Here’s looking at you, kid. Casablanca (1942)

There isn’t a movie that so much quoted and misquoted at the same time as this one. Being neglected during its initial run, Casablanca (1942) exceeded all expectations, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and became one of the most memorable films of all time. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is set in northern Africa during the early part of World War II. It’s a story about love, morals, and higher purposes. Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, owns a club/gambling den in Casablanca, attracting both French and German officials. From a local crook Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre, famous for his role in Lang’s M), he finds out about letters of transit which allows him to travel freely around German-occupied Europe, which is priceless for refugees stuck in Casablanca. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, enters his club:

Rick: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

She asks Sam, the house pianist, to play As Time Goes By, and angry Rick storms over because he ordered him not to play it ever again. It elicits the unbearable memory of happier times. Ilsa and Rick met in Paris in 1940 and fell in love, while she believed her husband has been killed. But after finding out he was still alive, she stood Rick up. War is raging and this little tune reminds them of Paris, a haven in both space and time.

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.

Sam: [lying] I don’t know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.

Ilsa: Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.”

As Time Goes By becomes a leitmotif of love and nostalgia.
As Time Goes By becomes a leitmotif of love and nostalgia.

But Ilsa is not alone. She’s here with her husband Laszlo, an idealistic symbol of the resistance. This film is often classified as a romantic drama, but it’s much more than that. It’s an ethical quest, a portrayal of human decency, and an illustration of sacrifice for higher goals. Those papers mean life or death to the couple, and Ilsa means the same to Rick. Casablanca is a drama, comedy, thriller and noir. Casablanca is a place where cultures collide, where the Allies and the Axis sit together in a joint, so it’s no wonder the film does the same. Some comedy sequences are especially fun if you know enough German to enjoy funny calques:

Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen – sweetness heart, what watch?

Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch.

Mr. Leuchtag: Such much?

Madonna wanted to remake Casablanca with Ashton Kutcher playing the role of Rick, but was unanimously rejected by every studio. That movie was deemed untouchable. And for a strong reason. Arthur Edeson was the film’s cinematographer, famous for his work in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Frankenstein (1931). Bergman was mostly shot from the left, often with catchlights to portray her as sorrowful, innocent and nostalgic. The lighting throughout the film seems like we’re in a film noir, reminiscent of German expressionism. Light and shadow liberate and confine, and such conflicting lighting effects illustrate the nature of Casablanca as well.

The lighting in Casablanca is reminiscent of film noir and German expressionism, contrasting light and shadow.
The lighting in Casablanca is reminiscent of film noir and German expressionism, contrasting light and shadow.

Ugarte: Well, Rick, after tonight, I’ll be through with the whole business and I am leaving finally this Casablanca.

Rick: Who did you bribe for your visa? Renault or yourself?

Ugarte: Myself. I found myself much more reasonable.

It’s not only the picture that’s important here but sound as well. Herman Hupfeld, a lifelong bachelor, created one of the most amazing love songs ever written, As Time Goes By. It’s a slow song that evokes happier times, but also the awareness that love can endure all the changing times. The song claims it’s always the same old story, a case of do or die, but it’s also pointing out that we don’t know what the future brings. And that’s especially true for Rick and Ilsa. Max Steiner, “the father of film music”, incorporated the song into the soundtrack, and used it as a leitmotif throughout the film. One of the most memorable moments from the film is the duel of the anthems. Imagine this, the World War II is looming. There is a group of Nazis singing the German national anthem in a fancy joint. And yet, Laszlo leads the other customers to sing La Marseillaise, a powerful scene which has moved people to tears. If you watch carefully, many of the extras have real tears in their eyes since a lot of them were actual refugees from the Nazi regime.

Lighting and costumes accentuate Ilsa's nostalgic yet innocent appearance.
Lighting and costumes accentuate Ilsa’s nostalgic yet innocent appearance.

It’s impossible to imagine American cinema without Michael Curtiz, but he didn’t become a household name like Billy Wilder or John Ford. Curtiz was born to a Jewish famil in Budapest, his father was a carpenter and his mother an opera singer. “Many times we were hungry”, he stated. His thick Hungarian accent, according to Niven, was a source of joy. He asked the prop man for a “poodle”, and after an extensive search, the man returned with a dog, infuriating Curtiz, who screamed: “A poodle of water!”

Similar to Billy Wilder, Curtiz believed that preparing a good story was the basis of it all: “the chief work in directing a film is in preparing a story for the screen … Nothing is as important.” According to Rosenzweig, Curtiz used unusual camera angles and a lot of camera movement, along with high-contrast lighting with pools of shadows. When Rick and Ilsa are talking about their forbidden love, they’re surrounded by shadows, evoking the secrecy, but also confining them. The same happens when Rick talks to various shadowy characters regarding transit papers, and it’s easy to forget you’re not in a detective noir film.

'I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Nobody expected Casablanca to become such a hit. Even though there were accusations of romance between Bogart and Bergman, they only talked about how to get out of this film, because it seemed foolish at first. Even though it took some time to become a classic, it’s not surprising why. Every single one can identify with Rick, sacrificing his own happiness to make someone he loves happy. We have all done it at some point in our lives. And even though transit papers were just a plot device and never existed in reality, we know they’re real. We’ve given them to others lots of times.



Curtiz, Michael (1944). The Parade of Oscars. The Evening Review, June 14, 1944, p. 13.
Francisco, Charles (1980). You Must Remember This: The Filming of Casablanca. Prentice Hall
Harmetz, Aljean (1992). Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of CasablancaBogart, Bergman, and World War II. Hyperion.
Isenberg, Noah (2017). We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. W.W. Norton & Company.
Marton, Kati (2006). Great Escape. Simon & Schuster.
Niven, David (1975). Bring on the Empty Horses. Hamish Hamilton.
Robertson, James C. (1993). The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz. Routledge.
Rosenzweig, Sidney (1982). Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz. UMI Research Press.

One thought on “Here’s looking at you, kid. Casablanca (1942)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: