It’s become the definition of a classic movie: a perfectly constructed plot, spellbinding chemistry between its two stars, an unforgettable ensemble cast, and a script larded with immortal lines. But Casablanca, for all its power and beauty, faced a tortuous journey to the big screen. Noah Isenberg, director of the Screen Studies program at the New School, explains why the film remains so compelling and what it can tell us about the moral dilemmas we face today.
Casablanca has become, for audiences around the world, synonymous with the delights movies have to offer. When asked what film he considered to be the greatest, Roger Ebert famously remarked that Citizen Kane deserved the honor — but that the one he watched with the most pleasure was Casablanca.
Its tightly constructed plot, its densely layered emotional composition, its crackling script illuminated with lines that to hear once is to remember forever, the simmering chemistry of its leads and the brilliance of its ensemble — these have drawn acclaim from audiences, critics, and filmmakers alike since its rapturously received premiere in late 1942.
The film is a tale, ultimately, of redemption: Rick Blaine, a bar owner with a shady past, survives in wartime Casablanca by taking no stands and fighting for no side. His clientele ranges from Vichy French and Nazi Germans to refugees desperately seeking a way across the Atlantic Ocean. When his former lover Ilsa Lund shows up, she disturbs the delicate balance Rick has established, in more ways than one. Her husband, Viktor Laszlo, is a major figure in the Czech Resistance, and she needs Rick’s help to get him and herself to America. Rick devises a scheme that will, on its surface, put Laszlo in jail and Ilsa and himself together in the States, but is in actuality a feint aimed at ensuring she and Laszlo escape together — despite Rick’s still-evident love for Ilsa.
The twists and turns of the story imbue the film with all the fears and hopes of an embattled America and a Europe under the Nazi heel. The Allies were just starting to turn the tide of the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, and his State Department was busily fending off refugees from Fortress Europe with all the legal might it could muster. Despite the radically different social, cultural, and political atmosphere that birthed Casablanca, the movie continues to hold our attention. We spoke with Noah Isenberg, director of the New School’s Screen Studies department and author of the definitive book on the film We’ll Always Have Casablanca, to understand why.
“It’s really a combination,” said Isenberg, “of both very timely messages when it was released which allowed it to speak to audiences then, and then also what is completely timeless about the picture, what transcends a sort of historical specificity. You add to that today, especially in light of the ongoing refugee crisis — a crisis that has only become more acute under the new administration — and suddenly the film resonates anew. It is, I think, that much more poignant when you think of the refugee crisis that was being addressed, in many ways implicitly rather than explicitly, in the picture released on Thanksgiving Day in New York City in 1942.”
He cites as being at least partially responsible for this power the fact that, quite by chance, many of the film’s cast members were themselves refugees. Paul Henreid — who plays Laszlo — had been designated an enemy of the Third Reich while pursuing his film and theatrical career in Vienna. The inimitable Peter Lorre, who plays the thief and black-marketer Ugarte (the man with the much desired “letters of transit” that Ilsa wants so desperately) left Europe in 1934 on a visitor’s visa to the U.S. Conrad Veidt, who plays Major Strasser, was one of the early titans of the German film scene and a vocal anti-Nazi who left Germany for Britain in 1934 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1941. (Isenberg points out the dark irony of this man playing a brutal Nazi.) This geographic dislocation extended from the top-billed names down through the entire cast. Isenberg cites the story of Madeleine Lebeau, who plays Yvonne. Lebeau left Paris more or less as the Nazis arrived; her transformation from cowardly pragmatist to courageous resistor echoes the transformation Rick Blaine himself will undergo. “When she sings that Marseillaise after coming back to Rick’s Café on the arm of a Nazi officer,” says Isenberg, “looking like she’s gone over to the other side, and you see the tears streaming down her face — in what is arguably the film’s most famous scene — those are real tears. She’s crying out of conviction, with the force that only somebody who actually had experienced what they were portraying onscreen, who had experienced Nazis marching into Paris could muster.”
Added to this, of course, is the film’s lapidary script. At least some of its literary quality likely stems from the fact that it began life as a stage play: Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the work of Broadway writing team Joan Alison and Murray Burnett, was directly inspired by Burnett’s nightmarish trip to wartime Vienna. But even though Warner Brothers producer Hall Wallis paid a record price for the film rights ($20,000, more than what Dashiell Hammett earned for the rights to The Maltese Falcon), the script would go through several sets of hands before it reached production — and even then would continue to undergo daily metamorphoses as the writers reworked scenes until hours before they were to be filmed. The legendary Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, led the charge in the writing room. They came up with the lion’s share of the script’s most memorable cracks, including “Round up the usual suspects!” (allegedly hit upon while stranded in traffic). Isenberg points out that the two of them might well have been surprised by the film’s elevation to classic status. He cites a quote from Julius about his work on the film: “We weren’t making art; we were making a living.”
“The need for Casablanca hasn't really gone away -- it certainly hasn't gone away in our current era.””—Noah Isenberg
And what of the relationship at the heart of the film, the difficult, ambiguous connection between Rick and Ilsa? Famously, despite the fact that the pair have come to seem the paradigmatic example of lovers divided forever by fate, Bergman and Bogart had no onscreen or offscreen chemistry at all. Indeed, Bergman later in life wrote that she hardly knew her co-star; she tried to understand him better by seeing and re-seeing The Maltese Falcon in the run-up to actually filming with him. And while Ingrid Bergman had been from her appearance in Intermezzo opposite Leslie Howard a major and inarguable romantic female lead, Bogart was much the opposite. With his diminutive stature and semi-permanent sneer, audiences were accustomed to thinking of him as a tough, a charismatic gangster, or as Sam Spade (whose well-hidden but rock-solid moral code prefigures Rick Blaine’s). His transformation into a romantic lead, Isenberg notes, was an earthquake for his career: “Once he was branded a romantic lead, once he had that meteoric rise with this film, once he had that international star power, this brought him to a whole new level. He was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood after Casablanca wrapped; that’s when Bogart was able to command the highest rate of any actor at that point in time.”
In short, Casablanca’s greatness seems to stem from the unpredictable alchemy that animated its creation. At least some of the credit there Isenberg assigns to the industrial-scale studio system itself: “This is the genius of the system, if you like, that this was very much an assembly line production. They were churning things out. There were contract writers at the studio, and they would get a series of scripts each week, each month, and they would work on those. I don’t think anybody had an idea if it would all work out; quite famously, Bergman and Bogart were really, really unsure whether it would completely blow up.” Isenberg again cites Bergman, who saw an almost mystical element in the film’s birth, and adds, “I would tend to agree with her. It does have something vaguely mystical about it; there was this big, pent-up need, a desire for the film that predates Casablanca. That need hasn’t really gone away — it certainly hasn’t gone away in our current era.”
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