Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca will go down in Warner’s history as arguably its quintessential picture, encapsulating the spirit of great romance, patriotism, intrigue and idealism. Funny enough, all these attributes are best remembered in a dozen or more instantly recognisable scenes and quotes. In fact, many of them are so iconic that for example the mere mention of “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris” without fail conjures up images of Rick (Bogart) and IIsa (Bergman) in Casablanca; or who could ever forget hearing As Time Goes By played for the first time, as IIsa insists that Sam (Dooley Wilson) play it for her, only for an infuriated Rick to storm by the piano to put a stop to a sore memory. Equally unforgettable is, only a few scenes later, a devastated Rick who sits alone with Sam as he hits the bottle and says, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
It’s fair to say Bogart and Bergman are not the only scene stealers in Casablanca. I’ve often wondered what would Casablanca be without the stellar supporting cast it boasts with Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson but especially Claude Rains who plays the corrupt French police captain Louis Renault.
Interestingly Claude Rains involvement in Casablanca was seemingly never in doubt when he teamed up again with director Michael Curtiz who first directed Rains in Stolen Holiday (1937). Curtiz chose Rains for Casablanca because the British actor was an astute character actor. When Rains lit up the scene there was no mistaking you either loved or hated him maybe even both. Even the film’s screenwriters, Julius J. Epstein and Phillip G. Epstein who initially objected to the casting of Claude Rains admitted, “We were wrong and Rains was great!”
Without a doubt Rains portrayal of the cynical but romantic Captain Renault is next to Bogart’s Rick Blaine one of the standout performances in Casablanca. When we first meet Renault, he is the despicable and scheming prefect of Casablanca. He is a man with no conviction. “I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be Vichy,” Renault quips to German Major Heinrich Strasser quite early on in the film. But by the end, he has firmly chosen to side with Rick (maybe more reluctantly than willingly) against the Nazis, as he tells his cronies to “Round up the usual suspects” to give Rick and Ilsa a chance to escape.
While we might cheer this fond moment in Casablanca, I’m always more impressed by Renault’s loveable vogue nature when by all appearance he cares only for himself. One scene in particular always comes to mind when Renault must shut down Rick’s bar for illegal gambling. When Rick asks Renault “How can you close me up? On what grounds?”, Renault sarcastically replies “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Seconds later he takes his cut of the winnings from a croupier. Scenes like that whether they are comedic or heartbreaking have made Casablanca one of the greatest films ever made.