Casablanca is a 1942 American romantic drama film directed by Michael Curtiz and based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick's. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid; it also features Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson. Set during World War II, it focuses on an American expatriate who must choose between his love for a woman and helping her Czech Resistance leader husband escape the Vichy-controlled city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Nazis.
Story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights to the play in January 1942. Brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein were initially assigned to write the script. However, despite studio resistance, they left to work on Frank Capra's Why We Fight series early in 1942. Howard E. Koch was assigned to the screenplay until the Epsteins returned a month later. Casey Robinson assisted with three weeks of rewrites, but his work would later go uncredited. Wallis chose Curtiz to direct the film after his first choice, William Wyler, became unavailable. Principal photography began on May 25, 1942, ending on August 3; the film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, with the exception of one sequence at Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, Los Angeles.
Although Casablanca was an A-list film with established stars and first-rate writers, no one involved with its production expected it to be anything out of the ordinary. It was just one of hundreds of pictures produced by Hollywood every year. Casablanca was rushed into release to take advantage of the publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa a few weeks earlier. It had its world premiere on November 26, 1942, in New York City and was released nationally in the United States on January 23, 1943. The film was a solid if unspectacular success in its initial run.
Casablanca went on to win three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director (Curtiz) and Adapted Screenplay (the Epsteins and Koch) – and gradually its reputation grew. Its lead characters, memorable lines, and pervasive theme song have all become iconic and the film consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history.
In December 1941, American expatriate Rick Blaine is the proprietor of an upscale nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca. "Rick's Café Américain" attracts a varied clientele: Vichy French and German officials; refugees desperate to reach the still-neutral United States; and those who prey on them. Although Rick professes to be neutral in all matters, it is later revealed he ran guns to Ethiopia during its war with Italy and fought on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War.
Petty crook Ugarte shows up and boasts to Rick of "letters of transit" obtained by murdering two German couriers. The papers allow the bearers to travel freely around German-controlled Europe and to neutral Portugal, and are thus almost priceless to the refugees stranded in Casablanca. Ugarte plans to sell them at the club that night, and asks Rick to hold them. Before he can meet his contact, he is intercepted by the local police under the command of Captain Louis Renault, an unabashedly corrupt Vichy official. Ugarte dies in custody without revealing that he entrusted the letters to Rick.
At this point, the reason for Rick's bitterness—former lover Ilsa Lund—walks into his establishment. Upon spotting Rick's friend and house pianist, Sam, Ilsa asks him to play "As Time Goes By." Rick storms over, furious that Sam has disobeyed his order never to perform that song, and is stunned to see Ilsa. She is accompanied by her husband, Victor Laszlo, a renowned fugitive Czech Resistance leader. They need the letters to escape to America to continue his work. German Major Strasser has come to Casablanca to see that Laszlo does not succeed.
When Laszlo makes inquiries, Ferrari, a major underworld figure and Rick's friendly business rival, divulges his suspicion that Rick has the letters. In private, Rick refuses to sell at any price, telling Laszlo to ask his wife the reason. They are interrupted when Strasser leads a group of officers in singing "Die Wacht am Rhein." Laszlo orders the house band to play "La Marseillaise." When the band looks to Rick, he nods his head. Laszlo starts singing, alone at first, then patriotic fervor grips the crowd and everyone joins in, drowning out the Germans. In retaliation, Strasser has Renault close the club.
That night, Ilsa confronts Rick in the deserted café. When he refuses to give her the letters, she threatens him with a gun, but then confesses that she still loves him. She explains that when they met and fell in love in Paris in 1940, she believed her husband had been killed attempting to escape from a concentration camp. Later, while preparing to flee with Rick from the imminent fall of the city to the German army, she learned that Laszlo was alive and in hiding. She left Rick without explanation to nurse her sick husband.
Rick's bitterness dissolves. He agrees to help, letting her believe that she will stay with him when Laszlo leaves. When Laszlo unexpectedly shows up, having narrowly escaped a police raid on a Resistance meeting, Rick has waiter Carl spirit Ilsa away. Laszlo, aware of Rick's love for Ilsa, tries to persuade him to use the letters to take her to safety. When the police arrest Laszlo on a minor, trumped-up charge, Rick persuades Renault to release him by promising to set him up for a much more serious crime: possession of the letters. To allay Renault's suspicions, Rick explains that he and Ilsa will be leaving for America. When Renault tries to arrest Laszlo as arranged, Rick forces him at gunpoint to assist in their escape. At the last moment, Rick makes Ilsa board the plane to Lisbon with her husband, telling her that she would regret it if she stayed—"Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
Strasser, tipped off by Renault, drives up alone. Rick kills him when he tries to intervene. When policemen arrive, Renault pauses, then orders them to "round up the usual suspects." Renault suggests to Rick that they join the Free French in Brazzaville. As they walk away into the fog, Rick says, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
- Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine
- Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund
- Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo
- Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault
- Conrad Veidt as Major Heinrich Strasser
- Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari
- Peter Lorre as Signor Ugarte
- Curt Bois as the pickpocket
- Leonid Kinskey as Sascha
- Madeleine LeBeau as Yvonne
- Joy Page as Annina Brandel
- John Qualen as Berger
- S. Z. Sakall (credited as S. K. Sakall) as Carl
- Dooley Wilson as Sam
- Leon Belasco as a dealer in Rick's Cafe
- Marcel Dalio as Emil
- Helmut Dantine as Jan Brandel
- William Edmunds as a contact man at Rick's
- Gregory Gaye as the German banker
- George London, one of those who sing "La Marseillaise"
- Georges Renavent as a conspirator
- Corinna Mura as the guitar player
- Dan Seymour as Abdul the doorman
- Gerald Oliver Smith as the Englishman
- Jean Del Val as the French police radio announcer
- Leo White as the waiter Emile
- Frank Puglia as a Moroccan rug merchant
- Additional cast
- Louis V. Arco
- Trude Berliner
- Ilka Grünig
- Lotte Palfi
- Richard Ryen
- Ludwig Stössel
- Hans Twardowski
- Wolfgang Zilzer
The film was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick's. The Warner Bros. story analyst who read the play, Stephen Karnot, called it (approvingly) "sophisticated hokum", and story editor Irene Diamond, who had discovered the unproduced play on a trip to New York in 1941, convinced producer Hal Wallis to buy the rights in January 1942 for $20,000, the most anyone in Hollywood had ever paid for an unproduced play. The project was renamed Casablanca, apparently in imitation of the 1938 hit Algiers. Although an initial filming date was selected for April 10, 1942, delays led to a start of production on May 25. Filming was completed on August 3, and the production cost $1,039,000 ($75,000 over budget), above average for the time. Unusually, the film was shot in sequence, mainly because only the first half of the script was ready when filming began.
The entire picture was shot in the studio, except for the sequence showing Major Strasser's arrival, which was filmed at Van Nuys Airport, and a few short clips of stock footage views of Paris. The street used for the exterior shots had recently been built for another film, The Desert Song, and redressed for the Paris flashbacks. It remained on the Warners backlot until the 1960s. The set for Rick's was built in three unconnected parts, so the internal layout of the building is indeterminate. In a number of scenes, the camera looks through a wall from the cafe area into Rick's office.
The background of the final scene, which shows a Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior airplane with personnel walking around it, was staged using little person extras and a proportionate cardboard plane. Fog was used to mask the model's unconvincing appearance. Nevertheless, the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida purchased a Lockheed 12A for its Great Movie Ride attraction, and initially claimed that it was the actual plane used in the film.
Film critic Roger Ebert called Hal Wallis the "key creative force" for his attention to the details of production (down to insisting on a real parrot in the Blue Parrot bar).
The difference between Bergman's and Bogart's height caused some problems. She was some two inches (5 cm) taller than Bogart, and claimed Curtiz had Bogart stand on blocks or sit on cushions in their scenes together.
Later, there were plans for a further scene, showing Rick, Renault and a detachment of Free French soldiers on a ship, to incorporate the Allies' 1942 invasion of North Africa. It proved too difficult to get Claude Rains for the shoot, and the scene was finally abandoned after David O. Selznick judged "it would be a terrible mistake to change the ending."
The original play was inspired by a trip to Europe made by Murray Burnett and his wife in 1938, during which they visited Vienna shortly after the Anschluss and were affected by the anti-Semitism they saw. In the south of France, they went to a nightclub that had a multinational clientele, among them many exiles and refugees, and the prototype of Sam.
The first writers assigned to the script were twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who, against the wishes of Warner Brothers, left at Frank Capra's request early in 1942 to work on the Why We Fight series in Washington, D.C. While they were gone, the other credited writer, Howard Koch, was assigned; he produced some thirty to forty pages. When the Epstein brothers returned after about a month, they were reassigned to Casablanca and—contrary to what Koch claimed in two published books—his work was not used. In the final Warner Bros. budget for the film, the Epsteins were paid $30,416, while Koch earned $4,200.
In the play, the Ilsa character is an American named Lois Meredith; she does not meet Laszlo until after her relationship with Rick in Paris has ended. Rick is a lawyer. To make Rick's motivation more believable, Wallis, Curtiz, and the screenwriters decided to set the film before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The uncredited Casey Robinson assisted with three weeks of rewrites, including contributing the series of meetings between Rick and Ilsa in the cafe. Koch highlighted the political and melodramatic elements, while Curtiz seems to have favored the romantic parts, insisting on retaining the Paris flashbacks. Wallis wrote the final line, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," after shooting had been completed. Bogart had to be called in a month after the end of filming to dub it.
Despite the many writers, the film has what Ebert describes as a "wonderfully unified and consistent" script. Koch later claimed it was the tension between his own approach and Curtiz's which accounted for this: "Surprisingly, these disparate approaches somehow meshed, and perhaps it was partly this tug of war between Curtiz and me that gave the film a certain balance." Julius Epstein would later note the screenplay contained "more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works, there's nothing better."
The film ran into some trouble with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (the Hollywood self-censorship body), who opposed the suggestions that Captain Renault extorted sexual favors from his supplicants, and that Rick and Ilsa had slept together in Paris. Extensive changes were made, with several lines of dialogue removed or altered. All direct references to sex were deleted; Renault's selling of visas for sex, and Rick and Ilsa's previous sexual relationship were implied elliptically rather than referenced explicitly. Also, in the original script, when Sam plays "As Time Goes By", Rick remarks, "What the —— are you playing?" This line implying a curse word was removed at the behest of the Hays Office.
Wallis's first choice for director was William Wyler, but he was unavailable, so Wallis turned to his close friend Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a Hungarian Jewish émigré; he had come to the U.S. in the 1920s, but some of his family were refugees from Nazi Europe.
Roger Ebert has commented that in Casablanca "very few shots... are memorable as shots," as Curtiz wanted images to express the story rather than to stand alone. He contributed relatively little to development of the plot. Casey Robinson said Curtiz "knew nothing whatever about story ... he saw it in pictures, and you supplied the stories."
Critic Andrew Sarris called the film "the most decisive exception to the auteur theory", of which Sarris was the most prominent proponent in the United States. Aljean Harmetz has responded, "nearly every Warner Bros. picture was an exception to the auteur theory". Other critics give more credit to Curtiz. Sidney Rosenzweig, in his study of the director's work, sees the film as a typical example of Curtiz's highlighting of moral dilemmas.
The second unit montages, such as the opening sequence of the refugee trail and the invasion of France, were directed by Don Siegel.
The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a veteran who had previously shot The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein. Particular attention was paid to photographing Bergman. She was shot mainly from her preferred left side, often with a softening gauze filter and with catch lights to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem "ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic". Bars of shadow across the characters and in the background variously imply imprisonment, the crucifix, the symbol of the Free French Forces and emotional turmoil. Dark film noir and expressionist lighting was used in several scenes, particularly towards the end of the picture. Rosenzweig argues these shadow and lighting effects are classic elements of the Curtiz style, along with the fluid camera work and the use of the environment as a framing device.
The music was written by Max Steiner, who was best known for the score for Gone with the Wind. The song "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play; Steiner wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song, so Steiner based the entire score on it and "La Marseillaise", the French national anthem, transforming them to reflect changing moods.
Particularly notable is the "duel of the songs" between Strasser and Laszlo at Rick's cafe. In the soundtrack, "La Marseillaise" is played by a full orchestra. Originally, the opposing piece for this iconic sequence was to be the "Horst Wessel Lied", a Nazi anthem, but this was still under international copyright in non-Allied countries. Instead "Die Wacht am Rhein" was used. The opening bars of the "Deutschlandlied", the national anthem of Germany, are featured throughout the score as a motif to represent the Germans, much as "La Marseillaise" is used to represent the Allies.
Other songs include:
- "It Had to Be You", music by Isham Jones, lyrics by Gus Kahn
- "Shine", music by Ford Dabney, lyrics by Cecil Mack and Lew Brown
- "Avalon", music and lyrics by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva and Vincent Rose
- "Perfidia", by Alberto Dominguez
- "The Very Thought of You", by Ray Noble, and
- "Knock on Wood", music by M. K. Jerome, lyrics by Jack Scholl, the only original song.
The piano featured in the Paris flashback sequences was sold in New York City on December 14, 2012, at Sotheby's for more than $600,000 to an anonymous bidder. The piano Sam "plays" in Rick's Café Américain, put up for auction with other film memorabilia by Turner Classic Movies and Bonhams in New York in November 2014, sold for $3.4 million.
Timing of release
Although an initial release date was anticipated for spring 1943, the film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942, to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Office of War Information prevented screening of the film to troops in North Africa, believing it would cause resentment among Vichy supporters in the region.
Casablanca received "consistently good reviews". Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "The Warners... have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap." The newspaper applauded the combination of "sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue". While Crowther noted its "devious convolutions of the plot", he praised the screenplay quality as "of the best" and the cast's performances as "all of the first order".
The trade paper Variety commended the film's "combination of fine performances, engrossing story and neat direction" and the "variety of moods, action, suspense, comedy and drama that makes Casablanca an A-1 entry at the b.o." "Film is splendid anti-Axis propaganda, particularly inasmuch as the propaganda is strictly a by-product of the principal action and contributes to it instead of getting in the way." The review also applauded the performances of Bergman and Henreid and note that "Bogart, as might be expected, is more at ease as the bitter and cynical operator of a joint than as a lover, but handles both assignments with superb finesse."
Some other reviews were less enthusiastic. The New Yorker rated it only "pretty tolerable".
In the 1,500-seat Hollywood Theater, the film grossed $255,000 over ten weeks. In its initial U.S. release, it was a substantial but not spectacular box-office success, taking in $3.7 million, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1943.
The film has grown in popularity. Murray Burnett called it "true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow". By 1955, the film had brought in $6.8 million, making it the third most successful of Warners' wartime movies (behind Shine On, Harvest Moon and This Is the Army). On April 21, 1957, the Brattle Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed the film as part of a season of old movies. It was so popular that it began a tradition of screening Casablanca during the week of final exams at Harvard University, which continues to the present day. Other colleges have adopted the tradition. Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology who had attended one of these screenings, has said that the experience was "the acting out of my own personal rite of passage". The tradition helped the movie remain popular while other famous films of the 1940s have faded away. By 1977, Casablanca was the most frequently broadcast film on American television.
On the film's 50th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times called Casablanca's great strength "the purity of its Golden Age Hollywoodness [and] the enduring craftsmanship of its resonantly hokey dialogue". Bob Strauss wrote in the newspaper that the film achieved a "near-perfect entertainment balance" of comedy, romance, and suspense.
According to Roger Ebert, Casablanca is "probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title, including Citizen Kane" because of its wider appeal. Ebert opined that Citizen Kane is generally considered to be a "greater" film, but Casablanca is more loved. In his opinion, the film is popular because "the people in it are all so good", and it is "a wonderful gem". Ebert said that he has never heard of a negative review of the film, even though individual elements can be criticized, citing unrealistic special effects and the stiff character/portrayal of Laszlo. Critic Leonard Maltin considers Casablanca to be "the best Hollywood movie of all time."
Rick, according to Rudy Behlmer, is "not a hero ... not a bad guy": he does what is necessary to get along with the authorities and "sticks his neck out for nobody". The other characters, in Behlmer's words, are "not cut and dried" and come into their goodness over the course of the film. Renault begins as a collaborator with the Nazis who extorts sexual favors from refugees and has Ugarte killed. Even Ilsa, the least active of the main characters, is "caught in the emotional struggle" over which man she really loves. By the end, however, "everybody is sacrificing." Behlmer also emphasized the variety in the picture: "it's a blend of drama, melodrama, comedy [and] intrigue".
A few reviewers have had reservations. To Pauline Kael, "It's far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism..." Umberto Eco wrote that "by any strict critical standards... Casablanca is a very mediocre film." He viewed the changes the characters undergo as inconsistent rather than complex: "It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects." However, he added that due to the presence of multiple archetypes which allow "the power of Narrative in its natural state without Art intervening to discipline it", it is a movie reaching "Homeric depths" as a "phenomenon worthy of awe."
In the November/December 1982 issue of American Film, Chuck Ross claimed that he retyped the screenplay to Casablanca, changing the title back to Everybody Comes to Rick's and the name of the piano player to Dooley Wilson, and submitted it to 217 agencies. Eighty-five of them read it; of those, thirty-eight rejected it outright, thirty-three generally recognized it (but only eight specifically as Casablanca), three declared it commercially viable, and one suggested turning it into a novel.
Influence on later works
Many subsequent films have drawn on elements of Casablanca. Passage to Marseille reunited Bogart, Rains, Curtiz, Greenstreet and Lorre in 1944. There are similarities between Casablanca and two later Bogart films, To Have and Have Not (1944) and Sirocco (1951).
Parodies have included the Marx Brothers' A Night in Casablanca (1946), Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective (1978), and Out Cold (2001). Indirectly, it provided the title for the 1995 neo-noir film The Usual Suspects. Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (1972) appropriated Bogart's Casablanca persona as the fantasy mentor for Allen's nebbishy character, featuring actor Jerry Lacy in the role of Bogart.
The film Casablanca was a plot device in the science-fiction television movie Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1983), based on John Varley's story. It was referred to in Terry Gilliam's dystopian Brazil (1985). Warner Bros. produced its own parody in the homage Carrotblanca, a 1995 Bugs Bunny cartoon. In Casablanca, a novella by Argentine writer Edgar Brau, the protagonist somehow wanders into Rick's Café Américain and listens to a strange tale related by Sam.
Casablanca has been subjected to many different readings. Semioticians account for the film's popularity by claiming that its inclusion of a whole series of stereotypes paradoxically strengthens the film. Umberto Eco explained:
- “Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it.
...When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”
Eco also singled out sacrifice as one of the film's key themes: "the myth of sacrifice runs through the whole film." It was this theme which resonated with a wartime audience that was reassured by the idea that painful sacrifice and going off to war could be romantic gestures done for the greater good.
Koch also considered the film a political allegory. Rick is compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gambled "on the odds of going to war until circumstance and his own submerged nobility force him to close his casino (partisan politics) and commit himself—first by financing the Side of Right and then by fighting for it." The connection is reinforced by the film's title, which means "white house".
Harvey Greenberg presents a Freudian reading in his The Movies on Your Mind, in which the transgressions which prevent Rick from returning to the United States constitute an Oedipus complex, which is resolved only when Rick begins to identify with the father figure of Laszlo and the cause which he represents. Sidney Rosenzweig argues that such readings are reductive, and that the most important aspect of the film is its ambiguity, above all in the central character of Rick; he cites the different names which each character gives Rick (Richard, Ricky, Mr. Rick, Herr Rick, boss, and so on) as evidence of the different meanings which he has for each person.
Casablanca was initially released on Betamax and VHS by Magnetic Video and later by CBS/Fox Video (as United Artists owned the rights at the time). It was next released on laserdisc in 1991, and on VHS in 1992—both from MGM/UA Home Entertainment (distributing for Turner Entertainment Co.), which at the time was distributed by Warner Home Video. It was first released on DVD in 1997 by MGM, containing the trailer and a making-of featurette (Warner Home Video reissued the DVD in 2000). A subsequent two-disc special edition, containing audio commentaries, documentaries, and a newly remastered visual and audio presentation, was released in 2003.
An HD DVD was released on November 14, 2006, containing the same special features as the 2003 DVD. Reviewers were impressed with the new high-definition transfer of the film.
A Blu-ray release with new special features came out on December 2, 2008; it is also available on DVD. The Blu-ray was initially only released as an expensive gift set with a booklet, a luggage tag and other assorted gift-type items. It was eventually released as a stand-alone Blu-ray in September 2009. On March 27, 2012, Warner released a new 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo set. It includes a brand-new 4K restoration and new bonus material.