Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, S. Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch; from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play "Everybody Comes to Rick’s"
About three years ago, I finally gave in to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for the first time. I had hesitated because of the five- and ten-minute snippets of the film I had seen, and for its reputation as a hokey Christmas story "chestnut." Well, was I wrong, for It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film — arguably the best Capra ever made. It is also a good example of the auteur theory of filmmaking, in that the film fits remarkably well within the Capra canon. From the first five minutes, the viewer knows that no one but Frank Capra could have directed it.
With that in mind, I decided to finally give in and watch Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca from start to finish. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a film from the 1940s (1942 to be exact) whose hold on audiences has not abated. However, unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca often turns up on the Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time lists — and this is wrong.
After all, while Casablanca is a good film (I’d give it a 75-80 score out of 100), it is nowhere near greatness for a variety of technical, aesthetic, and artistic reasons. I will explain them in this essay in order to demonstrate that while the film itself is likable, "likability" and "greatness" are wholly different qualities — be they applied to a work of art, an idea, or just the execution of a plan.
Before I summarize the well-known plot of Casablanca, let me detail some of its strengths and weaknesses, which I will expound upon later, and offer reasons why critics in general have missed the boat on many aspects of the film.
First off, director Michael Curtiz (who also directed the James Cagney vehicles Angels with Dirty Faces and Yankee Doodle Dandy), while a good studio man, was in no way an auteur. Take It’s a Wonderful Life or The Third Man, and one can clearly see stylistic continuity from those films to others in the auteur’s canon. (For these purposes, I regard Orson Welles, not Carol Reed — a journeyman filmmaker with a style and canon akin to Curtiz’s — as the true auteur of The Third Man.)
The aforementioned continuity includes the use of dialogue, visuals, character development, editing, scoring, etc. Watch scenes from any earlier Capra film and one can easily see that George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life would be perfectly at home in them. The same is true with the visual motifs in The Third Man. As for Casablanca, there’s no continuity when compared to Curtiz’s other efforts.
Next, there is the film’s lack of "vision." In short, it is not in the least bit poetic like the works of true masters such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Theo Angelopoulos, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Stanley Kubrick. Casablanca is a solid-prose movie, but there is no higher meaning to it. This flaw, if you will, is revealed by the fact that virtually all the characters in it are, to be generous, archetypes (if not full-blown stereotypes), and this one-dimensionality makes much of what occurs in the story predictable.
That is not to say that this predictability is poorly handled, but from the moment Humphrey Bogart’s and Ingrid Bergman’s eyes first meet, you know that theirs is destined to be a doomed romance. Why? Because that’s the way Hollywood formula works with dark, brooding anti-heroes, and angelic, almost Madonna-like heroines. The hows and wherefores are minor in comparison to the knowledge that these two characters will not end up together.
Now, compare Bogart and Bergman’s relationship to that of other romantic film couples — from schlock like Love Story (which also uses the doomed-love trope) to deeper investigations of human relationships as portrayed in, say, Michelangelo Antonioni’s great films of the ’60s. True, Casablanca is both propaganda and melodrama, and these are all fine and dandy reasons to explain why there is not a good deal of depth in the characterizations and resultant relationships, but … an explanation is not an excuse for a flaw.
The Casablanca screenplay, which according to historical reports was written haphazardly, would have been more bearable with a bit better writing, a few more moments to flesh out some complexities, a few off-handed bits of "accidental" poesy or philosophy, and the loss of some of the film’s dramatically absurd moments, e.g., the scene where Bergman threatens Bogart with a gun, or the cringe-inducing jingoism of the much too stagy bit when German soldiers and French refugees do battle with patriotic songs.