- Casablanca movie (1942) review: Directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, Warner Bros.’ Best Picture Academy Award winner (of 1943, the year it opened in the Los Angeles area) is one of the best-known and most revered classics of Hollywood’s studio era. But does the romantic melodrama deserve its iconic reputation?
Casablanca movie review: Is Warners’ 1942 romantic melodrama truly one of the greatest Hollywood productions ever?
“Likability” and “greatness” are wholly different qualities, be they applied to a work of art, an idea, or just the execution of a plan. While Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic Casablanca is a good movie, it’s nowhere near greatness for a variety of technical, aesthetic, and artistic reasons.
First off, director Michael Curtiz, while a good studio man, was in no way an auteur. Take Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and one can clearly see stylistic continuity from those films to others in the auteur’s canon. That includes the use of dialogue, visuals, character development, editing, scoring, etc.
Watch scenes from any earlier Capra film and one can easily see that James Stewart’s George Bailey would be perfectly at home in them. As for Casablanca, there’s no continuity when compared to Curtiz’s other efforts.
‘Lack of vision’
Next, there is the film’s lack of “vision.” In short, Casablanca isn’t in the least bit poetic like the works of true masters like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Theo Angelopoulos, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Stanley Kubrick. Instead, it’s a solid-prose movie with no higher meaning to it.
This flaw is revealed by the fact that virtually all of its characters are, to be generous, archetypes – if not full-blown stereotypes – and this one-dimensionality makes much of what occurs in the story predictable.
That’s 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.
Because that’s the way Hollywood formula works with dark, brooding antiheroes, and angelic, 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 Arthur Hiller’s 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 1960s.
True, Casablanca is both propaganda and melodrama. These are fine reasons to explain why there isn’t a good deal of depth in the characterizations and resultant relationships, but … an explanation is not an excuse for a flaw.
Written haphazardly according to historical reports, the Casablanca screenplay – credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” – would have been more bearable with a few more moments to flesh out complexities and off-handed bits of “accidental” poesy or philosophy, and with the loss of some of the the dramatically absurd moments, e.g., the scene where Bergman threatens Bogart with a gun, or the cringe-inducing jingoism of the stagy bit when German soldiers and French refugees do battle with patriotic songs.
But the flaws in terms of character development and the subsequent narrative that flows from it do not all stem from the script. It’s also the result of acting that mostly ranges from mediocre to downright bad.
Unfairly maligned Paul Henreid
The top-billed Casablanca actors are Humphrey Bogart as club owner Rick Blaine, Ingrid Bergman as his ex-lover Ilsa Lund, and Paul Henreid as Ilsa’s husband, the Czechoslovakian Nazi Resistance outlaw Victor Laszlo.
Virtually all critiques of this trio leave Henreid as the odd man out, mainly because the film focuses on the love angle between Rick and Ilsa. Yet from a purely technical standpoint Henreid gives, by far, the best performance; since it’s also the most understated, it usually gets dismissed as stiff acting rather than good acting of a stiff character.
In many ways, Henreid’s performance reminds me of Masayuki Mori as the murdered samurai husband in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 drama Rashomon. Like Mori, Henreid conveys emotional depth and complexity with his eyes or the slight lift of a brow. He is restrained, but this is because his character is über-disciplined.
Victor’s two-time overt declaration of love for Ilsa stands in starkly positive contrast to Rick’s cartoonish, caveman-like refusal to utter such declarations. Furthermore, Victor shows his love for Ilsa throughout the film, while Rick’s love is displayed only in the final scene; even then, Rick’s final gesture is not something that emanates from within.
Because he ends up doing the very thing that Victor initially suggests that he is willing to do: He would allow Rick to leave Casablanca and take his wife with him, for her own safety.
We never doubt Victor’s love for Ilsa, whereas there is the sneaking suspicion that Rick merely had the hots for her even if he blew it up into more than what it was.
Casablanca’s ‘center and lynchpin’
It’s always more difficult to play a character that is the “good guy” and does not undergo some sort of however slight transformation. Paul Henreid’s Victor is thus not only Casablanca’s best portrayed character, but also its most nuanced.
Really, does anyone for a moment not believe that Victor knows full well what went on between Ilsa and Rick both in Paris and Casablanca?
Of course not, but Victor has to pretend not to be affected even if he is – because he has his eyes on the greater prize, the overthrow of the Nazi regime, not the famed “hill of beans” problems of three little people.
In short, Henreid’s character, despite having less screen time than Ingrid Bergman’s and Humphrey Bogart’s, is Casablanca’s center and lynchpin. Simply stated, without Victor Laszlo – in his physical being and internal composition – the movie would not have even reached the level of “good melodrama.”
Humphrey Bogart ‘not that good of an actor’
Now, contrast Paul Henreid’s Victor with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick.
Rick is rather one-dimensional despite the character’s early evocations of depth. His attraction to Ilsa seems superficial; after all, in the flashback scenes in Paris and even those in Casablanca, does he ever speak of higher purpose?
No, Rick is wholly selfish, through and through.
Bogart’s Rick is also a far showier role than Henreid’s Victor. But does Bogart do anything more with it? Despite some wittier lines and the nice scene where Rick lets a Romanian refugee couple win at roulette to pay for their visas out of Casablanca, is Rick Blaine sufficiently different from the Sam Spade Bogart essayed in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, or any of the rather stolid thugs he played throughout the 1930s?
That’s because there is the same reliance on trite body mannerisms that, while they define the Bogart “star persona” (as did John Wayne’s personal foibles define his), they add nothing to the actual Casablanca character. In short, Rick Blaine is the generic Humphrey Bogart character from past films.
Bogart simply was not that good of an actor and could not differentiate his characters, unlike, say James Cagney (compare his roles in White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy), or Gary Cooper (see Sergeant York, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, High Noon), or James Stewart (see It’s a Wonderful Life, Rope, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or, more recently, Robert De Niro (contrast his roles in Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and The King of Comedy).
Ingrid Bergman’s ‘rather mediocre portrayal’
That brings me to the last and least of the trio of star performances: Ingrid Bergman’s rather mediocre portrayal of Ilsa Lund.
First of all, I should clarify that Bergman’s is not a “bad” performance; yet it’s nowhere near great, either. One need only look at contemporaneous performances by, say, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or even Judy Garland, to see how much Bergman pales in contrast.
Her Ilsa is a pawn, a toy, a heroine who is the plaything of the two men in her life – and, incidentally, isn’t it interesting how similar in facial construction both Henreid and Bogart are? A fortuitous development that adds some much-needed depth to Ilsa’s psyche.
Ilsa has zero control of her destiny and zero ability to will herself any power – emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. It’s rather apparent that Ilsa really loves Victor, not Rick, because anyone who’s ever been in love knows that she would have stayed with Rick, no matter. The truth is she likely just lusted for Rick and realized that, but lucked out in having him make a decision she knew was right while being too weak to voice it.
As for the actress?
The raving over Bergman’s performance is likely the worst aspect of most critical assessments of Casablanca. I’ve pointed out how nuanced Paul Henreid’s acting is, being able to convey emotions with his eyes alone; well, Bergman does something different – she totally overacts with her eyes. Many a critic fulminates rapture over her terminally tear-filled gaze, but from the get-go Ilsa is a stereotypical damsel in distress, prone to hyper-emotionalism and in no believable way a “mature” woman.
Now, having seen Ingrid Bergman in other films, I know she is a better actress than what can be attested in Casablanca.
‘Scripted’ Claude Rains
While there are certainly several great moments for Louie, the character isn’t a great one nor does Rains exhibit great acting chops.
Besides, there is a flippancy and preciousness in the repartee between Louie and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick – and between them and other characters – that’s simply not believable. One would think they were the reincarnations of Oscar Wilde, for their conversation, however quotable, feels scripted.
Other Casablanca movie issues
Additionally, Casablanca lacks a single memorable shot – nothing that defines cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s images the way, say, an Ingmar Bergman film is noteworthy for the images of a Sven Nykvist.
I should add that I’m not saying Edeson lacked talent. After all, he helped to create film noir with his work on The Maltese Falcon and helped to define 1930s horror films with his work on James Whale’s Frankenstein.
As for Michael Curtiz’s direction, it’s rather pedestrian. Having stated that, does it surprise you in the least that Curtiz garnered one of the three Oscars Casablanca won (out of eight nominations)?
The other two were for Best Picture of 1943 (the year the film opened in Los Angeles) and, no surprise, Best Screenplay.
The worst technical aspect of the film, however, is its music, most of which is diegetic. In the formal scoring field, Max Steiner shows an inept handling of music, for the “As Time Goes By” piece, used as the love theme for Rick and Ilsa, too often gives away upcoming dramatic elements.
At other times, the scoring is mawkish, often intruding on scenes better left unscored, giving away plot elements before they arise or emotionally leading the audience in ways the actual narrative does not.
Problematic black character
Another important problem is the handling of Casablanca’s black character, Sam. The film may reflect its time fine enough, but there is still a cringe-inducing quality to Dooley Wilson’s slightly above coonish attitude of deference to Rick.
Despite many critics’ claims that the film portrays the two men as equals, this is clearly not so. Sam’s deference is typical of black depictions of the time, as if he had no personal or interior life of his own; it’s as if he exists merely as an extension of his white friend and employer.
In that regard, the worst scene in Casablanca takes place when Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa offhandedly refers to Sam as the “boy” who plays piano, even though he’s forty-something years old – or quite a bit older than Ilsa herself.
The moment is teeth-grinding because, unlike Gone with the Wind, there was no reason for Casablanca, which is set in a French colony in Africa, not to reflect a more accepting attitude toward blacks.
Now, the biggest mistake that prevents Casablanca from reaching greatness is its lack of great themes.
There is nothing in the film that is so overwhelmingly majestic, technically or performance-wise, that can put it in a class with many of the other highly praised motion pictures of the past. Seen next to Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, La Dolce Vita, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca comes up short. Way short.
It lacks Citizen Kane’s innovations, acting, and screenplay. It lacks Tokyo Story’s characterizations and philosophical depth. It lacks the action, acting, and universal appeal of Seven Samurai. It lacks the acting, humor, and biting social commentary of La Dolce Vita. It lacks the intellectual probing, audacious screenplay, and mind-blowing presence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Some yahoos have read homosexual and Oedipal subtexts into Casablanca. It’s this unstinting (and often unthinking and uncritical) praise by those who should know better that is the most silly.
‘Exception to the auteur theory’?
Lastly, film critic Andrew Sarris claimed that Casablanca is “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” but he’s wrong – and wrong for several reasons.
For starters, the auteur theory generally applies toward films and filmmakers that are great; while Casablanca has been claimed as great, no one has ever made that claim for Michael Curtiz. Thus, it’s not an exception to the auteur theory because it’s outside the scope of greatness.
Moreover, greatness is part and parcel of a vision; and vision is, almost by definition, a property only a singular person can have, not a group. And Sarris’ admission that Casablanca had more than one “auteur” also places it outside the scope of the auteur theory.
And in order for something to be an “exception,” it has to fall within the purview of the claim.
‘Vastly overrated movie’
In conclusion, Casablanca is a good – if vastly overrated – movie mainly on the strength of its wit, pacing (there’s not a dull or “wasted” moment in it), and the acting of Paul Henreid.
Still, it’s not even what I would term a “genre great” film, whether one considers its genre to be melodrama, romance, war, or thriller – or even were it to fall into the purview of an auteur film. That’s because Casablanca lacks vision, in addition to being a stylistic and narrative hodgepodge.
But it does entertain. In fact, the lower your expectations, the more entertaining it seems.
Director: Michael Curtiz.
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch. (Uncredited contributor: Casey Robinson.)
From Murray Burnett & Joan Alison’s unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”
Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid. Claude Rains. Sydney Greenstreet. Peter Lorre. Conrad Veidt. S.Z. Sakall. Dooley Wilson. Joy Page. Madeleine Lebeau. John Qualen. Leonid Kinskey. Curt Bois.
Uncredited: Helmut Dantine. Marcel Dalio. Monte Blue. Adrienne D’Ambricourt. George Meeker. Barry Norton. Paul Panzer. Paul Porcasi. Frank Puglia. Ludwig Stössel. Norma Varden. Martin Garralaga.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Film Editing: Owen Marks. Music: Max Steiner. Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl. Producer: Hal B. Wallis.
“Casablanca Movie (1942) Review: Is Iconic Romantic Drama Truly a Great Classic?” review text © Dan Schneider; image captions & brief summary © Alt Film Guide.
“Casablanca Movie (1942) Review: Is Iconic Romantic Drama Truly a Great Classic?” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s original text found here.
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Casablanca movie cast and crew information via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Martin Garralaga, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid Casablanca movie images: Warner Bros.
“Casablanca Movie (1942) Review: Is Iconic Romantic Drama Truly a Great Classic?” last updated in March 2021.