothy Gale singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” would make the list. So would Don Vito Corleone, stroking a stray cat and making offers nobody could refuse. And then there’s Casablanca. Even people who’ve never seen it can picture Bogey and Ingrid Bergman out there on the tarmac, with the Nazis bearing down on them. Their love is doomed by the gathering thunder of a world at war, and they both know it. He strokes her tear-streaked face and lifts her eyes to meet his: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It’s cinematic perfection, destined to live on forever in Hollywood lore.
Casablanca begins with a burst of breathless narration that establishes the epic backdrop of the film’s historical context: It’s 1941, and Hitler’s evil is metastasizing all over the globe. The remnants of France’s true government have been exiled to Morocco, prompting waves of refugees to gather there, all in the desperate hopes of fleeing to the Americas. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American ex-pat who runs an upscale nightclub. Rick’s place is a bastion of capitalistic neutrality: Nazis, Vichy, Italian Fascists and many more gather there for booze and gambling. The bar is also a hub for black market activity, where things like stolen visas and jewelry change hands on a nightly basis. Aloof and cynical, Rick turns a blind eye to the bustle of criminals. Or at least he pretends to.
This facade of detached coolness gets demolished the minute Ilsa Lund (Bergman) graces his little gin joint. She and Rick had an intense affair in Paris, but it came to an abrupt end when the Nazis invaded. Now, her presence forces Rick to confront his outer shell of cynicism, along with the frustrated romantic hero it conceals. To make things even more complicated, Ilsa rolls in with Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), a renowned freedom fighter. Turns out, he’s Ilsa’s husband, and has been all along.
From that story, director Michael Curtiz, along with writers Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch (all of whom won Oscars) build a masterwork on every front. Every scene, every character, every note of music lands perfectly into place. Famed director Howard Hawks once noted that a classic film should have three great scenes, and no bad scenes. Here, you can take your pick of greatness: Ilsa wistfully requesting “As Time Goes By” from Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s resident crooner and stalwart companion. (“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'”) Or Rick’s subsequent meltdown upstairs. (“You played it for her; you can play it for me. Play it!”) And, of course, that bittersweet farewell at the airport. Casablanca is all killer, and no filler.
Of course, that extends to every single performance. If The Maltese Falcon made Bogart a star, this film transformed him into an icon for the ages. Rick Blaine is quintessential Bogey–savvy, self-assured, and quietly dangerous. He’s the perfect anchor for a story of daring mystery and doomed romance. Bergman is his emotional counterpoint: Luminous and elegant; strong in some ways, but fragile in others. In addition to the redoubtable Wilson, Curtiz peoples his story with a rogue’s gallery of brilliant character actors. Peter Lorre brings a nervous twitch to his underworld fence. Claude Rains plays the Inspector Renault as a man with pliant morals and the slippery cunning of a true bureaucrat. Finally, Sydney Greenstreet brings a silky sinisterness Rick’s main rival, an amiable saloon owner who would probably sell out anyone to anybody, given the opportunity.
The screenwriters oblige this remarkable cast with one of the finest scripts ever brought to film. This era was the heyday for sparkling badinage, and Casablanca brims over with it. Those who love this movie often remember it with quotes: “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects!” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Hum a few bars of “As Time Goes By,” and the mental image immediately forms of Bogey stomping into the bar, furious that such a sweet song could turn sour in his ears.
All this adds up to a perfect film, a masterpiece of and beyond its era. In fact, Casablanca occupies such precious real estate on the topography of pop culture, it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. But once you look past its mythic status, past all countless spoofs and homages, this is simply a great story. It’s pulpy, romantic, and exciting. Repeat viewings only deepen its magnificence. The only reason this gets five stars is because I can’t give it six.
102 min. PG. HBOMax.