Geeks logo

'Casablanca' and the Brilliance of Director Michael Curtiz

The opening moments of 'Casablanca' are a perfect example of the simple genius of Director Michael Curtiz

By Sean PatrickPublished about a year ago 4 min read

Casablanca (1943)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Written by Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein, Howard Koch

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claud Rains, Peter Lorre

Release Date January 23rd, 1943

Published March 4th, 2023

Casablanca is returning to movie theaters across the country on Sunday, March 5th, 2023, and Wednesday, March 8th, 2023 in celebration of its 80th Anniversary. I recently sat down to watch it again to promote the screenings, this is not a paid advertisement, I just love Casablanca, and I was struck by the simple genius of the opening moments of this iconic film. In this article, I will talk about why the opening of Casablanca demonstrates the greatness of the film and that of director Michael Curtiz, a deeply problematic human being and a brilliant film director.

Casablanca sets the stakes of its story immediately. After a brief voiceover setting us within the time of the story of Casablanca, we're thrust into the maelstrom of commerce and treachery of Casablanca. Authorities are in the midst of confronting a man regarding his 'papers.' Contextually, we come to understand that not having up to date papers, presumably related to immigration status and travel, you can be subject to arrest. And we will learn that being arrested, under most circumstances in Casablanca, is a death sentence, a likely trip to a concentration camp.

Thus, we are in the market. Authorities in full uniform confront a well-dressed man and ask to see his papers. Fearful, the man tries to say that he simply does not have them with him. They threaten to arrest him and in desperate ploy, he suddenly finds his papers in his suit jacket. The papers are out of date and the man is once again set to be arrested. He makes one last desperate attempt to escape, shoving past the authorities and making a run for it. The man is shot in the back. Thus, what is at stake if you don't have proper documentation in Casablanca? It's not just your freedom, it's your life.

This is the set up for introducing our MacGuffin, to borrow Hitchcock's term. The MacGuffin, for the uninitiated, is the name that legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock gave to the nebulous thing that everyone in a given movie wants. A MacGuffin can be just about anything as long as it drives the characters in the film to desire it and willingly risk everything to get it. In Casablanca, the MacGuffin are the "Letters of Transit." These are papers that would allow someone to leave Casablanca. It's a means of escaping legally from authorities, specifically, in the case of Casablanca, escaping from the Nazis.

Director Michael Curtiz could not execute this delivery of information to the audience with any more simplicity unless he had a character literally explain the concept. Bad filmmakers would use expository, awkward dialogue to deliver this information. Curtiz however, being a masterful director, uses action to set the stakes. He creates a scenario that is exciting, surprising, violent and impactful that also works as important exposition for the rest of the story of Casablanca. It's so simple and so brilliant. It takes less than 2 minutes of screentime, and Curtiz has made 'Letters of Transit' or 'Papers' the most important aspect of the story.

We've not even met our main characters yet. Cafe owner Rick Blaine and his ex-lover, Ilsa Lund won't be reunited for several more minutes. The fact that Casablanca is a story of unrequited love and forbidden romance, balanced against the heady and harrowing backdrop of World War 2, has not yet been introduced but the dangerous, deadly, and high stakes world of Casablanca is already fully established. These characters that we will come to care deeply for over the course of this story, will inhabit a place of cruelty, desperation and fear and we know that, even before we meet them.

It's so simple and so ingenious. There are numerous iconic aspects of Casablanca but director Michael Curtiz' skilled mastery of plotting and storytelling is perhaps the most underrated. Curtiz was smart, economical, calculated and yet, his choices are relatively simple. Set the stakes, build the world, allow his lovely characters to exist in this dangerous world. It's a bravura piece of directing. Simplicity crossed with an artfulness that so many filmmakers fail to grasp. Casablanca and it's first 5 minutes of screentime is the simplest thesis on the genius of director Michael Curtiz.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.