The first movie I'd like to write about is Casablanca, and of course I mean the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman version from 1942. Now, if you ask most filmophiles what the best movie ever made was, they'll probably say Citizen Kane... and it definitely has a good claim to that title. But so far as movies go that I enjoy watching again and again, I'd have to give the nod to Casablanca.
I think it's a perfect movie in every way... perfect cast, perfect sets, perfect script, perfect plot twists... I have no complaints about it whatsoever. It's definitely a movie that I think everyone needs to see at least once, if for no other reason so that they can pick up on the Casablanca references one can find all over the place (heck, there's even references to Casablanca in Red Dwarf!). If you really want to see the oddest example of Casablanca references, watch Casablanca and then watch Tank Girl. It's the same plot!
Nearly all the action takes place at Rick's Café Americain, run by Rick Blaine, played by Bogart. Rick is an expatriate American who owns and operates this nightclub and casino, and while he pretty much looks out for himself, he obviously cares about the employees of his nightclub, and they care about him. He's bitter, with a sense of humor that can only be called dry (when Captain Renault asks why he's in Casablanca, Rick replies, “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.” Renault points out that they're in the desert, and Rick says, “I was misinformed.” This movie is full of quotable lines). Rick's cafe caters to everyone in these early days of World War II, no matter what side they're on. His main rival is Signor Ferrari, played by Sydney Greenstreet (who'd previously starred with Bogart in The Maltese Falcon).
Rick's life in Casablanca is peaceful, until Ugarte (Peter Lorre, another Maltese Falcon alumnus) shows up and boasts to Rick that he's got letters of transit that allow the bearer to travel freely around German-controlled Europe. Since most of the people in Casablanca are trying to escape the Nazi tyranny, these are very valuable papers! Ugarte plans to sell the papers, but he's arrested by Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and dies in custody, not telling anyone Rick has the papers.
Things get even more complicated for Rick when Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up with her husband, Victor Laszlo. Victor is a fugitive resistance leader, and the two are trying to escape to America. Ilsa, of course, is Rick's former lover, whom he'd met in Paris. The two fell in love, Ilsa believing at the time that Victor was dead. When she learned Victor was alive, she left Rick without explanation, and this embittered Rick.
Anyway, Rick learns Ilsa is there when she asks the piano player, Sam, to play “As Time Goes By,” which was Rick and Ilsa's song. Rick has forbidden Sam to ever play it again. Ferrari tells Victor he thinks Rick has the papers, but Rick refuses to sell them at any price. Then, the Nazi officers in the club start singing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” causing Victor to order the house band to play “La Marseillaise,” which Rick okays surreptitiously. The incident and patriotic fervor it ignites causes the Nazis to order Capt. Renault to close Rick's down.
Later, Ilsa explains to Rick what happened in Paris, and begs Rick to help Victor to escape, even promising to stay with Rick. Victor shows up unexpectedly, and Rick has Ilsa spirited away, and then Victor tries to convince Rick to use the letters to take Ilsa to safety.
Victor is shortly arrested on a minor charge, but Rick convinces Renault that he can set up Victor for a much more serious crime, possession of the letters of transit, to which Renault agrees, freeing Victor. Believing that Rick will be leaving with Ilsa, Renault goes to the rendezvous, but Rick forces Renault to assist in Victor and Ilsa's escape, to Ilsa's surprise. This leads to one of the greatest bits of dialogue in movie history:
Rick: Now, you've got to listen to me! You have any idea what you'd have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we'd both wind up in a concentration camp. Isn't that true, Louie?
Captain Renault: I'm afraid Major Strasser would insist.
Ilsa: You're saying this only to make me go.
Rick: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.
[Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry]
Rick: Now, now...
[Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet]
Rick: Here's looking at you kid.
Major Strasser of the Nazis shows up to try to intervene, but Rick kills him. When the police arrive, Renault tells them to “round up the usual suspects,” and after they've left, suggests to Rick that they join the Free French at Brazzaville, and Rick gets the closing line:
Rick: Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Quotable dialogue aside, what really makes this movie work for me and so many others is the pure chemistry between Bogart and Bergman. I can't imagine any other pairing that would've worked. This is easily my favorite movie of all time, and one that I feel like I've never seen often enough. There is such passion on the screen, you really feel like Rick was deeply in love with Ilsa, and while it would be easy for him to do what he wants, at the end, he makes what is, for him, the ultimate sacrifice for the good of others. Despite what he may have done on the somewhat shady side (which we don't really know about, other than letting Renault win at roulette constantly), he finishes the picture as a true hero.