Upon first glance, Casablanca is a fairly straightforward film: Rick Blaine is the owner of a very popular bar, which plays host to diplomats, soldiers, and commoners who all are looking for a distraction from the impending occupation of the Nazis. Ilsa Lund, a mysterious woman from Rick’s past, reappears with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a resistance leader attempting to reach America in order to escape the clutches of the Nazis. While the plot calls for the usual romance–we know that Rick and Ilsa will eventually reconnect–it’s the setting that makes the film as engaging as it is.
The movie is extremely busy in its opening moments, the camera moving to and from the lively bar, as its patrons sing and dance to the jazzy soundtrack offered by piano man Sam (Dooley Wilson), or talk about the latest in the war between Nazi Germany and France. The film tasks its viewers to pay attention to a number of subplots and minor characters, but this all functions within the core of Casablanca’s story. The film’s cultural setting is impressively solid, especially remarkable considering that a large majority of the film takes place inside Rick’s cafe.
Casablanca does rely a bit on suspension of disbelief. The movie is clearly filmed on studio backlots. What doesn’t occur in the indoor cafe is unconvincingly shown in the film’s very few outdoor scenes. So we play pretend and are transported to the real Casablanca thanks to the exposition-filled words spoken by the films eclectic cast. Every character, from the eccentric Russian barkeeper to the poor, Bulgarian refugees looking to escape the city, plays a role in filling out the filmic world of Casablanca.
Although all of this provides insight into the political strife of the early 40s, events are all centered around Rick and his heartbreaking love-affair with Ilsa.
Ilsa’s abandonment of Rick has made him a broken man, grown bitter by the love he’s lost, left to perpetually drink with the people that occupy his restaurant. In a sense, Bogart’s Rick is unlikable; he’s not above being petty towards his past lover, or keeping out of the political insights of his friends. But Bogart wears his heartbreak on his sleeves. It’s understandable why he acts the way he does, especially in front of Ilsa. And so Humphrey Bogart manages a balancing act between hard man and romantic. It works primarily because Bogart very well may be the quintessential American of the 40s. If John Wayne is the positive side of the American Dream, then Humphrey Bogart is its dark undercurrent, brimming with a coldness that made it possible for Bogart to inhabit the role of Sam Spade in the fantastic film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. However, underneath that harsh exterior is a romantic, which makes it so easy to root for Rick.
But what is a romance without a gorgeous woman? And Ingrid Bergman fills that role quite nicely. The camera might be just love Ilsa as much as Rick does, taking every opportunity to provide close-ups of Bergman’s stunning face. Cast in the soft-glow radiance that makes nearly every frame painful to watch, it’s clear that Ilsa is torn between her duty to her husband and her obvious attraction to Rick. It’s a pain that presents itself whenever both Ilsa and Rick share the screen, making the inevitable on-screen kiss all the more electric. The film eventually lets us know why our two lovers separated, but it almost makes you question why they even bothered when Rick and Ilsa’s entire history can be completely understood by just a few glances and spoken words. The chemistry between the two is just that powerful.
Even after so many years, Casablanca is a highly effective film, and a high point in the golden era of Hollywood.