Few films are as perfect as Casablanca. A stunning piece of film history that signifies the epitome of what Golden Age creatives could achieve in Hollywood. The greatest love story ever told tinted in an expressionist noir light – the cinematography of Casablanca is one of many reasons as to why this classic still has a powerful legacy.
German Expressionist had inspired many Hollywood cinematographers with its use of unconventional camera angles and heavy shadows. Arthur Edeson (cinematographer of Casablanca) had already shown his expertise in developing these techniques for his work on Universal’s monster movies Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. But he didn’t just limit this idea to horror, and therefore bathed Casablanca in a mixture of noir and expressionist camerawork. This romantic tragedy has the usual suspect you’d find leading a noir – a moody unmotivated Humphrey Bogart in a trilby hat. But in between the shadows of these urban settings and Bogart’s dark persona is a story about true, selfless love.
Whilst Bogart’s Rick Blaine is fronted in the usual shadows and low-key light to make his own darkness appear on screen – Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), his long-lost love is bathed in light. Having not seen her since their time in Paris, the city of love, Ilsa appears in white, a visual metaphor of purity within Rick has none. Her light is over-bearing and this light can be perfectly intertwined with Bogart’s need of it.
But the uncertainty of these characters fate is as unsure as the lighting used to categorise them. Rick often catches glimpses of light when seeming to break character and do the right whereas Ilsa’s temptations cause her to fall into shade. Both these characters are perplexed on what they should do, with the greater evil of the Nazi’s slowly encapsulating both of them. Rick’s morality is the driving force of the film, with his quest for light symbolising his need to clean his conscious. His cynical self must rid of his own selfishness and love for Ilsa to help her and her fugitive husband Victor (Paul Henreid) escape French Morocco.
The film is hopeful yet heart-breaking; it highlights how individual sacrifice is the most gracious thing a human soul can do. Rick may believe he is looking for Ilsa but really he’s looking for a purpose. In the final and infamous scene between them at the airport, both characters are cascaded in white light seeming as if they’ve achieved true happiness knowing they’ve declared their love for one another. But the morality of Rick intervenes, he realises that Ilsa must flee with Victor in order to help win the Second World War. In the greatest goodbye ever perceived on film, they go different ways – both no longer dressed in black or white but a foggy grey parallel to their environment. Neither of them will be fulfilled but they are equal, looking to the future.
Casablanca is a culmination of every single aspect going right in a film’s production process. Whilst there are many elements that deserve their own recognition, Edeson’s cinematography was transcendent and inspired countless generations of filmmakers. It’s a significant mark in the power of black & white filmmaking, and how strong visual language can be with nothing but varying shades.
Rick watches Ilsa and Victor walk off. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.