Imagine a movie initially conceived as a romantic drama that becomes fast-tracked to hit theaters as a highly stylized assault on fascism and repression. Rushed into release to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Allied invasion of North Africa in November of 1942, the Warner Bros. feature Casablanca has come to be regarded as one of the most revered motion pictures of all time. The film was a solid, if unspectacular success in its initial run. Shot entirely on Warner Bros’ Burbank lot (except for one key sequence showing the arrival of Major Strasser) the entire production budget for Casablanca was about $1,000,000.
Today that would barely cover catering!
The production also benefited from its sheer star power. Based on the unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, producer Hal B. Wallis managed to imbue Casablanca with a believable and highly appealing cast. Humphrey Bogart, a Warners staple, brought just the right mix of toughness, morality and emotional appeal. The choice of Ingrid Bergman as his old flame was truly inspired. The Swedish actress had made her Hollywood debut a couple years earlier in Intermezzo, but she had not found real success until Casablanca. Interestingly, after the war, Bergman saw great promise in the films of Italian neo-realist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and wound up moving to Italy, marrying him and starring in several of his movies.
Other venerated cast members include Peter Lorre (as Ugarte, the petty crook who has murdered two German couriers for the letters of transit they were carrying and hopes to profit from their sale), Claude Rains (as the shamelessly corrupt Vichy official) and Sydney Greenstreet (as Signor Ferrari, proprietor of The Blue Parrot).
Casablanca was also distinguished by the curious, seemingly slap-dash way in which the script was developed. The first writers assigned to the project were the twins Julius and Philip Epstein. After just a few weeks on the job, the brothers left to work on the Why We Fight series in Washington D.C. In their absence, the other credited writer, Howard Koch, produced about 30-40 pages. By the time principal photography had begun in May of 1942, nobody knew exactly how the story would end. There were talks of killing off Victor Lazlo, allowing Rick and Ilsa to leave Casablanca together. Producer Hal Wallis was persuaded that having Rick send Ilsa away on a plane with Lazlo was the nobler conclusion, for in doing so, he is not just solving a love triangle, but also forcing the girl to live up to the idealism that had become such a part of her nature. As Rick was to say in his final lines to Ilsa, “I’m no good at being noble, but it’s easy to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Early on, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), watches playfully as Rick orders his crazy Russian bartender Sascha to take a drunken admirer home. He then remarks, “How extravagant you are Rick, throwing away women like that. Some day they may be scarce. Oh, I think now I shall pay a call on Yvonne, maybe catch her on the rebound. ”
Rick offers a dry smile and replies, “Louie, when it comes to women, you’re a true democrat.”
The story proceeds with this same sort of laconic, stripped down dialogue masking as wisdom. The ending scene, which finds Renault and Rick watching the plane with Ilsa and Victor on it prepare to take-off, cements Rick’s intentions – as well as those of Captain Renault. As the plane begins to taxi towards the runway, Renault comments “I suppose you know this isn’t going to be very pleasant for either if us, especially for you. I’ll have to arrest you, of course.”
“As soon as the plane goes, Louie.”
A determined Major Strasser rushes breathlessly into the airport hanger and is informed that Victor Lazlo is on the departing plane. Strasser attempts to halt the plane on the runway and after Rick orders him to put the phone down, Strasser pulls out a gun, and Rick shoots him in self-defense.
Just then a carload of gendarmes pulls up. In the distance, the plane is and about to turn around on the runway. Captain Renault announces climatically:
“Major Strasser has been shot.”
In a tense, dramatically charged moment, there is a long pause. Renault first looks at Rick and then back at the gendarmes before delivering his famous command to his men:
“Round up the usual suspects.”
The gendarmes scurry off as Rick and Renault are left to contemplate their next move.
“Rick, it might be a good idea for you to disappear from Casablanca for a while. There’s a free French garrison over at Brazzaville and I could be induced to arrange passage.”
Rick replies, “By letter of transit? I could use a trip. But it doesn’t make any difference about our bet. You still owe me ten thousand francs.”
Rick, of course, is referring to a bet he and Renault made about the Nazis capturing Victor Lazlo.
Renault replies calmly and with a smile, “And that ten thousand francs should pay our expenses.”
Both men smile knowingly as they walk off together across the wet runway with their backs to the camera.
As they disappear in the fog, we hear Rick’s last line:
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
And indeed it is!