Casablanca was released at the very end of 1942, right in the middle of the very war it captured on film. It was a year after the first American military offenses had begun in World War II. The ending of it, the shape of the world after it would end, was anyone’s guess. In a time of such complication and uncertainty, Casablanca put it all in context, the kind of context that the world needed – a human one. On the surface it is a simple, albeit tragic, love story. But through Ilsa, Victor, and Rick a deeper message of the price of freedom is communicated. The audiences are told that, in fact, there are things more important than love. Of course, the “message” suggested here is very explicit in the film itself. It can, in fact, be summed up by one of Rick’s iconic lines: “I’m no good at being noble, but 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”.
Yet perhaps, through this admittedly shallow reading of the film, a sympathetic meaning can be found. As Bordwell says in Film Art: an Introduction, “… [I]t’s possible to understand a film’s explicit or implicit meanings as bearing traces of a particular set of social values” (Bordwell 65). Here those values are many: the desire to end isolationism, the rekindling of awareness of great social truths such as liberty and equality, and the belief that nothing was more important than the fight against evils that would rob men of such rights. For example, when Ilsa’s goes secretly to Rick in an attempt to get the letters of transit from him, he sums up his own character when he says, “I’m the only cause I’m interested in” (Casablanca). Rick seems to represent the views of many American’s before World War II, people who believed that whatever was happening “over there” was none of our business and, more than that, that getting involved in the problems of Europe would be detrimental to the United States. Through the course of this movie, the audience witnesses Rick change from uncaring isolationist to freedom fighter. This must have resonated with American audiences at a time when the whole country suddenly found itself going through the same change. “Welcome back to the fight,” are Lazlo’s final words to Rick as he is about to leave for the new world; they were words for all of America as well (Casablanca).
Looking more specifically at the art of the film, one has to respect the unity and the intensity of effect one finds there. There are many ways in which the work is unified, not the least by dialogue and setting. The phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid” has become iconic not because it is particularly clever or catchy, but because through its repetition, the past of Rick and Ilsa in Paris is unified with the present of them in Casablanca, in the midst of an increasingly dangerous and high-stakes war. As for intensity of effect, the score is the most obvious and effective method which communicates this intensity. When Ilsa makes her three dramatic entrances into Rick’s life, (when she and he first lock eyes, when she comes back to the Café after hours, and when she appears in his room for the papers), each appearance is accompanied by a dramatic swell of strings and brass, pushing home how bombastic her appearance is to our main protagonist. Likewise the song “As Time Goes By” comes to bear great significance in the plot, having a profound effect on the mood whenever it is played by Sam or the melody is heard in the score.
Also worthy of discussion is an evaluation of the film’s complexity and originality. As I suggested at the beginning, on the surface the film does not seem overly complex or original: it is a love story, a tragedy in one sense and yet a tale of heroism on the other. However this film is anything but simple or clichéd. Putting the central drama of the love triangle aside, this film is, above all, about a war. About a war that tore apart families, countries, and that changed society’s ideas of right and wrong, good and evil. The Second World War redefined the world as a whole – after it ended, nothing was, nor could it ever be, the same. Casablanca was a film that explored the very era in which it lived, which brought all these issues to the surface not by focusing on them or preaching about them, but by showing realistically how it affected the lives of all, even in such a forgotten, unimportant place as Casablanca. Needless to say this angle of storytelling infinitely complicated what would have been a fairly simple romance film into something much more. It certainly creates “intriguing patterns of feelings and meanings”, as Bordwell puts it.
Many scene’s from this movie are iconic: the flashback of Paris, the end scene of Ilsa and Rick talking as the plane to Lisbon prepares to leave, Louis and Rick walking off into the mist; yet I believe that these are not the most important scenes of the film. No, for me the pivotal moment comes when Louis thinks he is about to arrest Victor Lazlo with Rick’s help and says, “Love, it seems, has triumphed over virtue”, only to find that Rick has lied both to him and Ilsa, orchestrating the escape of Lazlo and relinquishing his true love (Casablanca). That, to me, is the real story told in this film. It isn’t the classic romance; love does not always conquer all and it shouldn’t always do so. Sometimes even love must fall to higher virtues; virtues of freedom.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: an Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz. By Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Max Steiner, Arthur Edeson, and Owen Marks. Prod. Hal B. Wallis. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1943. DVD.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.