Classic Cinema: Casablanca


PERHAPS quite rightly, Casablanca is one of those films which appears towards the top of the favourite lists of film critics and audiences alike.

More accessible than Citizen Kane, it shares a parallel with its b/w partner among movie buffs, in that almost every scene or line is a memorable one.

Every now and then, you chance upon a pop album on which you like every track on the CD; if you think about it, it’s quite rare an occurrence. Normally there’s always one track which you fast skip on the player.

Casablanca has that same comparable appeal – almost every scene or phrase draws the viewer in – and it’s almost impossible to skip a scene.

Perhaps the attraction of the film is thanks largely down to the master director behind such.

Michael Curtiz had just completed seven films in a row with the swashbuckler Errol Flynn, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk and other famous screenings.

It also has the slightest and most unlikely parallel with High Society – both films feature protagonists who have had relationships in the past, who through circumstance are split, only to be reunited with differing outcomes.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid; and features Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson.

Set during World War II, it focuses on a man torn - Rick must choose between his love for a woman (the sparkling Ingrid Bergman) and helping her Czech Resistance leader husband escape the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Nazis.

While Bergman and Bogart are at their joint bests in the film, much credit must also go to the wily Claude Reins who also plays the engagingly Machiavellian police chief in the region.

In a region under the iron grip of the Nazis, Casablanca is also like the Western African equivalent of Dodge City – the wild west of the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall where the law is only just managing to keep a check on the status quo. No doubt George Lucas paid some slight homage to such at the Mos Eiseley spaceport scene in Star Wars – filled with the dens and alleys of all classes (or underclasses) of humanity and others.

The film was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick's. The Warner Bros. story analyst who read the play, Stephen Karnot, called it (approvingly) "sophisticated hokum", and story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal Wallis to buy the rights in January 1942 for $20,000, the most anyone in Hollywood had ever paid for an unproduced play.

The project was renamed Casablanca, apparently in imitation of the 1938 hit Algiers.

The entire picture was shot in the studio, except for the sequence showing Major Strasser's arrival, which was filmed at Van Nuys Airport, and a few short clips of stock footage views of Paris.

The original play was inspired by a trip to Europe made by Murray Burnett and his wife in 1938, during which they visited Vienna shortly after the Anschluss and were affected by the anti-Semitism they saw. In the south of France, they went to a nightclub that had a multinational clientele, among them many exiles and refugees, and the prototype of Sam.

The film ran into some trouble with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (the Hollywood self-censorship body), who opposed the suggestions that Captain Renault extorted sexual favours from his supplicants, and that Rick and Ilsa had slept together in Paris. This was 1942 remember.

Extensive changes were made, with several lines of dialogue removed or altered. All direct references to sex were deleted; Renault's selling of visas for sex, and Rick and Ilsa's previous sexual relationship were implied elliptically rather than referenced explicitly.

Also, in the original script, when Sam plays "As Time Goes By", Rick remarks, "What the —— are you playing?" - the line implying a curse word was removed at the behest of the Hays Office.

The song "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play; music composer for the film, composer Max Steiner, wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song.

On the film's 50th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times called Casablanca's great strength "the purity of its Golden Age Hollywoodness [and] the enduring craftsmanship of its resonantly hokey dialogue". Bob Strauss wrote in the newspaper that the film achieved a "near-perfect entertainment balance" of comedy, romance, and suspense.

According to Roger Ebert, Casablanca is "probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title, including Citizen Kane" because of its wider appeal. Ebert opined that Citizen Kane is generally considered to be a "greater" film but Casablanca is more loved.

Perhaps this is the key – Citizen Kane is a technically brilliant film – but its key character is a little too much of a mystery or austere for many people’s liking.

Rick, despite his bluff ways, we see in flashback, is a good chap; and Isla is a vision of beauty; and the pair clearly find love in Paris.

What happens in between  is the result of the hurly-burly of life; war, separation, a fight for freedom, and political intrigue, underscored by the realization that the couple still love each other despite all that life has to throw at them.

What’s also important, perhaps more than all, is the film has arguably become a metonym of the uncertainly for film, art and the West at the time.

One of the oft overlooked facts about Casablanca is its contemporaneousness i.e. it was made at the time of Hitler’s occupation of Europe and the very real Nazi threat. Its frisson perhaps lays in the fact that escape lines at the time existed and would have been known to viewers.  In reality Casablanca wasn’t necessarily one – the normal route out of Nazi Germany was via Vienna-Paris-London or to Spain via the Pyrenees.

One of the lines most closely associated with the film—"Play it again, Sam"—is a misquotation.

When Ilsa first enters the Café Americain, she spots Sam and asks him to "Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake."

After he feigns ignorance, she responds, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'."

Later that night, alone with Sam, Rick says, "You played it for her, you can play it for me," and "If she can stand it, I can! Play it!"

Rick's toast to Ilsa, "Here's looking at you, kid", used four times, is not in the draft screenplays, but has been attributed to something Bogart said to Bergman as he taught her poker between takes.

It was voted the fifth most memorable line in cinema in AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes by the American Film Institute.

Six lines from Casablanca appeared in the AFI list, the most of any film (Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz tied for second with three apiece). The other five are:

 "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."—20th

 "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'."—28th

 "Round up the usual suspects."—32nd

 "We'll always have Paris."—43rd

 "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."—67th

The difference between Bergman's and Bogart's height caused some problems reportedly.  She was some two inches taller than Bogart, and claimed Curtiz had Bogart stand on blocks or sit on cushions in their scenes together.

The film won three Oscars – one for best film – but both Bogart and Bergman missed out surprisingly. Ingrid wasn’t even nominated – she would have to wait until 1944 for her role in Gaslight and Anastasia in 1956. She also won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1974 for Murder on the Orient Express.

Bogart only ever won one Oscar – for The African Queen in 1951.

A couple of pseudo remakes have been attempted – Havana with Robert Redford, and even Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson, set in a dystopian future with a mirrored plotline, but neither have the classic panache of the original. In fact, when it comes to classy films, you must remember this…