Casablanca’s status as not just one of the most beloved films of all-time but as a perennial contender for Greatest Movie Ever Made is among the most baffling mysteries in the history of pop culture. No one involved in its production back in 1942 thought they were creating anything special. Watching it some 60 years later, it turns out they were right: There is nothing special about it. It is a cookie cutter studio picture that — unlike its closest competitor in the Best American Film discussion, the rightfully heralded Citizen Kane — innovated nothing in terms of cinematic language. If the ghost of director Michael Curtiz floated onto the set of The Tonight Show, not even a zombified Humphrey Bogart would know who he was. It contains no truly indelible images, only catchphrases, one of which — “Play it again, Sam” — isn’t even spoken in the film! Looked at objectively, this is a situation where the movie’s reputation is greater than the movie itself.
Roger Ebert explains Casablanca’s enduring popularity thusly: “It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose” — in this case, defeating Hitler. “This is immensely appealing.” Yes, it is, but here is the problem: the “love” on display in the film has been inflated by time. Viewed today, the relationship between Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund is hardly transcendent. It is supposed to be the supreme romance in all cinema, but their history as a couple is summarized in the famous Paris montage, and from what we can see it doesn’t appear to have been much more than a tryst. Plus, Rick, we later learn, was a rebound: Ilsa thought her husband, Victor Laszlo, a hero of the Czech Resistance, had died in a concentration camp. When he turned up alive, she, naturally, returned to him, standing poor Rick up at a train station. She walks into his gin joint because Laszlo needs to retrieve papers allowing him to travel to America and escape the Nazis. She tells Rick she still loves him, he finally gives up the papers and she and Laszlo take off on a plane to Lisbon, leaving Rick alone — again — to continue rotting in the purgatory of Casablanca.
Basically, Rick got played. But over six decades, history has been revised to tell us him and Ilsa “sacrifice love for a higher purpose.” There is nothing there to sacrifice, at least not mutually. Sure, Rick is sprung on Ilsa, but she isn’t about to give up her dashing, fascist-fighting husband for a cantankerous, alcoholic club owner. Much is made of Rick’s decision to let her leave Casablanca without him, but what are his options? Forcing her to stay there and be miserable? Or going with her and Laszlo and being a third wheel? Outside of Rick bitterly withholding the papers and turning Laszlo over to the SS (a better ending, actually), there is no other logical conclusion than for her to get on the plane. And she boards that plane pretty damn quickly.
So without that magnanimous theme, what are we left with? A chase movie without chase scenes, essentially. It is more about Laszlo trying to outrun the Nazis, but since Bogart and Bergman were bigger stars than Paul Henreid — and since having a Czech character at the center of an American film wouldn’t really fly with U.S. audiences — the focus is instead placed on a love story that turns out to be bogus.
Let it be known: This is more a case of overrating than outright dislike. It is workmanlike in its efficiency, about as good a film as could have been in the studio system without freaking Jack Warner out. But compared to the still-fresh vision of Citizen Kane — or even 1960’s The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in my personal choice for most memorable screen romance — Casablanca doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.