By the time we arrive at Rick’s saloon, a certain atmosphere of paranoia, exoticism, and vivacity has been set—and then comes romance, in the form of piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) and his charming rendition of “It Had to Be You” as the camera makes a slow dolly toward him through the bustling crowd and wafts of cigarette smoke. It’s easy to fall into the rhythms of Casablanca, long before the appearance of the star-crossed lovers and their damaged idealism, or most of the great character actors who populate the world of Michael Curtiz’s film make their presence felt—such as Sydney Greenstreet’s bemusedly sinister Signor Ferrari and Peter Lorre’s nervously sweaty Ugarte.
The film has a peculiar magic to it, and because of its pace the richness of its sense of detail often goes unnoticed. Audiences make generalizations about Casablanca because of how all those little particulars add up. Film lovers discuss it with a starry look in their eyes, as if they were describing their first kiss or a lost love, because something in the film touches them, perhaps its theme of dignity and decency, of rediscovered idealism. Males are instinctively drawn to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick because he’s a man of integrity, while females dig him because he’s a man of mystery.
There’s also something else to Rick, and it’s visible in his hangdog face. When we first see him he’s playing chess by himself, and the light picks up on a small glimmer of spittle on his lips. Bogart was always a sputtering actor, which made him so great as a B-movie villain cowering for his life before getting shot to death by the hero. But his sudden stardom revealed something so human about him, so relatable. He seemed more like a real man than, say, the frequently idealized characters played by Errol Flynn. The fact that Bogart was a movie star says a lot about his particular charisma—the kind that’s earned by an actor who’s paid his dues and figured out who he is. Rick is his own man, and like those refugees at the start of the film who watch a plane fly above Casablanca, his life experience is written on his face.
Rick is first seen with his back turned to a local who’s had too much to drink. “Rick, where were you last night?” the man says, to which Rick replies, “That was so long ago, I don’t remember.” Even though there’s no overt sex in Casablanca, it’s implied almost constantly. When Rick orders his bartender to take a girl home in a cab, he asks him to come right back. In scenes Bogart shares with Claude Rains (as Captain Renaud), they talk about women as if they were pleasing baubles to be admired, then dropped. Renaud also fawns over his friend with the most extravagant, slightly ironic hero-worship, and in a classic line from the film, Rains’s classy, debonair captain tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund that if he were a woman, he’d also be in love with Rick.
It’s astonishing when Bergman materializes some 30 minutes into the film, after Lorre’s Ugarte has whimpered for his life and been shot dead, and Rick has proclaimed that he “sticks his neck out for no one” and came to Casablanca “for the waters.” The shot that first captures the glamorous Bergman doesn’t call attention to itself, or highlight her, and yet we can’t take our eyes off her. It’s strange, because the shot is very wide, the dress she wears is plain, and she looks nervous and hesitant. How can a woman be so luminous when she’s moving her face back and forth like a deer transfixed by car headlights? When the audience finally sees Ila in close-up, sitting at a table in the café with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), her face is somewhat round, her eyes are sharp, and her voice has a certain breathless quality. Bergman, like Bogart, captivate us because of that ineffable thing we call presence. We instantly understand Rick and Isla through the actors’ faces.
If audiences are to admire Rick and Bogart, then we’re meant to adore Ilsa and Bergman. Victor Laszlo is set up as a great freedom fighter, yet he feels more like an abstract idea or plot point, not unlike the letters of transit that allow people safe passage out of Casablanca. Ilsa, like Rick, is a full person, with vulnerability in her eyes and a magnetism to her presence that goes beyond gauzy lenses and classical three-point lighting. Naturally they’re drawn to one another. She has a lot of big moments in the film, but a lot of small ones too that are just as memorable, such as that tiny, mischievous gleam in her eyes when she asks Sam to play some of the old songs.
There are, of course, the close-ups when Rick and Ilsa see each other for the first time as Sam plays “As Time Goes By,” but there’s also the furtive glance they throw at one another for an instant, before their eyes flicker back to the table, as they sit chatting about precedents being broken with Victor and Renaud. Those are the times that Casablanca resonates not only as a great example of the films being made during the studio era, but also as a reminder of moments we’ve had ourselves. It’s a movie that inspires nostalgia.
Casablanca is about striving for something meaningful. It’s also a tale of sacrifice in the name of greater good, set in a mysterious world of shadows, booze, cigarette smoke, and memories. The love story at the center of the film allows its heroes to tap into something special within their selves, and if they lost it in Paris, somehow they got it back in Casablanca. The film is all of those things at once, but it’s also about these people, these faces, and all the little moments between them. It reminds me that when we’re in relationships, we learn more about who we are reflected in other people, and when we go to the movies, the great ones can do the same thing.