Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece

I’ve already told you about watching Casablanca at a big multiplex. Now I can talk about the movie itself.

To my mind, Casablanca is Hollywood’s accidental masterpiece. The handful of equally beloved films from the studio era–Citizen Kane, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life–were unique from their inceptions. They were either independent films made outside of the studio system, or specials that the studios intended to be exceptional.

But Casablanca was just another movie off the Warner Brothers assembly line–a modest A picture with a somewhat expensive director and cast and penny-pinching production values. For most of the people who worked on it, it was just another assignment.

Yet somehow it turned out a masterpiece–one of the great American films. Perhaps it’s the million monkeys on a million typewriters theory. With seven major studios grinding out 40-50 features a year each for 20 years, one of them was bound to come out great.

A warning: I’m assuming here that you’ve seen Casablanca. If you haven’t, don’t read about it–just see it.

So why has this factory-built movie, designed to be topical in 1942, stood the test of time so well? Why does everyone still love Casablanca?

First, consider the movie’s themes. The idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good was topical as America joined World War II, but it’s also timeless and universal. Anyone who has ever had to weigh their personal desires against what they knew was right understands Rick’s dilemma. A disillusioned idealist, Rick knows that he cannot remain neutral without losing his humanity. His moral victory inspires us all.

Second, although the filmmakers added nothing innovative or experimental, they crafted a very well-made film. Consider the early sequence of police “rounding up the usual suspects.” Within a very short period of time, we’re drawn into the environment, told that the people have good reasons to fear the government, and introduced to a couple of minor characters who will turn up elsewhere.

Just look at the sequence’s last 24 seconds:

Notice the young couple glimpsed as he runs away? And the way composer Max Steiner highlights the words on the poster?

Or consider the rain at the Paris train station, and how it substitutes for the tears that Rick is too manly to shed.

Have you ever noticed that most the first act takes place in Rick’s Café, and unfolds in real time? During that nearly half an hour we meet all the major and minor characters, discover the conflicts that will drive the plot, and watch Peter Lorre’s entire performance. The camera and editing take us to public and private dining rooms, Rick’s upstairs office, and the front entrance, and we never feel confined. Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play, and this sequence could work in live theater with minimal script changes, but it never feels stagey.

Next, consider the cast. Sure, Bergman and Bogart were great stars, and Casablanca helped both of their careers. Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt added their own layers as the collaborator and the Nazi. But think of all the bit players who turned small roles into memorable icons: S.Z. Sakall as headwaiter Carl, Leonid Kinskey as the Russian bartender Sasha, Madeleine Lebeau as the lovesick and alcoholic Yvonne (that close-up of her singing La Marseillaise can bring tears to my eyes).

And, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam.

The more you watch Casablanca, the more you see in it. I’ve always been intrigued by a line of Rick’s, “It’s December, 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?” Huh? That makes no sense. But it tells us two things: That the story is set during the month that the US joined the war, and that one of the screenwriters wanted us to know that. Could Rick, the man who begins the film saying that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” and ends it ready to “join the fight” be a metaphor for his home country?

And could Louis be, mildly and subconsciously, bisexual. His treatment of women is shocking by modern standards–the worst kind of sexual harassment. But his feelings for Rick may go beyond mere friendship. “If I was a woman…I would be in love with Rick,” he says at one point. But maybe the line simply tells us what we already know: Louis Renault is not only an amoral, corrupt government official, but a witty one.

Casablanca is so good, so inspiring, so well-made, and so damn entertaining, that we hardly notice that the plot makes almost no sense. Just one example: The authorities know that the letters of transit are stolen. In fact, anyone caught with them in Casablanca will be arrested for accessory to murder. So how come they can still be used at the airport to get you legally out of the country?

Seventy years ago, a group of well-paid artisans, most under long-term contracts, made a movie that was supposed to be like every other movie. Many of them didn’t like the story and wished they were doing something else. Somehow, they made a masterpiece. With a miracle like that, we can ignore a few holes in the plot.