Review: Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca,” Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"

Casablanca opened in New York City on November 26, 1942 (this is an early review). The film did not expand to more theaters until the following January, so does not qualify as a 1942 release.

Who can truly take credit for Casablanca? The Warner Brothers hit may be the most iconic film of the forties, if not all time. It’s one of those classics which has been imitated, written about, and parodied to death, to the point where it transforms from just a film into something else entirely. But while we feel comfortable attributing Citizen Kane mostly to Orson Welles, It’s a Wonderful Life to Frank Capra, The Great Dictator to Charlie Chaplin, the exact auteur behind Casablanca is unclear.

The furthest back we can track Casablanca is to the two playwrights behind the source material. Murray Burnett and Joan Alison wrote the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s in 1940, but after unsuccessful attempts to produce it they sold the rights to Warner Brothers. At the studio producer Hal B. Wallis assigned the adaption to brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, but when the two left to work for Frank Capra on the Why We Fight propaganda films, Howard Koch took over. When the brothers returned, the script went back and forth, leading to both Koch and the brothers later taking credit for the script themselves. While Koch increased the political nature of the story and helped rework a lot of the plotting, the Epsteins helped keep Koch’s more heavy-handed symbols out of the script and contributed much of the memorable dialogue.1

Yet when we think of any number of the iconic lines or moments in the film, we don’t think of the Epsteins or Koch—we think of the stars delivering them. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are certainly key to making the film work; it’s impossible to imagine other early casting ideas like George Raft and Hedy Lamarr, or Ronald Reagan and Michèle Morgan, achieving the same effect. Before the first draft of the script Wallis cast Bogart, allowing Koch and the Epsteins to shape the part to the actor’s strengths, leading to one of his best and most emotional roles.2 Bergman on the other hand was not cast until two months after Bogart, and in turn faced far more frustrations with her part in the film.3 The ending was constantly in flux, and Bergman could never get a clear answer from director Michael Curtiz or the writers as to who Isla really loved. “Play it in-between,” she was told. Later she would say how she “didn’t dare look at Humphrey Bogart with love because then I had to look at Paul Henreid with something that was not love.”4 As actors, their relationship was limited—Bergman would famously say of her co-star, “I kissed him but I never knew him.”5 In fact, the most they ever seemed to bond was over their frustrations with the film. Geraldine Fitzgerald recalled having lunch with both stars before production, “and the whole subject at lunch was how they could get out of the movie.”6 Yet, through the magic of Curtiz’s camera, the relationship not only worked but became iconic.

Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"
Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”

From the disinterested stars, we can turn to look at the large supporting cast and the bit players who populated Rick’s cafe. Perhaps even more compelling than Rick and Ilsa’s relationship is the one Rick has with Claude Rains’ Captain Renault. Some view their friendship as subtly homosexual, noting how they end up together in the end or Renault’s line “If I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.” Regardless of what may lay in the subtext, the banter between their characters is a consistent delight, often disgusting important exposition or character backstory. The friendship of Rick and Dooley Wilson’s piano player Sam is also surprisingly touching, and though not especially complex, is still one of the best roles for a black actor up to this point. The Maltese Falcon’s Sydney Greenstreet serves a similar purpose as Rains, bantering with Bogart to convey exposition in a small role as the owner of the competing Blue Parrot bar.

More notable than the star power on display was the fact that most of the cast was made up of European immigrants, many of which had fled the Nazis themselves. Dan Seymour, who played a doorman, recalled how during the scene where the whole cafe sings La Marseillaise many of the cast members were in tears. “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees,” Seymour said.7 Along with major cast members like Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, and Conrad Veidt, these refugees included pickpocket Curt Bois, croupier Marcel Dalio, Rick’s mistress Madeleine LeBeau, waiter S.Z. Sakall, Bulgarian husband Helmut Dantine, German officer Hans Twardowski, and many more. These bit players had been theatre stars and anti-Nazi leaders in Europe; here they were lucky to get a single line in Rick’s cafe. The presence of these real refugees adds an air of realism to a story that Henreid dismissively called “a ridiculous fairy tale.”8

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman shooting the iconic finale of "Casablanca"
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman shooting the iconic finale of “Casablanca”

To make that ridiculous fairy tale work, Wallis landed some of the best craftsmen on the Warner Brothers lot. Michael Curtiz was fresh of the hit Yankee Doodle Dandy, and had a history of recent successes with the studio from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Angels with Dirty Faces. But Curtiz was not as powerful as some might assume; art director Carl Weyl was told “You will talk sets and everything else about the picture with Mike Curtiz; from there you will go to Mr. Wallis and get approval or disapproval.”9 To an extent, Curtiz was only put on the film because the timing worked out. Wallis wanted master cinematographer James Wong Howe to shoot the film, but studio manager Tenny Wright refused to take him off his current project The Hard Way.10 Wallis went with Arthur Edeson, whose work on the film was excellent, if perhaps not as distinctive as Howe’s best. Also of note is the work by master composer Max Steiner, who hated the song “As Time Goes By” but, forced to use it, made it the centerpiece of his iconic score.11 Still, it’s hard to point to any one of these technicians as the auteur behind the film.

Perhaps, since we look at most Hollywood productions as studio product and not artistic visions, we should look to the Warner Brothers executives. After all, it was Jack Warner himself who accepted Casablanca’s award for Best Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards.12 But Warner’s involvement was minimal at best; the man who truly drove the production was Hal Wallis—so much so that he was furious with Warner for accepting the award. Wallis was, as were many of the producers at this time, far more creatively involved than most imagine producers to be today. Memos show his creative influences on decisions as large as Bogart’s casting to as small but critical as the “sketchy, interesting lighting” of Rick’s cafe.13 He seems like the most likely figure to attribute Casablanca’s success to, and his track record at Warner Brothers proves that this wasn’t simply a fluke.

Of course, the answer is that no one specific person was truly behind the film’s success. Casablanca is the ultimate film of the studio system, a masterpiece with both no particular artist and yet a coherent artistic vision. It shows us how the assembly line process could not only turn out a solid product, but one of the most memorable films of all time. This is also a film that could not have been created at any other point time—just look at the failure of the attempted plays, TV shows, and sequels—or with any other team at this level of quality. Through a series of happy accidents, the pieces all aligned to create Casablanca, the defining film of 1942, the forties, and arguably the whole studio era.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on Casablanca

Read Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II, the primary source for this piece

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

Behind the Scenes

References   [ + ]

1. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 57.
2. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 46.
3. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 95.
4. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 232.
5. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 121.
6. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 119.
7. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 213.
8. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 96.
9. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 76.
10. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 77.
11. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 255.
12. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 321.
13. Aljean Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hachette Books, 2002), 167.