Many films have been considered “the greatest of all time”, but such a title is impossible to definitively decide, as every film offers its own magic. When considering Michael Curtiz’s 1942 romantic-adventure masterpiece, Casablanca—a film that is noteworthy enough to be amongst the “best ever” debate—what is it exactly that makes it so magical? The film was completed with a tight budget, but made a huge blockbuster success, and has never been imitated—though many have wished to try. It is a timeless picture; one that has defied the ages, and to this day still grips people in its entirety.
Maybe it is Casablanca’s intrigue—the film begins in an exotic setting, with the Moroccan marketplace full of culture and drama as the police presence heats up. We then arrive at Rick’s Café Américain—the heart of it all—where the film takes off, introducing the all-star cast. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a tough New Yorker, and owner of the luxurious nightclub amidst North Africa: a rendezvous for all types of characters the world has to offer. Rick is a classy man who lets us know where he stands right from the start—“I stick my neck out for nobody.” His neutrality allows his business to flourish, which he proves when Ugarte (Peter Lorre), one of Rick’s lowlife acquaintances, is taken by police in a shootout; Rick is hands-off, but able to obtain the two letters of transit that the plot revolves around—freedom to the United States.
Casablanca may be so great due to it’s surprise—as Rick’s bitterness and alcoholism are explained and emphasized when his love from the past Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) arrives to the Café. Ilsa instructs Sam—the pianist who keeps the place upbeat—to play the song of her and Rick’s long lost romance, “As Time Goes By”. Rick storms in—“I thought I told you to never play that song!” he shouts at Sam, then lays his eyes upon Ilsa—their unfinished business arises a new tension. Rick and Ilsa’s romance makes for some of the most engaging scenes in the film, possessing a cinematic chemistry that is through the roof. Their tenderness is chaotic—Ilsa pulls a gun on Rick at one point over the transit passes, before confessing her undying love that was masked through her marriage to a Czech Resistance Leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). The two reconcile near the end of the film, but their love is never fulfilled—Rick decides to breach his personal code, and “sticks his neck out” for Ilsa and Victor, allowing them to fly away together in a dramatic fashion. Rick shows his warm-heartedness that hides beneath his rough shell by allowing the two to escape and live with love (so it seems).
Above all, I believe Casablanca works the most due to its genuine, effortless character roles who share sharp, witty dialogue that everyone can relate to. The setting may be historical—an anti-Nazi propaganda, World War II thriller—but the presence of Rick, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), and Ilsa—to name a few—make for an eternal cast, with so many quotable lines that have remained through generations. The romantic plot—with sacrifices made by everyone in the end—is also a thematic storyline that everyone can buy into and understand. Casablanca’s ambiguity, with the growing suspicion of each character’s true intentions, really makes for an adventure and gripping tale. Portrait shots work to build each character, and the romance that manifests, accompanied by beautiful music, makes for a lovely film. The themes—intrigue, romance, sacrifice—all work together; apparently by accident, as the film was considered to be just another “A-List” production, but Casablanca’s magic has endured as one of the best, through its relatable, gritty characters and its intrinsic love found in a hopeless place. Rick and Renault’s dramatic ending makes for a classic line of, “round up the usual suspects” as they address the beginning of their “beautiful friendship”—a humorous finale.