Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Humphrey Bogart - Claude Rains - Paul Henreid - Ingrid Bergman - Rick - Captain Reynaud - Victor Laszlo - Ilsa Lund

1942, directed by Michael Curtiz

The Maltese Falcon, a 1941 mystery film whose cast was largely reunited for Casablanca, revolves around a statuette of a bird, a widely hunted MacGuffin that initiates and drives the plot. Casablanca‘s plot is also sparked and sustained by a treasured object like the metal falcon: the two letters of transit stolen from Nazi couriers, which Ugarte hands to Rick for safekeeping right before his arrest. Rick hides the letters in Sam’s piano in the middle of his nightclub, in full view of all his staff and customers. In a parallel way, the subject of Casablanca is also hidden in the same piano, in plain sight of everyone watching the movie. Yet just as Captain Reynaud fails to find the letters when he ransacks Rick’s Café, it is also easy to overlook the central role of this “thing” in the piano.

Before we get to this “thing” which goes to the heart of Casablanca and accounts for its lasting appeal across so many generations, let us look first at how the movie speaks to its contemporary audience. Casablanca manages, without losing its focus, to combine two simultaneous purposes, one timeless and universal, the other attuned to its historical moment.

Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Dooley Wilson - Humphrey Bogart - Sam - Rick - piano

It’s hard to think of another movie as quotable as Casablanca. Many of its lines remain popular today: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “I’m shocked – shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In a movie so full of immortal phrases, who would believe there’s a line that doesn’t make sense? It seems incredible, yet there it is thirty-seven minutes in when Rick and Sam sit alone in the bar after closing time. Reeling from his unexpected reunion with Ilsa, Rick says: “Sam, if it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?”

As nonsensical as this line may be, it’s not too jarring. It sounds like a mild sign of Rick’s inebriation, but to viewers in 1942 the words would have rung a bell. Back then December 1941 was virtually synonymous with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Rick’s odd question places the drama of Casablanca in the same month. This precise placement is fitting because Pearl Harbor brought a decisive end to the United States’ isolation in the escalating world conflict, and the movie itself is a story about the end of isolationism. Like the United States, Rick had long resisted getting drawn into other people’s problems, but circumstances ultimately compel him to join the fight. The movie stresses the point: Captain Reynaud says that Rick is “completely neutral”; Signor Ferrari asks when Rick will learn that “isolationism is no longer a practical policy”; and Rick says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Even the rather arbitrary setting in Casablanca bolsters this allegory, as the city’s name literally means “white house” as if alluding to Roosevelt’s role in joining the alliance against Nazism.

Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Humphrey Bogart - Rick Blaine - close-up
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Ingrid Bergman - Ilsa Lund
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Victor Laszlo - Paul Henreid - close-up
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Dooley Wilson - Sam - piano
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Syndey Greenstreet - Signor Ferrari - fez - shadow of parrot
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Claude Rains - Captain Reynaud
Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Conrad Veidt - Major Heinrich Strasser

Casablanca may have an element of allegory, but it’s not merely an abstract re-telling of world events. If Rick represents the nation in his shifting stance, he and Ilsa both stand even more powerfully as examples for the American people by sacrificing their chance to hold onto each other at the end. In similar ways, countless Americans would have to sacrifice their lives or their loved ones to do the right thing for humanity. Casablanca thus validated and ennobled Americans’ upcoming sacrifices and raised morale for the necessary struggle ahead.

As wonderful of a wartime rallying cry as Casablanca is, the movie is more than that. It would not remain so relevant and popular more than 80 years later if it didn’t speak to something more universal than the specific reasons for going to war at that time. Besides its allusion to Pearl Harbor, Rick’s drunken question to Sam is also a clue to the movie’s hidden subject, the “thing” in the piano that makes Casablanca so eternally beloved.

The most obvious thing in Sam’s piano is music, and the one song that stands out is, of course, “As Time Goes By”. The innermost subject of Casablanca, what makes it so meaningful to audiences long after World War II, is nothing less than time itself. Rick’s drunken question refers to time twice, both in the month and in its query about the exact time in New York. The movie’s first image after the titles is a revolving globe, our planet’s most basic measure of time, by which we mark weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. An introductory voice-over builds to a description of Casablanca as a kind of limbo where time weighs heavily: “…but the others wait in Casablanca. And wait… and wait… and wait.” Those words echo in the first line inside Rick’s when a customer complains of “Waiting, waiting, waiting.”

Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - Marseillaise - Victor Laszlo - Paul Henreid

Casablanca‘s dialogue points to time again and again. Carl tells a suspicious visitor that Rick’s casino is “as honest as the day is long.” Sam and Ilsa remark on their last meeting: “It’s been a long time.” “Yes, ma’am. A lot of water under the bridge.” A pair of expectant German-speaking immigrants practice talking about the time in English: “What watch?” “Ten watch.” “Such much?” Major Strasser tells Victor Laszlo, “You have all the time in the world.” The Bulgarian man promises Captain Reynaud, “We’ll be there at six,” and the police chief answers, “I’ll be there at ten.”

Just as Casablanca‘s wartime inspiration, its call to get involved in world affairs even at a high personal cost, is not an abstract message, neither is its philosophy of time meant to be abstract. Instead of giving us a profusion of clocks and calendars, it introduces time, including the endless waiting that dominates life in Casablanca, as the substance of life – and nowhere is this idea of time more clearly formulated than in the single most important of all the famous lines: “We’ll always have Paris.”

Rick says this to Ilsa during the climax to convince her to get on the plane with her husband. It’s the fulfilment of Rick’s decision to do what the situation requires, at the price of his continued life with Ilsa. She will remain with Victor helping him in his critical work, and Rick will rejoin the fight against fascism, probably with the Free French. The memory of their happiness in Paris will sustain them through their work and sacrifices ahead, but Paris represents more than just a memory – it’s a kind of eternal time. What Rick says next is also important: “We didn’t have… we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca.” During their eighteen-month separation, Rick’s life was bitter and meaningless; his memories of Paris could not sustain him because he believed Ilsa had been false to him. Now he knows better; the lovers’ reunion in Casablanca returned their past happiness to them, and although they will likely never meet again, their time together will always be part of their lives.

Humphrey Bogart - Casablanca - Michael Curtiz - close-up - fog

Time in Casablanca is therefore not simply the physical phenomenon, the fourth dimension of spacetime, but the essence of life itself. The movie contrasts the meaninglessness of the refugees’ endless waiting, or of Rick’s bitter self-pity, against an idea of time that’s fully lived in. The essential quality of “Paris” is not happiness, but a purposeful intensity that alters the experience of time. Everyone’s life is a mixture of both kinds of time, the kind we get through without relish, and the kind we live in intensively and savor. It’s not necessary to argue for one against the other; Casablanca‘s description of the two forms of time suffices to establish lived-in time as the substance of a good life.

The intensity of experience that Paris represents to Rick and Ilsa is a taste of eternity, an experience of time that cannot be measured by a clock. If it’s the substance of a good life then it’s the substance of cinema as well. Like life itself, movies are at their best when they give us some sense of this eternal time, something we can carry with us as Rick and Ilsa will carry Paris with them. Almost everyone senses this – the time we spend watching a movie ought to be special – but too many movies, probably most, err in their effort to make time more intense. The obvious way to intensify life is to add drama, but typically this only cheapens life. What made Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris so treasurable was not its excitement but its intimacy. Until 1940 Rick had lived a dramatic life, running guns against fascists in Ethiopia and fighting in the Spanish Civil War, but after the Nazi occupation of Paris and Ilsa’s perceived betrayal he’s had enough of drama, and he misses the everyday closeness he had shared with Ilsa. Now that he’s managed to recapture that closeness in Casablanca, it’s enough for him, and he can return to the fight – this time not for the thrill of it, but to live up to the vision of life that Paris represents.


The Lady Vanishes – International medley of characters with spectrum of national loyalties; reluctant bystander(s) persuaded to join conflict

Idiot’s Delight – Chance reunion of couple in wartime; theme song that bridges relationship; assortment of characters representing humanity

The Maltese Falcon – Largely overlapping cast; valuable object as a MacGuffin

Holiday Inn – Expression of American values early in World War II; insight into sense of time

A Matter of Life and Death – Plot preceded by a spinning Earth and a map of events in World War II

5 Fingers – WWII in neutral Muslim country with Axis and Allied characters; rekindled relationship

Roman Holiday – “We’ll always have Paris/Rome.”

Wild Strawberries – Idea of recapturing the past and carrying it forward; brief timespan with flashbacks used as a keyhole to a broad vision of time

The Eighth Day of the Week – Numerous allusions to time in dialogue

Hiroshima mon amour – Name of nightclub; resemblance to Bergman; beginning/end of WWII; always/never; about the way we hold onto time

La notte – Expression of eternal time lost and recaptured near the end

Cries and Whispers – Numerous allusions to time; life sustained by a memory that has become eternal

Blade Runner – Encapsulation of experience in famous line near end; protagonist named Rick who switches sides at end

Nostalghia – Memory that will sustain and inspire character(s) for life; requirement of sacrifice

Matchstick Men – A man able to savor his memories again after a woman comes back from the past

The Martian – Rallying cry for pressing global challenge; plot hinges on bringing a man to safety

Arrival – Value of fleeting experience; political and universal purpose united in one story