Friday, June 26, 2009

1942: Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

Released: November 26, 1942 (premiere)

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison; Cinematography: Arthur Edeson; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Hal B. Wallis

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Conrad Veidt (Major Heinrich Strasser), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeleine LeBeau (Yvonne), Joy Page (Annina Brandel), S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), Curt Bois (Pickpocket), John Qualen (Berger), Leonid Kinskey (Sasha)

Don't tell me you're surprised by the choice? For someone like me, who is completely enamored with classic Hollywood, there was never any doubt. So, here is yet another entry in the “what can I possibly add to the volumes already written on this film?” category. The obvious answer is not a whole lot, at least in terms of scholarly film analysis and interpretation. All I intend to do in making Casablanca my runaway selection as the best of 1942 is recount my own personal experiences with this classic and why it has remained possibly the most versatile film in my viewing activity.

By versatility, I am referring to the fact that this is a movie that I can watch at any time, regardless of my mood. It doesn’t matter whether I am happy or sad, depressed or in high spirits, tired or wide awake. It can cheer you up, it can calm you down. It can make you smile or be quite touching. I know firsthand how comforting it can be, as I can still vividly remember putting it on the first night I returned from the hospital after a very scary episode of what I would ultimately discover was cancer. Casablanca is like a safety net of sorts for me and thus will always have a significant place in my life.

The background on the conception and production of the film is legendary and is probably well known by most readers. Still, it is always amusing to remember that this film that has become so iconic was originally viewed as just another movie. There are legends about key roles being offered and refused – George Raft as Rick, the even more shocking possibility of Ronald Reagan in the lead, the push for William Wyler to direct. Judge for yourself the veracity of such claims, but true or not they certainly reinforce the recognition that producer Hal Wallis ultimately found the perfect combination of actors and director. In Michael Curtiz he had a man perfectly suited to oversee the studio setting in which nearly all of the scenes were shot. And with a cast that resembled representatives at the soon-to-be-established United Nations – according to that fount of knowledge and sometimes accurate resource Wikipedia, only three credited actors were Americans – Wallis and Curtiz were able to create an atmosphere in which each performance appeared to one-up the other.

Leaving the appeal of the story aside, the key characteristic of the film that has always stuck out to me is the number of truly great performances that are on display in this film. This applies to roles of all sizes, be it the top-billed or the supporting cast. Humphrey Bogart is the epitome of cool as Rick Blaine, the expatriate American who runs the popular café. He does his best to make it clear that his number one priority in life is looking out for himself, and this is articulated by both words and physical nonchalance. Ingrid Bergman is irresistible as Rick’s love interest Ilsa, who reunites with him in Casablanca and completely wrecks the life that Rick has crafted for himself. As Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo, Paul Henreid is determined and fully committed to the cause of France. While maybe not as impressive as other performances, Sidney Greenstreet is sufficiently immoral as Signor Ferrari, the club operator and self-styled rackets boss. Claude Rains is the French Captain working with the Nazis, but Rains makes the Captain so likable that such an indiscretion is overlooked. The interaction between Rick and Captain Renault is unendingly witty. They appear to be at the same time adversaries and the best of friends. Then there is Peter Lorre playing the excitable knockaround guy Ugarte, a criminal who is both sleazy and sweet-talking. In his very limited time in the film, Lorre very well may be the most entertaining. Whenever I think of Lorre I always think of him as Ugarte telling Rick that “...just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”

These central performances are routinely celebrated, and rightfully so. But the lesser roles are what really add subtle flourishes that make the city of Casablanca feel alive. In this case I am thinking of characters like Carl, the waiter at Rick’s. While nearly everyone else in Casablanca views the city as something of a purgatory on the way to freedom, Carl seems to be always cheerful. His interaction with various characters is amusing, with his sarcasm coming through with biting one-liners. Just witness his declaration that he decided on his own to give Major Strasser the best table, “knowing he was German and that he would take it anyway.” There is Sasha, the bartender who woos the women who come into the club. It’s impossible not to smile when he tells a spurned lover or Rick’s, “Yvonne, I love you, but he pays me.” Dooley Wilson, Rick’s most loyal friend and employee, is delightful. Such minor characters, although not playing substantial roles in the story, feel fully developed. They are not just included to take up space on the screen, but instead enhance the movie.

The number of enduring scenes and quotable dialogue are innumerable. Who can forget the dueling national anthems, with the passionate singing from the French patrons at Rick’s? Or how about Captain Renault leading his officers into the café and feigning indignation as he tells Rick, “I am shocked… shocked, to find that gambling is going on here!” While I could go on for days citing my favorite moments and exchanges, I won’t indulge myself. But I do think that naming such diverse scenes as being so memorable speaks to why this movie is so appealing to me and so many others. I already mentioned how I can put this movie on at any time and be drawn into the story. This is because there are so many different things to concentrate on. It can be viewed as a good ol’ fashioned love story, and may well be the best of its kind. You can watch it as a war movie, with a story documenting Nazi resistance. There are many moments of comedy, such as the above raid by Renault or scenes involving Sasha and Carl. Versatile is the word I keep coming back to.

I’ll close things with another fond memory I have of watching the film, this time in a group setting. I am a young guy, so it was only a few years ago that I was sitting in a college classroom for a “History Through Film” course. Casablanca was one of the films selected to be shown, which was great for me as it was already one of my personal favorites and I had seen it many times. Sadly, some folks in the class had not already seen it or had only a vague knowledge of the film. What I remember about that day is that after running a bit long with the lecture, the professor realized that the movie was not going to be done by the end of class. So as we neared the normal ending time, he told the class that if someone needed to leave that they could go ahead but anyone who wanted to stay and finish the film was more than welcome. Not a single person left. It just underlines what a timeless film this is.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1942:
There was never any doubt about what the choice was for this year. Still, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy To Be or Not to Be is so good that I almost feel guilty about the fact that it doesn’t somehow make the countdown and get a full review of its own. It is nearly as good as Trouble in Paradise, which I consider to be Lubitsch’s greatest film. This was also a year that fell within the stretch of time in which Preston Sturges was white hot. Palm Beach Story is another outstanding comedy written and directed by Sturges. While I don’t think it is Sturges’ best film, the “weenie king” scene is as clever as comedy writing gets. The Jacques Tourneur-Val Lewton combination starts off strong with Cat People – that scene in the swimming pool is still chilling! The Magnificent Ambersons is an interesting movie to evaluate, as there are two decidedly opposite camps. One group considers it to be Welles’ true masterpiece and the other finds it completely uninspiring. I’m somewhere in the middle – as the studio cut it and released it, it never manages to reach the heights of Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil for me, but it’s still an interesting story. One can only wonder how Welles himself envisioned the film to be. And finally, while I don’t feel that Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy is as good a film as the others mentioned, James Cagney’s performance is incredible and deserves to be mentioned. The man was just so multitalented.


  1. Dave! A great review – So many great scenes, the battling national anthems, the amazing dialogue – how “shocked” Renault was to find gambling going on, Rick coming to Casablanca for the waters and how he must have been misinformed. Of course, the performances, the cynical Humphrey Bogart at his best! Bergman so beautiful and enticing, Claude Rains as Renault with is fantastic, Greenstreet and the best screen weasel of all time, Peter Lorre And not to be forgotten Dooley Wilson as Sam and that great song! This film ranks as one of my all time favorites. Some films you have to be in the mood, but as you say, “Casablanca” is one of those films you can always be in the mood for.

    #1 Casablanca

    And then the best of the rest: “To Be or Not to Be”, “Woman of the Year”, “Cat People”, “The Palm Beach Story”, “The Talk of the Town” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and a film that may not be quite in the same league but a personal favorite “Pride of the Yankees”

  2. A great and deliriously enthusiastic review of one of those timeless films that one never grows tired of. Needless to say, when the smoke clears in 1942, one must not deny this film of its pre-eminence. It is the greatest film of 1942, despite a strong bid of Welles's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and a host of others.

    My #1 Film of 1942:

    Casablanca (Curtiz)


    The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
    Kings Row (Wood)
    Ossessione (Visconti; Italy)
    Thunder Rock (Boulting; UK)
    Bambi (Hand-Disney)
    Cat People (Tourneur)
    Listen to Britain (Jennings; UK)
    To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch)
    The Pride of the Yankees (Wood)

    I have no issue at all with some of the runners-up that John named (and agree with a few) and was generous to name PRIDE OF THE YANKEES among their lot, as I'm a life-long Yankee fan. But it has a strong strain of sugar, almost oppressively so. But it's very well-acted and mounted.

  3. A Yankee fan! you're a good man Sam. I agree about the strong strain of sugar in "Pride of the Yankees" but it is one of those films that as a life-long Yankee fan, life yourself, I always enjoy.

    "Obssessione" is a film I would love to get hold of, having read so much about it.

  4. John:

    Regarding the Visconti film, we can remedy that easy enough!

    My e mail address is:

  5. This must have been in a period when the Oscar year didn't match the calendar year very closely, since the Academy deems Casablanca the best film of 1943, and Mrs. Miniver the best of 1942. Well, it wouldn't have won either year with me. It's a good film and still one of the most quotable ever, I've never really understood why people elevate it so highly. Maybe I'm just showing the limits of my romantic consciousness. Meanwhile, for 1942 I'm in the Ambersons camp. Even mutilated, it has all the virtues of Welles's technique and sensibility unburdened by his narcissism, and Tim Holt shows what Welles could do with actors apart from himself. Cat People would be my runner up.

  6. Great stuff guys. Just want to also reiterate how much I love "To Be or Not to Be." I've been on a real Lubitsch kick lately, so watching this one again for the countdown was great.

    Samuel - Casablanca was premiered in December '42, but then released nationally in the United States in January '43. For me personally, Casablanca would have won Best Picture honors in any year except for maybe 5-6 over the course of film history. Just a movie I love and obviously have a strong personal attachment to. Like I said, I like "The Magnificent Ambersons" but I do think it feels a bit rushed or like something is missing from it. I understand the reasons for this, but I can't help feeling at times like there are _vital_ parts missing.

  7. Count me in the Casablanca Camp. As you said, Dave, it's a movie that requires no particular mood or mind set. It's always good. Like you and many others, I'd choose "Casablanca" as the best for '42.

    "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a worthy honorable mention. Admittedly, I'm not a fan of the musical, with rare exception, and so I postponed watching YDD for a long while. When I finally did, I came away deeply impressed with the movie, mostly with Cagney's performance. Huston's performance is also good.

    Everyone else has named other excellent '42 choices. "This Gun for Hire," while not a contender for best film, is a personal favorite worth mentioning.

    Another excellent post followed by great comments!

  8. I'm another one who loves 'Casablanca' and would choose it as the best - and loved your evocative account of the film, Dave. About a year ago I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, which was a memorable experience - I'd love to see more old movies as they were made to be seen.

    I also like 'Mrs Miniver' from 1942 - an amazing scene with an injured German airman cornered in Greer Garson's kitchen. (I see we are getting on to war movies, with this and 'Casablanca', though interesting that neither of them is actually focusing on the frontline.) I also really like a couple of Bette Davis melodramas from that year, 'Now Voyager' and 'In This Our Life' - both mad plots but amazing performances - plus the comedy 'The Man Who Came to Dinner', where she only has a small part, which is just so witty.

    I love Cagney's performance in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' but am always slightly tempted to skip the opening scenes tracing Cohan's childhood. And what about 'The Talk of the Town'? All in all, another great year, and once again there are a lot of great movies other people have named which I haven't seen yet... Judy

  9. Your review of the movie is testament enough of how much you love the movie. It happens to be one of my favourites as well. There's everything that one could ask for - stellar performances, great screen chemistry between the leads, unforgettable dialogues, and a wonderful script.

    Rick is quintessential Humphrey Bogart - the cynicism, the existentialist detachment, the wry humour, and a sentimental heart concealed underneath the cold exterior. Ingrid Bergmen's Ilsa could easily be one of the most beautiful screen ladies ever - someone you just can't avoid but fall in love with. The interplay of light and shadows, too, have been magnificently used to create a dark and unforgiving world where surviving is all that matters.

    In fact, given the combination of various factors ranging from the cynical lead and fatalism to the the B/W photography, the movie does fall within the purview of film noirs, though not many like to call Casablanca one.

    "Here's looking at you kid..."

  10. CagneyFan and Judy - I agree with your sentiments on Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney's performance certainly is what carries that film for me.

    Judy - I hesitated to include Mrs. Miniver because it has been so long since I saw it, that I need to just go back and revisit it again before I pass judgment on it. You're point about the war movies just starting at this point in 1942, whereas the war had already been raging for a few years, is interesting. I have no idea why the delay, but it's interesting to consider.

    Shubhajit - Good point about the noir elements. I don't think I'd quite classify it as noir either, but you're spot on that a lot of the elements used to identify a film noir are apparent in Casablanca.

  11. Casablanca is one of my top two films of all time. Claude Rains' greatest performance.

  12. I can get on board with this pick, definitely.

    As for The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio cut is definitely a travesty but I have kind of an unusual perspective on the film. I find the decline of the movie as a movie reflects the onscreen decline of the family in compelling if unintended ways:

  13. Good to see another that can't resist the temptation of Casablanca! :-)

    The reason that I always think about the studio cut travesty when I watch Ambersons is that about midway through it I think "My God, this really is going to outdo Citizen Kane"... but then it doesn't for me. That's when it becomes obvious to me that there was very likely some great stuff cut out in that second half and makes me just cross my fingers for a miracle find.

  14. the name of this movie is one of the most important in the history, It is so common to many people, I feel so happy with this kind of movie!!

  15. I'm not a fan of the musical, with rare exception, and so I postponed watching YDD for a long while.