Casablanca seems to have passed into popular lore as the perfect example of the virtues of the Hollywood studio system, where skilled artisans of all kinds collaborated to produce a transcendent work almost without the intervention of a director. Curtiz, though, is an extremely skilled operator, and I think that what we're seeing instead is the work of a man with a very steady hand on the tiller, marshaling the resources of his studio and extracting terrific work from veterans like his cinematographer Arthur Edeson, as well as a gallery of studio players from across Europe, to craft a film that gives plenty of play to his own interests.
There's a wonderful sense of rhythm, the easy movement from dry comedy - most obvious in every line delivered by Claude Rains - to drama, romance, or violence. Curtiz also has a clear sense of when to allow the bit players their moments to shine - see the scenes stolen by S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Curt Bois and numerous others - and when to bring us back to the main focus of the film. The film feels as though it's been stuffed almost to bursting with such incidents, a succession of treasurable moments, and yet Curtiz never loses sight of the overall narrative, or the relationships that give the film its force.
There's a playfulness to Curtiz's work, too, as though he's setting himself challenges to keep things interesting. He introduces each of the major players a little differently - the dolly shot that brings us close in to Dooley Wilson's piano, the camera that retreats before the imposing Sydney Greenstreet as he marches into Rick's place, the traveling shots that accompany Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman on their first, nervous walk across Rick's, the furtive entrance of Peter Lorre, passing almost unnoticed between other customers, or the way that Bogart himself is introduced as a pair of hands; we're forced to wait several more seconds before his face is revealed.
Curtiz's familiar shadowplay is much in evidence, too, whether in the expressionistic scene where Rick - his silhouette looming on the wall - opens the safe in his office, the slats of the shutters across the characters' faces at night, or, in a lighter key, the shadow of Sydney Greenstreet's blue parrot. The shadows are reversed in the shots of the exterior of Rick's - the whole set is bathed in darkness until a bright spotlight sweeps across the door.