Casablanca, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 102 minutes.
In Casablanca, those displaced by the ravages of war find edgy refuge while waiting for the day they can leave for safer shores. Lonely nights are often spent at Rick’s Café Americain, where gruff proprietor Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) maintains a low profile and artfully dodges political ties. His past is a mystery to all, but is about to revisit him.
One evening local thief Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pulls Rick aside to tell him he has two letters of transit, objects of much interest to local authorities since the men carrying them were murdered. He entrusts them to Rick shortly before being arrested and killed by local authorities, who are left in the dark as to the location of the letters. They are important, as they allow the bearers unquestioned passage from Casablanca to safer territory.
The letters of transit are in great demand by a number of people wishing to leave Casablanca, including two who only recently arrived, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) and his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Ilsa holds a large number of confidences, including one she has kept from her husband. Several years before, when France was still free from Nazi tyranny, she and Rick were living in Paris and deeply in love.
It soon becomes an open secret Rick holds the letters of transit, and he is of two minds about how to use them. Caught between his desire for Ilsa and the knowledge that destroying her marriage would have consequences far greater than the dissolution of the relationship, Rick waivers in placing his dedication.
Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The additional nominations were for Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Best Film Editing, Best Score and Best Cinematography.
The script for Casablanca was famously incomplete when shooting began, with writers Julius and Philip G. Epstein sometimes hastily finishing a day’s scenes the night before. This proved frustrating for the actors, in particular, Ingrid Bergman, who later said she was unsure who she was supposed to be in love with. While the Epsteins knew from the beginning who Ilsa would end up with, she did not, and it left her insecure about her role.
That uncertainty about where her character’s devotion lies may have led to her quiet expression, devoid of much emotion, throughout the film. She later wrote, “In Casablanca, there was often nothing in my face, nothing at all. But the audience put into my face what they thought I was giving. They were inventing my thoughts the way they wanted them; they were doing the acting for me.”
There are multiple inconsistencies and implausible components in the film, but audiences then and now seem to care very little about them. There is also at least one glaring fictional plot element: the famous letters of transit were actually objects devised by the writers of the rarely-produced play (Everybody Comes to Rick’s) that the film is based on, and didn’t exist in the real world. Similar documents allowing diplomats to leave a country after war was declared did exist, and exit visas, also referred to in the film, were real (although unusual), but the letters of transit were a complete fabrication.
This is the rare film that provides a brooding and quiet tension throughout, a tension that is not contrived, as World War II was raging and so many in the cast were European or British (including Bergman, Heinreid, Lorre and Rains). Casablanca grabs you from the opening scene to the final words uttered. There are a hundred hokey lines that somehow work even today, a tough yet tender leading man, a beautiful, mysterious leading lady and a half-dozen secondary characters who keep from becoming stereotypes. It is romance balanced with the fears and reality of war, but in the end, the romance is what saves all.