CASABLANCA— One of the greatest films ever made. This film placed on numerous lists of film – top 5 of AFI’s 100 Films and the top most quotes ever listed also on AFI’s quote list. The film scored Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay in 1942. Yet the manner in which the film was made didn’t ensure it to be the classic that it would become.
The film started off as a stage play called Everyone Comes To Rick’s written by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison but was never produced. It was spotted by Warner Brothers story editor Irene Diamond and she convinced Hal B. Wallis to buy the rights to the story. Twin screenwriters at Warner Brothers at the time, Julius and Philip G. Epstein, had begun the writing of the screenplay but were then enlisted to submit their writing expertise to World War II propaganda films. They soon returned after months away AFTER Howard Koch, another studio writer, continued the work on the screenplay. Upon their arrival back, they picked up writing duties yet again on the screenplay which would end up being the final story of CASABLANCA.
This is just to give you an idea of what went into preparing one of the greatest classics of modern cinema and it’s journey to the screen. CASABLANCA wasn’t nurtured to be a shining jewel in the crown of Warner Brothers – far from it. It was expected to be pumped out like the other 50 or so films released that year from any of the other studios existing at the time. The studios were just hoping to break even or at least make a decent profit and continue the run for the next year. The ironic brilliance of Casablanca against this backdrop make this an even greater underdog story.
It’s World War II and the scene takes place in Casablanca. The story takes place in a very popular café /bar/casino called Rick’s Café Americain. This is a stopgap for the brave souls that are hoping for passage to the unoccupied USA and away from the grasp of the German takeover of Europe and Africa where Casablanca is situated. Rick played by veteran actor Humphrey Bogart runs the café and no German sympathizer, stating repeatedly that he only watches out for himself and no one else. Ugarte played by the great Peter Lorre tells Rick that he has the holy grail of all items in his possession which are letters of transit that were taken from two murdered German couriers. He entrusts them to Rick then is taken into custody and shot. Add into this mix a German detachment led by a Colonel Strauser who has been dispatched purposely to Casablanca to stop a resistance fighter and his wife before they are able to travel to the US to continue his work , a French chief of police who is perhaps the most corrupt one in the lot Louis Renault (the great Claude Rains), and various other crooks and characters in this melange. The rumour has gone out that Rick may have these letters of transit which leads Victor Lazlo, the aforementioned resistance leader and his wife, Ilsa Lund, to go to Rick’s café to get these papers to travel unfettered to the Americas. Throw into the mix the fact that Rick was also in love with Ilsa in the past and had been left waiting at the train station by her years before which adds beautifully to Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the broken man that is hiding a lot more than many see.
As confusing as the story sounds, it took the foresight of producer Hal Wallis to bring this classic to the screen and shape it into a story that was coherent and usable. Enter the Dragon – Michael Curtiz. Michael Curtiz was the director assigned to the project and was arguably the greatest director of the era with THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), THE SEA HAWK (1940), and WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954). Arguably the greatest actors of their time – Claude Rains, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid and Sydney Greenstreet were signed on to the film. A music composer extraordinaire at the time was also enlisted in the form of Max Steiner who wrote the score for GONE WITH THE WIND.
Ok, ok, enough about the players in this gorgeous chocolate truffle of a classic and on to the film itself. This is where both the writing and directing came into a symbiosis to achieve the brilliance of the film. Michael Curtiz’s close attention to not just having the actor’s read their lines but the flow of the camera and it’s movements. Camera’s are set on dollies with cranks and screws and levels but Curtiz made you believe that the camera flowed on water while following their characters through their movements and scenes. Watch every scene that takes place in the café itself and how there is no two shots taking place but always three or four or five shots as a scene flows from one end to another with a multitude of characters entering and exiting the shot. A perfect example of this is when Paul Henreid’s, Viktor Lazlo is first introduced entering the café to approach Rick and the capturing and eventual killing of Ugarte. Characters and actions that flow with each other perfectly. The lighting also allows us a mood and fill in, with the brightness of the café shots all done with amped up wattage to ensure you are paying attention to the story line and the wit of the script writing. Is it any wonder that CASABLANCA was chosen as one of the top quotable films of all time by AFI? Back to the mood as I change the mood…… the flashback sequences where Rick and Ilsa are in Paris and profess their love for one another, and the film noirish aspect of the lighting here along with Rick’s tortured retelling of the tale in his mind and the darkness of the lighting punctuated with an occasional lighting flash or searchlight in the background. This is what you call brilliance in filmmaking.
The acting in this film was perfect creating a cross-referencing of acting styles that worked perfectly in a grand symphony. Humphrey Bogart had always in the past played the villain (THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)) yet Michael Curtiz insisted that Bogart would be the man for the role and stuck to his guns. Ingrid Bergman had only made films in Sweden prior to this but both Curtiz and Wallis agreed that she would be perfect and that the actress would be a foreigner and not American as originally planned. Let’s stop here for a moment and take into account that not only was Rick’s Café Americain a melting pot of different cultures and races but so were the actors hired for the film. Again, a masterstroke in it’s subtly that ensured that CASABLANCA would end up eclipsing any other film of it’s time for relevance and longevity.
So with a fantastic meal that is CASABLANCA, we get around to the deep dish part of the menu and this is it. The film wasn’t completed but instead had to be written and rewritten on a daily basis frustrating the cast especially and the crew. It’s a miracle that the story held together as well as it did and it shows in the brilliance of it’s written word. Bogart would retreat back to his trailer in frustration on a daily basis. Paul Henreid who played the role of Viktor Lazlo considered the cast to be subpar holding the most derision for Humphrey Bogart saying that he was a horrible actor. Ingrid Bergman wasn’t enamored of Paul Henreid and years later called him a “prima donna”. Bogart was 5’8″ yet Bergman was taller than he, enough so that Michael Curtiz asked that he stand on boxes and sit on pillows to give him a more imposing stature. Filmed on location? Not likely. All of the scenes were shot in the studios at Burbank, California not Paris nor Casablanca and the airport hangar scene was also shot on the sound stage there. The actual plane itself? Was it Wallis’s private plane or perhaps Bogarts? Not likely. It was a cardboard cutout filmed in the distance and to give it proper size proportion, the mechanics milling about the plane were dwarves specially hired for the sequence. This seem to be a stock trick that was used quite frequently in films such as KING KONG (1933) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), as often as stock footage was used from film to film. None of this stock footage was used in CASABLANCA.
CASABLANCA is and will always will be one of this writer’s favorite films ever. Only a few other films can have me glued to the TV screen when they are shown when I’m channel-flipping, no matter how often I’ve seen them. ROCKY (1976), THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) are the others. CASABLANCA holds me because each and every time I watch the film, no matter which part I tune in to, there are always new highlights to behold, whether it be an actor’s quirk, a background detail or a lighting effect to be marveled. But above all these is the beautiful love stories that proliferate throughout the film for each of the characters. Of course the ill-fated one between Rick and Ilsa but also that of Captain Renault and Rick, Sam and Rick, the waiters and bartenders also with Rick along with the random addition of the couple that was trying to escape Casablanca and the wife pleading with Rick to help her and her husband escape to the US from the hopelessness of German occupied Europe. A movie of love speaking of love that appeals on evey level. A classic for the ages.