Forget CITIZEN KANE. My vote for the greatest American film is CASABLANCA. There’s no denying KANE’s importance in film history and there are other films I love more than CASABLANCA. But CASABLANCA is the perfect blend of script, direction, and stars.
And just look at these stars! Humphrey Bogart as nightclub owner Rick, Ingrid Bergman as his former lover trying to flee Morocco with her current lover (Paul Henreid), the leader of the underground resistance. And that doesn’t include the slew of legendary character actors–Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.K. Sakall (Rick’s Café manager), and, of course, Dooley Wilson as piano player Sam.
But for us film score fans, it’s all about Max Steiner‘s classic score. Steiner’s score includes the Arab theme first heard in his 1935 score for THE LOST PATROL. As he did in so many scores, Steiner employs the period practice of using pre-existing tunes for dramatic effect. In this film, it’s the “La Marseillaise” to convey French patriotism. But it is his use of “As Time Goes By” that provides the most memorable theme from the score.
Dooley Wilson’s rendition will forever be the standard by which all other interpretations are gauged. And in nearly 70 years, no one has ever come close to matching it. But Steiner’s genius, and I daresay the reason the song is now a classic, was through his interpolation of the melody in the underscore.
There is no one element that makes CASABLANCA the classic that it is. Instead, it is that rare piece of art in which every element works in tandem with the other to create a satisfying whole. CASABLANCA is as close to cinematic perfection as you’re likely to find.