Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenwriters: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet
It is remembered as one of the great movies of the Golden Era of Hollywood, is a jewel in the crown of studio Warner Bros., and remains one of the most memorable and quotable films ever made. Casablanca, from Austro-Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood – 1938; White Christmas – 1954) is one of cinema’s great cultural phenomena, its timeless stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman remembered best for their starring turns in this wartime release despite having some of the most respected and unforgettable careers of all time, its sequences paid homage to by the great filmmakers of the contemporary era, and its quick-paced delivery of dialogue, timeless performances and its all-time great score offering an experience that remains almost incomparable. Officially the number two best film of all time according to the American Film Institute, Casablanca is romanticised Hollywood at its most sumptuous and enveloping, a movie that eight decades on remains a vision of the form, a reference point for fans and filmmakers alike looking to point towards the most influential or most pristine examples of cinema.
On the screen, Casablanca tells the tale of a man, Rick Blaine (Bogart), who runs a club in the French-occupied Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II whilst the Nazi party occupy Paris. There, he is reacquainted with an old flame, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), whose partner Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is a noted rebel against the Nazi regime and currently under surveillance from the Nazis present in Morocco. As tensions rise, Lund and Laszlo look to earn visas to travel by airplane to Lisbon where they intend to transfer onto a flight to the United States (a popular journey for those extradited by the Nazi party of Germany during the war), causing a series of events to unfurl that see Blaine and Lund reacquainted with one another amidst the life altering and life ending oppression felt across the world, romance very much at the forefront of their connection.
Looking back at the film with a contemporary eye, the persisting influence of Curtiz’s work is clear. Casablanca is like a history lesson in where so many of your favourite movie moments come from, and what so many of your favourite comedies have been quoting all these years. The opening sequence, in which a man in the titular city of Casablanca, Morocco looks to escape capture by the police, is borrowed from and paid homage to in Steven Spielberg’s Egyptian market scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark (as are the map-hopping transitions), while perhaps the great rom-com of the past forty years When Harry Met Sally features a scene in which its own iconic lovers watch the film together on TV whilst on the phone from their own separate apartments, this scene acting as a contextualisation of the characters’ own romantic struggles and remaining a point of reference for the two of them throughout. Genre-invigorating musical La La Land, a film rich in homage to the Golden Era’s greats, in many ways repurposes Casablanca’s narrative to offer its own take on two lovers destined to live apart from one another, and even has direct moments of comparison, such as Emma Stone’s character Mia working in a coffee shop opposite the Casablanca set, or Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian opening his own club named “Seb’s”, inspired by Bogart’s bar “Rick’s”, right down to the illuminated signage. Even the iconic final meeting of Mia and Sebastian in La La Land echoes the great scenes of Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, with Mia walking out of the shadows and into a spotlight so the two lovers can meet eyes once again, just as their contemporaries did some seventy-plus years earlier. From The Holiday to An American Tail, from Hollywood to the movies of Hong Kong, and even to the Looney Tunes, Casablanca has been referenced, parodied and paid homage to almost endlessly for eighty years, to the point where so much of it has become synonymous with the form itself, the film like a map towards understanding the language of cinema, a piece we can point to as the genesis of so much of what we have come to praise and adore.
Beyond the history lesson, Casablanca is a crisply shot black and white visual masterpiece; every element of each frame is immaculately constructed. The most iconic shots of the film – those that take place at the airport – are filled with fog and rain, which creates a hue that engulfs the characters in a softness that we have come to associate with romance ever since, whilst the bustling crowds of Casablanca’s streets and particularly Rick’s bar fill every second of the picture with life, serving not just a pulsating and lived-in hive of an environment but the film’s wider theme regarding the brutal vastness of war. The interiors of each of the buildings are truly remarkable too, and mix with excellently devised wardrobe features (each tailored uniquely to specific characters – most notably Bogart’s white dinner jacket) to deliver the very highest standards in set and costume design. Casablanca’s sets are the stuff of legend, and in taking in the seas of tables and the tidbits of textures on the walls, it is clear not only as to why this film is so well remembered but as to why this era of filmmaking is considered the Golden Era of Hollywood – cinema has rarely looked this simultaneously functional and operatic.
As a symbol of Hollywood’s great work of the era and the romantic notion of the United States as a place to which you could once go when escaping tyranny and persecution, Casablanca is the archetype. Beautifully photographed, excellently performed by icons of the silver screen, scored in a classic style but used to timeless effect, and one of the most recognisable and heartfelt love stories ever put to film, Michael Curtiz’s remarkable early war offering has barely aged a day. Eighty years on, our cultural understanding of the United States may have changed, as has our collective consumption of film, but Casablanca remains romantic not only in story but in its purpose and its meaning to us as a wider culture, a shining light of the cinematic form.