Casablanca. If you don’t know anything about it, you’ve at least probably heard of it. The impact of the film has been so great that popular culture continues to reference and imitate it, whether knowingly or not.
Filmed in 1942 before the end of World War Two, it is set during the conflict in Casablanca, Morocco, and concerns the emotional and political conflicts of reunited lovers, in a dangerous time and place. Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is an exiled American who runs a popular bar and casino in Casablanca. His aloof, reserved and cynical personality guards his interests, yet moments of sentimentality reveal his very human flaws. When a long lost love, Ilsa, chances to enter his bar along with her European resistance leader husband, the humanity and anguish of this character is revealed. Ilsa complicates the re-opening of old emotional wounds by seeking the possession of two valuable documents Rick possesses, letters of transit, which could ensure her husband’s safe escape to America. The conflicts of love and politics play out beautifully against the background of war, and create a world of drama that is nostalgic and separate from the reality of war, in the film and outside. Themes of trust, kindness and redemption flow throughout the film, and produce a powerful, lingering effect that goes some way to explaining its enduring popularity.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are the two stars, and on screen, they create a chemistry that makes the past passions and present tensions all the more dramatic, each look bearing a world of meaning and conflicted emotions. Rick is stylish and wears white suits, suggesting goodness underneath his ‘lone wolf’ exterior. His face looks experienced and worn, in contrast to Bergman. She has a flawless complexion and is shot through a softening filter, with significant use of lighting around her, making her skin glow and eyes sparkle. When she walks into the bar for the first time, several shots show men of different ages and ethnicities turning to watch her in awe. She is angelic, but sadly so, with a tendency to look pensive and reserved, she rarely smiles apart from in the flashbacks. She is mysterious and alluring, much like the romance itself. Alongside the two main players, all the other characters are intriguing, unique and complex. Notably Sam, the musician who acts as an intermediate, a neutral communicator between the two lovers. Few, if any of the characters are clearly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, even Rick himself is dubious, and we can question Ilsa’s past actions, but the theme of redemption allows the chance for these characters to make a good choice, to find their own form of salvation.
The characters have motifs, but most prominent of all is Rick’s various, iconic catchphrases: ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ and ‘here’s looking at you, kid’ are repeated for increased emphasis. The first portrays Rick’s sense of individualism and self-interest, rather than generosity or kindness, in an era when suspicion and self-saving was rife. Yet the other line, particularly attached to Ilsa, suggests a support of this individuality, that independence and self-determination is a positive trait. Individual control over fate, in a time when this was difficult, is a valued thing, and the responsibility this implies should be accepted willingly. Essentially in a film we are looking at the character and watching how their decisions change their lives. They are in the spotlight, and have to take responsibility for their own actions and consequences. This idea is not only encapsulated in films, but is a western, particularly an American, ideal. Individualism and independent self-realisation is a dream which the film plays out, but this responsibility also presents the possibility for redemption, for a chance to make the right choice, as occurs at the end.
The dramatic opening is memorable for promptly introducing the context of the film. Strong music with hints of drums and orientalism resounds over a map of the world which zooms gradually towards Casablanca: there is no doubt as to the important global and political background. Behind the map images of war play out, and we are rapidly shown scenes from different global settings of the war, each shot fading into another. This fade technique creates a seamless transition which emphasises the similarity of experiences between different countries and peoples, indicating the global impact of the war. Indeed, throughout the film there are many nationalities portrayed. Rick’s Casino is a melting pot of various people in different situations, with mixed political opinions, yet united under war. Amongst this the two reunited lovers stand out, as sharing a very intimate, common experience in an increasingly hostile world. The mixture of refugees and exiles in the hubbub of Casablanca makes the human stories and plights in the film very real, and deserving of our sympathy and interest.
The cinematography is clean and stark, with light and shadow prominently manipulated to emphasise the black and white film noir style. There are elements of tragedy, comedy, romance and politics which make this film feel fresh, an interesting mixture of genres. The contrast of humour and business, entertainment and politics is constant within the film, and adds complexity and psychological depth to the events and characters, making them real and intriguing.
Other influential techniques and shots in this film mostly centre on pans, fades or cuts in a crowd of people, between different social groups and discussions, portraying how many individual lives are affected by war and no matter how their own lives play out, they are all united under this oppression. One notable scene is the introduction to Rick’s bar, when the camera follows customers through the door way and around the bar, lingering here and there on individual faces and conversations, revealing the mixture of peoples, the variety of issues and politics. However the bar is a place to forget strifes as well: the pianist Sam acts as a focus of the entertainment, as well as a musical medium for Rick and Ilsa to renew memories which are both fond and painful, simultaneously unite and separate the lovers, specifically with the song ‘As Time Goes By’. Another instance displaying the importance of music is the famous ‘music battle scene’. When a group of Germans begin to sing their national anthem, the rest of the bar sing the French national anthem even louder, some crying and drowning out the German voices with their pride in their nation, and in their identity. It is a small, but meaningful, victory. Music is evocative and meaningful, and communicates what characters may be unable to themselves.
The flash-back sequences transport us into almost another film, another story in the two characters lives, of their romance in France. The bliss and happy past provides a contrast with the tense and difficult present. It hints at this future with mentions of invasion and war, and provides more depth to the characters, as the audience follows their relationship alongside the build up to war and their need to escape, which would eventually part them. A shot of them kissing is contrasted with German tanks, showing the disruption of daily life, how their love is broken apart. The tank’s are almost representative of Ilsa’s missing husband, returning to break apart their romance and bring politics back into their lives. Rick reads Ilsa’s unexpected farewell note in the rain, causing the ink to run, like tears, and the warmth of his heart to fade, a strong use of pathetic fallacy. He jumps onto a train and will not see her again until she walks into his bar. The magic of chance plays here, as Rick sighs; ‘of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine’. This interestingly questions the idea of fate and destiny, as their reunion allows them to heal the wounds of the past, and to move each other’s lives onto a new stage.
‘We’ll always have Paris…’ These lines linger on as a suggestion that no matter what occurs in the present, even if you do not have what you want, memory is still a valuable emotional trigger. The film is a memory itself, of the happy times when war was not a problem, both in Casblanca and reality. The final shot of Rick and a friend walking into a thick fog is iconic. It suggests that all memory, though it may seem to fade, still exists within us as a place to return to and learn from, and that the chance for redemption moves us onwards.
Overall, the film displays the ability of individuals to impact upon and change each other’s lives, in ways that are effective both intimately and externally. Emotional and political interests combine, and can survive even in the most unlikely circumstances. Rick himself shows us the possibility for good is capable of redeeming us. This film captures our sympathy and imagination, and will continue to influence generations in years to come.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Thanks for reading! Alice