Casablanca is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It has received overwhelmingly positive reviews over the years, is considered to be a historically important part of film history, received several Academy Awards including best picture, and is seen as the greatest romance movie ever made. So why do I think it’s just ok? This film is loved by critics and audiences alike and is, on all accounts, a very important film. My problem with the movie is the one thing everyone loves about it: the romance and lead characters. I believe these and several other elements drag the movie down to the status of being pretty damn good. But there are still things about the film that really work. I wouldn’t recommend it if I thought it was completely overrated. However, I will do my best to point out its strengths and its flaws, in order to give you an honest opinion about the film.
Casablanca is the story of… Casablanca. It takes place in World War II German occupied Casablanca, Morocco. The citizens, tourist, and French occupants are desperately trying to flee the city. But it’s nearly impossible as German and French soldiers have an eye on everyone in town. One of the places that is a safe haven is Rick’s Café, owned by Rick Blaine (Humphry Bogart). Patrons of his establishment can drink, gamble, listen to music, and do backdoor deals with rebels to get them out of the city. So naturally this is a busy place with civilians and the German and French soldiers who constantly hound him for information. One of them being a French captain named Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who goes back and forth between helping Rick and helping the Germans, seeing as how the German’s occupied France in 1940. One patron is Rick’s ex-lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). She has come to him to ask for his help as she’s now married to a rebel. Rick, remembering better times when they were together in Paris, has to think about helping the woman who ran away from him. But he’d better hurry with that decision as the German’s are becoming more suspicious of his café and patrons.
So, I’m going to start with the things I don’t think hold up well. First are the two leads: Bogart and Bergman. Bogart and Bergman are two of the great actors from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. They’ve both done amazing work in other films. In this film they’re only ok. Bogart plays a world-weary man who’s cool and relatable, and Bergman plays a woman who’s charming and caring. Probably the best scene these two have is when they first lay eyes on each other in the café. We don’t know their history as this happens in the beginning of the movie. But the way they look at each other conveys that they have a past and deeply care about each other. All of this is done through a simple look, which is rare to find in a film from 1942. However, the characters themselves are not all that interesting. They had a past together, but due to the war they were forced to be separated and live different lives. They have no personality outside of this and are pretty dull. During the second half when Ilsa threatens Rick to try to help her husband, the two talk about how they still love each other. The problem I have is that the dialogue is nothing special and these two don’t have enough chemistry to carry their supposed love story. But the real reason why the characters are so dull is because of the main story, which is the other big problem with the movie. The main story is your typical romance where all the characters talk about is their love for each other. This takes up over half of the films run time and the romance is not developed enough to take an interest in. This is the weakest aspect of the movie, yet this is what most people remember about it.
I don’t buy this movie as a love story for two reasons. One is that the romance is typical of B films at the time. And this was a B film when it came out, contrary to popular belief. The romance of the movie isn’t very interesting and pretty boring for today’s audiences. The second reason is that the love story is too long and takes away from the more interesting themes and characters. There are really interesting themes about revolution and war. One of the best scenes in the movie is when German soldiers are singing a German song in Rick’s Café, but the French start to sing a French song even louder. It’s a powerful scene as the French people, who were taken over by the German’s, still believe in their country and want to rebel against the tyrannical powers of the Axis forces. It shows a sense of rebellion and patriotism for one’s cultural identity in the face of evil. In fact, the themes of revolution are more relevant today than the main love story, which I think modern audiences will gravitate towards more.
While I do take an issue with the main story and characters, there’s actually a lot of good stuff. The sub-text of anti-war and revolution is conveyed through the movies great dialogue. There’s some really funny, witty, and smart dialogue in the movie, making it one of the best written films of its time. What sells the dialogue are the supporting characters and their actors. The piano player Sam is a loyal friend of Rick’s. Him playing Ilsa and Rick’s song is a powerful moment that shows his devotion to his friend. Signor Ugarte is a desperate man trying to get out of town like everyone else. He’s the one who starts the story proper with him getting arrested in Rick’s place. But he makes a lasting impression as he’s a major creep. Heinrich Strasser of the German army is a great villain who you don’t want to mess with and is very intimidating. But the best character in the film is Captain Louis Renault, played by Rains. Louis is supposed to be a French captain who’s forced to work with the German’s, but his allegiance constantly changes as he tries to do what’s right. But he’s not a sinless man as he gambles and takes bribes from Rick all the time. In fact, him and Rick have the most chemistry together. Hell, I would have loved it if the movie was about Rick and Louis relationship and how they outsmarted the German army. It helps that Rains is really good and seems to understand the character. He plays Louis as a man who switches from following his duties as a captain, to trying do what is right for his people, and to try to make a profit off of his gambling habit.
These are the reasons why I think Casablanca still holds up. Even though I have problems with it, it still has a lot of charm and inspiring moments. For me the love story and main characters don’t work, but maybe they might work for you. I just find the side characters and subplots more interesting and entertaining. I know everyone and their mother has talked about this movie, but if you haven’t seen it then I would recommend doing so.