I first saw Casablanca while studying for my A-Levels where we watched it as one of the touchstones of American cinema and, looking back it now some 13 or 14 years later, I can appreciate this even more as its context as a film set near contemporaneously to its 1942 release has become even more obvious to me.
The thing that Casablanca is undeniably most famous for is its love story, where Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa meet in the titular city following an affair in Paris and their lives are thrown together against a backdrop of resistance, corruption and the shadow of the Third Reich.
While this love story has become famous as the backbone of the film, even this element of it breaks with what could be described as convention in the end, and this is something that marks the rest of the film.
Along with the love story we get a plot of suspense and intrigue as we head into Rick’s Café Americain and meet a cast of largely unsavoury characters most of who are either criminals in one sense or another or otherwise corrupt and we feel the claustrophobia and paranoia of the city in this microcosm location.
This suspense occasionally breaks into all out action (for a movie from 1942) which also builds on the atmosphere of tension and threat that exists and increases as a group of Nazis arrive to investigate a disappearance and chase an escapee from a concentration camp.
While all this sounds like quite a lot to fit into a film, and actually feels a lot like the constituent parts of many current Hollywood blockbusters, the way it is delivered here is swift and deft and while things never let up, there is breathing room for the relationships to develop and expose themselves through character and action rather than obvious expositionary dialogue so we really feel we get to know these people, especially our lead couple along with Claude Raines’ chief of police, Renault, Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo and even smaller characters like Dooley Wilson as Sam.
As the film goes on we are left never quite being sure where the plot will take us as many twists and turns are open to all involved and the ending may not be the one everyone would expect but, in being that, is all the more satisfying for it and leaves our heroes just that, even if they maybe hadn’t been for the whole movie.
After enjoying Casablanca even more on this viewing than my first I was left thinking one thing: While some modern blockbuster filmmakers are capable of great feats, there are many who could do with looking back at this movie to see how one can tell a varied tale of suspense, intrigue, mystery and romance and get it all in well under two hours, with excitement aplenty and a well crafted picture to boot.
(If you’ve not seen the film the following trailer, from the original release, is a bit spoiler-y, just as a warning)