Casablanca: How the 1943 Oscar Winner Became a Cult Movie

Casablanca, winner of the 1943 Best Picture Oscar, is a Hollywood landmark movie in many different ways.

It is at once a typical 1940s romance, and at the same time a mysteriously eternal moment in Hollywood’s history. The film strikes right at the heart of American myths we carry as our cultural heritage. In fact, “Casablanca” itself has become a solid piece of our cultural heritage. A decisive film of the 1940s, “Casablanca” is one of the most popular Warner Brother’s movies ever.

There is perhaps something unexplainable about the enduring appeal of this film, which inspires viewers to try harder to explain the phenomenon. The tension between “Casablanca”‘s enduring status and its ordinariness has perplexed audiences and scholars for decades.

The critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that, “Casablanca” was “the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exceptions to the auteur theory.” Indeed, for the auteurist critics, “Casablanca” is a thorn, because it shows that movies could grow out of sheer studio style, knocked together by restless contract players and overworked vets. Director Michael Curtis may not have left a personal stamp or distinctive vision on his film, as the auteurists require, but he sure knew how to spank a story along.

In the famous essay “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” Umberto Eco wrote: “Casablanca” is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly; its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannerist way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for the future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research in textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie. Eco concludes his argument by stating that “Casablanca” “is not one movie. It is `the movies.'” Eco believes that “Casablanca”‘s attraction derives from the way it uses almost all the conventions of the classical film narrative.

There are two sides to everything regarding this film. “Casablanca”‘s intrinsically double-edged nature becomes crucial to the various effects the film has had on society over the years. For instance, the film simultaneously contains an icy political outlook and a warm, delightful sentimentality. “Casablanca” is a case in point of having the best of both worlds; it is a film made up dualities. Robert B. Ray has documented this aspect of the film in his book, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema.