The Best Picture Winners: Casablanca (1943)

| October 9, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

In my experience, the Oscars are the most persistent Complaint Department outside of politics.  There are very few Best Picture winners that any five people would agree with, but Casablanca seems to stand outside of that dissent.  It is one of the few Best Picture winners that is not only a classic but is a recognized institution.  And it is not overpraise.

Casablanca is routinely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made – if not the greatest- but it was just another movie to those made it – one of two-hundred pictures that Warner Brothers released in 1942. In the decade before television, the major studios had a movie a week to get out and with that schedule one movie was no more important than another. Casablanca was not expected make much money even though the cast was first rate: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It doesn’t comfortably fit a genre, the plot is too complicated to put into a 30-second ad and, in the maelstrom of World War II, movies about the events overseas were a tough sell unless they were presented with John Wayne or Gary Cooper on the battlefield.

Timing is the lifeblood of show business and it was the best friend of this movie.  Casablanca entered the studio system on December 8, 1941, the Monday after the attack of Pearl Harbor.  Had it come into the system any earlier, then it is unlikely that Warner Bros. or any other studio would have bought the rights.  A movie critical of Nazi power at the time was thought to be unwise, but now in the full spectrum of war with the axis powers, the potency of the film was vitally importent.

When it was released late in 1942 Casablanca quickly found audiences lined up around the block. Part of its appeal, I think, was the timeliness of the subject. This was a time when Hitler’s armies were spreading across Europe and making themselves frighteningly unpredictable. That uncertainty is present in the film. There is a desperation that is always present just beneath the surface, the pervasive dread of the Nazi death grip on the world. After the war, they would become the favorite villains of the movies, seen more for their uniforms and for their universal disdain then their beliefs, but here, with the terror still present in the world, their omnipresence is far more poignant.

The movie takes place in the tiny village of Casablanca in Northern Morocco, one of the last French-occupied countries not in the grip of the Nazis.  As the movie opens this tiny village has become a human traffic jam of refugees trying to get money and transport to Lisbon where they can catch a plane to America – or at least out of the Nazi’s reach.  Few opportunities arise to book such a passage so many find themselves stranded in Casablanca for days, weeks and even months.

At the epicenter of this chaos is Casablanca’s most popular nightspot, Rick’s Café American, run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man who remains steadfast at staying out of personal or political affairs.  He lives by a code: “I stick my neck out for no one.”

One day Rick is given an order by police chief Louis Renault (Claude Rains) that a man wanted by the Reich is on his way to Casablanca, and Rick is to make sure that he stays there. The man, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), escaped a concentration camp and is now a major figure in the French resistance. His passage to Lisbon would be detrimental to the Reich. Rick isn’t interested but to humor Renault, he agrees.

What Rick doesn’t know is that Lazlo is currently married to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a woman that left him standing alone on a rainy train platform some years earlier with a Dear John letter soaking in his hand.  This single, devastating gesture is the reason that Rick has retreated into the desert.  He has held a deep resentment for years, so naturally, this reopens old wounds as Victor and Ilsa enter Rick’s club. He is thunderstruck when he sees her, his face is a mask of shock and emotional turmoil. Later, trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle of booze, he laments “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

What Rick has written off as a mean spirited act of betrayal actually has a legitimate explanation.  That puts Rick and Ilsa in an interesting quandary.  She loves Rick and can’t bear to hurt him again, but she loves Lazlo and knows that he needs her more than ever.  The ultimate decision then becomes what is the right thing to do for the greater good?

Bergman’s performance as the emotionally confused Ilsa is due in part to the fact that during filming she was never told which man she was going to end up with. She twists and turns with confused emotions and we never see her leaning one way or the other. When Rick tells her in the end that she is getting on the plane with Lazlo, her face reveals confusion as she tries to comprehend it. The moment is very real. If she knew how the movie was going to end, I don’t think that the subtleties of her performance would come out the way they do.

Bogart, known at this point for his cold tough-guy roles, showed a sensitive side here and hereafter flourished as a leading man. As Rick, he is cold to those who come looking for a favor but in Ilsa’s eyes, he simply melts. This was a side of Bogart that was new to audiences, and it changed his image for the rest of his career. This was his best performance so naturally he lost the Oscar to an unworthy contender – Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine (heard of it? . . . didn’t think so). Bogart would win the Oscar for 1951’s The African Queen – continuing the academy’s strange habit (after Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Gable in It Happened One Night) of giving Oscars to Hollywood tough guys for sensitive pussycat roles.

The movie is loaded with great characters – most are crooked, few are honest. The movie doesn’t supply any stock villains. Only one, a Nazi called Strasser, and I think having only one significant Nazi present in the film is a good idea. The fear and dread that befalls the characters in Casablanca is made more effective by the fact that we do not see them. Everyone knows about the terror of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs, everyone knows that by 1942, they held the world under their thumb and just knowing that gives the film a certain urgency. Their evil presence is simply felt.

I greatly admire the screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch for their restraint. It must have been tempting to present the Nazis dominating the screen but the presence of too many might have lessened the credibility that Lazlo could escape. Also, it must have been so tempting in a movie with this much star power and this much emotion to supply an ending that would find Rick and Ilsa in each other’s arms. That would have been a mistake. Rick’s change of heart is the most important aspect of the film. He realizes that he must let her go in the interest of the greater good, that Lazlo, off on his mission, needs her now more than ever. The script allows the characters to follow their hearts rather than some kind of crowd-pleasing convention. It took nerve to allow the characters to find the courage of their convictions, that the cause of stopping the Nazis is far more important because they realize that their personal petty problems just “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.