Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Two

2 casablanca

#2 — Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Casablanca is the quintessential Hollywood film of its era, so completely shaped by the strictures of the time and grounded in the established mechanics of narrative cinematic storytelling that it very nearly transcends itself to become a movie about what movies can achieve. It intermingles hope and cynicism, romance and sorrow, stirring patriotism and nomadic isolation. Filmed and released after the United States was wrenched into the tumult of World War II, it serves as an effective avatar of the somewhat ambivalent view towards international engagement that still defined the national sentiment. The theme of the weary, self-protective, wounded individual within the sea of humanity pulses through the film. With no real suggestion that anyone involved in the production was striving intentionally for the goal, Casablanca takes a simple, almost theadbare story — or, really, about three or four of them woven together — and makes it so shrewd, so heartfelt, so nuanced, and so specific that it becomes a compelling thesis statement of the workings of the world. All that, and it’s a resounding entertainment, too.

The power of Casablanca is such that delicate myth-making has grown up around it, in largely subconscious attempts to imbue fortuitous magic on its creation, to make the roil of its production mirror the curving path of its fiction. The screenwriting assignment passed through several different hands, alternate casting ideas were proposed, and the director wasn’t locked in from the very beginning, but none of that uncertainty was especially uncommon for a studio production in the nineteen-forties, especially at Warner Bros., where there was always tinkering on the assembly line. While the oft-repeated notion that the film began production without a decided outcome to the central love triangle is alluringly romantic, setting the actors in the same emotional swirl as their characters, it’s also apocryphal. The ending of Casablanca basically matches that of Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the unproduced stage play upon which it’s based, and the strictures of Motion Picture Production Code, which weighed in strongly about the choices of married women on screen, insured that it would be unpalatably convoluted to reach just about any other denouement. Casablanca had no fated path to the screen. It was made like any other movie. For me, that mundane progression makes for an even better story, allowing Casablanca to serve as one of the most glorious reminders of the tumbling dominoes of fortuitous turns, all largely impervious to intentional manipulation of events, required to reach the destination of movie masterpiece.

Director Michael Curtiz is sometimes dinged for a lack of overt personality in his visual choices for the film (critic Andrew Sarris famously deemed Casablanca “the most decisive exception to auteur theory”), but there’s an undervalued elegance to the way he glides the camera through the film, especially in the scenes within Rick’s Café Américain. He smartly makes the camera, and by extension the audience, a keen observer of everything going on, parceling out details in a manner that slyly sets up complications to follow. He serves the screenplay (credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch) with a evident appreciation for its bountiful charms and casual insights. Similarly the actors meet the words with a joy-inducing vigor, especially in the film’s craftiest scenes, such as a conversation across drinks at a club table that quickly turns into a magnificent realization of verbal brinksmanship.

I haven’t bothered to spell out the players or their parts, because who needs that at this point? Casablanca is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of popular culture. I’m certain there are some who question its greatness, but, apart from reactionary contrarianism, I can’t fathom why. To me, its excellence is clear enough and so reflective of the underpinnings of why movies touch us in the first place, that it is practically the yardstick of cinema, at least for a certain, classically-grounded type of filmmaking. Casablanca, in a way, explains the greatness of all great films.