How Michael Curtiz Uses Sound in His Film Casablanca

Categories: Plot

The Use of Sound in Casablanca

The 1942 film, Casablanca tells a romantic story in the midst of the uprising World War II. Through director, Michael Curtiz’s vision, and the subtle, yet emotional, expressions of Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman, the film remains a classic. However, the film would not be what it is today, without the powerful and the sentimental score of Max Steiner. Through the song, “As Time Goes By,” the French and German anthems, and Sam’s songs, the sounds of Casablanca tie the film together, and highlight the political tension, while captivating viewers with romance and optimism.

Max Steiner’s use of sound sets the tone of the film, while also reflecting the current time of war.

The film’s most memorable song, “As Time Goes By,” reflects the love affair of Rick and Ilsa, and their yearning relationship. The song is first introduced at Rick’s cafe, after Ilsa asks Sam to play it for her.

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Rick overhears the song being played and immediately tells Sam to stop, but is taken aback after he sees Ilsa for the first time since she left him in Paris. (Richards, par. 4) As soon as Rick notices Ilsa, the song enters on an unexpected loud chord, that suits the expressions of shock, while underlying Rick and Ilsa’s inevitable feelings. The music is then drawn out into a dramatic instrumental as the characters contemplate their own overwhelming thoughts. This version of “As Time Goes By,” sets a romantic, but more importantly, a nostalgic tone.

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(Richards, par. 4) The richer and slower instrumental reflects on Rick and Ilsa’s past, and the deep love they felt for each other. The music revitalizes their love, while dwelling on the amount of emotional history between the two. The song makes it clear to the viewer that this was not some fling, but rather a passionate, and intense love affair. “As Time Goes By” is played throughout the Paris flashbacks, and also during the final scene. The music in the Paris flashbacks reflect a happier time for Rick, with a more cheerful version of “As Time Goes By.” (Richards, par. 5) This lighthearted tone goes along with Rick and Ilsa’s flourishing relationship, and him falling in love with her. The music also ties together the final goodbye with a slowed down version of the song. “With these changes, Steiner’s setting of the song is one of the film’s most romantic, and appropriately enough, he saves it for what is perhaps the most touching expression of love in the entire film” (Richards, par. 7). Not only do the instrumentals capture Rick and Ilsa’s relationship, but the lyrics have great significance. The message of the song suggests that the world is a complicated place full of continuous change, but that one thing remains constant: timeless, enduring romantic love. The passing of time is one of the film's main themes and whether love can survive, is the biggest question. Time and history, in the form of the war, have great impact on the present and control the future. If the love between Rick and Ilsa does survive, it will do so only as memory. “Max Steiner proceeded to make 'As Time Goes By' the centerpiece of the score. The song was not only Rick and Ilsa's love theme but Steiner's main connecting device. The song linked Rick and Ilsa, present and past, the score music to the underscoring, and the audience to the characters in the movie” (Furius, par. 47).

Romance and timeless love are not the only themes that surround Casablanca. The film takes place at the very beginning of World War II, after the Germans invade France. Captain Strasser and his men arrive in Casablanca, and as Strasser’s plane lands the music score is filled with shrilled violins and low, pompous sound. This creates a feeling of uneasiness for the viewer, and almost a sense of doom (Hughes, par. 1). “The sound certainly indicates that Captain Strasser’s character is one to be wary of” (Hughes, par. 1). The same music plays when the Nazi’s invade, during the flashback sequence of Ilsa and Rick in Paris, and again, the viewer is immediately uncomfortable, and senses danger. “Without ever having to say that the Nazi party is a terrible one, Steiner conveys it through use of sound” (Hughes, par. 1). Though, one of the most powerful moments in the film, is due to the rendition of the French’s patriotic song, “La Marseillaise.” In this scene, the German party members take over the piano at Rick’s, and begin singing “Die Wacht Am Rhein” (Casablanca [Film] par. 8). Victor Lazelo then instructs the band to play the French patriotic song, “La Marseillaise.” The entire bar erupts in simultaneous singing, which eventually overpowers the German’s song. There is a sense of pride, and support for their home country, which overcomes the viewer in chills. The competition of the two groups singing was almost like a war itself, and in that the French overcoming the Germans, could be a foreshadowing of World War II.

There is a lot of music being played at Rick’s, by the band, and of course, the main entertainer Sam, the piano player. Not only does Sam sing the notable, “As Time Goes By,” he also sings renditions of other songs for the refugees. “Dat’s What Noah Done,” and “Knock On Wood,” are two of the many songs that kept the people hopeful and optimistic, despite the despair of war surrounding them. Although “Dat’s What Noah Done” was an outtake, and never made the film, it is still relatable to war times. The song tells the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, and how Noah prepared for the great flood. This song gives hope to the refugees, in that if Noah could get through the disastrous flood, then the people can get through the war. This also may reflect on the people to turn to God during these hard times, and He will bring peace. The second song, “Knock On Wood,” is a more upbeat and interactive song that is sung. First Sam sings, “Say, who's got trouble?,” and the audience replies with, “We got trouble!” (Scholl) The lyrics continue, “How much trouble?” “Too much trouble!” “Well now, don't you frown, just knuckle down, and knock on wood!” (Scholl) This would continue, while interchanging the emotions, until Sam asks, “Now who's happy?” and the audience replies, “We're happy!” Sam finishes the song with, “Well, smile up then! And once again let's knock on wood!” (Scholl) The song begins in a more complainant and tiresome tone, but then reaches a positive and uplifting spirit throughout the club. These two songs and the other songs Sam sings, bring an optimistic atmosphere to the distressed refugees, and a chaotic world.

The film, Casablanca would not be the classic story it is today without the music of Max Steiner, and Michael Curtiz’s use of these sounds. The movie could not fully represent Rick and Ilsa’s relationship, or fulfill the theme of timeless love, without the song, “As Time Goes By.” Curtiz’s message that the Nazi’s are the bad guys, might not have gotten across, if their presence was not marked by a sound of danger. The optimism and hope of the people may not have been felt, if it were not for Sam’s songs. The sounds of Casablanca tie the film together, while emotionally connecting the viewer to the political tensions, the optimism, and the romance of Casablanca.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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How Michael Curtiz Uses Sound in His Film Casablanca. (2024, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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