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Play it again, Sam: rewatching Casablanca at 80

A sweet, smart and stylish noir drama playing out a tale of doomed love and self-sacrifice, underscored with political points, a ton of wit, and classic one-liners galore. Along with its romanticism, cynicism and timeless soundtrack, one of the many interesting things about Casablanca is its epic durability, which is why it’s come to be regarded as probably the quintessential film of the 1940s, and one of the most famous feel-good movies of the 20th century. But is it really THAT good? Let’s take a ride…

You must acknowledge this, for all its legendary status Casablanca has never been one of my favourite films. In fact, I have no memory of willingly sitting down to watch it from start to finish until just a few years ago.

Having said that, it’s become one of a number of titles — think Rebecca, think Gaslight, think… well, anything that’s a black and white one-word title from the 1940s, that potentially I could be talked into watching again — and again — if only there were enough hours in the day, right?

The latest welcome excuse to try is that 2023 marks Casablanca’s 80th anniversary, and what’s remarkable is that for all its classic status, Hollywood couldn’t make Casablanca today. Like Brief Encounter, it’s too old-fashioned and quaint. Its actors sing national anthems with pride. Its heroes put a cause before their own happiness — instead believing that their happiness is the highest cause. There are no nude scenes. No F-words. Face it, this movie is terribly dated. 

And yet it’s one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history. 

For the handful of people who haven’t seen it, the plot, set in French Morocco during World War II, is a love triangle involving embittered saloon keeper Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who operates Rick’s Cafe Americain on the very margins of legality. He’s happily leading that amoral existence until his long-lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) unexpectedly re-enters his life alongside her husband Victor László (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader in desperate need of an exit visa.

Magnificently shot by director Michael Curtiz, Casablanca is a melancholy love story with tremendous emotional resonance, made all the more moving by the number of actual refugees fleeing Nazi oppression that make up the cast. If you don’t get a lump in your throat watching a soaring rendition of the French national anthem La Marseillaise drown out Die Wacht am Rhein, well, I’m a fervent supporter of open borders writing this from a free France, having recently travelled to the real Casablanca via Tangier and a Mediterranean that’s become packed with political hot potatoes in dinghies. So I don’t know what to tell you other than zut alors, merde, putain, etc etc… 

For all the talk of Bogie and Bergman (neither have, I confess, ever been high up on my favourite actors list) Casablanca is, in a way, a film that belongs to the supporting cast, who toss it between themselves joyfully: If it’s a performance you seek, look at the edges, where it is allowed and, if you care about cinema at all, necessary, because — oh, this is going to rattle a few cages — if Casablanca is the masterpiece everyone tells us it is, then it’s a masterpiece despite its leads, not because of them. 

Allow me to explain.

Rick is two-parts absence to one-part Humphrey Bogart (the suave brick, without the suave). Henreid, as László, is literally the world’s most boring freedom-fighter. And I have always wondered how the always white-wearing Ilsa managed to launder her clothes in Casablanca. Isn’t she supposed to be a refugee? But that’s all I wondered. What else was there to ask a woman whose job is to be laundered while confused?

This is where I always find myself rooting for the character actors, and why I always preferred, say, Christopher Plummer to Chris Evans and Max von Sydow to Max Factor. Anyway, there’s a whole honorific host of them in Casablanca — that supporting cast I mentioned: Peter Lorre, the criminal; Conrad Veidt, the Nazi; Leonid Kinskey, the Russian; Jan Brandel, the refugee (art imitating life) Madeleine Lebeau, the slut, having the smallest drunken tantrum to merit a taxi home in the whole of cinema; SZ Sakall, the waiter; Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, the lotus eaters. 

Claude Rains is elegantly stoic as Captain Louis Renault, but then he was always solidly dependable in everything he appeared in. Here, he‘s a the jaded Vichy cop open to bribes and there‘s a hint he may be open to a bit more. There is a genuine friendship between Renault and Rick, and there‘s one line that hints at a possible unrequited longing in the trouser department that was certainly bold for 1940s cinema: “Well, Rick is the kind of man that… well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick,” Renault remarks, wittily.

Alas, as great as Rains is, it’s Peter Lorre as Signor Ugarte that steals every scene he’s in, even the colourised ones. 

Admittedly, I’ve felt something of a Cancerian kinship with this diminutive Austria-Hungarian born actor after I discovered we share a birthday, and that he’d played the first ever Bond villain on screen, in the original ’50s TV version of Casino Royale. Its female lead? One Vesper Lynd. Or should that be Ilsa Lund?

While Ugarte is a small part, but it is he who provides Rick with the Letters of Transit, a key plot device from the outset. The film’s action is initiated by the murder of German couriers and the theft of the letters that offer, tantalisingly, the possibility of escape. In other words, they’re a MacGuffin: a contrivance of the movie’s multiple writers, the imaginary documents allowed the bearer to travel through Nazi-occupied countries and set up action and motivation in the story. 

“Casablanca is a propaganda film,” says Noah Isenberg, author of We’ll Always Have Casablanca. “It’s a propaganda film because the American public were not fully convinced of the moral imperative of fighting this war; and the message is, this is a fight worth fighting.”

Indeed, when you watch it again (Sam), it’s obvious the film and in particular the character arc of Rick is a clear metaphor for the United States and foreign policy. Rick begins the film as a selfish isolationist, telling Ilsa: “I’m not fighting for anything anymore, except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”

As the story progresses, cracks appear in that façade. In the scene with Dantine, for example, Rick’s aid of young refugees is a sign he’s not the cold-hearted bastard he leads people to believe. Gosh, who does that sound like?

There are probably a decent number of auteur-theorist types who’d quibble with me for saying Casablanca isn’t a perfect picture. Yet neither the production team nor its star leads (who, amusingly, — crushingly — had zero off-screen chemistry) considered it a big deal, in fact; it was regarded as just one of hundreds of films being made that year. 

Casablanca performed solidly at the box office, though not spectacularly. Then it won a bunch of Oscars at the 1944 Academy Awards. Then its reputation began to grow, and has continued to cast its thrall over audiences all these decades later.

As the film’s reputation grew, so did the quotability of some of its lines – lines that have become some of the most famous in movie history. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” and “We’ll always have Paris” are contenders in their own right. But one classic catchphrase from Casablanca beats them out, and it’s not “Play it again, Sam,” because that’s never actually said (the closest is Bergman instructing the Louis Armstrong-lite Dooley Wilson to “Play it once, Sam.”

It’s the line “Here’s looking at you, kid” that became so indelibly imprinted in popular culture it became the refrain of a song on Roxy Music’s 1972 debut entitled 2HB — to Humphrey Bogart, geddit? It makes you think perhaps no movie has as many famous one-liners as Casablanca. But they weren’t all the work of screenwriters Julius J Epstein, Philip G Epstein and Howard Koch (who deservedly won an Oscar for their work).

Based on Murray Burnett and Joan Allison’s unproduced play Everybody Goes To Rick’s, the script was written in a hurry, and was still going through rewrites when filming commenced. As a result, some of the best lines were improvised, including Here‘s Looking At You, Kid, a popular quote in the 1930s. Indeed, Humphrey Bogart‘s farewell line to Ingrid Bergman Bogart was ad-libbed, and it worked so well that was used twice.

Adding immeasurably to this simple story is an unforgettable score, based on the pervasive As Time Goes By, a 1930s standard that’s been aided in its beautiful ubiquity by becoming as surprise, albeit posthumous, hit single for Dooley Wilson in 1978 (sadly, the ‘black guy on the piano‘ is the only major character in Casablanca without a back story, ugh).

And it‘s become an evergreen covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra to Louis Armstrong and Bryan Ferry.

Anyway, I’m off to rewatch a certain film. 

You must remember it. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Steve Pafford

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