What could I possibly say about Casablanca that hasn’t been said thousands of times, by hundreds of people far better qualified to say it? This is a classic film, a film with a cast that not only stars three of the most popular actors of the time but also a supporting cast of great range and strength, not to mention hundreds of extras, many of whom were themselves refugees, and whose personal experience gave the film a solid underpinning of realistic emotion that no American actor could have emoted.
I don’t really need to describe the story of Casablanca to any of you. It’s many films in one: a love story, a war story, a nobility story, a comic story, even to some extent a documentary film, reproducing for American audiences of the time, and succeeding generations, a part of the experience of those fleeing the Nazis, in fear of their lives.
Casablanca is a way-station, a stop on the (fictional) route for refugees: Paris to Marseilles, to Oran, to Casablanca, to Lisbon, to then-neutral America. But Casablanca is a bottleneck, where refugees arrive only to wait, some endlessly, to the exit-visas that permit them to board the Lisbon plane. These are highly-desired and thus expensive, as is anything that people desperately need that is limited.
Whilst they wait, those who can still afford it attend Rick’s American Cafe. Rick is Humphrey Bogart: cynical, relaxed, in control. Rick is himself a refugee: his past is a mystery, but we know that he has previously supported quixotic causes. Now he’s withdrawn from the fight, makes money through the Cafe, sticks his neck out for no-one.
Someone important is coming to Casablanca, someone who must not be allowed to leave. This is Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance leader and a symbol of hope for many nations. He is played by Paul Henreid, who didn’t want to play the role but who was mollified by equal billing with Bogart and the film’s third star, Laszlo’s travelling companion, Ilsa Lund, who is Ingrid Bergman. Ilsa, we will learn a longway into the film, is Laszlo’s wife.
But she was once in love with Rick, in Paris before the Germans occupied it. They were both in love, strangers who asked no questions of each other, but who clearly transcended what might have been meant as a casual love affair but which became an overpowering commitment. Until Ilsa left Rick standing in the rain at the train station where they were supposedto leave Paris together.
Victor Laszlo needs the stolen letters of transit to leave Casablanca with his wife. Rick has them, but is fully aware that Laszlo is too hot to handle, if he were prepared to handle anything. Ilsa enters Rick’s not knowing that he is the Richard Blaine she met and loved in Paris until she sees Rick’s house pianist Sam, who is Dooley Wilson, actually a drummer, and a crooner of the jazz songs of the time, who brings his smokey voice to the film’s central song, the classic ‘As Time Goes By’.
No, she doesn’t say ‘Play it Again, Sam’, nor Rick later, in fact no-one does. But she asks him to play it for her, and Wilson looks and sings into space, knowing what will follow and having done everything he can to try to prevent the landslide. For this is an Our Song that summarises for two people what was once, and two people meet again, who never expected to see each other. Pain, and memories are invoked on both sides, what was and ended becomes what could be again.
This is what plays out through the film, and what guides every step. Around it, there are scenes which reflect the essential core of the film, moments, hints, allusions. There are deep undercurrents in every part of the film, but it’s successlies in how these are played out entirely on the surface. Everyone in the film, of whatever nationality, has a story behind them which is never given, but whose performances illustrate it. Some elements had to be kept buried thanks to the Production Code: it cannot be stated that the cheerfullyand unashamedly Prefect of the French Police, Captain Louis Renault, played delightfully by Claude Rains, extorts sexual favours from attractive young refugees in exchange for exit visas, nor that Rick had sex with Ilsa, not only in Paris, when she believed her husband was dead, but here in Casablanca.
This latter moment has a deliberate echo in the film. Annina Brandel (Joy Page), a young Bulgarian refugee, eight weeks married, approaches Rick to ask how trustworthy Captain Renault is: by allusions and ellipses we understand that hehas offered them an escape to America if she lets him bed her. It is a monstrous thing, especially for a young wife, young in years as well as in marriage. Annina seeks from Rick confirmation that if she does this thing, it will not be in vain, that Renault will keep his end of the bargain. She also seeks a larger, and in many ways more important assurance: that to do this evil is yet a good thing, if it is done for another, if it is kept strictly secret forever, and if, should it ever be learned, it is forgivable because it was not done out of selfishness. Rick is the last person to present this scenario to, or ask this of. Annina, trying to convince herself, affects an air of knowing, a claim thatshe is in many ways older than Jan, who is at the roulette table, trying and failing to win the money that will remove this burden from her.
And Rick does a thing which is out of character for him as presented throughout, which is to go to the roulette table, direct Jan to put his money on 22, and nod to his croupier. The number comes up, twice, and Jan has the money to buy the exit visa.
It’s a brief scene, with much of its purpose both under the surface yet on it, and whilst it shows Rick as possessing a heart that can be touched, it foreshadows Ilsa’s visit to Rick on the last night. They have to have the Letters of Transit, or Victor Laszlo will be killed in Casablanca: Rick is withholding them because of Ilsa, and Paris.
She rationalises, she pleads, she holds a gun on him, but that she cannot do. Emotionally exhausted, she collapses into his arms, unable to resist her feelings for him any longer. She loves Victor, but she also loves Rick. In an era when filmmaking meant it had to be one or the other, Bergman conveys to us that she loves both, and that she understands that both need her in their different ways. Victor has refused to leave her behind, at his own risk, many times. She is a part of him, and thus of his work, and without her he will be diminished, perhaps as fatally as if he were to die in Casablanca. But she is responsible for Rick in Casablanca: it is because of her. And she cannot fight him anymore. It isn’t said, or shown, but they make love that night. It is Annina’s story, without a Rick to intercede and avert a betrayal.
Victor Laszlo is in the closed down Rick’s that night, fleeing the Germans. He too asks for the Letters of Transit, but it is not himself and Ilsa. Henreid didn’t want the part, saying tthat Laszlo was a stiff, but he plays him with a wonderful calm, and an intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, that enables him to see beneath the surface, to understand, assess and accept what he doesn’t know, yet realises. Laszlo wants Rick to use the Letters to take Ilsa away, to save her life by joining her to Rick, to allow her both kinds of freedom in one moment.
Then he is arrested, and arrest will mean death.
Rick, the bitter man, the cynic, tries to pull the wool over our eyes. He will do as Laszlo said, he will get out of Casablanca, and he will takeIlsa for herself. What’s more, to secure her for himself, he will throw Laszlo to the wolves, set him up for arrest on a serious charge, immediate evacuation to Occupied France. We don’t believe it, not of Humphrey Bogart, though Captain Renault does. It’s a con, and Louis Renault’s presence at gunpoint will clear the way to the airport.
Where Rick will pull the last element of his scheme on Ilsa, and Louis. The Letters of Transit are to be made out in the names of Mr & Mrs Victor Laszlo. She’s going with her husband. It’s a scene in which honour, nobility, sacrifice and the rediscovery of instincts that had been lost outweigh selfishness and love. Rick saved a young Bulgarian girl from dishonouring herself in order to escape: though he had sex with a former lover, a former love, he is also saving a young Swedish woman from dishonouring herself more completely (no other outcome could have been filmed, the Production Code would not have allowed a wife to leave her husband).
Ilsa leaves with Victor. Rick kills the German, Major Strasser, to keep him from preventing take-off. Louis is witness to this, but the cynical Frenchman tells his Police to round up the usual suspects. He’ll smuggle Rick out to Brazzaville, where the Free French are based. In fact, he’ll go with him. Honour, chivalry, and the obligation to fight what is wrong, has been re-kindled in more than one breast. A cyical final line was rejected and overdubbed with one of the film’s many classic lines, “You know Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Those lines: “We’ll always have Paris”: “Here’s looking at you, kid”: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”: “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.”
And there’s one I appreciate, that the late William Goldman picked out, is a line where Louis is probing Rick’s background, why he came to Casablanca. Rick replies that he came for the waters. Louis protests that there are no waters in Casablanca, to which Rick replies, “I was misinformed.” Three little words, simple and unfussy, but they are a road block. What they really mean is, We Don’t Go There. We will never Go There. Yes, the film does, with it’s long flashback to Paris, but even then that just scratches the surface.
Yes, Casablanca arouses mixed responses. It has grown in popularity and stature down the years, even though it was a (surprise) winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet although it is a conglomerate of ideas, meanings and emotions, these came together to create a great totality. I would think long and hard before not including it in a list of ten films to take to a desert island.
Inevitably, sequels and remakes have been mooted down the years. The last one to get off the ground in any way was a TV series in 1983, Rick’s Bar, starring David Soul as Rick: it was cancelled after three episodes. Itwould have been only right and proper never to have done it at all.
Because Casablanca is that rare thing, a composition right and whole in itself. Any attempt to remake it, or prequel it or sequel it is unnecessary on every level. It cannot be added to, it cannot be detracted from, and any attempt to do it again would be insane to any creative purpose, because the first thought is and always will be, “Why?” Any attempt to do so would be doomed to diminishment from the very idea of it.
So that’s what I found I had to say about Casablanca.