Film Score: Max Steiner Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains
Casablanca is the greatest film of all time. I like Citizen Kane a lot, but it wouldn’t even make my top ten list. It’s just too self-consciously created, where Casablanca is one of those happy accidents that occasionally materialized in Hollywood and made film history. The picture has it all, romance, mystery, patriotism. It boasts one of the most effective casts ever put together, has a world-class director, some of the most memorable music and a brilliant score, but the most important thing about it--and something that doesn’t get nearly enough credit--is that it has one of the most well-rounded scripts of all time. Put all of those elements together and it’s an unbeatable combination, making it easily my number one pick of cinema greats.
The film began its life as an unproduced left-wing political play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s. Twin screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were given the play to convert and packed it front to back with wit and humor, so much so that it was eventually given to Howard Koch to tone down the humor and beef up the political idealism. Finally Casey Robinson, who asked for no screen credit, added the much-needed romance. For once the committee approach to writing in the studio era produced a masterpiece. The story begins during World War II in Humphrey Bogart’s nightclub in Casablanca. When Ingrid Bergman walks in one night there is immediate tension between the two which, after a memorable flashback, is revealed to be a love affair the two had in Paris. But now Bogart discovers she is married to resistance leader Paul Henreid who has managed to escape thus far before being stopped by Nazi Conrad Veidt. The ringleader of the whole show is the wonderful Claude Rains as the head of the French police.
Though Bogart would make a name along with his future wife Lauren Bacall as a steamy onscreen couple, there is a purity and innocence about his relationship with Bergman that is not only refreshing but seems essential for the roles they play in the film. The rest of the cast is as star-studded an affair as one could wish for. In addition to Rains, Veidt and Henreid, the great Peter Lorre plays a friend of Bogart’s who has killed two Germans for their traveling papers. Sydney Greenstreet is the rival owner of a nightclub and head of the black market. The fantastic Dooley Wilson plays Bogart’s best friend and the singer in his club. “As Time Goes By” is his signature song, and one that would figure prominently in Max Steiner’s incredibly evocative score. The direction by Warner’s star director Michael Curtiz assured the film of a beautiful look and great pacing. Ultimately there’s no way to do the film justice in just a few paragraphs and so I would suggest to everyone picking up Aljean Harmetz’s terrific book on the making of the film.
Unfortunately, in The A List essay on the film by the book’s editor Jay Carr, he feels the need to denigrate the film, saying its popularity is merely based on style over substance and implying something that popular can’t really be good. I suppose he does this lest someone thinks he doesn’t know anything about film as art. But he’s completely missing the point. What is film art? Is it always painfully self-conscious and precious? I sure hope not. The “art” of film, the whole point of the thing, is supposed to be entertainment. Casablanca is not entertaining in spite of a lack of artistry, it is entertaining precisely because it is so artistic. There’s nothing that gets under my skin more than critics who don’t understand that truly great entertainment actually is truly great art. This leads to so many films being touted as “artistic” that are, frankly, pretty boring. It also talks down to an audience that may not be able to articulate and analyze a film, but understands its greatness on a more visceral level. Shame on you, Jay Carr, for trying to make us feel as if we don’t “get it” when clearly you’re the one who doesn’t.
If you love this film as much as I do, don’t let anyone tell you differently. The film won not only the best picture award at the Oscars that year, but best director for Curtiz and, quite appropriately, statuettes for the screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein. In addition, Bogart, Rains and Steiner were all given nominations. Casablanca is a work of artistic genius and a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It is deep, it is profound, it is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century--in any realm. That’s why it’s so popular and that’s why it has stood the test of time. And that’s why I’m not alone in calling it my favorite film of all time.