Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Casablanca market

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Although director Michael Curtiz and the rest of the team involved with making Casablanca could not have known it at the time, this last line of dialogue from the film perfectly characterizes the love affair movie audiences have had with this quintessential World War II romance since it premiered on November 26, 1942, in New York’s Hollywood Theatre. During the war, audiences were hungry for news and stories about the war, and films like The Battle of Midway (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) mixed with documentaries like The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), frankly racist anti-Axis cartoons, and newsreels to keep the public informed and morale high; Casablanca was timed to appear about the same time as the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8 and the presumed liberation of Casablanca itself. While other wartime films have lived on, none have generated the ardor fans feel for this story of “three little people” caught in a love triangle. What makes this film so compelling that it lands regularly among the top romances of all time?

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Casablanca is much more than just a boy-meets-girl kind of romance, and to show that, I’m going to have to go all schoolmarm on you. The birthplace of most of the philosophies that guide Western societies is Greece, and the Greeks had four terms for the main types of love human beings experience: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Agape means love in a spiritual or humanitarian sense, wanting the good for another. Eros, the most common love in Hollywood romances, is the passionate love of longing and desire. Philia is more general and can extend to family, friends, or activities. Finally, storge is natural love, as by a parent for a child; importantly, Greek texts also use this term for situations people must tolerate, as in “loving” a dictator. Casablanca activates each of these forms of love, giving audiences a quadruple whammy of loves so powerful that the film has become the stuff of legend, with well-remembered quotes that distill the essence of these forms of love.

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Let’s start with eros, the love that’s launched a thousand movies. The central love affair of the film is between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), one so intensely romantic that it’s impossible to forget. Certainly, Rick’s passion for Ilsa is undying, but he keeps it under deep cover as he plays the morally indifferent, womanizing proprietor of Rick’s Café Americain, a far cry from the freedom fighter he had been when he met Ilsa in Paris weeks before the Nazis marched into that most romantic of cities. He has forbidden Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player he escaped Paris with on the day Ilsa abandoned him, from playing the couple’s song, “As Time Goes By.” When he hears it and races to scold Sam, he comes face to face with Ilsa, dewy-eyed with remembrance and longing for Rick. How many of us wonder at a fate that tears the thing we want most away from us (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”) and then returns it transformed into an instrument of torture (“If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”).

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It could be argued that the marriage between Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa is an example of eros as well, and for Victor, that is probably true, though the parental role he played in Ilsa’s life might mean that his began as a storge kind of love. For Ilsa, the relationship is most definitely a complicated example of storge. Not only is her love more that of a child than a grown woman—and, to be frank, gender norms often cast women as children in an unequal balance of relational power—but also one of accustoming herself to a man for whom she has no real romantic feelings, something particularly acute once Ilsa and Rick are reunited. Victor has been through great hardship at the hands of the Nazis, but his greatest tragedy is poignantly communicated when he tells Rick that he knows they both love the same woman: “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”

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Storge and philia are best exemplified by Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Casablanca’s French police captain. A functionary of the Vichy government, Renault is the ultimate survivor, making his way by having no convictions at all. Flattering Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Gestapo officer who has been pursuing Laszlo since his escape from a Nazi concentration camp, Renault says, “We are very honored tonight, Rick. Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation it has today.” Strasser says, “You repeat Third Reich as though you expected there to be others!” In a deft sleight of hand that reveals his storge regard for France’s conquerers, Renault replies, “Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.” Renault’s double meanings in dealing with Strasser are doubled by his philia love for Rick as a man of like mind, “the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” Beneath their nonchalant exteriors, both nurture the love that conquers all in Casablanca—the love of humanity, agape.

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Yes, the central love of Casablanca is agape after all. What sacrifice will the characters in this film not make for love of country, of humanity. It is this attachment to an ideal, to the thread that binds us all together at the most basic, spiritual level that resounds in generation after generation of movie fans. While there are incredible scenes of romantic love throughout Casablanca, led by Ingrid Bergman’s luminous presence and Humphrey Bogart’s commanding tenderness, the most soul-stirring scenes are explosions of agape, such as when Laszlo commands the combo at Rick’s to play “La Marseillaise” to counter the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in celebration of their own camaraderie. The two songs are perfectly counterpointed in Curtiz’s editing and Max Steiner’s scoring, a symbolic battle of ideals to justify the sacrifices the film’s audiences and their proxies on the screen were then making on and off the battlefield. That this scene still resonates relates only in part to what modern audiences know about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis—the love of freedom is a love that’s bred in the bone.

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Curtiz and the smart script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch continually counterpoint the soul-shriveled with the virtuous. The murdering, greedy fixer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), whose possession of the letters of transit that could see Ilsa and Victor safely out of Casablanca constitutes nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme, contrasts Rick’s motives in keeping the letters, a way to regain his lost love and not for sale to Victor at any price. Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick’s jilted lover, perverts romantic love by keeping company with the German officers.

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Yet both Rick and Yvonne let go of their bitterness when confronted with the power of agape. Yvonne joins in singing “La Marseillaise,” tears streaming down her face, and Rick utters his immortal speech as he sends Victor and Ilsa off to continue the fight in America: “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” His eros love resolved and transformed by these paternalistic words into storge love, he has set Ilsa free to make her marriage a real one and found freedom for himself to return to a life that can express its love of humanity and perhaps, one day, to find romantic love again. Casablanca’s rare and wonderful ending leaves us not longing for the lovers to unite, but uplifted by the universal love that it so beautifully affirms.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    6th/10/2014 to 1:45 pm

    “Let’s start with eros, the love that’s launched a thousand movies. The central love affair of the film is between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), one so intensely romantic that it’s impossible to forget.”

    Well Marilyn, needless to say as I fully expected you have ended this countdown in high style, with a very unique and enthralling approach to the central theme of CASABLANCA – one that has kept the film so wildly popular all these years, despite so much appeal with other of its noted attributes, including the celebrated one Frank mentions as a follow-up to your original contention during the review proper. In a countdown of some fantastic and superlative submissions yours certainly has made a rendezvous with them in the spirit of this glorious project’s coda. I do love the “eros” exploration quite a bit, and salute you with the same vigor as those singing the French national anthem in the cafe did.

    And here’s to Max Steiner, the iconic cast, the utter definition of a screenplay, and some of the greatest scenes ever filmed by an American director. Somehow we all knew this film would end up Number 1, right?

  • Cool Bev spoke:
    9th/10/2014 to 7:52 am

    Funny. In Travels in Hyper Reality, Umberto Eco talks about how Casablanca covers ALL the archetypes, all the genres, and that’s how it got to be a cult movie. It also covers all the types of love, I guess.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/10/2014 to 10:51 am

    I’d hardly call it a cult movie, but I agree that it covers pretty much all the archetypes and quite a few genres.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    12th/10/2014 to 9:20 pm

    I watch this film as much for the supporting players as the leads – there may never be another film that gives so many wonderful lines to minor or throw-away characters, it’s a like a non-stop litany of sharp, or funny, and lots of times, both kinds of dialog in the same sentence. But few films also had such a crackerjack cast of actors to pull it off.

    My fave is the the verbal fencing between Rick and Louis – it’s like a friendly game of checkers, and spliced in between the same lines is the chess match between Rick and Strasser, and to a lesser degree, Rick’s real, final game between himself and Ilsa and Victor. For much of the whole movie. You almost have to watch to find out who wins every game until the very last moment, a pretty damned good bit of writing.

    Visually, it set a very high bar, with lots of varied lighting and movement. It’s a treat to look at.

    Then there is Claude Rains – supreme. Nothing more need be said.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/10/2014 to 3:14 pm

    Van – The script is just about perfect, lavishing attention on minor characters to build a very three-dimensional world. My favorite of the smaller parts is Peter Lorre’s, a perfect miniature performance of a narcissistic coward. I wish he hadn’t be “a suicide or shot while trying to escape, we haven’t decided which.”

  • Vanwall spoke:
    13th/10/2014 to 8:44 pm

    Oh, agreed, Lorre was brilliantly sycophantic and bombastic at the same time. A lot of the air was let out of the tension factor when he was arrested. The significance of poor Marcel Dalio should not be overlooked, as well – a French superstar reduced to a croupier, and for the second time.

    Romance took a hit IRL for him as well, Madeleine LeBeau – Yvonne – left him during the filming, the poor guy. He popped up in “The Happy Time”, and when I first saw it, his voice said “The Croupier’ in my young head.

    For a film about romance, it had a lot of tragedy in the making for so many of the expats, but their characters were all so fleshed out in quick strokes, and they seemed to inhabit them so well, you’d never know it.

  • Frank Gibbons spoke:
    1st/05/2016 to 10:35 pm

    “The script is just about perfect, lavishing attention on minor characters to build a very three-dimensional world.”

    What a keen insight! Yes, this “three-dimensional world” is what makes “Casablanca” so rewarding and so much fun to watch.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/05/2016 to 8:57 am

    The power of Casablanca continues to build with repeated watchings, because we are watching life (if heightened). Thanks for commenting, Frank.

  • Lesley spoke:
    29th/08/2016 to 2:51 pm

    Your thesis is fascinating as well as spot-on. TCM showed it again recently and I was marveling at the Marseilles sequence, how profoundly stirring it is every time I see this movie that I must have seen 40 or more times—and you nailed it. Was just thinking the other day about films like Casablanca that have been written about so exhaustively that it’s really tough to find a new perspective, but you found a fresh approach.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/08/2016 to 3:59 pm

    Thanks, Lesley. I set myself a challenge to see if I could understand why this film is such a classic. Of course, all the elements that comprise it are first-rate, from the cast to the script and cinematography. But it seemed to me there was something very archetypal going on, and I set out to find out what it was. This was my conclusion. Glad you agree.

  • Lesley spoke:
    29th/08/2016 to 4:09 pm

    What I love about your thesis is that once you pointed it out, it seems blindingly obvious—it’s very clearly laid out all over the place (though given the chaotic development of the script I don’t imagine it was intentional, but no matter), and yet has somehow gone unseen. This is exactly what interests me. Because while the script, cast, direction, etc etc can and will be lauded until the end of time, there is this underlying thing that can’t quite be accounted for even when we enumerate its many strengths. But I think this gets at the oceanic pull of the movie, why it’s so emotionally rich and powerful. Anyway, great work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/08/2016 to 4:42 pm

    And thanks for getting this review the attention I hoped it would generate when I first posted it. Not many people were interested in a “rehash” of an old film, and it was disappointing. You’ve given it new life, and I thank you.

  • john spoke:
    16th/10/2016 to 10:50 pm

    Two different “Ship of Fools” go on their merry way. “Shanghai Gesture” helmed by Dalio skins the protagonists alive while “Casablanca”‘ also piloted by Dalio leaves their shells intact.
    Il faut toujours se méfier des diégèses décorticables!
    De la part d’un croulant New Yorkais de 83 ans.

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