War on Film – Casablanca

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews a classic war film.

Eighty years ago, in January 1943, President Franklin D Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met for one of the key summits of World War II in Casablanca, in what was then French Morocco. There the Allied leaders, accompanied by their military chiefs of staff, resolved a set of strategic issues that would determine the course of the war in the Mediterranean for the rest of 1943. They also took the big decision to start planning for a cross-Channel invasion of northern France in the spring of 1944.

Casablanca had been captured, or liberated, from French Vichy control in a set of landings forming part of Operation Torch (see box opposite) in November 1942. These momentous events provide the backdrop for the immensely successful feature film Casablanca, released by Warner Brothers in North America just as the summit in that city came to an end.

A poll found that most Americans had no idea where Casablanca was nor why their President had gone there for a summit with Churchill. The movie Casablanca is set in late 1941, before Pearl Harbor, when America was still neutral. It helped put the city on the map and gave audiences in both the US and the UK some idea of the atmosphere of the place that preceded the successful landing of their troops.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Casablanca is on one level one of the greatest love stories ever presented on film. Humphrey Bogart was a well- established Hollywood star who had shot to fame with his dry and sardonic performances in film noir dramas such as 1941’s High Sierra (directed by Raoul Walsh) and, in the same year, The Maltese Falcon (written and directed by his drinking partner John Huston).

In the first he played a gangster, in the second a private detective. Casablanca saw the whisky-swilling, smart-talking Bogart play his first romantic lead and, although he occasionally looks uncomfortable as the lover, he was up against the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, who was entirely convincing throughout.

Bergman was a Swede who starred in a variety of American and European movies. At the time of making Casablanca, she was still almost unknown in Hollywood – it was her breakout performance. She went on to win three Oscars: for Gaslight (1944), Anastasia (1956), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

She appeared in such dramas as For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Joan of Arc (1948); she starred in three Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound with Gregory Peck (1945), Notorious with Cary Grant (1946), and Under Capricorn with Joseph Cotten (1949). She featured in the Italian films of Roberto Rossellini and starred in film and TV series up to the 1980s. But in Casablanca the 27-year-old Bergman was at her alluring best.

The movie is based on an unproduced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Hal Wallis, a producer at Warner Brothers, bought the rights for $20,000 (roughly $300,000 today): a huge sum. He retitled the project Casablanca and brought in twins Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch to write the screenplay. The lines they wrote have become iconic in movie history, from ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ to ‘Round up the usual suspects’.

The words ‘Play it again, Sam’ – later made famous by Woody Allen – are not actually uttered in the film, although something very similar was: ‘Play it, Sam. You played it for her, play it for me’. The fast, wise-cracking script captured the cynical, corrupt underworld of Casablanca, where deals could be done, the Vichy police were totally corrupt, and almost anything or anyone could be bought for money.

The director, Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian American, was one of the most prolific in Hollywood, making more than a hundred films, many for Warner Brothers. He was a visual director, who added nothing to the script but brought a very distinctive look to Casablanca. His crowd scenes capture the hurly-burly of the casbah, while his interiors, particularly of Rick’s bar, combine glamour with seediness. In reality, it’s difficult to imagine that any bar in an African city packed with desperate European refugees could be quite as smart and fashionable as Rick’s. But this is Hollywood.

The cinematography of Arthur Edeson, a Hollywood veteran, perfectly captures the mood that Curtiz wanted to create. The use of light and shadow, the high contrast black-and-white film stock, the imaginative camera angles and compositions, particularly when he was shooting Bergman using a star or gauze filter, all gave the film tremendous atmosphere.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Filming began in May 1942 in the Warner Studios at Burbank and it was shot at speed over 14 weeks. The film was made, unusually, in sequence, because the last sections of the script had not been completed when filming began. The combination of the classy script, superb music, and Curtiz’s direction, along with the performances of Bogart, Bergman, and a stellar cast, made a quick-turnover movie into one of the greatest classics of Hollywood cinema.

‘Of all the gin joints’

The plot of the movie is well known. Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, who had fallen in love with Rick Blaine (Bogart) in Paris in 1940. They had planned to escape the city together by train on the eve of the German occupation of Paris. But she never showed up at the train station. Rick felt abandoned by Ilsa and, hearing nothing more from her, established a new life as the owner of a highly successful nightclub, casino, and bar in Casablanca, the aforementioned Rick’s Café Americain.

The nightclub is a popular rendezvous for a long trail of refugees who are trying to get to the United States by finding or buying visas for Lisbon, from where they can fly to America. The bar is full of pickpockets and swindlers who are there to prey on the refugees desperate to get to ‘the freedom of America’, at this point still neutral.

Then one day Ilsa walks into the bar with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech escapee from a German concentration camp who had become a leading figure in the Resistance. She recognises the black pianist in the bar, Sam (Dooley Wilson), from Paris and asks him to play ‘As Time Goes By’, the music to which she and Rick had fallen in love. When Rick comes in, he is furious as he had told Sam never to play that song again. Then he sees Ilsa for the first time since she abandoned him in Paris. As he later says, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…’.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

To survive and run a bar in Casablanca, Rick has to present himself as totally apolitical. He does not support any side in the vast conflicts that divide the world. However, he is given two letters of transit on loan by the petty crook Ugarte (Peter Lorre). But then Ugarte is captured by the police and killed. The pursuit of the two immensely valuable letters of transit, which will grant the bearers access to Lisbon and hence freedom, provides the spine of the story.

Casablanca, at the point at which the film is set, is under Vichy French control. The local French police chief, Captain Renault (played with beautifully innocent cynicism by Claude Rains), is presented as totally corrupt, open to outrageous financial bribes, and willing to provide visas in return for sexual favours.

This was the seedy image of French rule before the Allies arrived that Hollywood wanted to project. And, to make the situation worse, Renault is more than keen to suck up to a German officer, Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), who has flown in to arrest Laszlo.

Strasser is a typical Nazi – strict, brutal, and unfeeling. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Strasser and a group of Wehrmacht officers start to sing German songs around the piano in Rick’s bar, but Laszlo, outraged, starts singing ‘La Marseillaise’.

Everyone joins in, and the band starts playing the French anthem, which drowns out the Germans. Furious, Strasser orders that Renault close down Rick’s bar immediately.

Ilsa eventually confronts Rick and tells him the story of what happened. When she met him in Paris, she explains, she was already married to Laszlo but thought he was dead. On the day she was to flee Paris with Rick, she heard that he was still alive. So there was no question that she could depart with Rick. She pleads with Rick to give her the letters of transit for them to escape, and even pulls a gun on him – but then admits she still loves him. They concoct a plan in which the two of them will escape Casablanca together.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The idea of people’s lives being torn apart by the war and events beyond their control was, of course, very strong at the time. In a phrase that must have resonated with many in a wartime audience, Rick says: ‘The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’

The last scene at the airport in Casablanca at night, covered in a thick fog, is one of the most memorable in cinema history. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must get hold of the film and watch it.

After the Operation Torch landings, there was a plan to add an extra scene to the ending to bring it up to date by showing Rick and Renault and Free French soldiers on a ship as the Allied landings were taking place. However, Claude Rains was not available for an additional shoot and, fortunately, the original ending was left as it was.

Rules of morality

Casablanca was made under the regulations of the Hays Code. The Motion Picture Production Code, as it was formally known, laid down rules of morality that had to be followed for a film to be distributed in the US. The Code specifically prohibited anything that would appear to promote acts of adultery. So Ilsa’s relationship with Rick had to be played down and no references could be made to them having had sex when they met in Paris. But would the Code allow a film to show a married woman succeed in leaving her husband for another man?

Joseph Breen, the Code’s administrator, demanded several changes to the script, including where it was suggested that the police chief, Captain Renault, would sell visas for sex. The script was toned down but in the final film the implication of Renault’s dealings is still pretty clear.

General Henri Giraud (far left) with Allied leaders Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill at Casablanca, January 1943. News from the conference dominated world headlines just as the film was released. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The completion of Casablanca was rushed through to capitalise on the fact that the city had suddenly become headline news in the landings of Operation Torch. The film went into full distribution in America in January 1943 when the Casablanca conference dominated the headlines.

The filmmakers no doubt had a stroke of luck in that they had located a film in a relatively obscure city that suddenly became the centre of world attention. But it could equally be argued that the Allied leaders were lucky that their meeting in a North African city was suddenly bathed in the glamour of a Hollywood masterpiece.

When Casablanca was first released, it did reasonably well but got mixed reviews. It was transformed when, a year after its release, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, with Michael Curtiz and the scriptwriters winning two more Oscars.

Since then, the film’s celebrity has never stopped growing. Woody Allen created his comedy Play It Again, Sam (1972) about a film critic obsessed with Casablanca, and by the 1980s the movie had achieved cult status. The elements that make it stand out are the quality of the black-and-white cinematography, the beauty of Ingrid Bergman, and the role of Rick as a sort of anti-hero, who will never do anything to help anybody in a divided world, but ultimately does the right thing.

Many critics in recent decades have come to regard it as one the greatest movies ever made. That seems a fair judgment.

Operation Torch

Three separate taskforces sailed at the end of October 1942, one from the east coast of the US and two from Britain, bringing 125,000 mostly American troops, escorted by the Royal Navy and the US Navy, along with all their supplies, to coordinate landings around three cities in French-controlled north-west Africa: Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers.

The landings took place on 8 November 1942, only four days after a resounding victory had been reported by the 8th Army in the Egyptian desert at El Alamein. Churchill was so delighted by these triumphs that he ordered the church bells, silenced in Britain at the beginning of the war, to be rung in celebration.

When France fell to the Nazis in the summer of 1940, its military had divided between those who supported de Gaulle and the Free French movement based in London, and those who gave their support to the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. The North African colonies were loyal to Vichy, and the landing of Allied troops in this region required the Allies to navigate the complex politics of occupied France. They had to try to ensure that Vichy French forces did not resist the invaders.

Knowing that Britain was not popular with the Vichy French regime after sinking the bulk of its fleet at Oran in July 1940, the landings everywhere emphasised the American presence. It was the Stars and Stripes that was brandished as the men waded ashore on the North African beaches.

Before the landings, America’s General Mark Clark had been smuggled from a British submarine into North Africa to try to make contact with the French authorities. General Henri Giraud, a Free French supporter, was recruited to parlay with the Vichy French. But no one knew if all this cloak-and-dagger activity would succeed in limiting any resistance by the 100,000 Vichy troops in the area.

In the event, the landings passed without heavy fighting and the three principal cities were in Allied control within a few days. Casablanca was then selected for the summit between Roosevelt and Churchill in January. The leaders met in a set of villas along the coast just outside the city, heavily guarded by US Marines.

There, amid bougainvillea and in the glorious winter sunshine, the Allied leaders agreed the strategies that would determine their conduct of the war for the next 18 months.

Producer: Hal Wallis. Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains. A Warner Brothers production.
From Mincemeat to Western Front: on The PastCast, Taylor Downing looks back at some of the war films we covered in the last year. Visit https://the-past/podcasts to listen.