The last of the films in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection released before the end of World War II is 1942’s Casablanca. The Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman drama followed Mrs. Miniver in winning the Best Picture Oscar. Both movies are films about World War II that were produced and released during the war. Compared to its Best Picture predecessor, Casablanca is much more enduring.
The film is in some ways the flipside of The Maltese Falcon, released a year earlier. Bogart is back, not as the swaggering super-detective Sam Spade, but as Rick, a broken man, if not a reluctant hero. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both of whom had memorable roles in Falcon, return here to help populate a larger cast that is indicative of the bigger scope of Casablanca.
As indicated by the title, the movie takes place in the Moroccan locale of Casablanca. Morocco was then controlled by the French (except for a small, Spanish portion on the Mediterranean), but also recall that France had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940. French Morocco, like France proper, was under the control of a Nazi puppet regime in the late 1941 in which Casablanca is set.
A recurring theme in my reviews of these older films is how some of them have trouble holding up to modern scrutiny. While Casablanca definitely has bits and pieces that are unmistakable 1940s filmmaking, the pieces that endure do so stunningly.
What impressed me most about Casablanca was how well the dramatic tension persists right up until the final thirty seconds of the film. That tension flows along several different plot points, from the question of whether Rick will help Laszlo or try to rekindle his love with Ilsa to the issue of whether anyone will even survive at all.
The pacing is terrific. The supporting cast, from Claude Rains to Dooley Wilson, are excellent. The story is modern for a 1940s drama in the sense that the main protagonist doesn’t get the happiest possible ending—due to his own sacrifices.
There are times when I say of these films something like, “If you consider yourself a film buff, you have to watch this movie.” The implication is that you’re watching the movie because of historical significance, not because of actual, intrinsic greatness that still exists today.
Casablanca is not such a film. Everything about it is worthwhile. And the little touches—like the “La Marseillaise” scene—can surprise even a modern audience.
This is one of the greatest films ever made. If you’ve never seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again.