We begin with a view of a globe spinning in a sea of fog, not unlike the fog that will settle in over the airport in the film’s final scene — the fog of war, a blanket of exotic mystery. Following this is a montage created by future director Don Siegel, literally mapping out the exodus to the North African city of the film’s title, narrated with Lou Marcelle’s stentorian voiceover just a few notches below “News on the March” from Citizen Kane. Then a diving crane shot into the cacophony of the city itself. I once found the opening passages of Casablanca pedestrian, a simple introduction to a story that holds little interest until the principal actors arrive to give it a spark. That isn’t completely wrong; Michael Curtiz’s direction is smart and efficient, but the personalities on screen are always the real draw. It’s just that the spark belongs not only to the stars but to virtually every member of the film’s ensemble. There’s magic at work here that goes far beyond performance. While Casablanca boils down to a simple battle of good and evil, its menagerie of characters exists on an entire moral spectrum — Nazis, Vichy, freedom fighters, turncoats, profiteers, and refugees. And also Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the expatriate saloonkeeper whose cause is himself. This complexity is what elevates Casablanca above straightforward wartime uplift and to the status of the most beloved film of the studio era.
Most of the characters are introduced at Rick’s Café Américain, where much of the plot takes place and indeed where the movie really takes off. But even before then, in the city streets, we meet the pickpocket played by Curt Bois (“Vultures, vultures everywhere”) and catch a first glimpse at the young Bulgarian couple played by Joy Page and Helmut Dantine — all three of whom will make encore appearances in the café later. At the airport we find Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) greeting the Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and helping to establish the city as a powder keg, a swarming hive of political maneuvering, European elegance colliding with the wild west. Rick’s Café is the hub of everything, its spacious lounge under a canopy of cigarette smoke at all times, each table discreetly hosting some intrigue or other. The atmosphere is carefully but quickly established. Each character makes an impact and is instantly passed over, his or her fate left suspended. All this before the tantalizing, drawn-out entrance of the man in the white tuxedo, Monsieur Rick. Playing chess with himself, because of course he is.
On this eventful night Rick will first meet with Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who may have been involved in the deaths of two German couriers, seeing as he now possesses “letters of transit” they had been carrying. These apparently mythical letters are the MacGuffins of the plot, a surefire ticket out of Casablanca for any refugee who carries them, and Ugarte wants them kept safe until he can sell them. Things turn south for Ugarte, and he has the misfortune of being the first character in the film to seek mercy from Rick. The remainder of the film consists of various characters attempting to crack Rick’s shell, his armor built up to keep him from facing his dark, sorrowful past. The strongest volley comes from a song played by the café’s piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). A song about love’s resilience in the face of time’s passing. A song requested by Rick’s long-lost inamorata, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). She has found her way into this specific gin joint on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), legendary resistance leader and all-around saint. A Nazi noose is tightening around Victor’s neck, but Rick hesitates to grant them passage to freedom, at least until he finds out just why Ilsa left him without a word of explanation on the day Paris fell.
In this film the personal and the political are hopelessly snarled. Rick’s motivation is petty and selfish when we get right down to it, but he represents the American isolationist stance that doesn’t recognize the fight against fascism as its own. Before he does anything to give Europe a helping hand, he needs to know whether or not one particular European woman was ever worth loving. The film also explores the problem from the woman’s point of view. It’s about the competing interests within Ilsa that allowed her to fall in love with two very different men in the first place. One of them “opened up for her a whole beautiful world,” a world in which freedom must be protected from the perennial threat of tyranny. The other had courage and ideals of his own, but now he seems ready to take his revenge on the whole world because one woman hurt him. Still, they had something beautiful together once. As we learn, Ilsa did nothing wrong. She was already married to Victor but believed herself a widow when she met Rick. Perhaps she should have explained everything to Rick when she first learned her husband was still alive, but the real villain of the story is the war itself, and by extension, of course, the parties responsible for it.
Casablanca proceeds for a time with these issues bubbling underneath a surface of congenial gamesmanship. The snappy script by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch provides endless amusement. But then Victor has to go and flout the Nazis’ encroachment with a patriotic sing-along in the café. From then on, everything heats up, and the film’s mad rush to its conclusion is exhilarating to behold. Plots, counterplots, and misdirection accumulate with dizzying speed. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) hit on just the right metaphor in an earlier scene when he spoke of laying his cards on the table. Without a doubt, there is gambling going on at Rick’s establishment.
I haven’t even mentioned Madeleine Lebeau, S.Z. Sakall, John Qualen, Leonid Kinskey, and Marcel Dalio, all of whom, without much in the way of screen time, contribute to the cosmopolitan flavor (well, cosmopolitan for Hollywood, anyway) of the film while also making unique impressions of their own. The central love triangle may be what everyone remembers about the film, but it’s the details filled in by the supporting cast that make the story’s world believable and give the love triangle weight. Taken in isolation, it’s all just solid, professional work. Discussions of Casablanca always relate the anecdote that no one involved in making the film thought it would turn out to be a masterpiece. The “vision” behind the film is easy enough to guess. Premiering in late 1942 but set a year earlier, the movie has its male lead talk about how “they’re asleep all over America.” Intended as rousing entertainment to remind Americans that the fight against the Axis Powers was worth everything, Casablanca ends with a kind of hopefulness that still feels daring. Rick and Captain Renault walk the tarmac, setting forth on a new adventure, sitting in the crosshairs of the Third Reich but finally, spectacularly bulletproof.