Casablanca: Timeless or Dated?
This 1942 film was named the best screenplay of all time by the Writers Guild of America in 2006.[i] The American Film Institute lists “Casablanca” as the third greatest movie of all time.[ii] The American Film Institute lists 6 lines from the movie as the top movie quotes. This is twice as many as any other film.[iii] Despite the movie’s acclaim it wasn’t a box office success. It cost about $950,000 to make and as of November 16, 2017 it grossed slightly over a million in the U.S.[iv] “Casablanca” created a generation of devoted fans and has picked up more fans over the decades. This movie has been copied and parodied countless times. It is on the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.[v] This article contains spoilers.
[i] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv), last accessed 3/10/2018.
[ii] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv), last accessed 3/10/2018.
[iii] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv), last accessed 3/10/2018.
[iv] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/?ref_=nv_sr_1), last accessed 3/10/2018.
[v] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/?ref_=nv_sr_1), last accessed 3/10/2018.
“Casablanca” has all the makings of a good date movie. It’s a combination of love and intrigue. Thanks to the Hays Code the movie is one adults can watch with their children. What adults know by implication will go over children’s heads. “Casablanca” has an array of legendary stars who were in excellent roles to show off their talent. The story is told with back stories and with some flashbacks. This is the story in chronological order.
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has to flee America and can never return for reasons he never tells. He fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.[i] Rick moved to Paris. Sam (Dooley Wilson) is a piano player and Rick’s friend. Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman) believes her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is dead. Rick and Ilsa meet. By mutual agreement they don’t talk about their respective pasts. They have a whirlwind affair. The German army is closing in on Paris. Rick and Ilsa plan to take the train to Marseilles and from their leave France. The plan is for them to meet at the train station. At the train station Ilsa sends a note to Rick telling him she can’t see him again. Rick and Sam take the train and make their way to Casablanca.
Casablanca, Morocco is under the control of Vichy France. Vichy France is technically neutral but follows Germany’s will. Many people attempting to escape the Axis come to Casablanca and there attempt to get the necessary passes to gain passage to Portugal, which is really neutral. Rick owns a nightclub, Rick’s Café Americain. The nightclub has an illegal and crooked casino. The chief of police Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) permits Rick to stay open because Rick arranges it so Captain Renault wins at the casino. Captain Renault also takes bribes of money or other favors to give people the necessary passes. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is a businessman whose business also includes selling people passes and other illegal activity. Another shady local character is Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Rick dislikes Ugarte. Ugarte murders two German couriers and steals their letters of transit.[ii] Bearers of these letters can travel anywhere without question.
The movie begins with the announcement of the couriers’ murders. An airplane flies Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and his entourage to Casablanca. Captain Renault meets them at the airport. Captain Renault tells Major Strasser he knows how important the case is so his men are rounding up “twice the usual suspects.” Ugarte asks Rick to hold the letters of transit for him. Ugarte trusts Rick because Rick doesn’t like him. The police kill Ugarte while trying to arrest him. This leaves Rick with the letters and a respect for Ugarte. Ilsa and Laszlo enter Rick’s café. She sees Sam at the piano and asks him to play “As Time Goes By”. Sam reluctantly plays the song and an angry Rick reminds Sam he never wanted to hear that song again. He sees Ilsa and realizes it’s cruel fate that she came into his place. Victor wants to make his way to a free country so he can made anti-Nazi broadcasts. Victor learns Rick has the letters of transit and offers to buy them. Rick refuses. Rick’s party line is he is has found fighting for causes is unprofitable. Rick doesn’t let a Nazi official gamble at his casino. He lets a young man win at his casino so he and his wife can buy exit visas. Victor tells the band to play “La Marseillaise” in response to the German officers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein”.[iii] The band leader looks at Rick and Rick nods approval.
Ilsa tries to talk Rick into giving her the letters of transit. Rick refuses even at gunpoint. At the tarmac Ilsa wants to stay behind with Rick. Rick tells her she must go. Among other things he tells her: “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him (Victor), you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Ilsa gets on the plane with Victor. Rick and Captain Renault decide to go to join a Free French[iv] garrison.
[i] The Republicans were those loyal to the democratic Second Spanish Republic. The Nationalists were counter-revolutionaries. The Soviet Union sent “volunteers” to fight on the side of the Republicans. Germany and Italy sent “volunteers” to fight on the side of the Nationalists.
[ii] Letters of transit was a construct for the movie. There never were such documents.
[iii] Originally the Germans were supposed to sing “Das Horst Wessel Lied”, the NAZI party anthem. There were possible copyright issues so they decided to use “Die Wacht am Rhein”.
[iv] Free French were French military units fighting with the Allies against the Axis.
World War II is long over but movies set in World War II are still popular. The scale of the conflict means there is likely to be an interest in World War II for as long as humans write history. The unambiguous struggle between good and evil is an eternal struggle.
Casablanca is a timeless story about love that can’t last. It is a story of two people who meet by fate and fall in love. When Ilsa learns her husband is alive she sends a note to Rick saying she can’t see him again and returns to her husband. Fate brings Rick and Ilsa together and forces them to deal with their past. Victor is not a bad man or a bad husband. He is a good man who loves his wife and is fighting for a good cause. Should Rick and Ilsa decide love is all that matters? Should they decide there are more important things than how they feel about each other? What separates Casablanca from many movies about impossible love is their love is not impossible. They can decide to stay together. They go their separate ways by choice and a sense of responsibility. These are timeless questions. These are also questions most people face at some time in their life.
An excellent example of the film’s relevance happened in 2015. Terrorists carried out a series of attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. Many in solidarity with France shared the La Marseillaise clip from the movie on social media. During the evacuation of the Stade de France the evacuees sang La Marseillaise.[i] A uniting anthem is a good way for people to show their enemies they may be down but they are not out.
[i] United States Movie Database, (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv), last accessed 3/10/2018.
Humphrey Bogart had the persona of being a “tough guy” and he brought that to this film. To a modern audience that may seem a case of miscasting. Rick’s behavior could be construed as weak. He has an affair with a woman and by mutual agreement they don’t talk about their past. That should have given them both reason to believe a spouse might be involved. Ilsa gives Rick a “Dear John” note and Rick is heartbroken. His obstinance in not selling Victor the letters of transit could be seen as childish or worse.
Major Strasser is a typical “comic book” Nazi. He is nasty and inept. The Germans apparently figured the letters of transit weren’t peace treaties so they couldn’t just consider them scraps of paper. They feel Victor Laszlo is a threat to them. Victor Laszlo is in a seedy city where the Germans can control the local police and the Germans can’t get Laszlo arrested or killed.
Ilsa and Victor enter a nightclub which has a large sign that reads “Rick’s Café Americain”. Ilsa sees Rick’s friend Sam. She asks him to play “As Time Goes By”, which was her and Rick’s song. Sam claims he might have forgotten how to play it. Ilsa is still clueless that Rick might be around and Rick wouldn’t want to hear that song.
When a German Banker (Gregory Gaye) wants to gamble at the casino Rick tells him his money is only good at the bar and he is lucky his money is good there. Rick doesn’t like Nazis and he runs a crooked gambling casino. Rick apparently only steals from people he likes. This may be consistent for Rick. When Rick felt he had to stash the letters of transit he put them in Sam’s piano. Rick seems a good friend not to have.
After the Germans lose the battle of the songs the indignant Major Strasser orders Captain Renault to have the Rick’s café closed down. Rick has to pay the price for Victor Laszlo’s pointless grandstanding. Rick asks Renault why he is being closed down. The real answer to the question is intuitively obvious. Captain Renault tells Rick, “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here”. The Croupier (Marcel Dalio) hands Renault some money and tells him, “Your winnings sir”. Without skipping a beat Captain Renault replies, “Oh, thank you very much”, puts the money in his pocket and continues ordering people to get out. Such a scene would seem to put a movie in the campy category today.
Captain Renault was a likeable character in 1942. He is a self-described corrupt civil servant. In Casablanca people are trying to get out before the Germans tighten their grip enough that getting out would be impossible. Those not able to get out would be in mortal danger. Captain Renault wants favors from a young married woman (Joy Page). Rick lets her husband (Helmut Dantine) win at the roulette table so they can get the bribe money. It’s amazing everyone at the Roulette table didn’t leave the casino immediately. Captain Renault tells Rick there will be another woman playing tomorrow and he would like it very much if she loses. Could he be passed off as a likeable character today?
Ilsa goes to Rick to plead with him for the letters of transit. When Rick refuses to give them to her Ilsa pulls a gun on him and demands to know where they are. He tells them they are right here. Then he tells her if Victor and the cause mean so much to her she should shoot. Rick even steps closer to make it easier for her. To call this the ultimate in stupidity is an understatement. Ilsa doesn’t kill him. Maybe they played a game of chess. A whirlwind affair means more to Ilsa than a marriage. Ilsa plans to stay with Rick. Ilsa tells Rick she will let him do the thinking for both of them.
One of the themes of the movie is Americans should not be bystanders in the war. In the 21st century it’s difficult to picture America not being involved in major international conflicts. On the tarmac Rick says: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In 1942 the audience could see these words as a message they should concern themselves with their duty to the world and not their personal problems. All sides were giving that message to their people. Is that message what caused the world’s problems in the first place? Where would Rick and Ilsa be in 1946? Would Ilsa regret getting on the plane for the rest of her life? Would Rick regret telling Ilsa to go for the rest of his life? Would Paris be a heartbreaking memory for them?