Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve probably heard any number of the film’s legendary quotes which have made their way into our cultural vocabulary, including the oft-misquoted “play it again, Sam.”
Based on the then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, it tells the story of a cynical bar owner (Humphrey Bogart) who is doing his best to remain neutral during the events of WWII, even as refugees from Europe, fleeing the advance of the Nazis, flood the Moroccan city of Casablanca eager to book passage to America. Rick’s existence is threatened when an old flame, Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) arrives with her husband, the freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), Rick has to decide just how neutral he’s going to be, especially with Captain Renault (Claude Raines), the morally dubious police captain, breathing down his neck.
While one would expect Bogart and Bergman, who have wonderful on-screen chemistry, to steal focus, the whole cast is so good that it still feels like an ensemble piece. Major Strasse (Conrad Veidt), Sam (Dooley Wilson), Ferarri (Sydney Greenstreet), Ugarte (Peter Lorre), and Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau) all give the story a deeper resonance. This isn’t just the story of two lovers who missed their chance, this is the story of all of Europe reacting to the threat of Nazi occupation. I’ve even heard some critics say that the story itself acts out the events of World War II with each person representing each country involved, but I think that may be a bit of a stretch. In any case, it does lead to some fascinating analysis.
What makes this film work so well is how seamlessly the script juggles the huge cast and makes the audience care about everyone involved. Yvonne is a relatively minor character, but by the time, she stands up, belting out “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the Nazi soldiers who were singing their own national anthem, your heart breaks right along with hers as you experience her grief at being displaced from her home.
It’s one of the film’s most powerful moments, but it never would have worked if Yvonne was treated as a throwaway character. That’s the beauty of the film; everything fits together so neatly that, by the time the plot reaches its denouement, you feel like you’ve experienced something important.
But let’s not ignore the central duo. Rick and Elsa’s history is beautifully conveyed in the body language of the two leads. They’re familiar but hesitant, bitter but tender, and their feelings toward each other are both unresolved and resolved. Bogart and Bergman are so electrifying on screen, you really feel a pang of loss when they don’t end up together.
Lastly, I have to mention Claude Raines’ character, Captain Renault, who’s my favorite character in the whole film. He’s a charming, slimy rebel whose allegiances waver as often as a flag in the wind, and yet you can’t help but like him. In the end, he makes the right decision, so it’s OK to adore him as much as I do. *hugs Renault*
It’s a gorgeous film with a brilliant cast, and you need to watch it. I know I say that about all of these, but it’s true because they’re glorious! So do it!
If all goes well, I’ll be back on Monday with a review. I’ve heard good things about Free State of Jones, so I’ll try to see that this weekend. If life gets in the way, I’ll see you on Saturday!