If some Hollywood hotshot scriptwriter or director thinks “Casablanca”is ripe for a remake I hope there’s another writers’ strike, because “Casablanca” is unique. For its time, its stars, its general attitude. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. They can’t.
When “Casablanca” came out in 1942 the United States was at war. The characters that populate the Casablanca of the film were mostly war refugees, trying to escape their invaded homelands for a better life in America. The film takes place right before the United States stepped into the fray. War in the 21st century is an entirely different proposition. We live in such a global world these days that wars are at once not so very far away and just far enough to be forgotten as we cruise the Internet for the next viral video.
But that wasn’t the case for Rick Blaine (Humphey Bogart, in his first major romantic role). We first see Rick in the remote Vichy France outpost of Casablanca, with local French Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) lording it over the inhabitants. Casablanca is a way station for anyone trying to escape the Third Reich or their demons. Rick has opened Rick’s Café Américain, and everyone comes to Rick’s – to get new identity papers, make illegal transactions, gamble, or just have a drink (or two or three.) But Rick is a lone wolf, and won’t sit down to drink with his customers.
Woman: What makes saloonkeepers so snobbish?
Banker: Perhaps if you told him I ran the second largest banking house in Amsterdam.
Carl [waiter]: Second largest? That wouldn’t impress Rick. The leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen.
Banker: We have something to look forward to.
Rick’s has a truly international clientele, and every table at Rick’s has someone trying to work some deal to get out of Casablanca, including everything from selling jewels to sexual favors. Bogart as Rick interacts with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, including Peter Lorre as Ugarte, who has stolen letters of transit and asks Rick to hold them for him, and Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, a rival nightclub owner who also runs the local black market. The letters of transit are one of the most famous of film MacGuffins. They are key to the plot, and practically every character mentions them or wants to get hold of them. Some even die for them, but they are so unimportant by the end of the movie, as the only thing anyone watching cares about is whether Rick and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) will end up together.
The divide between what was happening at Rick’s and what was going on in the real world outside the theater when the film was first released was a very slender one. Many of the extra and bit-part actors in “Casablanca” were actual Jewish and/or European refugees from the Nazi occupation: Peter Lorre (“M”), Conrad Veidt (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”), S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Marcel Dalio (“The Rules of the Game,” “Grand Illusion”), and Helmut Dantine, to name just a few.
“Casablanca” starts off like many other pictures of the period, with a spinning globe, stern narrator and the announcement that two German couriers bearing letters of transit have been killed. Nazi Major Strasser (Veidt) lands at the Casablanca airport, greeted by Louis, who assures him not to worry as he expects to apprehend the perpetrator that evening at the local hotspot, as “Everyone comes to Rick’s.” Rains as Louis is wonderful and complicated, and practically steals the movie from its top stars. He enjoys his authority and the illicit pleasures it brings as perquisites, but he is no fool. He kowtows to the Germans and Vichy government when necessary. He has a fondness for Rick, but not so much so that he wouldn’t turn him in to the Germans if he was pressed and it would save his hide. He is first and foremost out for himself, and could easily, if more charmingly, have echoed Rick’s famous line, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
Rick is the ideal role for Bogart. He combines the steel edge from gangster roles like “The Roaring Twenties” with a world weariness that makes him the perfect romantic hero. He also looks pretty dashing in his white dinner jacket and later, trenchcoat. He is emotionally raw and vulnerable. The audience gets to see him run the emotional gamut – in love, closed off, maudlin and drunk, angry and nasty, noble and determined to do the right thing. But he is still a man of mystery. We’re never told exactly why he’s an expatriate.
Louis: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Louis: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
A broken heart led Rick to Casablanca, and he is trying hard to remain detached from everything around him. He doesn’t interact with customers or anyone if he can help it, he doesn’t cut anyone a break at the casino, and he isn’t particularly friendly with Nazi officers.
Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It’s not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Louis: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.
“Casablanca” has some of the most famous quoted and misquoted (“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By'” ) lines in movie history, but all of the dialogue is excellent. When Major Strasser tries to intimidate Rick by rattling off his vital statistics and facts from his past Rick’s response is, “Are my eyes really brown?” No one can shake up Rick. At least, not until Ilsa walks in.
Now all his rules get thrown out the window. He joins Ilsa and her traveling companion, Czech Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a hero and leader of the Resistance, for a drink, surprising and intriguing Louis and raising Major Strasser’s suspicions about him even higher than they were before.
Victor, the third side of this triangle, as played by Henreid, is a bit of a stiff, but somehow it works for the movie and his character. He plays his part as if he’s the star of the movie, not Bogart. Victor may be a hero in the war and in the world, but he’s clueless when it comes to Ilsa. He has his mind on bigger things and would agree with Rick that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Rick, now in friendly saloonkeeper mode, is putting on a show for Louis and Victor and the Nazis, but mostly for Ilsa. As soon as she leaves the club with Victor he crumbles. Ugarte is grabbed for the murder of the German couriers, but Rick doesn’t care. Only his past romance is on his mind, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Roll the flashback to Paris … we learn about their love affair and why “As Time Goes By” and Sam (Dooley Wilson) were such an important part of their lives. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” They plan to flee Paris and the Nazis together, but Ilsa leaves without him, Sam handing him her goodbye note, ink running in the rain. As Rick wallows in his old heartbreak, Ilsa picks that moment to come back to the club and speak to him privately and it doesn’t go well, for either of them.
The film is a classic because it can be enjoyed on so many different levels. It is the ultimate movie romance. It is also a thriller and a war/propaganda film. It is film noir, with director Michael Curtiz in top form. The cinematography, sets, and lighting are superb. Black and white lines and shadows recur repeatedly throughout the film, echoing the trapped, caged-in atmosphere of life in Casablanca. In one of the only outdoor scenes, Rick and Ilsa meet in the market and are both in stripes – Rick in a striped tie, Ilsa a striped blouse, still bringing up past hurts and betrayals. Ilsa finally tells Rick that Victor is her husband – and has been all along, even when they knew each other in Paris. She had presumed him dead, but was informed that he managed to escape from a Nazi concentration camp right before she and Rick planned to leave Paris. So many secrets, so many stifled emotions.
Everything has changed for Rick. That evening at the club a young Bulgarian girl approaches him and begs for him to help her husband, who is losing heavily at the roulette table. She promised Louis sex in exchange for passage for the two of them out of Casablanca, but if her husband can come up with cash, she won’t have to offer herself. If the girl had approached Rick before he saw Ilsa again, would he have even considered helping her? Not very likely. But Rick is thinking a little differently about love and life these days, and he fixes it so the young couple can get what they need and get out of town (sorry, Louis.) News of his act of generosity goes like wildfire through the club, thrilling and inspiring all of his employees. Like the Grinch, his heart has begun to grow a few sizes.
When Ilsa comes to him again, this time armed and demanding the letters of transit, the scene plays as if from another Bogart film, “The Maltese Falcon,” with Rick at first treating Ilsa as Sam Spade did Brigid O’Shaughnessy – like a conniving, two-timing dame. But this is a different movie and a very different romance. Angry words soon melt away and Rick and Ilsa rekindle their romance in the back room, while Carl (Sakall) and Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) smuggle Victor in the front door, trying to escape the local authorities who want to arrest them for attending a Resistance meeting. The Vichy police arrive and take Victor prisoner, and Rick momentarily seems happy, thinking that circumstance may help remove this romantic obstacle from his life. But the next day he’s in Louis’s office, wheeling and dealing to get Victor released. To help him, or get rid of him? “Casablanca” is about love and choices and honor. Can Rick truly get past his feelings of betrayal to forgive Ilsa? To help her and Victor? Can he and Ilsa rekindle their affair and run away together? What about the Nazis?
“Casablanca” only gets richer with multiple viewings. Once you know whether Ilsa will get on that plane with Rick or with Victor you can relax and just watch the actors do their stuff, drinking in all the little details in the settings and nuances in the script. Rick and Ilsa have some of the best romantic close-ups in the movies, pulling the viewer “into” their romance. It’s a shame Bogart and Bergman never made another movie together, as they had wonderful chemistry. But the chemistry doesn’t stop there. Rick and Louis may be cinema’s best bromance, solidified by one of the best closing lines in any film, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Round up the usual suspects and watch “Casablanca” again. You’ll be glad you did.
“Casablanca: Cast,” Wikipedia