Casablanca was shot in black-and-white, as were most movies made in the 1940s. That, and the fact that the film is considered a classic, has probably contributed to many people avoiding it who might otherwise give it a chance (expanding Mark Twain’s definition of a classic to “a movie that everybody wants to have watched and nobody wants to watch.”)
But if other classics can be accused of being difficult to relate to for a modern audience, Casablanca effortlessly dodges the charge. Immediately the films plunges us into its story and we’re not allowed to come up for air until the tale has been told—a tale of murder, war, intrigue, love lost and regained and lost again, and most of all, of sacrifice. Because the movie is so captivating, one forgets that it’s in black-and-white within a few minutes (I haven’t seen the colorized version, and don’t have an opinion of it until I do, except to say that for just this point, I don’t have much of an interest to check it out).
Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart, who achieves the perfect balance of surface cynicism masking a sympathetic and maybe even sentimental heart underneath) owns a café in Casablanca, a port city where many people go to escape to America from a Europe being overrun by the Third Reich. The rich can buy exit visas, but the rest are afraid they will die in Casablanca.
As the movie opens, two German couriers have been killed and the murderer has stolen letters of transit off of their bodies. These letters will allow anyone safe, unquestioned passage to America (this element of the movie needs some suspension of disbelief).
The dialogue crackles; when I first watched the film, I was amazed at how many famous lines come from this movie alone. This is the movie that gave us, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . . she walks into mine,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “Round up the usual suspects”, and “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Casablanca also gave us “Play it again, Sam” although those words are never uttered in that sequence in the movie itself (but we do get “Play it once, Sam” and “Play it, Sam” and “Sing it, Sam.”)
Dialogue that is less familiar is just as memorable. When asked by a lady where he was last night, Rick tells her that was too long, he doesn’t remember. When she asks if she can see him that night, he tells that he never makes plans that far ahead (a line that gets tossed out in an off-handed manner, but which we’ll realize later has deep significance for Rick). When the local prefect, the corrupt Captain Renault (Claude Rains), tells a young couple to see him in his office so they can buy exit visas, they eagerly tell him that they’ll be in his office at six the next morning. Renault nods pleasantly and says he’ll be there at ten. One character urges tourists to be careful—Casablanca is full of vultures, “vultures everywhere!” he says—as he lifts their wallets.
Of course Casablanca is more than a collection of witty lines and scenes.
Into Rick’s café walks Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the leader of the freedom fighters and a man who escaped from a German concentraion camp. His companion is a woman named Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). They must escape Casablanca so that Laszlo can continue his work fighting the Nazis from America.
There are a few complications—the Nazis are hunting Victor and are willing to arrest and execute him on the flimsiest of charges. Also, Rick most likely now has the letters of transit and he’s not very disposed to give them away, let alone to Victor and Ilsa. Ilsa is the one who broke Rick’s heart years before, and since then, “he’s been taking his revenge on the rest of the world.” And finally, now that she’s back in Rick’s life, Ilsa feels conflicted about this man she abandoned in Paris and isn’t sure if she wants to go on with Victor and fight the good fight or stay behind with the man she may truly love.
Casablanca is one of the greatest love stories ever told on film, and that’s because the message is that true love transcends companionship and intimacy. At its heart, true love is the willingness to sacrifice for the ones you love. In a city and a movie replete with corrupt officials like Captain Renault and greedy and slimy characters like Ugarte (Peter Lorre), Casablanca reminds us that there are always some people who are willing to stick their necks out and sacrifice everything for the person they love. But by the end of the movie, you realize that in fact this is more than just a love story. Casablanca is also about how doing the right thing is sometimes worth everything—one’s personal happiness, one’s freedom, maybe even one’s life. All of which, ironically, makes it an even greater love story.