For those that find in them a certain joy every time the orchestra of film kicks, when those studio logos lighten the dark of the screen and the familiar trumpet notes sound, you know what I mean when I say that the greatest films ever made are a must see for everyone. Those top 100 or 200, or 500 films that everyone should see before they die. Film is subjective though, and there are many lists. Fortunately for us, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. From top to bottom, the list compiles the greatest American films released in the first 100 years of cinema.
Number two on the list is Casablanca, that classic of classics which produced some of the most memorable lines in movie history. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, two of the greatest stars of their time and one of the greatest onscreen couples ever filmed, Casablanca tells the story of a bitter night club owner Rick Blaine in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. His long lost love, the woman responsible for his bitter and cynical outlook on life comes back into his life with her husband Laszlo, the leader of Czech resistance and a hunted man by the Nazi forces looking for papers that Blaine has.
The history between Blaine and Ilsa is slowly unfolded and lain bare for the audience. The two met up in Paris when Ilsa thought her husband dead at the hands of the Nazis. When she finds he’s still alive, she leaves Blaine without a word to return to her resurrected husband. The movie tells the story of love undying, and forbidden relationships, the looming threat of fascism and the battle between love and duty, loyalty and selfishness. The film’s ending is punctuated by one of the most memorable lines in movie history, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The film itself is an adaptation of a 1938 play by Murray Bennett entitled Everybody Comes to Ricks. It was renamed in favor of something more exotic, despite the entirely indoor filming. The film was shot entirely on lot and didn’t break budget, anger executives, or end in tragedy. By Hollywood’s standards it was a great success, and upon its release in 1942 was a massive commercial success as well. It released alongside the Allied invasion of the North African arena in which it was supposed to have taken place and to the critical and commercial success expected of a Bogart production, and eventually went on to win best picture in 1944.
The film has been described as many things; anti-Axis propaganda, unbridled love story, youthful escapism, and even “a standard case of the repressed homosexuality that underlies most American adventure stories” (William Donnelly). The films critics have been far and wide as its undergone countless readings and interpretations, from the Freudian to the simplistic. The idea that Rick is anything but an amalgamation of all of these interpretations is hard to accept. His name, repeatedly thrown about and shortened and changed by each character he interacts with and subsequently the manner in which he interacts changes how every person might view him. The hopeless romantic will watch with Ilsa’s perspective, while the stridently anti-fascist will take to Laszlo’s perspective.
As to Casablanca’s greatness and place on the lists of the greatest films of all time, there’s no debate. The reason for its greatness is hard to pin down. There’s nothing overwhelmingly incredible about the film; it’s not a leap forward in technology or storytelling. It breaks no boundaries of the genre, but it offers a beautiful story that no one can claim to dislike and does it with style. Every character is likable, the story is wonderfully pleasing, and the acting is classic 1940s Hollywood at its finest. While Citizen Kane broke boundaries of film making, Casablanca looked at all of those boundaries and walked right up to the line and sat on the top of the fence, crafting a film that excelled in every aspect. No film critic in the country would be able to tell you that this is not a great film. As Roger Ebert says, “everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of “Casablanca” was largely the result of happy chance.” The pieces simply fell together and a great film was born.