Somewhere along the way, a supposedly unremarkable studio B picture, just another wartime romance, turned into an enduring, Oscar-winning classic, the most beloved and oft-quoted picture of its era.
It shouldn’t have been this way. Casablanca’s script, based on an unproduced play, had more hands in it than a cookie jar. They didn’t know how the movie would end almost until the moment they shot the ending. To top it off, the film had a Hungarian director whose accent often led to confusion on the set, such as the time he asked for a puddle on the set and they brought him a poodle.
Whatever alchemy was working on the Warners lot during the filming, what emerged from that chaos deserved every ounce of praise that has been lavished upon it. While so many films that were its contemporaries seemed creaky and dated to 21st Century audiences, there is something about Casablanca that cuts across the decades and appeals anew to each generation of moviegoers.
As all but the comatose among you probably know, the story revolves around the plight of European refugees in the French Moroccan town of Casablanca. An outwardly cynical expatriate American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns a bar that also serves as a marketplace for those seeking to buy, beg or steal an exit visa to neutral Lisbon and then on to the United States. A German courier has been killed and two “letters of transit” stolen. These documents would give the bearers almost total freedom to travel and, as a result, are worth a small fortune on Casablanca’s black market. They turn up in the possession of Senor Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who realizes that the papers are a little too hot to hang onto. He prevails upon Rick to hide the letters until he completes the sale. However, Ugarte is arrested before his customers arrive and that is the last anyone sees of him. (“We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”)
Ugarte’s customers arrive later that evening. They are Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a legendary Czech resistance leader, recently escaped from a concentration camp, and his wife.
The cagey and cheerfully corrupt commander of the local police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), also has an important visitor, Major Strasser of the Third Reich (Conrad Veidt). Strasser is there to make sure that Laszlo never leaves Casablanca. He’d love to just scoop Laszlo up and deposit him back in a concentration camp but Casablanca is in French Morocco, governed by the officially “neutral” Vichy government, so Strasser must depend upon Renault to keep Laszlo from escaping.
Thus Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit in Rick’s possession for him and his wife. There are two complicating factors. First, giving Laszlo the letters would just be asking for trouble and, as Rick tells everyone, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Second, Laszlo’s wife just happens to be Ilsa (Bergman), the woman that Rick loved in Paris and who apparently deserted him on the day the Paris fell to the Nazis. (“I remember every detail. You wore blue. The Germans wore gray.”)
What emerges is an epic romantic tale told within the confines of a soundstage. Set against the last days of official American “neutrality”, Casablanca ultimately concerns itself with issues of personal courage and setting aside one’s own wants for the greater good. It is, in a way, the most effective “propoganda” film of the war years, wrapping its message around characters who are allowed to be human and flawed before their nobility emerges. It is this attention to the human details that allowed this wartime potboiler to achieve immortality.