Any budding cinephile who fully dives into the set-in-stone great films is bound to find one or two that doesn’t hold up to its acclaim. This might happen because the film has become dated in its politics or view of society or because of a modern viewer’s sensibilities of pace or performance style. Other times, it might just come from a contrarian streak. For me, for the longest time, this was my view of Casablanca. When I first saw the film in college, I thought it was fine, but an unabashed all-time great? In the conversation of the greatest film of all time? Really? I read arguments that it was the perfect example of classic Hollywood and cynically thought that was giving the film extra credit for some reason, that being the perfect version of something inherently mediocre didn’t make something great.
I’ve revisited the film every now and again since college and my opinion has somewhat morphed. A major reason for this is context. Picking up the film and watching it for the first time precisely because of its status in cinema history wasn’t a good place to start—the expectations were too high, even despite that some genuinely see Casablanca meeting them. While not thinking specifically about where the film lies in a ranked history of cinema, the pressure was off to idolize the film and just enjoy it for its many parts.
Another reason I wasn’t an immediate fan of the film is I ignorantly wrote it off as a standard, even sappy, romance. As I’ve matured as a film viewer, I’ve come to appreciate the genre more—I’m not going to blame my 20-year-old self who was primarily interested in weird genre and horror films for not fully embracing love stories just yet. That said, Casablanca is much more than a simple romance picture and its romance isn’t all that simple. The fated love between Rick and Ilsa involves themes that my underdeveloped heart couldn’t really register [even as an emo kid]. Casablanca’s backdrop of WWII and the reasons why the lovers are torn apart and then brought back together is an intricate and complicated scenario.
What I completely overlooked on my first watch of the film, however, is just how complicated and more interesting the interpersonal relationships between Rick and his supporting cast. I really like how the first act, roughly the first half hour, sets up everything you need to know about how the large group of characters will interact. Once we meet Rick [in one of cinema’s great character introductions] he goes from character to character, easily building the film’s ultimate dynamics that will run through to the end. Rick encounters smalltime crook Ugarte [the great Peter Lorre], a bigger-time gangster Signor Ferrari [the great Sydney Greenstreet], his musical partner Sam [the great Dooley Wilson], Nazi officer Strasser [the great Conrad Veidt] who is working with French Captain Louis Renault [the great, and Oscar nominated, Claude Rains] to control the human traffic to the United States via Portugal. Finally, Ilsa shows up to this particular gin joint with her new husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo [Paul Henreid, who also happens to be great], looking for passage out of Casablanca while inadvertently stirring up old emotions and forcing Rick to make dangerous decisions and alliances. The cast hums together, a truly exceptional ensemble, and how the story methodically introduces each part and gives each actor a moment to build is very smart.
My final hurdle with the film was its star, Humphrey Bogart, who I’ve never really loved—at least not as Rick. My favorite performances from Bogie show off his slimier and grittier side, especially in films like Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Tied in with the film’s romantic A-plot, it is more difficult for me to buy him as the smooth dude with a heart. Sure, I didn’t really consider that Rick is more in the mold of an ultimate loner and that there were more thorns in the character than I was willing to admit. He’s still not my favorite actor of the era, but he works well enough as Rick. In any case, I’m not sure if I can point to another leading man of the time and say that he makes Casablanca any better.
Is Casablanca one of my favorite films? Do I even necessarily agree that it is one of the greatest films ever made? Not really. But I have come to appreciate its storytelling, its characters, and its filmmaking craft. In the year of its 75th anniversary, Casablanca is getting a lot of attention. And it is worthy attention, whatever my 20-year-old self would have thought.