Against the backdrop of refugees fleeing the German advance in Europe during the early years of the Second World War we follow three characters involved in a love triangle. Victor Laszlo (Henreid) is a Resistance leader who has escaped from a German concentration camp. Accompanied by his wife, Ilsa (Bergman), he has reached Casablanca, administered by the authorities of Vichy France. He now needs to get out of there before he is recaptured by the Germans. The only person who can help him is Rick Blaine (Bogart), who has earlier fallen in love with Ilsa in Paris at a time when she believed her husband to be dead. Rick has to choose between his love for a woman and the larger demands imposed on individuals by the war.
Casablanca is seen as a Hollywood ‘classic’ but how has it attained this status? Does it arise from the combination of a melodramatic love story set within a threatening world, a strong star presence enhanced by seductive cinematography, a satisfying cause-and-effect narrative that moves to an intense moment of resolution, a rhapsodic use of music reinforcing the melodrama, an ironic script that counterpoints the melodrama, an exotic location enabling an escape from the everyday world, and noir lighting that reminds the spectator of the darker aspects of life that continue to exist around the fringes of this imagined space of gratification? Or is it a ‘classic’ created as much by marketing as through thematic content and film style? Casablanca was rushed through production by Warner Brothers so its release would coincide with a major Allied conference in Morocco; it was further publicised by receiving eight Oscar nominations and winning three; it became a cult film in the 1960s; and, with the advent of video and DVD, assorted anniversary box sets maintained its profile.
As a product of the Hollywood studio system, Casablanca could be explored as an example of the way in which inputs of studio, cast and crew come together during this period in a collaborative production process. There is a distinctive industrial-creative process at work. Ultimate corporate control is exerted by the studio, Warner Brothers, but there are also creative inputs from producer, director, stars, and other members of the cast and crew. The screenplay alone involves several contributors: Howard Koch, Julius and Philip Epstein and Casey Robinson. The music includes recurring melodies by Steiner but also the distinctive delivery of songs (‘As Time Goes By’ in particular) by Wilson. In performance terms, there is the star presence of Bogart and Bergman but also the character acting of Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre. Curtiz was an experienced operator having directed over 100 films (and this was Bogart’s forty-fifth Hollywood movie). Overarching the whole process there is the presence of the studio dictating not only the overall ‘look’ of the product but also the political outlook.
The narrative shows how in wartime films Hollywood’s dominant ideological concerns are altered to bring them into line with the demands of a war situation. ‘Getting the girl’ is not what matters in the end (such considerations are put off ‘for the duration’). In the light of issues felt to be of such magnitude that they dwarfed personal relationships Hollywood emphasises self-sacrifice and duty. The final shot is of male bonding between Rick and Renault (America and Free France).
Our engagement with the melodrama can obscure the centrality of ideology to this film. Those involved were driven by a desire to address the political and (at the time) pressingly contemporary issue of German fascism. This was a fundamental concern for Warner Brothers’ executives but also for liberals like Bogart, cast members like Veidt and Lorre, who had fled Nazi Germany, and Curtiz, who had earlier come to Hollywood from Europe. This was a ‘wake-up call’ for America; as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says, ‘I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.’ Blaine has confronted the Italians by supplying guns to Ethiopia in 1935 and fought in Spain against the fascists in 1936; and contemporary hardships of refugees in Europe are presented in a documentary style that conflates this fictional narrative with newsreels of the period. Significantly, the film is set in December 1941, the month of Pearl Harbour. The script deals with the brutality not only of Germany but also of Marshal Petain’s Vichy France administration in collaborating with the Germans against the Free French resistance. The dark presence of concentration camps in occupied Europe is behind everything we see. Often, even Rick’s one-line asides carry serious bite (‘What do you want for Sam?’ produces ‘I don’t buy or sell human beings’). At the same time, despite (or because of) these intense underpinning issues, the Germans and Italians are also often presented in stereotypical comic-book fashion, and there are comic interludes as with the pickpocket and the bumbling stereotypical English couple.
The ‘What do you want for Sam?’ line from Greenstreet’s Ferrari carries weight, beyond what Warners is likely to have intended, since Sam is African American. There are stories of audiences in all-black cinemas in America demanding the projectionist rewind Sam’s parts and replay them as it was so unusual to see a black actor with anything approaching a substantial role in a Hollywood movie. And yet, how we should read the presence (or present absence) of Sam within the film is a contentious issue. In theory, as Rick says, he is within the narrative free to make his own decisions but in reality Sam maintains the dutiful sense of subordinate loyalty expected in a master–servant relationship. The very notion of including a designated ‘free’ black man in the film within the context of an American society (and Hollywood films) founded upon segregation should not be underestimated. But, do we in fact have conservative racial politics within a film that purports to expound liberal views? At the very least it would seem a major suppression within the text to have America exalted as the bastion of democratic freedoms and cosmopolitanism (see the nationalities represented within Rick’s Café Americana) while Sam is forced to passively represent millions socially and economically designated as second-class citizens in that country. Just as tellingly, Moroccans are almost totally absent from the film. There is one named supposed ‘Moroccan’, Abdul, the doorman (Dan Seymour), and Casablanca itself as presented bears no relation to the actual place.