Film noir is most notable for its cinematic look: black and white cinematography, heightened use of shadows and darkness, and distorted, Expressionist staging. Clearly, Casablanca was filmed in black & white and clearly it makes effective use of shadows, especially in the key scenes that take place in Rick’s café afterhours. However, one would be hard-pressed to describe the film as Expressionistic. It is a deeply realistic film, in fact, directed in an almost pedestrian manner with little in the way of unusual angles or camera movement. Since the distorted look of most film noir is intended as a manifestation of the distortion of values and morals that drive the characters in the story, perhaps this may be why Casablanca is rarely regarded as film noir.
That the visual style of Casablanca does not serve to heighten the moral ambiguity should not be confused with the idea that the film doesn’t contain elements of ambiguous morality, however. Rick Blaine begins the film as one of the most disillusioned and apparently amoral leading characters to appear in a major Hollywood since the introduction of the Hays Code. The character of Renault is generally regarded as even more amoral and disillusioned. The story revolves around a woman who is the cause of Rick’s disillusionment and although nobody should ever take the argument that Ilsa should be considered a femme fatale, she possesses enough of the darkness within her to qualify at least as female with a profound sense of disillusionment and not just a little confusion regarding her morals. And, of course, quite clearly most of the other non-Nazi characters exhibit signs of moral ambiguity. The Nazis, naturally, represent the evil in the universe. So, then is Casablanca not to be considered a film noir merely because its director chose to shoot scenes without a tilted camera? No, the real reason that Casablanca presents a problem to the lover of film noir goes back to that missing element from Tim Dirks’ description.
Beneath the tragic romantic triangle that drives Casablanca is the story of a neutral isolationist, a man who proudly asserts his unwillingness to stick his neck out for anyone but himself. Today it may come as a surprise to many viewers of the movie that America was essentially neutral toward the war going on in Europe even as late as 1941. Rick Blaine is the personification of that America; a neutral observer who comes to realize that he can no longer afford to watch out just for himself. The story is pure propaganda as it places him in the position of choosing between his own selfish needs and the noble needs of fighting for the betterment of the world. He must join the cause or else face the prospect of not having another Casablanca to run to and hide in. In retrospect, Casablanca is nothing short of a miracle in the way it brilliantly escapes turning into a heavy-handed message movie, and that may be part the reason it is typically excluded from the film noir section down at the local movie store.
It is almost impossible to imagine any film noir ever made coming so perilously close to being turned into a message movie as Casablanca. The message at the end of most noir films is that things can’t change; it is decidedly pessimistic. And it is pessimism that is the only element mentioned by Dirks that can be said to be missing from Casablanca. Despite the moral ambiguity of Rick Blaine at the beginning and despite the presence of real evil in the form of the Nazis all around him and despite the presence of all those other elements—guilt, alienation, paranoia—the ending of Casablanca holds out hope. It is not just that it is a “happy ending” because other examples of film noir end with the bad guys dying and the good guys winning out and they don’t face the same resistance to categorizing as Casablanca. The problem rather seems to be that even when Rick is at his most disillusioned and alienated and the film is at its bleakest—the scene when Rick bemoans the fact that his was the one gin joint in the world that Ilsa walks into—there is still no pessimism to be found. The Nazis are the bad guys—and what’s worse—they are real bad guys doing real bad things even as the movie was being made. Yet there is no sense of desperate fear that the Nazis could win; certainly not the kind of pessimistic fear that the Commies could win or that the McCarthyite fascists in America could win that pervades later film noir. It is quite interesting, in fact, that the pessimism is greater that fascism could win in America than that America couldn’t defeat the fascist threats from overseas.
Ultimately, it remains unclear why Casablanca is not regarded as film noir. It contains at least as many defining elements of film noir as Sweet Smell of Success, while excluding at least as many elements of film noir as Touch of Evil. Of course, one person’s film noir is another person’s gangster movie or thriller, so the debate is unlikely to be settled.