The 1942 film Casablanca is a tremendous tour-de-force of cinematic greatness; considered to be one of the finest films ever made, it endured a troubling production and a lack of enthusiasm from the studio at the time to create a masterpiece of film. Winning the Best Picture Oscar among many other accolades, its quality still holds up today as a fantastic example of film. In addition to its quality and enduring appeal, it carries a certain historical significance that provides it as an indicator for the political and cinematic attitudes of the time. Casablanca uses innovative cinematography, stellar acting, and brilliant mise-en-scene to showcase a very patriotic film that espoused the virtues of fighting for one's beliefs, as well as the casual civility with which war was still conducted in many places.
Casablanca follows Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a suave, charming but ultimately bitter man who owns a nightclub in the titular Moroccan city. Maintaining the casual balance between the Vichy allies of France and those who want to escape to America, Rick represents the appeal of neutrality in the Second World War. He remains neutral in order to remain out of trouble, even when his friend Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who has letters of transit for wanting refugees, is arrested and shot in his club. However, when his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) arrives with her husband, renowned resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), he begins to question his neutrality and whether or not he should intervene for the woman he once loved. This constant question closely mirrors the involvement of America in World War II; an apt comparison, since the process of making this film began the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
The timing of the film's release was very appropriate, as a politically-charged film about issues deeply pertaining to World War II as it was happening. The film was seen to be the first film that showed "America's commitment to the war," as Rick eventually comes around to the futility of neutrality and actively takes steps to aid the Allied cause (The Genius of the System, p. 317).
Apart from its significance in writing and themes, the production itself mirrors the sense of patriotism and romanticism that was taking place during the time. Many of the film's themes are presented through music and the staging of said music. The old standard "As Time Goes By," the motif for Rick and Ilsa's love, is a persistent presence throughout the film, and haunts Rick like a vengeful spirit. Furthermore, the conflict between Axis and Allied forces is exemplified perfectly in the later scene in the bar, where the German soldiers sing "Die Wacht am Rhein." In reaction, Laszlo starts the rest of the bar singing "La Marseillaise," everyone proudly joining in until they drown out the German soldiers. This was a powerful display, both of Laszlo's ability to inspire people and of the intense patriotism that the French (and the rest of the Allies) felt by extension. This showed the film's assertion that health of spirit and morale would help the Allies win the war. Both of these examples of effective sound and music usage help to show the backdrop of war and how it affects a star-crossed romance.
The lighting and cinematography also lend itself to the tense, fascinating romance at the heart of the film. Elements of film noir, a genre which Humphrey Bogart is very familiar with, are used in the cinematography, with great emphasis on closeups and shadow to convey the darkness, desperation and intimacy of certain scenes. Expressionist lighting was also used, using stark contrasts to contrast the morally gray world of Casablanca. The Cross of Lorraine, a powerful symbol of Free French Forces, was used to great effect in many scenes to convey the bars of a prison; in many scenes, the cross pattern is lit or placed in shadow on the backs of characters or in the background. This demonstrates both the feeling of claustrophobia that Casablanca (and Vichy rule) represented, as well as this very symbol of French resistance (exemplified by Laszlo).
In conclusion, there are many elements to Casablanca that tie in closely to its subject matter. Filmed during the Second World War, it felt like a cinematic declaration of war by the Americans and their official entry into the war itself. Rick, the neutral American, hoping to not get hurt by staying out of the way, finds himself sacrificing that neutrality for everything he holds dear (Ilsa). The Expressionist and film noir lighting lend a romantic seriousness to the proceedings, and helps to show just how trapped Rick and the rest of the population of Casablanca can be. The use of music helps to showcase the romantic nature of Rick and Ilsa's relationship, as well as the constant battle between the Axis and Allies for the hearts and minds of the people. All of these elements come together to create an unforgettable film that holds special resonance, even today.
Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains.
Warner Bros., 1942. Film.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Print.