The Film: Casablanca usually finds itself in competition with Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind for the title of ‘greatest film ever made,’ and for just reason. Casablanca, bluntly put, is one of the best films ever to have been made in the history of cinema. This label extends beyond the film’s plot and the careers that were catapulted as a result of the film’s success, but because of what the film represented then and now. Casablanca is a love story, but it is also a film that combats tyranny and injustice. The film was made in 1942 right when Hitler and his Nazi party were invading Europe and building upon their racist and genocidal regime. The United States, which had desperately tried to stay isolationist while the war was building momentum, was now thrust into the midst of it after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Therefore, public sentiment was mixed with depression and pessimism as the United States entered 1942. This is what allowed for Casablanca to be the success it was because its subtext of patriotism emphasized the possibility that the Nazis could be defeated. Casablanca offered the concept of ‘the good guys’ winning the war and love ultimately conquering above all else. Casablanca has a pro-patriotism sentiment to it with even the film’s release coinciding with allied troops invading North Africa and capturing Casablanca, adding to the film’s appeal of encouragement for others to maintain hope. The very premise of the film, whether Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine is going to make the right decision, shows how even the sternest of individuals cannot stand by idly and allow evil to spread. The film instilled the notion that hope still existed in the world and that all was not lost.
Furthermore, what made Casablanca an instant classic is its flawless direction, screenplay, acting, and its remarkable blending of genres. All components of the film complement each other and never once find themselves in conflict with each other. The film’s plot is simple: Rick Blaine (Bogart) owns a gambling club and saloon in Casablanca and prides himself on the knowledge that he “never sticks his neck out for anybody.” This mentality is challenged when his former lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive at his establishment. Laszlo is a fugitive and resistance leader who German officials anxiously want to imprison and keep from escaping to America. The film reveals Rick once had a relationship with Ilsa, to which they were deeply in love until she unexpectedly broke his heart and left him. Rick is now left with the dilemma of whether he should break his neutral stance and assist Laszlo or remain neutral to spite his being jilted by Ilsa.
Despite the film’s simple plot, the storyline is saturated with subtleties that speak towards pro-patriotism and the need to be united against oppression. Scenes such as the famous “battle of anthems” promoted patriotic fervor and provided a visual of oppression literally being silenced. Also worth noting is Casablanca’s stellar ability to be both dramatic and comedic at the same time. Much of this genre blending should be credited to Humphrey Bogart and especially Claude Rains, who were both definitive standouts within the film. No on-screen friendship has ever been able to replicate the Rick Blaine-Captain Louis Renault friendship whose foundation was based off of personal jabs and cynicism, yet mutual respect for each other. Without this effective dynamic within the film Casablanca’s narrative wouldn’t have had the necessary fluidity to maintain the audience’s interest.
However, it is Casablanca’s final sequences, the airport scenes, that truly sell the film. The reason why these scenes are cinematic gold is because they ignored the traditional conventions of Hollywood storytelling. Rather than giving into the simpler dynamic of Rick and Ilsa being together, audiences are taught the valuable lesson of sacrifice. The reason why many people still quote the famous line, “We’ll always have Paris,” is because it reiterates the classic phrase ‘better to have loved than not loved at all.’ Casablanca portrays love as being fleeting, but never losing its potency. Casablanca may not have the traditional ‘happy ending,’ but it ends with audiences feeling satisfied by its outcome. Much of this is due to Humphrey Bogart’s acting, to which he had to provide a subtle metamorphosis from where his character is introduced in the film in contrast to his actions by the film’s climax. Bogart’s acting had to convey that his sacrifice was both selfless and also what he truly wanted. Therefore Rick’s famous explanation to Ilsa when she argues against his decision, “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life,” is truth from his heart. That is the satisfaction audiences gain from the ending of Casablanca; by seeing Rick reveal he truly does have a heart.
The Performance: Casablanca dealt with numerous production issues during the first weeks of filming, one of the biggest issues being how to conclude the film. Producers and director Michael Curtiz especially couldn’t agree on the fate of Bergman’s Ilsa Lund and who her character would end with. Ingrid Bergman was placed with the dilemma during the first weeks of filming of having to deliver a performance without knowing where the character would end up by the film’s climax. She was famously told to act “in-between” in her scenes, which she herself said was complicated to achieve. This was an issue that even frustrated Humphrey Bogart, who continually barricaded himself in his trailer. Yet once the script was finalized, Bergman was given enough time to shift her performance slightly to have it compliment her character’s fate by the film’s climax.
Regardless of the production issues she had to face, Bergman’s performance is astonishing because the confusion and conflict she instilled into the character is evident throughout the performance. Bergman was able to convey tremendous emotion with Ilsa through her eyes and having them be the focal point of her body language within the film. This is tremendous since Bergman essentially isn’t given much to do with her performance. It is Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains who were given the meatier dialogue and action within the film’s conflict, which makes Bergman’s performance reactionary to these characters. Yet despite whomever her character is speaking to, it is specifically through her eyes that her performance shines and detracts from the possibility of being inferior to the males of the film. Her eyes speak of longing, fear and sadness throughout the film, which discreetly conveys her internal struggle with herself. The emotion that rings from her eyes embellishes upon her dialogue, especially in the presence of Bogart. Bergman’s Ilsa captures a woman who can barely hold her emotions together while trying to present herself as strong, as evidenced by the quivering of her eyes that eventually surrender to tears.
It can also be argued that Bergman’s on-screen chemistry with Humphrey Bogart is the best of her entire career. Her and Bogart were able to effectively bounce dialogue off each other without it seeming forced upon the audience. This contrasts greatly with the many male co-stars of Bergman’s career, who usually complimented her performance without ever being a genuine equal to her. In Casablanca, Bogart holds equal stature as Bergman, thereby allowing them to be believable as lovers. As a result of this, Bergman provided some of the best internalized character conflict of her career by having her character try to deny her love for Rick, yet being unable to maintain this stance when in his presence. Her performance is about sacrifice; sacrificing her happiness to remain by the side of her husband who could potentially end the war. She knows Laszlo would lose his conviction to fight if he no longer has the emotional support of his wife, which causes her to sacrifice her needs and desires. Therefore, Bergman was able to have her Ilsa Lund also be selfless and a champion in her own right within the film.
Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Casablanca is considered her most famous role, which isn’t surprising given the tremendous love and following Casablanca continues to have 75 years since its first theater screening. Bergman easily could have used Casablanca to cement herself in Hollywood history, but she always aimed for the more versatile and difficult roles. Ingrid Bergman refused to allow herself to be defined by a single role. She wanted to be known for challenging her acting talent as effectively as she could. Unlike most actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman refused to be typecasted and instead fought for the roles that would ultimately immortalize her as one of the greatest actresses ever to have lived. It is remarkable to note that 1942 and Casablanca was Ingrid Bergman’s breakthrough film and year; a career that would last forty more years. During this time she would go onto starring as a psychologist, a spy, a Spanish revolutionary, a progressive nun, Joan of Arc, Anastasia, a wife driven to insanity, a dentist’s assistant who breaks out of her repressed shell, a Swedish missionary, a famous pianist, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Added to that, Ingrid Bergman would go onto winning 3 Oscars, a Tony, and 2 Primetime Emmys in her vast career. If anyone had anticipated such a career with Ingrid Bergman when they first saw her in Casablanca, they likely would have been surprised. Yet it is not surprising when observing her career as a whole and recognizing the tremendous versatility she offered to audiences. Ingrid Bergman was fated to be an acting legend and that is what she always will be.
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4.5/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 3.5/5
Joan of Arc: 3/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 3/5
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 4/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 2.5/5
Joan of Arc: 2/5
Links for other Ingrid Thursdays can be found here:
A Woman Called Golda
Joan of Arc
Murder on the Orient Express
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Bells of St. Mary’s