Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > CASABLANCA – Max Steiner

CASABLANCA – Max Steiner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In January of 1942 story editor Irene Diamond became enamored with the unproduced stage play “Everybody Comes to Ricks” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. She convinced Warner Brothers producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights, and brothers Julius and Philip Epstein were brought in to write the screenplay. Wallis was unable to secure William Wyler to direct, and so turned to his friend Michael Curtiz to manage the project. They brought in one of the most notable casts of the day with Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo, Claude Reins as Captain Louis Renault, Conrad Veidt as Major Henrich Strasser, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, Peter Lorre as Signor Ugarte and Dooley Wilson as Sam.

The story is a classic romance about two lovers caught in the cruel cross currents of war, separated and later reunited by fate, only to realize that their time for happiness together had passed. Rick Blaine is an American owner of the gambling café, Café Americain in Casablanca. Two years earlier he and Ilsa had been lovers in Paris but she stood him up at the train station where they intended to flee as the Nazi’s marched into Paris. With no explanation, Rick was devastated and over time, became bitter. By chance Ilsa shows up at his café with husband Laszlo, a fugative Czech resistance leader. Rick is devastated and angry when they meet. Ilsa explains to him that Laszlo was her husband, and that she fell in love with him after she received news that he had died. On the day they intended to flee Paris she received word that Laszlo was alive and stayed in Paris to reunite. Rick is initially unmoved, but it becomes clear that they both still love each other. He obtains two transport tickets to Lisbon and conspires a ruse to outwit Captain Renault. He makes a deal that will allow him and Ilsa to use the tickets, and for Renault to arrest Lazlo for possessing the stolen tickets. When Renault attempts to arrest Lazlo, Rick double-crosses him and forces him at gunpoint to take them all to the airport. At the airport, Rick in an act of gallantry turns over the tickets to Ilsa and Victor. They depart, yet Ilsa is torn. Now Renault was able to tip off Major Strasser and when he arrives at the airport, Rick kills him. To his surprise, when police arrive Renault orders his men to “round up the usual suspects”. It is clear that an epiphany has occurred and Louis suggests that they both join the Free French forces in Brazzaville. The movie ends with the two walking on the tarmac and disappearing in the fog with Rick stating, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The film was a commercial success as well as a critical success, securing eight Academy Award nominations including; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Film Score. It secured three wins for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Steiner, who was under contract with Warner Brothers, was the natural choice for the film. He understood early that given the café setting, one populated by refugees, gamblers, French patriots and Nazis’ that he would have to infuse his soundscape with a nightclub vibe, which captured its energy, ambiance, and intrigue. Since the café was American, up-tempo contemporaneous music was used. Source songs included “Crazy Rhythm”, “Baby Face”, “I‘m Just Wild About Harry”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “Love for Sale”, and “Avalon.” Allusions to Rick’s past as a loyalist fighter in the Spanish civil war are found with the song “Tango della Rose.” Additionally, M. K. Jerome and lyricist by Jack Scholl were asked to write a couple of new songs for the film, which were “Knock On Wood”, and “Dats’s What Noah’s Done.”

Steiner did not like the song “As Time Goes By”, which was written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931 for the Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome.” He instead advocated for an original piece so he could qualify for royalties. Wallis resisted yet ultimately relented after shooting had been completed, but could not follow through with scene reshoots as Bergman had cut her hair for her next film “For Whom The Bells Toll.” As such, Steiner accepted his fate and with grace proceeded to make “As Time Goes By” the centerpiece of his score, his Love Theme. He grasped that the song in its essence, and in its timeless lyrics, spoke to romance and Rick and Ilsa’s eternal love.

Instructive is that Steiner never allows the song to be completed, an allusion to the fact that Rick and Ilsa’s love is destined to not be fulfilled. Also, worth noting is that other powerful emotions are catalyzed and intersected by its notes, so Steiner alters its expression, at times making it sad, angry or anguished. Steiner also understood that given the story’s narrative that it was important to infuse his score with patriotic anthems. For the French he chose the iconic “La Marsaillaise”. The German anthem however was problematic. His original choice was “Das Horst-Wessel-Lied”, the Nazi Party anthem and unofficial second national anthem of the Reich, however this would have required the payment of royalties to the Nazis! So he opted for “Die Wacht am Rhein”, an old patriotic song, music by Karl Wilheim, lyrics by Max Schneckenburger. Lastly, I advise the reader that while the score has been remastered from the original monaural source, the producers made the dubious decision to incorporate dialogue in several of the cues, which I will identify with . For me, this is regrettable. Never the less I feel despite this flaw, a review of this score is long over due.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Steiner displays mastery of his craft. The extended cue is constructed in six segments, which flow seamlessly. We open grandly with the Warner Brothers Fanfare, which Steiner first launched for Tovaritch (1938). The piece is brilliantly conceived in that it lacks a tonal center, which gives the composer latitude to flow into any key of his choice in launching a film’s main titles. The logo dissipate s upon a dissonant chord revealing a map of Africa, followed by the names of the three principle actors. Steiner interpolates his music from The Lost Patrol (1934) with changes in tempo and instrumentation to set the tone of the film. A string bridge ushers in festive dance music with exotic North African rhythms replete with xylophone and bells supported by an energetic percussive ostinato. At 0:54 we segue into a rendering of “Le Marseillaise”, which offers an inspired major modal brightness and informs us of the resilient spirit of the French people. We note a deviation from protocol with such fanfare usually reserved for the producer, instead it heralds “Music by Max Steiner” in the credits! The anthem concludes with an ominous tritone, a subtle allusion that freedom’s survival from the Nazi’s is in doubt. At 1:10 we flow into the “Prologue“ where a narrator offers an eloquent lament on the state of the world. A spinning globe appears and displays the tracks of desperate refugees fleeing the dark Nazi pall upon Europe. Steiner elicits our empathy for the struggles the flight of the refugees with plaintive strings and forlorn horns. We transition at 2:08 to crowded streets supported by the earlier exotic North African rhythms. Oboes and kindred woodwinds awash with ethnic auras, capture the pulse of the crowed streets of Casablanca. At 2:22 we conclude with drama as the Nazi presence is brought to the forefront with fanfare of the German anthem “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Its articulation is truncated by a timpani rumble, which dissolves and launches a police dragnet after an office policeman announce to his comrades that two German carriers with important documents have been found murdered on the train from Oran. Steiner supports the dragnet by whipping his orchestra into frenzy with strings furioso and blaring horns. Intense repeating string descents impart the desperation of a fleeing man, yet he is shot with a final descent joined by timpani and bass supporting his death at 3:25. A reprise of “Le Marseillaise”, now shorn of its pride, supports a scene change to the police station. The cue concludes plaintively as desperate eyes look skyward as the Lisbon plane lands in the airport. This complex multi-scenic cue was masterfully supported!

The romantic source song “It Had To Be You”, music by Isham Jones with lyrics by Gus Kahn, supports our first look at Rick’s Café Americain. The camera pans through the packed café and comes to rest on piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) who is singing the song. At 0:48 we segue into “Shine” with its high octane swing rhythms, which underpins multiple shots of one desperate person after another peddling jewels, chartering an escape boat or trying to purchase transit papers. Steiner perfectly captures the intrigue, energy and festive ambiance of Rick’s. In an unscored scene Rick takes temporary possession of the transit papers of the murdered couriers from the shady Ugarte. The camera returns to Sam who launches into “Knock On Wood” by M. K. Jerome and lyricist by Jack Scholl. It is a playful interactive tune, which supports the good time. Both the band and audience chime in and everyone is having a great time. In “Rick And Renault” Rick joins Renault for a smoke outside his club. Renault repeatedly queries him as to his past, and purpose for being in Casablanca, yet Rick evades or deflects, yielding no answers. Steiner supports by interpolating the source song “The Very Thought Of You”, by Ray Noble. The soft ballad unobtrusively supports their dialogue. In a subtle allusion, Steiner offers a brief phrase of the song “As Time Goes By” is barely discernible as the plane to Lisbon flies overhead

In “Arrival Of Ilsa And Victor At Rick’s” Renault introduces himself to Laszlo and Ilsa who have entered the café. He offers them a drink on his tab and it appears they are on friendly terms, although Laszlo remains guarded. Steiner supports the scene with a piano rendering of the source song “Love For Sale” by Cole Porter. The note rich free-flowing tune offers a perfect backdrop to the conversation. In “Play It Sam… Play ‘As Time Goes By” Ilsa recognizes Sam from her days in Paris and asks him to play some of the old songs. He begins with “Avalon”, music and lyrics by Al Jolson, Buddy Silva and Vincent Rose. Its tune is pleasant with a sweet classical gentility. Yet after a few bars she entreats him to play, “As Time Goes By” for old time’s sake. Sam tries his best to feign he forgot the song but she hums it for him. He acquiesces and plays the song. As he sings she becomes introspective, and drifts off as though recalling Paris. Rick hears it, is angry, and bursts out of his office. The song’s melodic flow is severed by a chord of dissonance as Rick and Ilsa’s lock eyes. A solo plaintive oboe continues the melody joined by the orchestra, but its notes are emoted plaintively as a lamentation. As they depart for the evening, we conclude on four dark chords of heartache. Powerful emotions are at play, anger, regret and love and Steiner perfectly supports the scene.

“Of All The Gin Joints In All The Towns In All The World…” reveals Rick getting drunk, trying to numb his pain. Sam plays a pleasant untitled tune by Frank Perkins on piano to support the scene. The scene flows into “Medley: Paris Montage” where Rick orders Sam to play “As Time Goes By” barking “Play it, if she can stand it, I can.” Sam plays the song on piano but offers no lyrics, and we see in Rick’s face terrible heartache. A string bridge ushers in “Le Marseillaise” as we flash back to Paris. We are provided a montage of Rick and Ilsa’s romance in Paris. Steiner offers a romantic string rich interlude that supports scenes of them driving in Paris and the countryside, on a Siene River excursion boat, and in Rick’s apartment with flowers and champagne. A shift to them dancing at a nightclub is supported by the up tempo Latin rhythms of the song “Perfidia” by Alberto Dominguez. A shift to his apartment finds him revealing to her his heart, asking, ”Why I am so Lucky? Why should I find you waiting for me.” She reveals that there was another man in her life, but that he was now dead. Steiner supports this scene with the brightest rendering of the Love Theme where we at last believe it will achieve fulfillment as they kiss. But our hopes are dashed by the horrific sight of the German army advancing on Paris, supported by horns of menace and a grim marcia bellicose.

The flashback continues, flowing seamlessly into “Medley: At La Belle Aurore” a score highlight, which offers the most extended and passionate rendering of the Love Theme. We see Sam singing “As Time Goes By” for our lovers at the café La Belle Aurore. As they toast champagne the melody rises in the strings only to be severed by loudspeaker announcement by an advanced contingent of Gestapo. Snare drum percussion signals their menace. As the worry about their future the Love Theme makes several passionate attempts to ascend on strings. As Ilsa asks him to kiss her as though it was the last time. The Love Theme at last ascends to climax only to suffer a crushing descent as we see her hand topple her glass. We scene change to the train station during a rainstorm where Rick waits for Ilsa to join him. To heighten the anxiety, Steiner juxtaposes the grim militarist German anthem “Die Wacht Am Rhein”, with the French anthem “La Marseillaise”. Sam joins him and delivers a note from Ilsa, which states that she cannot join him and will always love him. As the ink dissipates in the rain the Love Theme rises in a terrible heartache reflective of Rick’s devastation. As he boards the train, he tosses the note, and horns of anguish carry him away. We conclude back at Rick’s where a drunken Rick topples his shot glass as Sam plays “As Time Goes By” on the piano. Wow, this flashback sequence offers scoring of the highest caliber.

We flow seamlessly into the pivotal scene as Ilsa returns in the score highlight “Ilsa Returns To Rick’s”. Rick knew she would return, she has, and he will have answers. A dire chord and plaintive descending strings announce her return. As he relates his pain “As Time Goes By” plays with sadness. The music brightens, becoming radiant with religioso string auras as she describes meeting a great man in Paris, and how he inspired her. Yet Rick will have none of it and in bitterness he asks what man she left him for, and how many men were there before him. Ilsa can hear no more and leaves. An anguished Love Theme carries her exit and his head hitting the table. The cue ends with a scene change to the Police Station where Major Strasser and Captain Renault are discussing Laszlo. “Medley Die Wacht Am Rhein-La Marseillaise” offers the score’s most patriotic and powerful moment. Major Strasser leads a contingent of German officers into the café. The Germans commandeer the piano and begin singing “Die Wacht Am Rhein”. Laszlo finds this intolerable and demands that the bandleader play “La Marseillaise“. When Rick nods his consent the duel of anthems unfolds. The Germans attempt to counter, but they lack the band and sufficient voices. As everyone in the café join’s in, a rousing and impassioned expression of “La Marseillaise“ resounds, overwhelming, and then silencing the Germans. The celebratory aftermath arouses Strasser’s ire and he orders Renault to shut down the café. Repeating menacing declarations of the German anthem “Deutschland Uber Alles“ resound as the café is closed, and as Strasser threatens Ilsa with Laszlo’s death.

“Ilsa Demands The Letters” is a heart wrenching emotional powerhouse! A dire chord and plaintive descending strings reveal her presence in Rick’s studio. She begs, pleads and beseeches Rick for the letters, yet he is unmoved and rejects her efforts. Steiner supports with repeating descending phrases by string affanato, which become dire as Ilsa’s anguish turns to rage. Orchestral pauses, followed by tremolo strings inform us that she has in desperation pulled a gun. An anguished Love Theme rises, yet it is severed when Rick call’s her bluff, asking her to shoot, as she would be doing him a favor. She cannot and breaks down sobbing, confessing how much she still loves him. The now stirring Love Theme is at last set free as he is finally moved and they embrace and kiss. Yet Steiner does not allow the melody its final statement, as there will be no happy life together. In “Rick Confronts Ilsa And Laszlo” dark horns portend danger and the love theme supports Rick’s plan to give them the papers and assist with their escape. He has constructed a ruse to dupe Renault into getting his treasured arrest of Laszlo. When Renault moves in to arrest Laszlo, a bass pulse sounds as Rick places him at gunpoint. He is outraged and forced to make a call to the airport granting clearance. Dark Germanic horns sound as Renault in turn double-crosses Rick by making the call to Major Strasser instead of to the airport. Furious woodwinds and the German anthem supports Strasser rousing his men.

This brings us to the amazing finale, one of the finest in Hollywood history. In “Airport Finale/Here’s Looking At You, Kid” they are at the airport and Rick finally discloses that the transit papers are for Ilsa and Laszlo, not Ilsa and him. Ilsa is overwhelmed as he confesses his everlasting love and noble sacrifice. The Love Theme is unshackled, sumptuous and bittersweet. At 2:09 Rick advises Laszlo of Ilsa’s love for him and th at their love ended long ago. Steiner supports Rick’s nobility with and truly inspiring orchestral ascent. Dire horns sound as a torn Ilsa turns to board with Laszlo. The Love Theme abounding with heartbreak supports their departure. Dark horns announce Strasser’s arrival at 4:03 and a tortured horn blast his death from Rick’s gun at 4:36. The police arrive, and dark horn declarations of the German Anthem sound as Renault spares Rick and orders his men to round up the usual suspects. As the two men walk off on the tarmac they resolve to join the Free French forces. Rick concludes the film with “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Steiner supports their walk to destiny with a splendid, and inspiring offering of “La Marseillaise”, which climaxes with a wondrous flourish! The remaining cues offer alternative versions of several cues an enjoyable listen.

I wish to thank George Feltenstein and Bradley Flanagan for re-mastering this score, but I have mixed feelings given the embedding of dialogue in the cues. Frankly, this should not be done as it detracts from film score art. Never the less, it is what is, and I move on. The remastering from the original monaural source offers good quality with occasional imperfections. This effort by Steiner reveals just how music can empower and elevate a film. In scene after scene film narrative, character arcs and their emotional drivers achieved a stirring confluence. For me, never before has a song so captured a film’s emotional core. Love, regret, anguish, anger and tenderness are all perfectly captured by a single unifying melody, which cannot be separated from our lovers, their tragic story or our memories. Lastly, Steiner brought Rick’s to life with an inspired infusion of contemporaneous songs, which fully captured the café’s ambiance. This score is a testament to Steiner’s genius, a Golden Age classic, and an essential component of your collection. I offer a cautioned recommendation, as the collector will have to decide if the dialogue is a deal breaker. It was not for me.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a Youtube link to a fine seven-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsjPVNJlk_I

Buy the Casablanca soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Prologue (5:20)
  • It Had To Be You/Shine (written by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn/Ford Dabney, Lew Brown and Cecil Mack, performed by Dooley Wilson) (2:02)
  • Knock On Wood (written by M. K. Jerome and Jack Scholl, performed by Dooley Wilson) (1:16)
  • Rick and Renault [The Very Thought Of You] (written by Ray Noble, arr. Max Steiner) (1:12)
  • Arrival of Ilsa and Victor at Rick’s [Love For Sale] (written by Cole Porter, arr. Max Steiner) (1:16)
  • Play It Sam… Play As Time Goes By [Avalon/As Time Goes By] (written by Vincent Rose/Herman Hupfeld, arr. Max Steiner) (4:59)
  • Of All the Gin Joints in All the Towns in All the World… (1:55)
  • Paris Montage (3:49)
  • At La Belle Aurore (4:44)
  • Ilsa Returns to Rick’s (3:12)
  • Die Wacht Am Rhein/La Marseillaise (written by Karl Wilhelm and Max Schneckenburger/Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle) (4:35)
  • Ilsa Demands the Letters (3:39)
  • Rick Confronts Ilsa and Laszlo (2:24)
  • Airport Finale/Here’s Looking At You, Kid (6:40)
  • Shine/It Had To Be You – Alternate Orchestral Version (written by Ford Dabney, Lew Brown and Cecil Mack/Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, arr. Max Steiner) (2:21)
  • Dat’s What Noah Done (performed by Dooley Wilson) (1:21)
  • Knock On Wood (written by M. K. Jerome and Jack Scholl, performed by Dooley Wilson) (1:24)
  • Ilsa Returns [As Time Goes By] (written by Herman Hupfeld, arr. Max Steiner) (3:13)
  • Laszlo [As Time Goes By] (written by Herman Hupfeld, arr. Max Steiner)(6:20)
  • As Time Goes By (written by Herman Hupfeld, performed by Dooley Wilson) (2:45)

Running Time: 64 minutes 15 seconds

Rhino R-272911 (1944/1997)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Original orchestrations by Max Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer. Score produced by Max Steiner and Leo F. Forbstein. Album produced by George Feltenstein and Bradley Flanagan.

  1. Valentin Berger
    August 12, 2016 at 7:17 am

    I absolutey HATE dialogue in scores… 😦
    However, it’s one of Steiner’s best works although not as brilliant as “Gone With the Wind”, his magnum opus. Wonderful and very detailed review, thanks Craig!

  2. April 3, 2020 at 7:11 am

    Max Steiner orchestrated this???

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