Home » Movies Revisited » The 23rd Birthday Retrospective » Casablanca


It’s been said many times by countless amateur and professional film scholars that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made. I respectfully disagree. To be clear, I have great admiration for Orson Welles’ magnum opus, fully aware of its innovations in camera work and storytelling. I’m especially fond of how Welles used reflections to cover two shots at once, which is one of my favorite cinematic tricks.

Nevertheless, if I had to choose between Citizen Kane and Casablanca, I would choose the latter movie every single time.

I first saw the movie many years ago and was nonplussed. I didn’t think it was a bad movie, but I didn’t understand why it was a classic. Then came my brief and ill-advised ambition to be a screenwriter during my high school years. During that phase, a copy of this book somehow came into my possession (it was a Christmas present, if I recall correctly).

Within its pages, I found a copy of the screenplay, in addition to a first-hand account of the film’s creation from Howard Koch, who co-wrote the movie. There were essays and commentaries from such great film critics as Charles Champlin, Richard Corliss and Roger Ebert. It even included a couple of reviews printed during the original theatrical run. I read every word of that book and shortly afterward, I felt compelled to see it again. Now older and wiser, I came to fully appreciate what a work of genius the movie is.

Fun fact: Koch, who was writing the movie as it was being shot, wanted Casablanca to focus on political intrigue. Director Michael Curtiz, however, often demanded last-minute rewrites to give the movie a romantic tone more friendly to the box office. The film was shot in sequence, which makes it kind of fun to watch Casablanca and try to find the point where Curtiz started cutting in. Anyway, through some happy accident, these two conflicting intentions meshed perfectly to deliver a film that works equally well as a romance and as a political thriller. A movie global in scope, but focused squarely on this town of purgatory. Two lovers who aren’t worth a hill of beans in this crazy world, yet the world’s war of Axis vs. Allies hinges squarely on their actions.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I absolutely adore Casablanca for all the many ways it establishes this grand scope on such a small scale, most particularly in the way its background characters are treated. There’s a man who runs from police and gets shot because his papers expired three weeks before. A woman who pawns her diamonds to a man who talks her into taking less than they’re worth. A street vendor who tries to sell Ilsa a tablecloth and offers her a “small discount” for friends of Rick’s. These characters and many more are onscreen for an instant and quickly forgotten, yet the movie is so much richer for their inclusion and no worse for their sudden disappearances. These few moments and those like them are enough to establish that even the least significant background character is a fully-fleshed human being. No matter how briefly they may appear onscreen, every soul in this movie has accumulated a great amount of baggage over however many years. The movie never lets us forget that everyone in Casablanca got there through suffering and they’re going to keep on suffering until it comes time to leave — either by plane or by coffin.

Special attention must also be paid to the use of music. Not just the score, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. No, I’m talking about the music in Rick’s bar. The music played by the band and by Sam on his iconic piano. “It Had to be You” is our introduction to Rick’s bar, establishing it as a happy and energetic place — one of Casablanca’s few shelters of peace and hope. In “Knock on Wood,” everyone happily describes their unhappy life in Casablanca and their constant hope for better fortunes. The battle of “Wacht am Rhein” and the “Marseillaise” is a tremendous symbolic victory of democracy over fascism and of the unlucky, oppressed masses over the power that forced them into Casablanca to begin with. Of course, it helps that so many cast members were actual European immigrants who had personally witnessed and escaped from the Nazi regime a short time prior.

Then, of course, there’s “As Time Goes By.” The synecdoche of Rick’s emotional baggage. This song is the chief symbol of Rick’s character arc, with every performance marking a key point in his development from brooding loner to a man of courage and compassion. Thus, “As Time Goes By” represents the core of what makes this movie great. Consider this: If the movie had opened with Rick drunk in his bar, demanding Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” would Casablanca be nearly as effective or memorable as it is?

This brings us to Richard Blaine himself. One of cinema’s original male role models. This is a man who gets wasted and has the clear-minded courtesy to apologize for his behavior the day after. A man who ensures that a drunk woman makes it home safely after throwing her out of his bar. Richard Blaine sits down with a top Nazi officer and answers his pointed political talk with witty, apathetic zingers, totally disinterested in how he may respond. He could walk into any room and within five minutes convince everyone that he’s the smartest and toughest guy there, if he cared enough to do so.

Still, that’s not to say that he’s perfect. He’s selfish, he’s short-sighted, he has a very dim view of humanity in general and what’s more, Rick seems to take great pride and pains in maintaining these imperfections. Of course, Rick eventually grows past these imperfections in a character arc quite similar to that which made A Christmas Carol the oft-repeated classic that it is. Through recollections of a lost love, finding another human being he can bond with and recognizing the consequences of his continued apathy, Rick goes from being a cold and selfish loner to a compassionate man willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Though the sacrifices he makes are heavy indeed.

That’s not to say that Rick made the wrong decision in the end. There are many who think that Ilsa should have stayed with Rick and I am not among them. Ilsa would have had no place in Casablanca and Rick is correct when he says that they both would likely end up in a concentration camp for helping Lazlo escape. Moreover — as Rick further points out — Lazlo could never have continued his work without Ilsa, especially if she fell into Nazi custody.

Equally important — as far as Rick’s character is concerned — is that Rick sells his saloon at the end of Casablanca. Save for his friendship with Renault, Rick gives up everything he has in that one motion. In my estimation, this is another essential point of his arc. It’s hard to imagine Rick going back there after everything that happened with Ilsa and Lazlo. There’s no denying that Rick’s Cafe is inextricably tied to its owner (the place is named for him, after all), but it’s important to remember that the connection applies to the cold and selfish Rick. At the end of the movie, there’s no place for him in the house that his broken heart built. With the reminder that there’s more to the world than Casablanca, it doesn’t seem right that he should spend the rest of his days hiding there. Thus, Rick is quite probably the only person to have won passage out of Casablanca not solely through money, influence or luck, but by outgrowing it.

When all is said and done, Casablanca is the story of a man who found redemption through love, while Citizen Kane is the story of a man ruined by his obsessive need for love on his own terms. Richard Blaine started as a selfish loner who slowly learned to love the world and Charles Foster Kane was an egotist whose selfish nature gradually led to his downfall. One movie is about overcoming odds to brighten an uncertain future and the other is about discovering the events leading to a tragedy already past. Is it so wrong that I consider the more uplifting movie the greater of the two?

The script is endlessly quotable, with countless lines in everyday use right now. The characters are lovable and memorable from top to bottom and the camera work is so simple that it never detracts from the story. This is a movie with political drama, suspense, romance, action, music and comedy, so there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone. The illusion of WWII-era unoccupied France is watertight and expands far beyond the four corners of the screen.

This is the apex of what film-making is capable of. Heights that have never been reached before or since. The greatest movie of all time.

Here’s looking at you, folks.

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