Yes, Casablanca is, of course, my choice for the best picture of 1942. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There are few classic movies that are as universally loved and rightly so. What might come as a surprise is my neglecting The Magnificent Ambersons, often considered one of the greatest U.S. movies. Though I think Orson Welles probably made a great movie, its mutilation by RKO has left us with only a disjoined skeleton of a narrative that I’ve never been able to connect with. There is beautiful photography, great sequences, and some fantastic performances, all of which simply make me angry about the movie we lost. While I love parts of it, I can’t say I love The Magnificent Ambersons or consider what we have among the best films of 1942. I do, however, consider Casablanca in that class.
Casablanca is about as close to a perfect movie as they come. There was every opportunity for it to descend into Hollywood phoniness, but it somehow manages to maintain an emotional authenticity that was rare from the celluloid sausage factories of Hollywood in the 1940s.
The artistic success of Casablanca is all the more surprising when one reads up on the history of its production. It was, simply put, chaotic. The script wasn’t finished when they started production, and cast and crew filmed early scenes unsure how the picture would end. Would Elsa stay with Rick or fly off with Laszlo? Internal memos from Warner Bros. shows a lot of hand wringing over how to resolve the story without tarnishing Bogart’s and Bergman’s star statuses and monkeying with public expectations. Of course they finally figured it out and created what I would call a sublime ending.
Of course the success of Casablanca would not have been possible without Bogart’s great performance, bringing the emotionally wounded Rick to the screen. Nor would it have been possible without Ingrid Bergman’s performance either. Elsa is a woman crippled by her desire to be with the man she loves and her duty to a higher cause. The performances anchor the film and are some of the best of each of their respective careers.
But the movie is much richer, more complex than the Rick-Elsa-Laszlo triangle. The anxious ex-pat community of Casablanca, desperately fleeing the advancing Nazis, is masterfully realized. We watch characters from around the world, from all economic and social classes, caught in limbo as they wait for those elusive exit visas to get to the United States. Writers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch didn’t ignore the importance of these subplots to the main story. These characters and their backstories help humanize Rick. We see how the endless stream of sob stories forces him to build an emotional wall, but that wall is illusory. He is constantly measuring his ability to help with as little risk to himself as possible.
Not that he’s a coward. He simply understands the importance of picking his fights and planning them out so he is available to help another day. What a powerful message that must have been at the height of the war. No matter how dark or cynical the times, one man, no matter how selfish he may be, can change things for the better.