—Hollywood’s Greatest Film—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Michael Curtiz
An American expat (Bogart) running a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco during World War II is surprised when his ex (Ingrid Bergman) shows up, married to the leader (Pal Henried) of Europe’s underground resistance.
What I Thought
This is it. The absolute pinnacle of Bogart films as far as I’m concerned, which is why I saved it for last. This was the cherry on the top of a year-and-a-half of Bogart film viewing.
Sure, I’ve seen Casablanca so many times that I’ve lost count, but this was the first time that I’ve sat down with a more analytical eye. Knowing that I was going to do a write-up, I asked myself, Why is this film so perfect in my mind? Why was this the film that served as my gateway into classic cinema? Why is this film remembered by many, if not most casual film fans, as Bogart’s greatest role?
I think a majority of the credit has to go to Director Michael Curtiz. From beginning to end, the city of Casablanca feels like a fully realized world. The daytime scenes are crammed from one edge of the screen to other with bustling crowds filling city streets and diversely populated nightclub scenes. The city is supposed to be overflowing with people looking to escape the war and Director Curtiz nailed it. This film is bursting at the seams with background artists, minor roles cast to perfection, supporting roles with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, and a handful of main characters that are handled deftly and given the time that they each need to establish their moments in the story.
Another huge chunk of credit goes to the twin Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who adapted the play for the big screen. There are a lot of great stories about how the Epstein’s regarded this script as just another studio assignment, how they wrote and rewrote scenes the very day that they were needed, and how they never really thought much of the finished film. (Julius was quoted as saying it not nothing more than “slick shit.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.)
The script is filled with dozens upon dozens of quotable lines. Yet at the same time, it was just incomplete and loose enough that the actors were able to fill in their own memorable moments when needed. Bogart reportedly supplied the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and it was producer Hal Wallis who supposedly came up with, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and had it dubbed in after shooting was complete.
“Are my eyes really brown?”
“Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
“I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
“You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”
“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
These are just a few of the lines that I try very hard to work into my daily conversations and I hope that the comments section of this post is LOADED with all the quotes that I didn’t mention.
But back to Director Curtiz. What strikes me as most interesting is that this was one of seven film collaborations that he had with Bogart. Curtiz worked on a limited number of scenes for both Black Legion and Marked Woman, and directed Kid Galahad, Angels with Dirty Faces, Virginia City, Passage to Marseille, and We’re No Angels. Some of those other collaborations are good. A few I would even consider to be great. But in my mind, none come close to Casablanca’s perfection.
The Bogart Factor
After so many viewings, this was the very first time that I’ve ever really noticed how the entire span of Bogart’s career seems to be contained within nightclub owner Rick Blaine. Since this was the last film in my Bogart journey, it probably helps that I’ve now sat through all of his other work from the beginning, no matter how small a part it might have been.
Especially during the flashbacks of France, we see an energetic, ever-so-slightly goofy and naïve character much like the ones Bogart played in Up the River, Love Affair, and Men Are Such Fools. It’s just enough “aw shucks” shoulder shrugging that I was really reminded of how wide Bogart’s range could be when we transition back to the darkened bar where he’s drinking away his memories of Ilsa and Paris.
There in the bar, we have the much more tightly wound, much angrier, much more depressed man who shows up in many of Bogart’s gangster roles, but perhaps especially films like San Quentin, Dead End, or The Petrified Forest. Films where Bogart seems to spend most of his time reflecting on how poorly his life has turned out and how desperately he wishes to move past his resentment and remorse.
And yet, at the core of Rick Blaine is the confident, loyal, trustworthy, stand-up man who will always end up doing the right thing, even if he tries to convince you that he sticks his neck out for no one! This is the type of character that we see Bogart playing later in his career – the Sam Spade’s, Rick Leland’s, and the majority of brooding expatriates that stick their necks out for everybody that filled Bogart’s filmography for the next ten plus years.
A white tuxedo. A trench coat and fedora. Cigarettes. Booze. A shady past. A mysterious woman. A broken heart. A pistol. These are the very things that Bogart helped define as icons of Classic Hollywood cinema and they’re all on display here in Casablanca. Of all his films, this is the one that I come back to again and again when I need a full and complete Bogart fix. I’ve found many other films where his performances might be more nuanced – more well-rounded – but this is definitively and understandably the role that establishes him as Hollywood’s greatest leading man.
Ingrid Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, Bogart’s ex and the current wife of the underground resistance leader Victor Laszlo. I can’t say enough good things about Bergman here, as this is her essential performance as far as I’m concerned. I know it doesn’t have as much depth as a few of her other high profile roles, but doggone it if I still don’t know whether or not she was really ready to leave Laszlo for Blaine at the end of the film. That nighttime scene in the bar just after Rick’s first flashback . . . drunk Bogart . . . forlorned Bergman . . . so good.
Dooley Wilson plays the piano playing singer at Rick’s Café Américain, Sam. What an incredible job Wilson does here playing the greatest wingman any guy could ever hope for. It was only after viewing the film for the umpteenth time that I realized Wilson’s fingers are in no-way-shape-or-form playing that piano believably, yet it took me forever to notice because I can’t take my eyes off of his face and my ears away from his voice. The guy was a natural, and in my dream of dreams I would go through Wilson’s entire filmography just to see if he did anything else that was as close to great as his performance in Casablanca. (Did I JUST read on imdb that he’s an uncredited piano player in Knock on Any Door?!? I will see if this is true TONIGHT!) *It is 100% true! Just after the 47 minute mark, there he is playing piano and accepting a beer!!! – 8/14/14 BFB*
Paul Henreid plays the battle weary and aged-beyond-his-years resistance leader, Victor Laszlo. According to Hollywood lore, Henreid almost didn’t take the role because he wasn’t the lead and he was afraid that it would set him back in his career. Thank goodness he accepted the part, because so much of the film’s gravitas depends heavily on us not hating Laszlo even though he’s standing in Rick Blaine’s way to Ilsa. To be fair to his initial instincts, Henreid isn’t remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, but I don’t think that’s any fault of his supporting role in this film. He’s a great actor and very handsome, but just didn’t have that uber-unique look or acting style that let him break into the upper echelon of Hollywood’s greatest legends.
Claude Rains wonderfully plays Bogart’s friend and sometime foil, Captain Louis Renault. What a testament to Rains’ talent that he can commit completely despicable deeds one moment, and have us laughing with joy the next. Rains was an insanely talented supporting actor, and I can never get enough of his work. I can’t be the only one who wants to see just a few minutes of Renault and Blaine’s post-Casablanca adventure together! Can you imagine these two guys fighting, drinking, joking, cajoling, and swindling their way through German troops as they work for the French resistance?
Conrad Veidt plays Major Heinrich Strasser, the head Nazi in charge of catching Victor Laszlo and making sure that he spends the rest of his life in a concentration camp, or dead. It’s not a huge role for Veidt, as he’s mainly used as an imposing villain to move the plot along, but as with the rest of the roles in the film, this one’s cast very well.
Sidney Greenstreet plays Signor Ferrari, Rick Blaine’s main nightclub competitor in Casablanca. Until this viewing, I never stopped to consider how cordial Ferrari and Blaine are when they’re together. I think these guys might actually be pretty decent friends – maybe even playing a few games of after-hours chess over drinks when curfew kicks in. Just consider for a moment that Blaine entrusts his entire staff, including Sam, into Ferrari’s hands at the end of the film. That’s got to be a great show of faith in a man who’s supposedly trying to beat you at your own game.
Peter Lorre plays the black market dealer Ugarte. How fantastic is this guy that he could make such a memorable contribution to this film with such a small part? I’m seriously shocked again and again as I watch this film and realize that he’s only in a hand full of scenes, yet his role looms very large over the legend and mythos of Casablanca.
S. Z. Sakall plays Carl, the host/waiter in Rick’s café. A wonderful, lovable, solid, hilarious, and incredibly talented supporting actor. The scene where he watches Rick help the young couple win at roulette is enough to make you want to hug him.
There’s Bogie Film Blog favorite Dan Seymour playing Abdul the doorman! He very few lines here in this tiny role, but he is namechecked by Rick!
And there are TONS of other supporting actors who deserve a mention, but I gotta stop somewhere!
Classic Bogie Moment
How? HOW do I pick here?!? There is too, too, too much to choose from. Trench coat and fedora? White tux? A pic with Lorre? One with Greenstreet? I gotta go with this one, because Dooley Wilson just doesn’t get enough love on this blog:
The Bottom Line
I came home from high school one afternoon and my mom was just at the beginning of this film. I’d never sat through an entire classic film before, but decided to give it a try. I’ve never looked back. After 465 days and 115 posts of my own personal nonstop Bogart movie marathon, I’ve grown to appreciate not only Bogart in a much greater capacity, but Classic Hollywood, and film as a whole.
Long live the legacy of Humphrey Bogart.