"I have discovered the secret of successful filmmaking," says Claude Chabrol sarcastically, "Timing!" Casablanca belongs in the vanguard of films created by the era they so flawlessly reflect. Assured and expert, it is not in either substance or style superior to its director Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce or Young Man With a Horn. Bogart, Bergman, Rains, and Henreid all gave better performances; of those by Greenstreet, Lorre, Kinsky, and Sakall, one can only remark that they seldom gave any others. Producer Robert Lord categorized the story on the first reading as "a very obvious imitation of Grand Hotel;" Jerry Wald saw parallels with Algiers. Both were right.
Hal Wallis wanted George Raft to star and William Wyler to direct. Both declined. (There is some evidence he also planned it as a vehicle for the Kings Row team of Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan, with Dennis Morgan in the Henreid role. And both Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald had a chance at the singing part taken eventually by Dooley Wilson.) Vincent Sherman and William Keighley likewise refused the project before it went to Curtiz.
Casablanca might have joined Sahara and Istanbul on the shelf of back-lot travelogues had an Allied landing and summit conference in the north African city not coincided with the film's November 1942 release. Topicality fed its fame. Curtiz, accepting an unexpected Academy Award in March 1944, betrayed his surprise. "So many times I have a speech ready, but no dice. Always a bridesmaid, never a mother. Now I win, I have no speech." The broken English was entirely appropriate to a film where only Bogart and Dooley Wilson were of American origin.
Beyond its timing, Casablanca does show the Warners' machine and Curtiz's talent at their tabloid best. The whirling globe of Don Siegel's opening montage and the portentous March of Time narration quickly define the city as a vision of the wartime world in microcosm. The collaborative screenplay, signed by Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch, but contributed to by, among others, Aeneas Mackenzie and Wallis himself (who came up with Bogart's final line), draws the characters in broad terms, each a compendium of national characteristics.
Bogart, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, arrogant, is the classic turned-off Hemingway American. Henreid, white-suited and courteous, is a dissident more akin to a society physician, untainted by either Communism or bad tailoring. The Scandinavian virgin, untouchable in pale linen and communicating mainly through a range of schoolgirl grins, Bergman's Ilsa succumbs to passion only when she pulls a gun on the unconcerned Rick, triggering not the weapon but a revival of their old affection.
The remaining regulars of Rick's Cafe Americain, mostly accented foreigners, dissipate their energies in Balkan bickering, petty crime, and, in the case of Claude Rains's self-satisfied Vichy policeman, some improbable lechery dictated by his role as the token, naughty Frenchman, all moues and raised eyebrows. Cliché characterization leads to a range of dubious acts, notably the fawning Peter Lorre, an arch intriguer and murderer, entrusting his treasured "letters of transit" to Bogart's moralizing ex-gunrunner, a gesture exceeded in improbability only by Bogart's acceptance of them.
As with most formula films, technique redeems Casablanca. Arthur Edeson's camera cranes sinuously through Carl Jules Weyl's Omar Khayyam fantasy of a set. Typical of Curtiz's work is the razor-sharp "cutting on action" by Owen Marks, a legacy of the former's Hungarian and Austrian training. He forces the pace relentlessly, even to dissolving the back projection plate in mid-scene during the Parisian flash-back, an audacious piece of visual shorthand.
Narrative economy distinguishes the film. As its original material (an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) suggests, Casablanca in structure is a one-set play; many events take place offstage, from the murder of the couriers to the resistance meeting attended by Henreid and Sakall that is broken up by the police. Everybody Comes to Rick's is an apt title, since it's the ebb and flow of people through the cafe's doors that gives the story its sole semblance of vitality. As an entity, Casablanca lives on the artificial respiration of ceaseless greetings, introductions, and farewells. Even the Parisian flashback does little to elucidate the characters of Rick and Ilsa. They remain at the end of the film little more than disagreeable maitre d' and troublesome patron.
In 1982, the journalist Chuck Ross circulated Casablanca's script as a new work to 217 American literary agents. Of those who acknowledged reading it (most returned it unread) 32 recognized the original, while 38 did not. Clearly this betrays the profound ignorance of the agenting community. But also implicit in their ignorance is Casablanca's unsure standing as a work of art. Unremarkable in 1942, it rose to fame through an accident of timing. No better written or constructed today, it exists primarily as a cultural artifact, a monument of popular culture. Woody Allen was right in his Play It Again, Sam to show the film as one whose morality, characters, and dialogue can be adapted to social use; icons now, they transcend their original source. It is as folklore rather than as a cinematic masterwork that Casablanca is likely to survive.
Release Date: 1942
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S. Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page, John Qualen, Leonid Kinsky, Helmut Dantine, Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio, Corinna Mura, Ludwig Stössel, Ilka Gruning, Charles La Torre, Frank Puglia, Dan Seymour, Lou Marcelle, Martin Garralaga, Olaf Hytten, Monte Blue, Paul Pracasi, Albert Morin, Creighton Hale, Henry Rowland, Richard Ryen, Norma Varden, Torben Meyer, Oliver Blake, Gregory Gay, William Edmunds, George Meeker, George Dee, Leo Mostovoy, and Leon Belasco
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, contributions by Aeneas Mackenzie and Hal Wallis among others
Source Citation: Baxter, John. "Casablanca." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 205-207.