An introduction

Notes on what comprises a truly great movie

::: Georges Rocourt

When it comes to the subject of this movie, it's been my observation that there really are just two kinds of people: Those who have never seen Casablanca, and on the other hand, those who have seen it several times. Nobody who sees it for the first time will ever fail to seek out a second or third or even more showings to delight in the nuances of this splendid romantic adventure film entertainment from Hollywood's and Warner Bros'. golden era.

This movie was conceived and made right around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and then released in early 1942. It works vividly on one level as a piece of Hollywood anti-Nazi propaganda. (If you look very closely and use the pause button, there are two specific hints that tell you all the action takes place on December 2 through 4, 1941). Jack Warner made no bones about his political views (look for the picture of FDR!). He used his studio power, Hal B. Wallis' Hollywood strong-arm persuasion, and Michael Curtiz' polished and no-nonsense action-adventure directing skills (Captain Blood, Sherwood Forest) to get the movie done quickly.

But still, at the next layer down, Casablanca's really a search for love and glory, as Dooley Wilson's incredibly memorable rendition of the 1931 theme song will tell you. Time does indeed go by, and the fundamental things still apply. On this you can surely rely, that Casablanca will still be fresh and sparkling every time you see it, even after you've memorized most of the script.

What ingredients are required to make a truly great movie? Stars? Maybe, but all of the biggest and most famous ones have had mega-bombs. A talented director? Can't hurt, but everyone's made a stinker or two. Great photography and other technical displays? Sure, that's necessary but hardly sufficient, or we'd all be watching Disney nature movies. Good acting? They used to say that Lawrence Olivier could read the phone book brilliantly, but I never really believed that one.

What's left? As the old Hollywood line says, there are three things that are mandatory for the best movies: Script, Script & Script! The plot's got to work, and the characters must have realism, depth, and nuance. The story's got to grab you and never let go. What's truly astonishing here is, once you realize how great the Epstein brothers' script (with help from Howard Koch & adapted from a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's) really is, you then find out that much of the final dialogue writing was done the night before shooting each scene, according to Warner legend.

The story's actually pretty simple and moves right along without unnecessary dramatic devices. Any first-time viewer will easily recall the details a week or a month later. But after multiple viewings, it's the words, the dialogue appropriately selected for each character's persona, that ultimately captivate you. Bogart never does actually say, “Play it again, Sam.” Something quite close, but not that exactly. But he really does say, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

In fact, there's lots of memorable lines that you've probably heard or even used yourself, but never thought about where they originated:

As for the stars, Ingrid Bergman never looked more beautiful and simultaneously vulnerable in any movie. In fact, few women before or since ever have. When she cries, and tells Rick that she's broken, she can't think any more, he'll have to do the thinking for both of them, if you don't need a hankie something's wrong with you

Humphrey Bogart: It's centrally his movie. The displaced American leaving behind a shadowy past, about which only the other characters provide tantalizing hints. Rick himself barely offers a clue. On the issue of style, Bogart really was, despite his short stature, a macho stud. It's all in the “attitude.” Health issues and current PC standards aside, there really was something pretty “manly” and sexy about how Bogie smoked a cigarette, drank whisky, and talked both tough and tender.

Claude Rains plays the suave, amoral Vichy France survivor Captain Renault, perfectly, balancing the pompous and swaggering Germans against a highly idealized (and more recently proven far overblown) myth of French resistance to the occupation even in Overseas France. And yes, the movie manages to makes fun of the Italians, Brits, and Americans along the way too.

Paul Henreid. What better humorless and even colorless actor to play the saintly but one-dimensional Viktor Laszlo, a perfect foil to Bogart's deeply flawed Rick Blaine. You will rightly ask, “How can Ilsa love them both?” That's the point! Henreid was lucky twice that year—he was also in Bette Davis's great Now, Voyager. That's the one with the scene where he simultaneously lights two cigarettes and then gives one to Bette.

Of course, watch for Sydney Greenstreet (the “Fat man” from Maltese Falcon) as Signor Ferrari the owner of the Blue Parrot, the rival joint to “Rick's Café Americain,” and self-anointed head of all illegal activities in Casablanca. Peter Lorre is the slithery and scheming Ugarte, wanting so much to impress Rick (“Somehow because you despise me, you are the only man I can trust!). But he's gone before you even see Ingrid Bergman one-quarter of the way into the movie. Then there's Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser, the Nazi you love to hate, and S. Z. Sakall as the headwaiter. Many more of the recognizable character actors of the period appear too.

A curiosity of fate: an early casting idea had Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan in the leads. But they both made King's Row (“Where's the rest of me?”) instead and Jack Warner wouldn't wait for their availability to do Casablanca. Don't laugh. Reagan was already active in the Screen Actors' Guild (also its president in the later 40s and early 50s) because other actors trusted him and his political skills in representing their interests. At one point, too, either George Raft or Dennis Morgan was going to be Richard Blaine!

Romance, intrigue, spying, an exotic location, humor, corruption, betrayal and deception, selfless devotion to a meaningful cause, the cynic coming around to be a genuine hero, a truly memorable song. Casablanca's got it all!

Is this the best Hollywood movie ever made? Sometimes I really do think so, especially on alternate Sundays, and today happens to be one of those. But then again, ask me on some other days of the week, and you're just as likely to hear me round out the top dozen this way: (And by the way, script, script, script applies across the board here)

But what does Casablanca have that none of that formidable list of other greats have? That's easy! The best and still most likeable and saleable movie script idea of them all (when it's done correctly)! Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy finds Girl again, and all's right with the world at the end. That's why it belongs on the list.

In fact, in that vein this movie only has two serious competitors in that love story category, to my view, and interestingly enough both were made during the same era: The Philadelphia Story (1940) starring another pair of Hollywood's greatest romantic leads—Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (Jimmy Stewart too); and My Man Godfrey (1936) with William Powell and the under-appreciated Carol Lombard, a “forgotten man” story of the Great Depression and the social and perceptual gulf between rich and poor.

Make your own list. Think about what works for you in a movie, and start creating your own database. Mine's obviously highly idiosyncratic and not to be recommended for the taste of many others. But meanwhile sit back and enjoy this one, and remember, “Sometimes a movie is just a movie,” and is simply meant to entertain and transport us away for an hour or two. Let's all head to French Morocco in the early years of WWII, and fall in love all over again! :::

Georges Rocourt is Visiting Assistant Professor, International Management/Finance at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland and has studied at Johns Hopkins and Northwestern University. This piece is adapted from an introduction to a screening of the film.

Posted by: editor on Jan 04, 2006 | 2:46 pm

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