Everybody comes to Rick’s…
… otherwise known as No. 3 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the Greatest American Films, also known as Casablanca, 1942 Oscar winner for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and surely one of the best loved film romances of all time. A veritable treasure trove of quotable quotes – “Here’s looking at you kid”, “I stick my neck out for nobody”, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – six of which are to be found on the AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Film Quotes, and one of which – “Round up the usual suspects” – yielded the title for Bryan Singer’s 1995 cult crime saga, the Michael Curtiz-directed classic looms large over our collective cine-romantic fantasies. But for a film that is so revered, so a shorthand for cinematic perfection, Casablanca had a profoundly chequered journey to fruition. Daily fiddling with the script, multiple cast changes (Ronald Reagan was rumoured to be one of the choices for the lead role of Rick Blaine), as well as an undecided ending, meant that the production, for the most part, was flying by the seat of its pants. Luckily, said garment was made of Warner Bros. brand re-enforced steel, and in the end every element came together to the point of zen.
For the uninitiated, Casablanca tells the tale of the ill-fated love between American ne’er-do-well Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and the luminous Ilsa Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman), who are torn apart by the vagaries of war, only to be reunited years later when he has become an embittered cynic, and she, Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid)’s wife. Against a backdrop of political machinations and intrigue, defiance of Nazi power, and Dooley Wilson’s timeless rendition of ‘As Time Goes By’ (“Play it Sam”), Rick and Ilsa find themselves giving into old feelings, even as her husband looks on helplessly. But, as Rick points out, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, and so, in the tradition of most immortal love stories, the lovers part, knowing that even though they cannot be together, “We’ll always have Paris.”
What can one say about Casablanca that has not been said innumerable times before? That it has absolutely cracking dialogue and thrilling screenplay? Combustible chemistry between the lead pair? A virtual who’s-who of supporting players – Claude Rains as the corrupt but boundlessly charming prefect of police, Sydney Greenstreet, as the corpulent and insidiously cunning boss of Casablanca’s underground traffic in visas, Peter Lorre as the polite but sinister runner of phony papers? And of course the ending, which has been called the best non-happy, happy ending in film history? Then there is the brilliance of the individual moments – Rick coming upon Ilsa in his nightclub (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”), Dooley Wilson singing ‘Knock on Wood’, and the patrons of Rick’s Café Americaine defiantly drowning out the voices of the Nazi officers by singing the Marseillaise.
At the risk of sounding corny (and any true fan would gladly take that risk), even more than sixty years on from its release, Casablanca is a film that just looks and sounds better, as time goes by.