Casablanca is an intellectual dramatic film that pulls viewers in with a doomed romance while unabashedly exploring wartime moral ambiguity and political intrigue. It has suspense, dashes of comedy, beautiful music, and some of the most memorable lines in film history. Often topping the lists of all-time greatest movies, the timeless classic is turning 80 years old.
It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who already had an impressive body of work like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, and would go on to direct such classics as Mildred Pierce and White Christmas. The cast is led by screen icons Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, among other acting powerhouses.
Set during World War II, Casablanca introduces Rick Blaine (Bogart) an American expatriate who has settled in Casablanca where he runs the nightclub and gambling den, Rick’s Café Américain. His club hosts a complex mix of customers from Nazi officials to Vichy French to refugees seeking asylum in the US. Claiming to be neutral, he must decide whether to try wooing his lost love Ilsa Lund (Bergman) or helping her husband Victor Laszlo (Henried), a Czech resistance leader, escape Casablanca so that he can keep fighting the Nazis.
The movie is based on the unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Burnett’s original inspiration for the story was a European trip that he and his wife took in 1938. They visited Vienna where the antisemitism left an impact on them, and they went to a nightclub in the south of France filled with customers from around the world, including war refugees. He and Alison had already co-written the anti-Nazi play, A Million to One, so the pair worked together on the script.
Once Warner Bros. story analyst Stephen Karnot and story editor Irene Diamond read the play, they convinced producer Hal Wallis to purchase the rights. Warner Bros. bought the rights for $20,000, a sum that topped any prior amount paid for an unproduced play. To capitalize on the success of 1938’s Algiers, the movie was renamed Casablanca.
Since the script wasn’t even ready by the time filming started, the movie was shot in sequence, which is a rarity in the film industry. The whole movie was shot at the studio, with the exception of sequences filmed at Van Nuys Airport. They used stock footage of Paris, and they borrowed the street setting from the movie The Desert Song.
Curtiz took a simplistic approach to filming, preferring to keep the focus on the story by straightforward filmmaking rather than an excess of visual style. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who had shot both The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein, was hired to be the director of photography. To give the effect of imprisonment and turmoil, they used bars of shadow on the characters and the backgrounds. Special attention was paid to how Bergman was filmed, with catch lights used to make her eyes sparkle and a softening gauze filter to emphasize her beauty. Darker film noir style lighting was used to set the mood in dramatic scenes and was used more during the later scenes.
The movie had its premiere at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942, with a plan for the wide release in early 1943. The US release date of January 23, 1943 was quickly chosen to coincide with the Casablanca Conference, an Allies strategy session between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Over the next 80 years, Casablanca has been lauded as a timeless classic. When awards season rolled around, Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Studied by film historians, it is praised for the sharply written script, stellar performances (particularly Bogart’s complexity and Bergman’s stoicism), and how people survived, fought, and benefited from the war.
Any movie buff who hasn’t seen Casablanca yet should bump it to the top of their watch list. And if you don’t... “you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”