johnlink ranks CASABLANCA (1942)

There are several movies which I absolutely love, but just haven’t gotten to for this blog. I can shorten that list by one with this ranking of CASABLANCA. While I don’t pretend he is the best actor of all time, Bogart is, ever-increasingly, my favorite movie star of all time. So we can go ahead and get this ball rolling, remembering that I went into this considering CASABLANCA one of my favorite movies. MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW. But if you haven’t seen this, well… get on it.

I watched CASABLANCA (1942) on 5.21.12. It was my fourth viewing of the film and my first in roughly five years.

Casablanca is a port city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. In World War II it was part of unoccupied France, and a place which many people escaping the Nazis used as a springboard to the United States. As a colony of France, the Nazis did not control it, though they did move through it freely.

Casablanca, much like many great titular locales (most notably CHINATOWN) is also a character and a feeling. Casablanca is where the outcasts and the forgotten stay. We have an Italian black market entrepreneur (Sydney Greenstreet), a French chief of police with a moral compass which spins with the wind (Claude Rains), an opportunist willing to resort to murder to make money (Peter Lorre), and plenty more. Of course, we also have a saloon owner named Rick (Bogart). A man who has done something so bad that he can not return to America. What that is, we don’t know. But if there’s one thing life has taught him, as he himself tells us a couple of times, it is that “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Others exist there as well. A thief who works easily among the naive Europeans. The Nazis who nobody wants there. The locals who permeate the background.  A loose woman who goes with whoever is currently saying yes (or ‘ja’ or ‘oui’). The loyal employees of Rick who are from every corner of the world. And then, in the middle of all this, walks Victor Laszlo and his wife Ilsa (Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman).

Victor and Ilsa don’t belong in Casablanca. Though the Nazis say they wish to keep him there, they’d prefer him in a concentration camp (from where he escaped) or, preferably, dead. Victor wants to get to America, or at least to somewhere from whence he can continue to rally people against the Nazi cause. Rick wants him out of his bar, and out of his town, because Rick had a fling with his wife when Victor was stuck in that concentration camp.

The relationship between Rick and Ilsa is, then, the central story. When we meet Rick he is a principled man, though a cold one. He doesn’t drink with his patrons, though he can mingle well enough. The only folks he trusts are his employees. He’s willing to hold onto some valuable papers for Peter Lorre, but not overnight, and he doesn’t do anything to help Lorre when the police discover that he is a murderer.

Those papers end up staying in Rick’s possession, and they prove to be the MacGuffin for this film. In fact the ‘Letters of Transit’ were a complete fiction invented by the writers. No such thing existed. However, in the world of CASABLANCA they were a free pass onto any airplane out of the city, something that everyone knew Victor Laszlo would be trying to get his hands on. Something which anyone in the city would be able to sell for an amazing profit.

But all of that is plot, and I don’t like to spend so much time on plot. So let’s break away and talk about Rick. His journey is interesting to consider, and this viewing really allowed me the opportunity to let his arc land. He starts off cold and uncaring, an extension of Bogie’s portrayal of Sam Spade in MALTESE FALCON. When Ingrid Bergman walks through the door, serving as the twist which launches us into act two, we see something change with him. When he gets drunk, a flashback brings us to Paris several years earlier. We see Rick and Ilsa young and in love. I’ve never seen Bogart smile so much in a scene. He’s energetic, loving, doting.

Earlier in the film, the aforementioned loose woman asks him if she will see him that night. He responds by saying “I never make plans that far ahead.” Yet, in the flashback scenes, we see a different Rick. One proposing marriage as a spontaneous reaction to having to flee Paris as the Nazis occupy. It ends, sadly, on a train platform with Rick expecting Ilsa to show up, and her instead having left a note indicating that she won’t be going with him.

When the flashback ends, Ilsa walks into the bar where Rick has finished his large bottle. Rick unleashes the new Rick on her, uncaring and biting. Slowly, through the course of the film, this softens. We see him help a young and in-love couple escape Casablanca by rigging the roulette wheel in their favor, giving them a chance at the sort of love that he has lost.

When Ilsa finally comes around and says she wants to be with Rick, but wants him to make all the decisions, he is forced to act boldly. He finally sticks his neck out, not only for Ilsa, but for Victor and his cause. We see that return to a man who has not only rediscovered his principles, but found some happiness again. It’s all in the fact that he had power over this situation. In Paris he was acted upon, left hanging. In Casablanca he has the power to act himself, to make the decision.

Will Ilsa really be better off with Victor? Much of the film’s core strength has to do with the fact that Victor is, probably, a better man (and a better match) than Rick. For Ilsa, this isn’t choosing between a hero and a deceptive villain. This is a woman who has a true Catch 22. She loves them both undoubtedly. Some would take for weakness her request that Rick think for the both of them. Instead, for me, it reveals the impossibility of her choice. But in the enacting of it all she ends up with Victor, the man who had previously said he would leave her behind (even if he was lying to try to get her to abandon him for safety’s sake). I like to think that they all end up happy. Ilsa has Victor, Rick will always have Paris, but only because she wandered back into his life to remind him of what that meant.

In previous viewings of CASABLANCA I had always considered it a better ‘movie’ than ‘film’, which (for the purpose of these pages) means it was more entertainment than substance. This viewing, for whatever reason, really hit home the filmic qualities this possesses. This is a complex international web which director Michael Curtiz has woven. And while people were doing more interesting things with their cameras in the 40s (namely Orson Welles with CITIZEN KANE and, separately, the fledgling film noir movement), the thematic maturity of CASABLANCA is incredible, especially considering the handicap that the Motion Picture Production Code created. As an example, in the flashback, Ilsa could not have known Victor was alive or the MPPC would not allow the film to be released with her having a knowing affair with Rick. This is not an easy love story, or a happy love story. But it is, as much as any film I know of, a satisfying love story.

Which isn’t to say that there are no cinematographic niceties. Some of the shadow work is nice, even if it feels like a trick at times (like Rick going into the safe). And the foggy setting for the final scene heightens the muddiness of the decisions made, and the choices followed.

The script is top-notch. It can be confusing on first watch, because so many people talk so fast about so many things. Witticisms are thrown around without pause, and there’s more funny here than I remembered. So many quotes appear on all-time great lists, and more lines from this get mangled and misquoted than from any other film (for example, the line ‘Play it again Sam’ is never said). There is no real villain, except for the Nazi leader, and even he is more a catalyst for action rather than a true danger to Rick or Ilsa. Sure he’s a danger to Victor, but since much of our desire is hung on Rick and Ilsa ending up together, the well-being of Victor is not of the utmost concern to the audience. Instead of heroes and villains we are rewarded with flawed human beings, in a complex situation, trying to make sense of their lives in an insane setting. The irony of Bogart’s famous line “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world,” is that he is wrong. For the audience, at least for 102 minutes, the problems of these three little people mean everything.

Quite simply, this is one of the finest creations in the history of cinema. The blending of the script, the talent, the behind-the-camera work, and just a little bit of magic, all combined to make a great experience. While making the film, many of those involved thought they were making a bad film, or an average one at best. Bogart thought the dialogue was terrible. But, like the city of Casablanca, out of all this grit and pain and love arose something beautiful, something timeless, something unforgettable.


FILM: 9; MOVIE: 10; ACTING: 9; WRITING: 10; BONUS: 1 (What does this mean?)

The bonus point is for the music. There are at least a half-dozen amazing musical queues. And the song As Time Goes By will forever be remembered as Rick and Ilsa’s song.



CASABLANCA, through 378 rankings, now shares the #1 spot with THE USUAL SUSPECTS as the only films to score a 9.75 overall. Interestingly, THE USUAL SUSPECTS derives its title from a line in CASABLANCA.

As a matter of perspective, only 20 films out of the 378 rankings have scored a 9.0 or better overall score, and only seven have a 9.5 or better.

~ by johnlink00 on May 22, 2012.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks CASABLANCA (1942)”

  1. […] From Chip Post title: Singin’In the Rain Site Name: johnlink moviesPost title: johnlink ranks Casablanca (1942) Site Name: Martin Teller’s Movie Reviews Post title: […]

  2. […] Casablanca […]

  3. […] ever hit an overall score of 9.75 (nothing has ever hit 10). This year, SHAWSHANK, THE INSIDER, and CASABLANCA all hit the 9.75 […]

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