US (1942) Dir. Michael Curtiz
December 1941, and in the western Morocco city of Casablanca stands the high class nightclub and gambling den “Rick’s Café Américain” owned by American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). The bar is frequented by refugees hoping to flee the war to the US. A petty crook named Signor Ugarte (Peter Lorre) arrives one night boasting to have two “letters of transit” – which enable the holder to travel freely through German occupied Europe and neutral Portugal – and he plans to sell them off to the highest bidder. Corrupt French police chief Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) shows up and arrests Ugarte, unaware that he has passed the letters onto Rick. Then later that night, Norwegian Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s former lover for whom he still carries a torch, arrives at the bar looking for the letters to help her and her husband, Czech resistance fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), to flee to America to avoid capture by Nazi officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt).
I’m ashamed to say it but this is the first time I’ve seen this highly regarded opus, which may not seem like much of a crime but for a self confessed film buff, it is the equivalent of a music fan having not heard of Elvis or The Beatles. It’s one of those films to which time has ensured its place in movie history with its famous quotes (“Here’s looking at you kid”, etc.) and misquotes ( “Play it again, Sam!” was never said) and the many iconic images which have been copied and lampooned ad infinitum.
Unsurprisingly, despite the A-list cast and top line screenwriters and production crew involved, this was just another film in Warner Bros’ production line for 1942 and nothing more. They had to fight the censors on some things like other films and the now legendary ending was often in dispute but really it was business as usual. However its multi-layered plot, intriguing characters, superb performances from the leads, memorable music and script, and of course the timing of the US entering WWII, this quickly ingrained itself into the public consciousness and became a hit, also bagging three big awards – including Best Picture – at the 1943 Oscars.
As with many films of bygone eras some modern audiences won’t be able to appreciate it but its class and influence permeates through the screen and still packs an almighty wallop with its ever twisting final few moments.
It’s arguably one of those easy choice films when “All Time Greatest” lists are compiled due to its continuing legend but the truth is, it is not difficult to see why it is such a timeless classic.