Casablanca – a movie list challenge #2

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Casablanca

Rank: 2
List Appearances: 10/10
Average Rank: 20
Highest Rank: 4, on Metacritic‘s Best Movies of All Time
Total Final Score: 15750

In 1940, two playwrights wrote a play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, over a year before the United States would enter the war effort of World War II; it was unproduced and the skeleton of one of the biggest classics of all time, Casablanca. In December 1941, Pearl Harbor happened, and less than a month later, Warner Bros bought the rights to the unproduced play. Production began in May 1942, and initial release of the film landed in November 1942. It is one of the rare movies that was shot in sequence, primarily due to an unfinished script.

Casablanca would win three of the major awards the next year, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay. Its star, Humphrey Bogart, was nominated for Best Actor, as well as Claude Rains, as the police chief, for supporting actor. Inexplicably, Ingrid Bergman received no nomination for her Ilsa, but she sets the emotional tone of the whole movie. She is its heart.

Casablanca is the perfect example of a Hollywood movie and benefited greatly to perfect timing. Multiple endings were discussed, and it was a stroke of luck that they decided to go with the iconic finale. Any change made to the film would have discredited its important message. Roger Ebert once said about Casablanca, “the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.” I could not agree more.

I have watched Casablanca at least a dozen times. My grandmother loved it for the romance, but even as a child, I thought that was secondary to the main story. It’s a war film first and foremost. There is no grand battlefields, just words between men who think they are doing what they can to either stay alive or fight the oppression. The tone of the movie is both cynical and hopeful. Rick (Bogart), ever the cynic, is always saying that he will stick his neck out for no man but also has a history of supporting lost causes. His past is shrouded in mystery, but there are enough hints at him through his character and the way he interacts with his patrons.

Rick is the saloon owner in Casablanca, Morocco. The bustling city is a bridging point from occupied territory to Lisbon and then to America. Germans and French occupy the city, and tensions are often high. People land here to gain passage to Lisbon, through whatever needs, from selling diamonds to bribing officials. In the opening scene, the camera stops at tables to hear them barter their lives, gamble, and drink. Rick is firmly established as neutral, showing no allegiance to any cause. When one of his patrons begs for assistance as he runs from the police, he holds the man to allow the police time to capture him.

The first 25 minutes of the movie establish the setting, the history, Rick, and lays out the initial set pieces, including two travel documents which would be worth tens of thousands and earmarked for Victor Laszlo, the vocal member of the French Resistance. It is at this point that Ilsa (Bergman) enters, with Victor at her side. Her appearance shows a new side of Rick. His emotional distance and natural cynicism is replaced with anger and disbelief (“of all the gin joints”). There is a history between them, but neither are willing to acknowledge it fully. It opens old wounds and old love. Bergman delivers her lines coolly but her eyes and posture show turmoil. She still loves Rick, after all these years, and she despises her decision to leave him, vowing to never leave him again.

Sitting down to watch the movie again, I was surprised to see my own emotions building when Ilsa walks into the saloon and when she talks to Sam (the entertainer), but that peaked as Rick cast his first gaze on her. It’s easy to understand his pain, and it’s easy to understand hers. But the most powerful scene to me in the movie happens 3/4ths of the way through. Victor exits Rick’s office after begging him to give him the documents and three German soldiers are singing their national anthem. The moment stings Victor. He enters the crowd and bellows out the words of the French national anthem. For a moment, both German and French songs can be heard, but the French outnumber the Germans and their singing soon overpowers. Tears flood the eyes of the French as they become emboldened to show their patriotism. The song ends and there are cheers all around, “Viva France’!”

The movie is ultimately about sacrifice and patriotism. Rick was right, in the end, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” It cannot be easy to be faced with a decision for love or for country, but in the end, Rick does the right thing. And the writers did the right thing letting her go.

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