Movie Review - Casablanca

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Michael Curtiz
Warner Bros. Pictures
for mild violence

There used to be a time when black-and-white meant more than just an absence of color, more than twenty-five cent matinees, more than filming silhouettes on the wall and reflections in the mirrors—more, even, than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the old days, black-and-white meant knowing the difference between good and evil—it meant heroes who always did what was right, and villains who did not. Movies like Casablanca almost make me wish we could go back to the days of moral black-and-white—the days before the R take-over, before the demise of western culture… in fact, before Casablanca.

The setting of Casablanca, one of the most frequently quoted films in history, is Morocco, in December 1941, with WWII raging in Europe and North Africa, and Rick Blaine sitting alone in his popular Café Américain—cynical, jaded, and content to let the Nazi-sympathizing police captain win at roulette as often as he likes. But the story goes back farther than that, by a year and a half, to a whirlwind romance with a girl he’d only just met (do you know the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid”?)—back to the invasion of Paris, and Ilsa’s failure to meet him that final day at the train station. Her note didn’t really explain it; she just couldn’t be with him any longer. She disappeared. Rick grew bitter and opened a casino in Africa. And then, a year and half later, Ilsa and her husband show up (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”).

The romantic side of the film, which gets so much attention from fans, is that Rick hasn’t gotten over Ilsa, nor she over him (“Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake. Play ‘As Time Goes By’.”). The dramatic side is that Ilsa’s husband Victor is a Czech Resistance leader, wanted by the Nazis, and presumed dead off and on over the past couple of years—including during that interlude in Paris. Rick has two letters of transit in his possession—two free passes through Nazi-occupied Europe, no questions asked. That’s either one for Ilsa and one for Victor, or one for Ilsa and one for Rick… or two to stick in a piano somewhere against a rainy day.

Violent and Intense Content:
There is indeed violence in Casablanca, but by the time you get to the shootout at the end, Rick’s cynical attitude has rubbed off on you enough that you begin to think that death isn’t so big a deal. In the very beginning of the movie, a man gets shot, presumably to death. And letters of transit don’t grow on trees, you know. So when they show up in the hands of a shady Peter Lorre character, and two German couriers just happen to have been murdered in cold blood recently—well, you aren’t very concerned about it. The Peter Lorre character either “committed suicide or died trying to escape,” according to the chief of police—he hasn’t decided which, yet. When Ilsa threatens Rick at gunpoint, in an attempt to get her hands on those letters, he just says, “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

Sexual Content:
Now, don’t think that just because Ilsa pointed a gun at Rick that she doesn’t love him. In fact, she loves him so much that she kisses him passionately in Casablanca, knowing her husband is alive that time. And, of course, back in Paris they kissed quite a bit. Considering the amount of time they spent together, when they spent it and where they spent it, it’s implied they went a good deal beyond kissing, off screen.

The chief of police is quite the ladies’ man—meaning that he can give visas out of Casablanca to whomever he sees fit, and there are many beautiful young women who are desperate enough to escape from Nazi persecution to pay for those visas on his terms. When the young Bulgarian couple comes into Rick’s casino, trying to win enough money for the visas, and the young wife tearfully asks Rick’s advice—whether she should do “a bad thing” with the police captain for the sake of getting her and her husband safely to America—it’s less a problem of an offensive sexual theme, than a problem of trying to introduce yet another moral gray area.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Considering that Rick’s Café is a casino (and that it’s Rick’s), it’s only to be expected that gambling is a constant theme in Casablanca, whether it be roulette or 10,000 franc wagers about Victor Laszlo’s next escape.

Alcoholism is an even more constant theme (“Of all the gin joints…”). Almost everybody, in almost every scene, has a drink in their hand, and one waiting for them on a table or at the bar. A few characters—including Rick—are seen completely inebriated, and when a Gestapo officer asks Rick what nationality he is, he replies, “I’m a drunkard.”

Casablanca is not a story of black and white, good and evil characters, but a hodgepodge of morally confused or corrupt characters—sometimes on this side of the war, sometimes on the other—all in an ethical flux that leaves the Gestapo officer the only one we’re supposed to dislike at the end, even though no one else’s corruption has been resolved.

As a trick to get the police captain to release a captured Victor, Rick makes it appear that he’s going to use the letters of transit to take Ilsa to America with him—and Ilsa is all in favor of that plan, not knowing it’s only a ruse. Ilsa is not only ready to violate her marriage vows; she doesn’t mind a bit that Victor would be left behind in Casablanca, to be arrested and imprisoned again. She admits to Rick (as she embraces him) that she doesn’t know what’s right any longer, and unfortunately, Rick’s explanation why she must go with her husband only muddies the question even more. His reason? Not an appeal to her marriage covenant, or her duty before God—not at all. There’s a war on; that’s all. Victor is needed by the Resistance movement; and Ilsa is needed by Victor. The solution to Ilsa’s loneliness, then? To think back with fondness—not regret—on that season of unintentional adultery. To come this close to committing adultery of the heart—intentionally. (“We’ll always have Paris.”)

Rick’s own vices are played to look insignificant, or even heroic. Rick’s roulette games, for example, are all rigged. That may look noble, when he uses that trick to help the young Bulgarian couple win enough money to get to America. On all other occasions, though (and in fact, on that one, too), it’s theft. Sometimes, it’s grand theft. This is never resolved.

The movie ends with the police captain seeing Rick’s out-of-character, quasi-noble behavior, and concealing his knowledge of Rick’s involvement in the shooting of the Gestapo officer and Victor and Ilsa’s escape (“Round up the usual suspects.”). When the other police have left, the two walk off into the fog, making plans to join the Free French against Nazi Germany (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”). Never mind the police captain’s own habitual theft and corrupt policies, his murder of the Peter Lorre character, or his philandering and extortion techniques. They’re never resolved, either.


Casablanca is one of the best-known classic movies; or at least, the most-quoted. An old black-and-white. This movie is from the era when the censor board almost shut them down over Ilsa’s implied adultery, and yet let her implied fornication slide without a murmur—when you might say that “letters of transit” were handed out for everything from drunkenness to murder, no questions asked as long as the two fellows could walk off into a different phase of their lives at the end of the movie. The Golden Age of Hollywood had, perhaps, a façade of morality in its restrictions from overt sexuality and most inappropriate language, but when it comes to the real ethics—the substance behind this show of morality—there hasn’t been a golden age for a long, long time. Was there ever an era of purity in the arts—of moral black and white? There was, indeed. But then the serpent tempted Eve, Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and ever since then it’s been difficult to get past the gray areas. Casablanca only makes it harder.

The drama of Casablanca has been surpassed in other movies, and the romance has turned out much more satisfactorily elsewhere. Add the moral issues on top of that, and Casablanca’s occasional light grays aren’t worth the stain of the much more frequent dark ones.

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