Cinema and Media Studies Casablanca
Peter Lev
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0210


Casablanca was a critical and popular success when it was released in 1942–1943, and many decades later it is still loved and respected. The American Film Institute’s 1998 poll of “100 Best American Films” listed Casablanca as number 2, behind only Citizen Kane. In a similar BBC poll from 2015 it had dropped to number 9, just behind Psycho, but that is still a remarkable result for a medium budget, black-and-white film from the 1940s. The story of American expatriate Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and political refugees Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in French Morocco is very specific and topical. It is also a mythic and near-universal story, as proposed by Umberto Eco (see Myth and Psychoanalysis), among others. The enduring fascination with Casablanca is probably based on its many appeals—one appeal may fade but others come to the fore. It is at once a fine example of Hollywood wartime propaganda, a dark and exotic film noir, a compassionate film about refugees, a classic love story involving two major stars, a film that more than any other established Bogart as an existential hero, a film of mythic and psychological depth, and a demonstration of the excellent craftsmanship of the Hollywood studio period (c. 1930–1960). The production history of Casablanca has probably been analyzed more than any other Hollywood film. Who was responsible for this film’s quality? Was it the producer Hal Wallis; the director Michael Curtiz; the star actors Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid: the character actors Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, S. Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, and so on; the writers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson; the composer Max Steiner; all of the above; or some of the above? Or was it just luck, a “happy accident,” as proclaimed by Andrew Sarris (see Michael Curtiz)? The lengthy debate has helped us understand the complexities and capabilities of the Hollywood studio system. Casablanca has also become a touchstone of film theory, used in major books and articles on semiotics, myth criticism, mise-en-scène criticism, political criticism, and reception theory. Casablanca was once considered a cult film, with spectators returning again and again and speaking the most famous lines aloud, for example “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It is now simply part of the way we think and feel.

Production History

The production history of Casablanca is covered in great detail by both archival and secondary sources. The key archival resource is the Casablanca Production Files at the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, which includes script drafts, memos, daily production reports, contract information, and publicity. Behlmer 1982 and Behlmer 1985 reprint some documents from these files. Correspondence from the PCA files presents the exact concerns of Hollywood’s self-censorship office. Harmetz 2002 is a superb book on the film’s production and reception history, combining archival and secondary research, numerous interviews, and evaluation of conflicting sources. The author of Lebo 1992 has also done a good job of archival research, even reproducing a few documents; however, Harmetz 2002 is the best source on the production of Casablanca. Osborne 1997, written by a popular historian of World War II, usefully connects specific details of the film to the historical context of 1942. Isenberg 2017, by far the best recent book about Casablanca, has good coverage of production history, film industry context, political context, actors, music, and the film’s “afterlife”—its continuing cultural influence after 1942–1943.

  • Behlmer, Rudy. America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes. New York: F. Ungar, 1982.

    The production histories of many famous Hollywood films, including Casablanca, told in narrative form with frequent quotes from studio documents.

  • Behlmer, Rudy. Inside Warner Bros., 1935–1951. New York: Viking, 1985.

    A compilation of primary source documents that includes a full chapter on Casablanca.

  • Casablanca Production Files. Warner Bros. Archives, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

    Though Behlmer, Harmetz, Lebo, and others have previously sorted through these files, they remain essential to current scholars to show the mood as well as the specifics of filming.

  • Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. 2d ed. New York: Hyperion, 2002.

    Harmetz is both thorough and intuitive—she understands which background issues should be explored Her chapter on “The Refugee Trail: Europeans in Hollywood” demonstrates that this film about refugees was to some extent made by refugees.

  • Isenberg, Noah. We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. New York: Norton, 2017.

    A scholarly book but also a popular one, accessible to a broad audience. The author’s goal is to “explore how and why Casablanca continues to live on in our collective consciousness” (p. xvi).

  • Lebo, Harlan. Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

    Good background information on Bogart and Curtiz. Includes a bibliography but no footnotes or endnotes.

  • Osborne, Richard E. The Casablanca Companion: The Movie Classic and Its Place in History. Indianapolis, IN: Riebel-Roque, 1997.

    Goes through the film scene by scene and finds that Casablanca is surprisingly accurate in historical detail. One of the few “errors” is that the letters of transit are signed by General de Gaulle, leader of the Resistance movement against Vichy France.

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