Of all the movies, in all the theaters, in all the world, “Casablanca” is a piece of cinematic history that only gets better as time goes by. It’s one of those films that’s constantly referenced and parodied in popular culture, but never recognized by the young folk who listen to that confounded rock music and won’t get off my lawn. While it was released over 70 years ago, the black-and-white Warner Brothers picture is not solely reserved for the viewing pleasure of senior citizens. There are no fancy shmancy special effects or explosions. There is no gratuitous nudity or profane language. There is no color! I know it’s hard to imagine a time when the moving pictures didn’t appeal to our basic animalistic urges, but this was the Golden Age of Hollywood, folks: when characters were actually important and sex was only hinted at. More importantly, this was the age of Humphrey Bogart.
Humphrey DeForest Bogart is the man that all other men strive to be but fail at being rather miserably. Forget the Dos Equis guy, Bogart was the original “Most Interesting Man In The World.” Always quick with snappy dialogue, his characters were the very epitome of class, charm and fortitude. After all, this is the man who started the infamous Rat Pack of the mid-20th century. Whether he was playing a private detective, gangster or nightclub owner, Bogart’s smart-talking, chain-smoking and alcohol-guzzling demeanor never got old (sadly, it’s also what killed him at the spry young age of 57). In the cynical and sexually motivated film noir world of trench coats and fedoras, he truly was the hardboiled king.
While Bogart’s filmography is vast, “Casablanca” is perhaps the most famous testament to his unforgettable acting chops. Adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play “Everybody Comes To Rick’s,” the movie focuses on Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub in the French protectorate of Morocco during World War II. A veritable den on iniquity (the holy trinity of booze, gambling and women), the club attracts French and German officials as well as refugees looking to get the hell out of war-torn Europe and into the United States. Per usual, Bogart portrays Rick as a stone-faced, no nonsense kind of fella with a heart of gold buried under a pile of distrust and bitterness. Despite taking place in a desert, things really start to heat up when his former lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a femme fatale of sorts, shows up out of the blue with another man, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). All the while, Max Steiner’s (“King Kong” and “Gone With The Wind”) romantic, ominous and exotic score helps set the mood for every scene. Along for the ride are Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; the last two had worked with Bogart on 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon,” along with cinematographer Arthur Edeson. What follows is a tale of deception, sexual undertones, heartbreak and extremely quotable lines. Who hasn’t looked, raised a glass of liquor and said in their best Bogart voice: “Here’s looking at you, kid”?
The most fascinating aspect of “Casablanca” is that it’s a war picture cavorting around under the guises of a love story. In doing so, it’s able to explore such themes as righteousness in times of moral crisis, the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, and the disastrous and far-reaching effects of a worldwide conflict. It almost makes you believe that love is a powerful enough weapon to defeat the Nazis. Moreover, it premiered in November 1942 to take advantage of the Allied invasion of North Africa, while the general release in 1943 coincided with the Allied conference in Casablanca between America, Great Britain and France. As Patton and Rommel were butting heads, Michael Curtiz’s (he also directed Bogart in three other films before “Casablanca”) film slightly romanticizes the war by heightening the emotions and downplaying the violence. It’s not “Saving Private Ryan,” that’s for sure!
While it is not strictly considered a noir because of its optimistic ending, “Casablanca” still contains many aspects of the genre that was big in American cinema during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Interestingly, nobody involved in the production expected the picture to be anything special despite the A-list cast and writers. After all, Hollywood cranked out hundreds of movies a year. In retrospect, it’s nice to see that these black-and-white masterpieces have withstood the test of time compared to the crappy blockbusters and romcoms of today. It often annoys me when younger people say that they don’t watch monochromatic features because they’re boring. Just because something is colorless doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of any moxy. In a lot of ways, black-and-white holds more mystery and allure than anything playing at your local movie house right now.
Sometimes, more can be done with a meager studio in Burbank, Calif., than extravagant shoots in faraway countries. And don’t you even think of watching the blasphemous colorized version from the ‘80s! Like the Ark of the Covenant, the movie is so sacred that no one in their right mind would dare make a sequel or remake, despite the fact that a follow-up called “Brazzaville” was considered for a split second. So, go find someone to enjoy the heyday of Hollywood with you. Who knows, it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One thing is for certain: if you don’t watch “Casablanca” you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.