Casablanca, the 1942 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman, is a movie typically on many critics’ “best of” lists, along with Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Gone with the Wind, among others (for example: http://www.afi.com/100years/movies.aspx). But “Casablanca” is my favorite of the great movies, I’m about to tell you why. I’m not here to tell you why it is the greatest, that’s not what I’m trying to say. I just like it the most in the list of the “Great Movies.”
First, it has a manageable running length. Many great “epic” movies have a length of three or more hours (Godfather: 175 minutes, Gone with the Wind 220 minutes), but Casablanca is only 102 minutes (or an hour and forty-two minutes) long. Its length is under the typical 90 to 120 minute range and as such, feels more accessible. Its length won’t scare anyone off.
Second, the characters drive the story. Rick Blane, the hardened owner of “Rick’s Café American,” is upended when his former lover, Ilsa Lund, arrives at the café. Many people remember Rick and Ilsa as the one of the seminal couples of romance. It’s not as much about the Nazis or the letters of transit as it is about Rick and Ilsa dealing with each other. Even the supporting characters, Sam the pianist, Victor Lazlo Ilsa’s wife and resistance fighter, and Captain Louis Renault, a supposedly corrupt German officer are all well-defined and influence how the central relationship affects the main characters.
Third, it is a movie that promotes doing the right thing over doing your own selfish desires. Rick wants to run away with Ilsa to America, but he knows that she belongs with Victor Lazlo, so he famously gives her a speech where he tells her she would regret it if she stayed with him: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Ilsa goes with Lazlo and leaves Rick in Casablanca. Rick sacrifices his own personal wants for Ilsa at the end because he knows that they both will regret it if they pursue the relationship further.
Fourth, it can be wildly funny at times. With the character of Captain Louis Renault, who regularly provides sarcastic comments and subtle comic relief, the movie becomes not just a sweeping romantic story (though that is the main focus). In one scene, Renault had just been told by his superior officer to give an excuse to close Rick’s Café. When he does so, he tells Rick that “he’s shocked, shocked that gambling has been going here.” Then one of the Café employees gives him a stack of money and says, “Your winnings, sir.” Renault tersely replies, “Thank you very much,” and then continues to shoo everyone out of the café. It is humor like that that livens what could otherwise a little more depressing movie.
Fifth, it features the Nazis as the villains, an army we love to hate. The German characters Louis Renault, part benevolent officer part comic relief, and his more sinister superior, Major Heinrich Strasser, are not just stereotypes but characters with their own agenda. Louis Renault is not out to disturb the peace in Casablanca but Stasser wants to find Lazlo, the leader of the resistance movement. With Renault as a complicated and humorous man coupled with the more serious Strasser, the movie shows that not all Germans are evil and that it is the ideals of the Nazi party that are at fault.
And, finally, it has a fantastic song! Anyone who has ever seen Casablanca remembers “As Time Goes By,” the song Sam sings to Ilsa early in the movie, and later to Rick after Renault closes Rick’s Café down. Not just a song played over end credits, which is where many big songs for movies are regulated now, Ilsa asks Sam for the song specifically and later Rick does as well. This gives a stronger emotional significance to the song and gives us a reason to find importance to the song as the main characters do.