It’s still the same old story. Seventy-five years after it was released, Casablanca (1942) remains one of the world’s best-loved films. Not just the best-loved, but best-remembered. Many cinephiles can quote large chunks of the dialogue by heart, and Casablanca has the most entries of any film in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time list.
Even people who have never seen Michael Curtiz’s romantic wartime allegory can conjure up a few lines about beautiful friendships, gin joints and hills of beans… maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
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Why is Casablanca such a quotable film? Well, it doesn’t hurt that the characters themselves use quotation and memory to negotiate their heartbreak. Casablanca is about a love affair in the past tense.
During the course of the film, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick says “Here’s looking at you, kid” to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa four times, and what was once a jovial toast becomes a poignant farewell. When Rick and Ilsa agree that they’ll “always have Paris” they’re saying that the memory of a happy romance will sustain them through the pain of separation.
Most famously of all, the separate lovers test their own fortitude by forcing themselves to listen to the song, and the lyrics, that scored their prior happiness. That’s ‘As Time Goes By’, a song that insists on the enduring power of love, and its attendant woes: jealousy, hate and tragedy. “A fight for love and glory/A case of do or die.”
Rick and Ilsa were listening to ‘As Time Goes By’ in Paris during the summer of 1940, 18 months before we meet them. The song itself was already nearly 10 years old by then. It was written for a Broadway musical called Everybody’s Welcome in 1931. Sam (played by Dooley Wilson, a bandleader in the 1920s) plays a collection of old songs in Rick’s bar, including 1924’s ‘It Had to Be You’. M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl’s sassy ‘Knock on Wood’ is the film’s only original tune.
Rick and Ilsa may reignite their romance in Casablanca, but, as in Victor and Ilsa’s first marriage, they keep their feelings hidden. Too much passion would be dangerous in the world of Casablanca, whose world of cool glamour is defined by understatement and other rhetorical games. Here, the Second World War is played out among polite people in a cocktail bar, where Rick’s avowed neutrality sets the tone. Rick and Ilsa remain calm under the threat of bombardment in Paris while finishing their champagne.
Although he declares himself impartial, Louis Renault (Claude Rains) asserts his authority and keeps the horrors of the hour away with his sardonic wit, offending the Germans by emphasising “Third Reich” in a way that suggests there will be another.
Likewise, Victor (Paul Henreid), Ilsa’s resistance leader husband, ironically describes German citizenship as a “privilege” but says his time in a Nazi concentration camp was “honour enough”. No word is wasted in this trim script, which weaponises language. The characters’ combination of deadpan comedy and modesty represents their bravery too – it’s an aspirational mode of dialogue, in which cleverness, and perhaps a little cynicism, trumps fear and untrammelled emotion. When we borrow Casablanca’s dialogue, we borrow a little of their grace under fire, and suggest we too could be noble enough to sacrifice our own interests for the greater good.
Quotations from Casablanca appear everywhere from TV adverts to other films, right up to recent releases Allied (2016) and Atomic Blonde (2017). The film has been parodied by everyone from the Marx Brothers to Bugs Bunny. Paul Anton Smith’s compilation film Have You Seen My Movie? (2016) splices together several scenes from other films in which characters watch the final scene. Karina Longworth’s unmissable Hollywood history podcast takes its title, You Must Remember This, from a line in ‘As Time Goes By’, and each episode is introduced by the haunting sound of Bergman humming the melody.
Woody Allen sampled the entire movie in a 1969 play, filmed by Herbert Ross in 1972, although the title – Play It Again, Sam – is famously a mangled misquotation of what Rick actually says to his pianist. Bryan Singer’s 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects took its title from one of Renault’s lines. Emma Stone’s Mia in La La Land (2016) is obsessed with the film, sleeping underneath a giant poster of Bergman and working opposite one of its key shooting locations – which suggests a grim prognosis for her fling with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian.
Bergman said of the film that “it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film, a need that the film filled.” The film’s popularity has only grown, and it seems we still need the spirit of Casablanca. In November 2016, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, thousands shared a clip from Casablanca online. It was the scene in which the patrons of Rick’s café begin singing the Marseillaise in unison to drown out the Nazis. In a time of trouble, with hate on the rise in Europe, many people found that the defiance of these glamorous refugees in a septuagenarian movie said everything that they needed to say.
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