Among the many happy accidents that make Casablanca what it is, perhaps the most ironic is this: Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t meet his ultimate leading lady, Lauren Bacall, until the following year, on the set of Casablanca knockoff To Have and Have Not.
As a romantic lead, Bogie is so inseparably associated with his real-life wife Bacall that it seems paradoxical that his most iconic romantic role would be opposite anyone else. Yet that’s precisely the point. Bogie and Bacall go together; that’s part of what makes To Have and Have Not work, in its own way. And that’s precisely why, in Casablanca, of all the women in all the world who might walk into this one gin joint in this one town, the one woman it must not be is Betty Bacall.
It is Ingrid Bergman, and her presence gives Casablanca a tension lacking in To Have and Have Not. Casablanca may be the world’s favorite Hollywood romance, but it’s all the more romantic because it doesn’t assume that love conquers all, doesn’t exalt romance above all other considerations. Circumstances, the greater good, even the bonds of matrimony itself may stand between a particular man and a particular woman, and love may have to prove itself precisely in denying itself.
Though often ranked alongside Citizen Kane as the pinnacle of classic Hollywood, the ultimate studio film as Kane is the ultimate Hollywood auteur film, Casablanca was not a prestige picture, was not thought of at the time as great art. Though everyone involved was very talented, the film’s extraordinary impact cannot be attributed to the guiding vision of any one artist. (Critic Andrew Sarris calls Casablanca “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory.”)
Based on an unproduced play — Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s Everybody Comes to Rick’s — the movie was cranked out in little more than a week just like fifty other Warner Brothers pictures that year, shot almost entirely on studio sets, with a budget of under a million dollars (a sizable sum in those days, though the studio shelled out significantly more for the likes of They Died with Their Boots On and Sergeant York).
Six different writers worked on the script, which remained in flux throughout shooting. The score, by composer Max Steiner, showcases a song Steiner hated (“As Time Goes By”) and would have replaced with a new composition, had it not been for another happy accident: The scenes of Dooley Wilson playing the signature song couldn’t be reshot, because Bergman had cut her hair for her next film, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The result of this somewhat haphazard collaboration is a breathtaking creative synergy, a perfect storm in which everything happened to come together with magical rightness. The sparkling script balances wittily cynical dialogue, weepy sentimentalism and clear-eyed idealism. The characters that matter are credibly, even seriously flawed, yet remain deeply sympathetic and open to redemption. The tightly crafted plot is at once intricate and elegant, at turns rollicking and stirring, and the snappy storytelling doesn’t come at the expense of rich, moody atmosphere. The top-notch cast are at the top of their games, and the timeless score accents a classic wartime melodrama that hasn’t lost a thing as time goes by.
Bogart has such a strong screen persona — tough-minded, jaded, a flawed protagonist with tarnished principles — that it’s tempting to see Rick Blaine as a variation on the characters Bogie plays in, e.g., Key Largo or To Have and Have Not. So he is — yet Rick, a smart, capable, jaded American opportunist in 1940 French Morocco whose gruffly cynical exterior belies a wary idealism and wounded heart, is arguably the most complex and conflicted of the lot.
Bergman is luminous as Ilsa, who arrives in Casablanca with resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) but clearly has a history with Rick. Cynicism and self-interest contend with idealism and self-sacrifice as Rick and Ilsa’s past weighs against the world’s future.
For a 1940s Hollywood love-triangle romance, Casablanca is surprisingly ambiguous and enigmatic. Though we are meant to identify with Rick as the protagonist, Rick’s rival Lazlo is so heroic and noble that even Rick makes no effort to conceal his admiration. What’s more, Lazlo has the prior — and ultimate — claim to Ilsa. Yet does Ilsa love him, or Rick, or perhaps both? At the end of the film, when Rick tells Lazlo about “letting” Ilsa “pretend” to still be in love with him, who has really been “pretending,” Ilsa or Rick? Is Rick himself entirely sure? Not to put too fine a point on it, how far did this “pretense” (or pretended pretense) go?
Though the answers to these questions matter, they are perhaps not what matters most. What matters most is who is on the plane in the end and who is not, and why.
The indeterminacy of the ending has has been exaggerated by stories suggesting that the filmmakers were uncertain which of the two men Ilsa would wind up with. These are apparently myths; the Production Code of the day would not have allowed an ending fundamentally different from what the film gives us. What was debated was how to engineer the bittersweet ending in a dramatically and emotionally satisfying way.
The problems of three little people may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but they can sure make for a great film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.