Casablanca

1943 - Casablanca - poster
(1943)

Like Gone With the Wind this is a film that has long been highly esteemed. For many it is among the greatest films ever made. For some there is none better.

I have long been a fan of Casablanca. When my wife and I were married more than 20 years ago one of the first pieces of art we purchased for our first apartment was a framed poster of Casablanca. It still hangs in our home to this day. We love this film.

In my opinion it is perhaps the finest script ever written. Watching it again in the context of The Oscar Project confirmed that and more.

There’s no need to get into the plot of this film or how the story unfolds. You’ve already seen it. And if you haven’t I won’t spoil any moment of the movie by giving it what would undoubtedly be an inadequate explanation. But I am more than happy to prattle on like a fanboy about how I feel about this masterpiece.

The acting is wonderful. Bogart does some of the best work of his illustrious career and Ingrid Bergman is exquisite as always. But every supporting player gets credit for holding it all together.

Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Syndney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson and Claude Rains are the big names supporting Bogart and Bergman. But the names most people don’t know shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • Madeleine LeBeau as Yvonne, Rick’s cast-off girlfriend.
  • Leonid Kinskey as Sascha, the “crazy Russian” bartender infatuated with Yvonne.
  • Z. Sakall (credited as S. K. Sakall) as Carl, the head waiter at Rick’s.

Claude Rains is the standout of the bunch but they’re all on point.

The cinematography is particularly imaginative with some very clever camera work, movement, positioning and use of shadows. The blocking is deliberate but not distracting.

But the strength of this film is the script.

Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch (based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison… sort of*)

The story is flawless and the fact that pages of dialogue were being written on the spot and handed to the actors just moments before the cameras were rolling adds even more to this film’s incredible legend.

I’ve talked a lot in these Oscar Project articles about lazy writing. Not only is the script for Casablanca not lazy, it writes the book on what smart, hard-working writing looks like. It dares to trust the audience to use their brains instead of hitting them over the head with exposition.

Characters don’t have conversations detailing their history together for the benefit of the audience.

The meaning of things isn’t telegraphed thereby giving the audience the opportunity to watch and figure out what’s going on. It’s a far more engaging way to tell a story and it works perfectly in Casablanca.

I adore the razor sharp dialogue.

I tried including a few of my favorite quotes but there are just too many to pick just one or two or ten.

Michael Curtiz is the forgotten man of the Casablanca legacy. His direction is so subtle and beautiful. This film says more with a look, a glance or a facial expression than other films say in 3 pages of dialogue.

Ilsa arrives at the club with Victor. She and Sam (who is playing the piano) notice each other as they walk by. Their faces say so much about their history, what she just walked into and how Sam expects Rick will react when he finds out she’s there. All without ever saying a word.

And the attention to detail is remarkable. Rick walks through the club calming the customers after Ugarte’s arrest. As he passes a table he casually sets upright a glass that had been turned over in the scuffle.

And the way he composed the “La Marseillaise” scene is still one of the most powerful moments in film. Let me be clear so that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. It is still one of the most powerful moments in the history of film. I said it and I’ll stand by it.

Curtiz might also be the forgotten man of the Hollywood legacy. He received four best director nominations plus another as a write-in candidate back when they did such things. In the midst of all those best director nods he also won an Academy Award for his short film Sons of Liberty. He would go on to direct more than 170 films in his 57 year career with six of his films being nominated for best picture.

  • Captain Blood (1935)
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Four Daughters (1938)
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
  • Casablanca (1943)
  • Mildred Pierce (1945)

Eleven times he directed a performer to an acting nomination with James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) winning best actor and actress respectively.

White Christmas - Michael CurtizAnd Michael Curtiz will forever be a part of countless family holiday traditions as the director of White Christmas in 1954.

Casablanca was nominated for nine Oscars at the 1943 Academy Awards went home with just three for picture, director and screenplay. It probably should have won three more for supporting actor (Claude Rains), cinematography and editing.

Ingrid Bergman wasn’t nominated for best actress for Casablanca because she was nominated instead for her work in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which had a total of nine nominations including best picture. It also became the third film to receive nominations in all four acting categories.

This was the first year supporting actors and actresses were given full-size Oscars instead of smaller-sized awards mounted on plaques. 1943 marked another movie awards first. It was the inaugural Golden Globes. Naturally, Casablanca won zero Golden Globes.

I’m sure you’ve seen this film. But if for some reason you haven’t (my parents hadn’t until I showed them when I watched it for The Oscar Project) let me assure you this film lives up to all the hype. It’s a classic for a reason.

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*The play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” was never produced and bought by Warner Brothers outright in 1940 for $20,000. The play had the spines of the story but a lot was changed, adapted and improved for the film. It might be more accurate to say it was an original script with the story by the playwrights. But technically it was adapted. But most people involved in the film didn’t know that. Even Ingrid Bergman said in a 1974 interview: “Adapted from a play? Casablanca? I don’t think so.”

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