Oscar Movie Month: "Casablanca" Review

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Humphrey Bogart plays a jaded nightclub owner in war-torn Casablanca, whose loyalties are put to the test when his old flame (Ingrid Bergman) reappears to seek his help in escaping from the Nazis. Based on the unpublished stage play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
4.5

Oscar Movie Month: "Casablanca" Review

-- Rating: PG (adult themes)
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: November 26, 1942
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Genre: Romantic Drama

Few films stand the test of time or capture the imaginations of generations of viewers quite like "Casablanca," which was released in 1942. Based on an unpublished stage play called "Everybody Comes to Rick's," the movie explores timeless themes such as love and loss, the absurdity of war, and standing up for personal convictions. With an A-list cast, excellent direction, and snappy dialogue, "Casablanca" is one of the few movies, classic or contemporary, that makes top lists of movie buffs and critics alike.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, the story takes place in a gambling den called Rick's Café Americain, located in French-held Morocco. The mysterious owner of the establishment, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is a jaded American expatriate who claims to take no sides. His bar is considered neutral ground, and as such, it attracts a wide array of patrons, including Vichy French, Italian, and Nazi officials, as well as refugees from all over Europe who are desperate to escape the carnage of war and those searching for refugees to turn in for rewards.

The audience soon learns this mask of cynicism hides a heart of gold. Many of his employees are refugees from war-torn countries, hiding out in plain sight from their enemies under Rick's protection. A small-time crook named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) confides in Rick that he has priceless letters of transit that he stole from a pair of German couriers and offers to sell them at the club later that night. These letters provide safe passage for refugees, making them invaluable to those stranded in Casablanca. Before Ugarte can make the sell, he's arrested by Vichy Captain Louis Renalt (Claude Rains) and dies in custody. Ugarte never reveals that he gave the papers to Rick for safekeeping, setting the stage for the story.

Rick's best friend, Sam (Dooley Wilson), plays the piano at the bar. He earns Rick's ire when a mysterious woman from Rick's past shows up and asks Sam to play a forbidden song, "As Time Goes By." When Rick rushes to confront Sam, he's shocked to find Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), his former lover, and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who is a fugitive Czech resistance leader. Laszlo needs the letters of transit so that he and Ilsa can escape to America, but German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is determined to prevent their escape.

As enemies, rivals, friends, and former lovers come together at Rick's Café Americain, the audience learns that Rick isn't quite as neutral as he would appear. He ran arms to Ethiopia to help stem the tide against invasion and fought on the loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War. His cynical nature hides a broken heart, still bitter from Ilsa's past betrayal. Ilsa confronts Rick at his establishment after it's closed for the night and threatens him with a gun. She wants the letters of transit so she and Lazlo can escape to America. She then confesses she still loves Rick, but she had to leave when she found out her husband was still alive. Rick and Ilsa then reconcile and he agrees to help her, thinking she'll stay with him in Morocco instead of fleeing with her husband. Laszlo shows up unexpectedly after escaping a resistance meeting that was raided by the police.

Laszlo attempts to emotionally manipulate Rick by playing on his love for Ilsa, begging him to get her out of the country to safety. When police arrive to arrest Laszlo, Rick persuades them to let him go, promising to help them nab him for a more serious crime, possession of the letters of transit that everyone is searching for. He convinces the police of his sincerity by claiming he's leaving for America with Ilsa and needs Laszlo out of the way to do so. But when the arranged arrest comes to pass, Rick double-crosses the police at gunpoint, making Renault, the police captain, assist in their daring escape.

Instead of escaping with Ilsa or demanding she say with him, Rick makes her get on the plane to Libson with her husband, explaining she'd only regret it and resent him if she stayed. He covers their escape by shooting Strasser, and Renault covers for him due to their past association. At the end, Rick and Sam ponder their next move, wandering into the fog of the city.

Emotional, complex, and satisfying, the film "Casablanca" relies on the characters themselves to move the story forward. While action is implied and guns are pulled and fired, those scenes stand in stark contrast to emotional confrontations between Rick and Ilsa, Sam and Rick, and even Rick and Laszlo. The letters of transit serve as the perfect McGuffin that drives characters to interact and communicate, propelling the story to explore the depths of the human condition. With a simple style that's used to sophisticated effect, "Casablanca" stands firm as one of the greatest movies ever made.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5