Why Casablanca's final line clinches it as one of the best movies of all time

Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (Image credit: WARNER BROS / Ronald Grant Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Whenever anyone talks about the greatest movie of all time, Casablanca has to be brought up in the discussion (though it didn't top the 2022 Sight & Sound poll, it was included). But 80 years on, what makes Casablanca an all time classic?

The Casablanca script is often cited as one of the greatest screenplays ever written. It is filled with numerous quotable lines that fans and filmmakers have been repeating for the last 80 years. If you like statistics to back this up, it has six quotes listed on the American Film Institute's 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes list, and all in the top 50 to boot; no other movie has more than three. 

"Here's looking at you, kid," "We'll always have Paris" and the often misquoted "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'" (misquoted probably in some part because of the Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam), are among those memorable lines and add to the romance and magic of Casablanca. But it's Casablanca's final line that makes it a no-doubter when you're talking about one of the greatest movies of all time.

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

That is what Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says to Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) after they help Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick's love, escape on a plane to America, kill the Nazi officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and make plans to head to a fort to end their time on the fringes of World War II and join the fight. It's the perfect line for those characters — their relationship, their journey — and for audiences to leave on.

Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

The central relationship in Casablanca is undoubtedly the love between Rick and Ilsa. After a brief but passionate affair in Paris years earlier, ended when Ilsa left Rick at the train station as the Nazis invaded, it's her arrival in Casablanca that sets the movie in motion and helps Rick escape his passive and untethered existence. In fact, two of those memorable lines we mentioned earlier that deal directly with Rick and Ilsa's love — "We'll always have Paris" and "Here's looking at you, kid" — are critical in the final moments of the movie. But while Rick and Ilsa are the central couple, they may not be the movie's most important couple.

From the start of Casablanca, Rick and Louis have a phenomenally playful relationship. Louis is an officer for France's Vichy government overseeing the police force in Casablanca, whose power allows him to exploit some of the less scrupulous parts of his personality. But of course, the Vichy government was complicit with Nazi Germany, so when Major Strasser arrives he must kowtow to him; something you can see Louis doesn't love, but goes along with in a sense of self preservation.

Meanwhile, Rick has a past of fighting on the side of the oppressed, but his pain from losing Ilsa has turned him into a solitary man, not interested in getting involved in affairs beyond himself; as he says, "I stick my neck out for nobody." You wouldn't say that Rick and Louis are friends when Casablanca starts, but they have a report and a respect for one another.

Throughout the movie Rick and Louis' tendencies are pushed as they are faced with the hope someone like Victor Lazlo presents and the intimidation of the Nazi army. For Rick, the final piece of the puzzle for his character to get off the sidelines is learning the real reason Ilsa left and how she still deeply loved him. Even though he knows he has to say goodbye to her, that love is enough for him to do what is right.

But for Louis, it is Rick's actions at the airport that convince him to change for the better. Witnessing Rick kill Major Strasser, Louis could have easily found himself in the good graces of the Nazis by arresting Rick, but instead he tells his men to "round up the usual suspects" (another great line) and decides he too is ready to stand on the right side of history, abandoning the Vichy government and telling Rick of a local French resistance garrison and that he'll come with him, paying their expenses with the money he owes Rick for losing the bet that Lazlo would escape.

Following all that, Rick then saying, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," has so much meaning for those characters. Sure, Rick said goodbye to the woman he loves, but he is embarking on a new journey for good with someone that he trusts. If you want to extrapolate that even further to the real world, that line could be a rallying cry for how the US and France joined as allies to fight the Nazis in World War II.

Though they are heading into danger and the unknown (literally, they walk off into fog), it is a triumphant moment for Rick and Louis, and an uplifting end for the audience.

There are some other movies that nearly have the power of Casablanca. Gone With the Wind's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," and White Heat's "Made it, Ma! Top of the world" are great, but we don't get out on those lines. Sunset Blvd. ends fantastically on its iconic, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," but it's a downer; brilliant, but a downer.

We have to agree with Billy Crystal's Harry Burns from When Harry Met Sally… (opens in new tab), Casablanca has the best last line of a movie ever and as a result, one of the greatest movies of all time.

You can watch Casablanca right now on HBO Max.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).