While most of the films I listed earlier are at least critically acclaimed, not many are considered iconic classics. Truth be told, even this film was only a moderate success when it was first released. Yet it has risen in popularity to be regarded as one of the best films ever produced (if not the best by some, including yours truly).
One could say it's because Casablanca "has it all" – romance, intrigue, suspense, adventure, an all-star cast and much more. But I would argue that it is also a spiritual story of redemption, centered around Rick Blaine.
Putting the flashbacks ahead of the main story, Rick was active against the forces of fascism, running guns in Ethiopia and fighting in Spain with the Republican forces. He was living in Paris at the beginning of World War II when he met and fell in love with Ilsa Lund. As the Germans made their advance, the couple and Rick's friend Sam make plans to flee south, but Ilsa has a note delivered to Rick, saying that she will not be coming with them.
Now in Casablanca under Vichy control, Rick owns and runs the "Café Americain" nightclub and casino. He is withdrawn and seemingly cynical, frequently telling friends like corrupt police official Louis Renault: "I stick my neck out for nobody." Yet even beneath that façade, his earlier sense of commitment peeks through – denying a German banker credit in the casino, allowing a desperate couple to win enough money for passage to a neutral country, mocking attempts by visiting Nazis to intimidate him.
Things get more complicated when Ilsa arrives with her husband Victor Laszlo. Ilsa's presence alone is enough to unsettle Rick emotionally, but Laszlo’s notoriety as a fervent opponent of the Nazis shakes things up even more …
That scene, in my opinion, is the most pivotal of the film. Rick, having crafted an image of neutrality for himself and his café, must suddenly make a choice. Eventually he helps Ilsa and Victor escape, and flees with Louis to join the Free French in Brazzaville. One might see this as a sign of nobility in Rick, but I think this is also about inevitability, in that Rick realizes that the desire for freedom is too great to be squashed by the Nazis or anyone else.
But to do so, he has to give up not only Ilsa, but the safety and security of his life in Casablanca. And it is that willingness to sacrifice for something greater that we could learn from. Most of the time, we hope to make a difference in little ways, just as Rick did early in the story. But Laszlo's arrival reminds him – and us – that ultimately what is good and right demands that we let go of our transient comforts. That doesn't necessarily mean quitting our jobs or living in tents, but it does mean a willingness to stick our necks out for someone now and again. And that in turn means realizing we're not as powerless as we think, that our capacity to change doesn't depend upon how we earn our paychecks or how big those checks might be. Change occurs all around us, often sweeping us up into events bigger than what goes on in our day-to-day lives. But each of us also has the capacity to bring about change, and not just wait for some pivotal moment.