There have been disagreements on whether or not this film can be considered ‘film noir’, with the majority against its inclusion. But the movie is lit properly for the theme with its shadows and angles, the timing is right, it’s soaked in cynicism and despair, it’s got a small but murderous body count, it’s got a (reluctant) femme fatale… so what gives?
The film opens with a man profiting from people desperately trying to escape occupied France and reach the freedom of the Americas during WWII, which routes everyone through his bar in the city of Casablanca. Rick sells his drinks and trades favors, but he ‘sticks his neck out for no one.’
The sudden appearance of Ilsa in Rick’s bar causes a look of surprise and horror on Sam’s face while he nearly stops playing the piano, foreshadowing the doom of his friend, and when Rick finds out she’s there, the knowledge sends him swimming back down to the bottom of a bottle.
The man Ilsa’s with is a political freedom fighter and is important to countless people fighting the Germans and fascism, and she’s fiercely devoted to him. Rick finds both their futures in his hands, and despite his overwhelming desire for Ilsa, he’s got to decide to take what he wants or let it go and continue hurting. The highs and lows of humanity are reduced to a few conversations in a bar, as they so often are, and for a minute or two the world becomes clear and the truth so simple: ‘a kiss is just a kiss.’
Casablanca is noir because the only way for Rick to do the right thing is to rip his heart out and leave it on the ground, just as happened to him when Ilsa lied to him and left him at the train station years earlier. It’s noir because the world he inhabits forces him to think only of himself. It’s either that or get tied up in the business of others and die—and that’s darkness.
But despite all of these things qualifying it as film noir, there’s one problem: Casablanca is not concerned with the darkness of the human spirit; it’s concerned with the darkness surrounding the human spirit, and the struggle to maintain against it. It’s really about the triumph of the human spirit, even if it means torturing ourselves. That triumph proves we deserve to be here, because we can do the right thing even if it kills us.
Casablanca is not film noir, but it’s dark, and it’s sad, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.