Aoife Martin We'll always have Casablanca - one of the Hollywood greats

Our columnist looks at the classic movie that is 80 years old this year.

I CAN’T REMEMBER the first time I saw Casablanca. It was definitely on television, a re-run on BBC Two probably, or maybe one of its annual screenings over Christmas, but it was at a stage where I was falling deeply in love with movies.

Nor can I remember if I watched it on spec or if I’d read about it in one of the film books I had started to acquire along the way – probably Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide – but watch it I did and fall in love with it I did.

In Sight and Sound’s 2022 decennial poll of the greatest films of all time Casablanca doesn’t even make the top 50. In fact, it comes in at number 63, in equal place with The Third Man and Goodfellas (now, there’s a triple bill I would happily watch).

Lists are, of course, by their very nature, arbitrary and fluid things. They capture a moment in time and should not be imbued with anything approaching seriousness but they are fun to make and fun to read and fun to argue about.

A classic

If you were to ask me to name my top 10 favourite films two days in a row you would probably get two different lists, with one exception – Casablanca. It will always be top of my list. Is it the greatest film ever made?

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No. There are better films out there, films that are more technically proficient, films that are more moving, films that are more profound, films that are more dazzling, but none of those films has a hold on my heart the way Casablanca does.

Casablanca was banned in Ireland under the Emergency Powers Order (EPO) as it was deemed to infringe upon Irish neutrality. Even after the war, when the film was resubmitted, the censor here imposed cuts that were “designed to suppress Rick’s and Ilsa’s love affair in Paris”. It seems silly now but when RTÉ enquired about showing the film in 1974 those cuts still hadn’t been restored.

Leaving aside that, famously, many of the supporting cast playing refugees holed up in the city of Casablanca in French-occupied Morocco hoping to acquire exit visas were themselves refugees who had fled Nazi Germany.

Conrad Veidt, who plays Major Strasser, had left Germany in 1933 with his Jewish wife when the Nazis came to power. It’s not that the famous final line of the film was written after production had finished and was dubbed in by Bogart weeks later. It’s not even that up until the final days of shooting Ingrid Bergman didn’t know whether she would be getting on a plane with Paul Henreid or Humphery Bogart.

hunphrey-bogart-london-airport Actor Humphrey Bogart arriving in London in 1953. PA PA

These are all part of the mythology of the film and they are part of its charm. What makes Casablanca work is a combination of many things, things that happened by chance or by design, the combination of which never fails to capture this particular viewer.

A hill of beans

Nothing during its production made anyone involved with the film think that they were making a classic. It was just another one of 100s of romantic melodramas that the Hollywood machine churned out year after year. Sure it was an A-list picture – how could it not be with that cast? – but no one had high expectations. And yet, somehow, everything gelled, proving William Goldman’s adage that when it comes to the movies no one knows anything.

Ingrid Bergman has never looked more radiant in the way she was lit and filmed on her favoured left side. Bogart had never been more quintessentially cynical and yet, in the end, more noble. The problems of three people in this world might not amount to a hill of beans and yet Casablanca makes us care about these people.

I have watched Casablanca many times over the years and it never fails to move me. It is littered with cynical dialogue and is often very funny and yet it also manages to be achingly romantic and beautifully thrilling.

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In his book, Moments That Made the Movies, film critic David Thomson chooses the scene where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play As Time Goes By. It’s a famous scene and, although wonderful, it’s not the scene that I would choose.

For me, the greatest scene in the film (and there are so many to choose from) is the scene where Victor Laslzo (Paul Henreid) entreats the band to strike up La Marseillaise to drown out the Germans in the café singing Die Wacht am Rhein. The band leader looks uncertainly at Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who nods his assent and they duly strike up the French national anthem.

It’s a pivotal moment in the film and comes at a time when we realise Rick is no longer a man who sticks his neck out for no one. I defy anyone to watch that scene and not come away moved in some way.

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Watching Yvonne, played by French actress and the last surviving cast member until her death in 2016, Madeleine Lebeau, a tear running down her cheek, singing with such passion and patriotism always makes me cry.

Casablanca is 80 years old this year and is currently playing in cinemas. Sure it’ll be on the telly over Christmas but do yourself a favour and try and see this on the big screen. Bask in its silver glow.

Submit yourself to its romanticism and let yourself be taken up again with its heroism. If nothing else, it’ll remind you that none of us are neutral and that fighting Nazis is a good thing. Happy Birthday, Casablanca. Here’s looking at you.

Aoife Martin is a trans woman and activist. In her spare time, she likes reading, going to the cinema and practising card tricks.