Often, when at a loss about what film to watch to while away an evening, I turn to Casablanca. And marvel at how one of the most beloved movies of all time could be created through pure chance.
Released in 1942, Casablanca is a regular on various “100 greatest films” lists. It is one of the first 25 films the US National Film Registry selected in 1989 for preservation at government expense. It was nominated for eight Oscars and won three—best film, best director and best screenplay.
Some lines of its dialogue (“Round up the usual suspects”, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship”) are so embedded in the popular consciousness that most people don’t even know where they originated. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was estimated that every day of the year, some TV channel or the other in America was broadcasting the film.
Yet, it seems to be a totally accidental masterpiece. The studio, Warner Brothers, treated it as just one of the three dozen films it was producing that year. Director Michael Curtiz was not the producer’s first choice. The Hungarian-born Curtiz was less than fluent in English and often had to use pantomime to tell his actors what he wanted them to do. For the last scene in Casablanca, when the set designer delivered a “poodle” he had asked for, it was discovered that he had meant a “puddle” of water on the floor.
The script was being written even as the film was being shot and chits of paper with hastily-composed dialogue were rushed every day to the sets. Apparently, till almost the very last day of shooting, no one was sure how the film should end—whether Humphrey Bogart’s Rick would sacrifice his love for Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, for a higher cause, or the two would live happily ever after. Some critics believe that this confusion about the fate of her character gave Bergman’s acting an added authenticity.
The most famous line of dialogue from the film—“Play it again, Sam”—is the most enduring misquote in cinema history. No one actually says this in Casablanca. Ilsa requests: “Play it once, Sam” and Rick demands: “You played it for her, you can play it for me.”
Another line, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, a cultural milestone, was not in the script. This was something Bogart would tell Bergman while teaching her poker during breaks in the shooting, and when the scene was being filmed, he casually substituted the original line “Here’s good luck to you, kid” with his own words. Curtiz possibly did not even notice.
The story is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in December 1941. World War II rages and the city is ruled by the Nazi-puppet Vichy government of France. It is a den of intrigue, peopled by spies, traitors, Nazis and assorted sleazeballs trying to make a quick buck. Rick Blaine, a cynical American (“I stick my neck out for nobody”), runs a nightclub.
He is stunned when his former lover Ilsa arrives at his bar with her husband, anti-Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…”). We realize that Rick’s cynicism stems from his belief that Ilsa deserted him. The Nazis are on to Laszlo and his only hope of survival is an impossible-to-get “letter of transit” which will allow him to board a flight to Portugal and freedom.
Rick has two transit letters in his possession and thus holds the power of life and death over Laszlo. But he is resentful and bitter and refuses to help. Then he learns that Ilsa did truly love him and they were separated by a cruel twist of destiny.
Rick decides to use the permits and escape with Ilsa. Then, as the late critic Roger Ebert described it, “in a sustained sequence that combines suspense, romance and comedy as they have rarely been brought together on the screen, he contrives a situation in which Ilsa and Laszlo escape together, while he and his friend the police chief get away with murder”. Rick is redeemed by his heroic renunciation and as he and the police chief walk away into the fog, they leave behind in the hearts of viewers a warm glow that has not dimmed in eight decades.
As far as style goes, there is nothing particularly distinctive about Casablanca. It is competent Hollywood workmanship, no different from hundreds of films churned out by the studios during that period. But it moves along at a breathless pace. Even the actors seem to speak their lines faster than usual—maybe it was the English-challenged Curtiz’s way to speed up the action.
Casablanca’s secret is its lead characters. Everyone in the audience can recognize them—perhaps even identify with them. The tragic hero driven into a tough cynical shell, the pure-hearted woman, the cheerfully corrupt policeman who rediscovers his pride—they are archetypes, but presented with a pared-to-the-bone economy, from the scalpel-sharp dialogues to the not-one-extra-second editing. One can watch the film a dozen times and it never loses its edgy emotional power.
Nobody planned this; no one approached their work on Casablanca as anything special. The film was made in a great hurry and while the writers scrambled to figure out the story, Curtiz simply focused on shooting whatever scene they handed him for the day.Out of this chaos emerged great cinema. The gods of chance and lucky breaks had pulled off a true miracle.