Between Nazi occupied Europe and the road to freedom lies a refugee town in the heart of French Morocco. Set in the backdrop of early World War II, Casablanca is where desperate European asylum seekers go to hop a plane to Lisbon, Portugal and escape oppression from the Third Reich.
But leaving Casablanca proves an almost impossible feat without ‘Letters of Transit’, necessary documents that allow whomever carries them to move freely throughout the occupied territories. Such coveted papers come at a high price and in Casablanca there are no shortage of scoundrels who will capitalize on the desperate and displaced wealthy.
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate and proprietor who runs Rick’s Café Américain, an upscale nightclub and casino catering to the wealthy, corrupt and revolutionary. In its smoke-filled rooms, black market deals are made and plans of the French Resistance are secretly discussed across the ballroom away from Nazi officials and their collaborators. Like the Mos Eisley Cantina, no one here is to be trusted and everyone looks out for themselves.
Rick is no different. Bitter and cynical, his policy is simple: he sticks his neck out for no man. Even when criminal associate Ugarte (Peter Lorre) entrusts him to safeguard the letters of transit he stole from dead Nazi couriers that he killed, Rick has no problem giving him up to the authorities. As an added bonus, Rick’s neutrality keeps the French, Italian and German gestapo dogs off his back which allows him to operate his club with almost absolute impunity.
But when the source of his bitterness, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly shows up at his doorstep, he is forced to revisit unpleasant memories of a love betrayed.
To Rick’s astonishment, Ilsa arrives with her husband, political writer and escaped freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). He’s an outspoken threat to the Nazi ideology and must leave Casablanca immediately, but without the letters of transit he’s a sitting duck.
To get the papers, Ilsa tries to appeal to the Rick she once loved, but Rick has other ideas. He wants to know why she ditched him at the train station in Paris the day the Nazis invaded with no explanation other than a short note ending their love affair.
But when the Nazis crank up the heat, Rick must decide whether the fate of one freedom fighter outweighs everything he’s gained in Casablanca, including his recycled love for Ilsa Lund.
Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) and Best Picture, Casablanca intertwines the classic tale of an unfulfilled love disguised as a World War II political thriller.
Bogart as the wily New Yorker, Rick Blaine is as tough as they come. but despite his rough, chain-smoking exterior, underneath is a virtuous everyman who is fair, gentlemanly and even charitable. A sign of the times, Rick’s neutrality reflected most Americans’ attitudes towards a war for which they felt were none of their business.
But selfish inaction can only take one so far and Rick Blaine’s turn to selflessness is summed up beautifully when he said to Ilsa, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
With unmistakably iconic imagery (Bogart’s cool and classy determination symbolized in a white tux then later in full-brimmed hat and trenchcoat), memorable one-liners (“Here’s lookin’ at you kid.”, “We’ll always have Paris.”) and the unforgettable ballad, As Time Goes By, Casablanca remains one of the most recognizable masterpieces of not only American cinema, but all cinema throughout its history.
In an age where market research and popular trends determine the kind of assembly-line movies produced these days, Casablanca is a wonderful reminder that once upon a time, films were entrusted by the confidence and skill of its auteurs, who knew the best way to engage their audience were through relatable characters and a tragic story well told.
5 out of 5 Stars