Casablanca: The Moral Imperative

By Patrick Lucanio

Many film scholars rank Casablanca within the top ten best films of all time — and rightly so.  The film is pure American cinema in that it plays as what Newsweek dismissed as “escapist entertainment,” yet the film speaks volumes about the human spirit. 

Specifically, through its clever storytelling, Casablanca celebrates sacrifice; moreover, the film eschews the rugged individualism of the Western genre and, rather specific to Warner Brothers at the time, the gangster films for what would become the dominant theme of the war films that followed:  the surrender of the individual to the goodness of the collective order.

The film’s origins are found in what was then known as social consciousness.  For, in many respects, Casablanca is an extension of Warner Brothers’ previous anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), in that both films were based on true accounts and argued against American isolationism. 

The impetus for Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the secret investigation into Nazi activity within the United States conducted by Leon G. Turrou, an FBI Nazi intelligence expert, which led to a trial of a German spy ring.  Although a secret report, Turrou nonetheless leaked the report to show the public the grave threat the Nazis posed to democracy.  To this end, director Anatole Litvak, a refugee from Nazi Germany, cast his film with fellow European refugees who had lived under fascist rule, and depicted the events in documentary style including the use of a faux “March of Time” newsreel — two years before Orson Welles would use the same ruse to great effect in Citizen Kane.

Likewise, Casablanca was adapted from an unproduced Broadway play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, which itself was based on Burnett’s own efforts to smuggle his wife’s family out of Europe through what was known as the “refugee trail” (whose points of shelter included Casablanca).  Burnett noted that one of the stops he made was to a small French nightclub called La Belle Aurore, where he found a black piano player singing American songs while people of all languages and dialects gathered nearby, hoping to reach the refugee trail to the United States.  The café setting, Burnett said, was the perfect backdrop for a love story about a woman seeking help from her former lover, a conniving, womanizing and self-pitying lawyer, in getting her Resistance fighter husband out of the country to keep the Resistance alive.

Burnett and Alison’s play was never produced (some have asserted that Broadway turned to lighter fare during the war years) but Warner Brothers saw a perfect topical melodrama in what one Warner script editor praised as the play’s “sophisticated hokum.”  But more important to Warner Brothers, the play’s milieu would further the studio’s anti-isolationist cause.

Consider the cultural context in which both Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Casablanca existed:  The country was ensnared in controversy dominated by a strong isolationist surge with no less a national personage than Charles Lindbergh leading the cause.  As a result, the film studios avoided the clamor with few films of the era touching what was euphemistically called “the problems in Europe”; more to the point was that the studios did not wish to antagonize their lucrative foreign markets. 

Warner Brothers, however, jumped headstrong into the controversy reportedly for reasons that stemmed from a personal hatred of the Nazis by Jack and Harry Warner.  The reason for the personal animosity remains elusive although it was no secret that the Warners were of Jewish heritage.  Moreover, it was reported yet never substantiated that this personal animosity arose from the murder of their Jewish chief sales representative in Germany by Nazi thugs in a Berlin alley.  Whatever the reason, the Warner brothers were not averse to making the claim that fascism was a real threat to freedom-loving people everywhere, and as such the studio began its crusade to educate the public — but not, at first, through the feature film but through the cartoon.

As early as 1937 the celebrated Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies alluded cleverly to the problems in Europe, and a year later Robert Clampett’s What Price Porky? allegorically told of war that featured a clever narrative in which the chicken coop is invaded by goose-stepping ducks led by General Quacko, the “ducktator.”  These tiny seeds, as it were, grew into the feature, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and since Casablanca began production before America entered the war the film was yet a continuation of the Warners’s struggle to persuade the world of the evils of fascism.

As Litvak had done before him, director Michael Curtiz, himself an émigré from Hungary, cast his film with refugees to the point that Dan Seymour, who played Abdul the Doorman, recalled seeing several of his fellow actors weeping on the set because they “suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.” 

But unlike Litvak, Curtiz eschewed the documentary style and chose a more European expressionist style to the point of evoking the film noir look years before it had become de rigueur for post-war films.  Thus, the high-key lighting and realistic portrayal of events of Litvak’s film became low-key lighting and a stylized portrayal of events in which Curtiz’s performers moved in and out of shadows in often eerie scenes that commented rather than depicted their anxieties.

The efforts of these characters to flee their homelands seem so simple on the surface, and yet their efforts are complicated by the complexities of the characters, which is the strength of the narrative as scripted by twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein with additions by Howard W. Koch (author of Orson Welles’ radio script of War of the Worlds)

The focus, of course, is on Richard Blaine, the Rick of Rick’s Café-Americain, played by Humphrey Bogart.  Here, the Epsteins converted the self-pitying lothario of the original into a cynical loner whose morality is in question.  Although he is described as once fighting with Spanish loyalists and smuggling arms to Ethiopia, he is depicted as an indifferent restaurateur who refuses to stick his neck out for anyone. 

That is until the unexpected arrival of Victor Lazlo, a Resistance fighter (Paul Henreid), and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the latter who just happens to be the reason for Rick’s apathy.  As we learn from a whimsical flashback scripted by Koch, Rick and Ilsa had had an affair in Paris that was frustrated by the Nazi occupation.  Rick has never gotten over the broken romance and apparently neither has Ilsa.  But then there is Victor who is as complex as Rick but for opposite reasons.  Whereas Rick is seemingly apathetic and cynical, Victor is courageous and idealistic; and whereas Rick’s love for Ilsa is rekindled, Victor’s love for Ilsa is steadfast if only because Victor’s lofty goals will not allow him to be concerned with Ilsa’s emotional demands.

It is this tension, shared among the dynamic personalities including the trickster, Louis Renault, superbly played by Claude Rains, that creates the film’s conflict.  Throughout we find ourselves wondering whether Rick and Ilsa will get together again.  But the complications transcend mere jealousy and envy to become issues of life and death.  Will Victor make it safely out of Casablanca or will the Nazis triumph again?  Will Rick overcome his inner doubts and do what we know Rick can do?  For, all along we knew—and were given enough clues by Louis—that Rick was more like Victor than Rick’s seedy Casablanca cronies, namely the amoral opportunist Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet).  Rick finally finds himself when he admits to Ilsa that, “I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” 

Ironically, of course, Rick is being noble.  He sacrifices his personal happiness—and, by extension on behalf of the Warner Bothers, his isolation—for doing what is right for the common good.

Patrick Lucanio is a film historian. Learn more about him here.