WolfmanOz at the Movies #78

You must just remember this.

Casablanca arguably remains Hollywood’s finest moment, a film that succeeds on such a vast scale not because of anything experimental or deliberately earthshaking in its design, but for the way it adhered to and reaffirmed the movie-making conventions of its day. This is the film that played by the rules while elevating the form, and remains the touchstone for those who talk about Hollywood’s greatness.

It’s the first week in December, 1941, and in the Vichy-controlled African port city of Casablanca, American ex-pat Rick Blaine runs a gin joint he calls Rick’s Cafe Americaine. Everybody comes to Rick’s, including thieves, spies, Nazis, partisans, and refugees trying to make their way to Lisbon and, eventually, America. Rick is a tough, sour kind of guy, but fate hands him two sudden twists: a pair of unchallengeable exit visas, and a woman named Ilsa who left him broken-hearted in Paris and now needs him to help her and her resistance-leader husband escape.

Humphrey Bogart is Rick and Ingrid Bergman is Ilsa, in roles that are archetypes in film lore. They are great parts, very multilayered and resistant to stereotype, and both actors give career defining performances in what were superb careers. He’s mad at her for walking out on him, while she wants him to understand her cause, but there’s a lot going on underneath with both.

Casablanca is a great romance, not only for being so supremely entertaining with its humour and realistic-though-exotic wartime excitement, but because it’s not the least bit mushy. Take the way Rick’s face literally breaks when he first sees Ilsa in his bar, or how he recalls the last time he saw her in Paris: “The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” There’s a real human dimension to these people that makes us care for them and relate to them in a way that belies the passage of years along with the film’s iconic song As Time Goes By.


But there’s so much to grab onto with a film like this. You can talk about the music, or the way the setting becomes a living character with its floodlights and Moorish traceries. Paul Henreid, as Victor Lazlo, is often looked at as a bit of a third wheel playing the role of Ilsa’s husband, but he manages to create a moral centre around which the rest of the film operates, and his enigmatic relationship with Rick and especially Ilsa, a woman who obviously admires her husband but can’t somehow ever bring herself to say she loves him, is something to wonder at.

There is a scene about halfway through the movie Casablanca that has become commonly known as The Battle of the Anthems. In Rick’s Café American Major Strasser leads a group of German officers in singing Die Wacht am Rhein at the top of their voices. Victor Lazlo, the leader of the French Resistance, cannot stand this act and while the rest of the club stares appalled at the Germans, Lazlo orders the band to play La Marseillaise. With a nod from Rick, the band begins playing, with Victor singing at the top of his voice. This in turn, inspires the whole club to begin singing and the Germans are forced to surrender and sit down at their table, humbled by the crowd’s patriotism and fervour.


All this leads to the film’s famous ending where Rick implores Ilsa to board the plane leaving Casablanca with her husband: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now. Here’s looking at you, kid.”


For me, and many, the most interesting relationship in the movie is between Rick and Captain Louis Renault, the police prefect in Casablanca who is played by Claude Rains with a wonderful subtlety that builds as the film progresses. Theirs is a relationship of almost perfect cynicism, one-liners and professions of neutrality that provide much humour, as well as giving a necessary display of Rick’s darker side before and after Ilsa’s arrival.


Surely something should be said about Michael Curtiz, who not only directed this film but other great movies like Captain Blood, Angels With Dirty Faces and The Adventures Of Robin Hood; and he even found time the same year he made Casablanca to make Yankee Doodle Dandy. When you watch a film like Casablanca, you aren’t so much aware of the director, but that’s really a testament to Curtiz’s artistry. Casablanca is not only exceptionally well-paced but incredibly well-shot, every frame feeling well-thought-out without distracting from the overall story.

The thing that makes Casablanca great is that it speaks to that place in each of us that seeks some kind of inspiration or redemption. On some level, every character in the story receives the same kind of catharsis and their lives are irrevocably changed. Rick’s is the most obvious in that he learns to live again, instead of hiding from a lost love. He is reminded that there are things in the world more noble and important than he is and he wants to be a part of them. Louis, the scoundrel, gets his redemption by seeing the sacrifice Rick makes and is inspired to choose a side, where he had previously maintained careful neutrality. The stoic Lazlo gets his redemption by being shown that while thousands may need him to be a hero, there is someone he can rely upon when he needs inspiration in the form of his wife, who was ready to sacrifice her happiness for the chance that he would go on living.

It’s a film that reminds us why we go back to Hollywood again and again when we want to refresh our imaginations, and why we call it the dream factory. As the hawker of linens tells Ilsa at the bazaar, “You won’t find a treasure like this in all Morocco.” . . . and nor, for that matter, in all the world of movies.

Casablanca is on my top 10 favourite films of all-time.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . Nuts am I ?.

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July 6, 2023 8:23 am

The pacing if perfect. The actors – all of them – are perfect. People know it almost by heart but the drama still grabs you by the throat. And then, of course, there’s the humour.

There’s also a close equivalence to today, where hypocrisy is king and telling the truth is a risky business.

July 6, 2023 8:30 am

Yes, the relationship of Rick and the captain.
And unusually lovely Ingrid Bergman

Thank you
Always something extra in these reviews

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
July 6, 2023 10:14 am

Really excellent movie, although I like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep better. It’s sad that Hollywood can no longer do a simple romance or a mystery thriller any more. Nor anything else, going on the faceplant of Indiana Jones over the last few days. As John Nolte said bemusedly today how can an Indiana Jones movie possibly bomb on a 4th of July weekend?

Bruce in WA
July 6, 2023 10:22 am

Thanks, Wolfman. It’s a pure delight of a movie; not a wasted scene or shot.

Some younger people I spoke to about it decried it for being in black and white. They said how much better it would have been in colour.

I disagreed then and still do. In colour, the lighting would not have been anywhere near as powerful, as emotion-provoking, as much a part of the movie as the actors, script and direction.

Suspension of disbelief comes easily. You can forget that it was filmed entirely at Warner Bros studio, apart from the airport scene, which was shot at Van Nuys, just next door to the studio in LA. It tells a story in the way for which film is unique.

Rick : You know what I want to hear.
Sam : [lying] No, I don’t.
Rick : You played it for her, you can play it for me!
Sam : [lying] Well, I don’t think I can remember…
Rick : If she can stand it, I can! Play it!

July 6, 2023 12:53 pm

For me, the test of a good movie is the same as the test for a good book – that you can enjoy watching/reading it over and over again. Casablanca is like that.

Ingrid Bergman is truly one of the great beauties of the silver screen – simultaneously quite ordinary looking and absolutely stunning. Unlike most of the other great screen beauties, like Liz Taylor, she is low key and unassuming. But, the star quality shines through.

I’m not a fan of numerically rating works of art. However, if you compiled a rating system which had at the top something like ‘best of breed’ or ‘best in show’ – Casablanca would definitely be up there.

Old School Conservative
Old School Conservative
July 6, 2023 1:54 pm

Yet another superb movie whose long term appeal can also be measured in the numerous one-liners that so many people now use effortlessly.
From a breaking up couple who say “We’ll always have Paris” to the cynic who smilingly announces that “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”, Casablancaisms have entered the world lexicon.

July 6, 2023 3:00 pm

Joanna’s use of “Work of Art” sums it up. I hadn’t seen Casablanca until a few years ago,and it was mesmerising, watched from start to end, with no loss of attention.
How could something so simple be so good?

July 6, 2023 5:13 pm

I can’t add anything more that hasn’t been said by others so well. I can only echo Bruce in WA’s sentiment, only to be watched in Black and White.
Colourising leaves it at the mercy of someone else’s vision of what the film should be.

Fair Shake
Fair Shake
July 6, 2023 8:40 pm

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Bar Beach Swimmer
July 7, 2023 6:47 pm

Though I have watched this film on numerous occasions, the scene in the bar with the singing of La Marseillaise never fails to elicit a response in me. It’s the gut-wrench of wanting to sob, but just barely being able to stop myself from doing so. That, to me, shows how great is this movie in all of its parts.

July 8, 2023 2:33 am

so many good comments and reviews already posted. For me its what a. good holleywood movie is about – just great acting, fantastic dialogue and a human-centered story that you could picture yourself in.

Possibly a few pointers there for modern directors in Hollywood who seem to have no ability to simply entertain us anymore.

July 10, 2023 8:01 pm

Is The Sound of Freedom being released in the Democratic Republic of Albo?

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