Normally when I start these things, I try to come up with a story from a previous viewing. Unfortunately for this entry, the only thing I have even remotely like a story was how, in college, some friends hosted a night of food and film. One was something of a chef and made a lot of Moroccan food to go with Casablanca, and this was the first time I got to see the film. Mostly. The food was very distracting.
And these days I don’t even remember what I ate. Fortunately, I still remember the film.
So, here’s a question: does Casablanca in any way count as some sort of wartime propaganda? Sure, it’s probably the best-known, most quotable romance in cinema, but look at the timing. Filmed and released in 1942, just months after the United States entered the war, aside from lead actor Humphrey Bogart and a handful of others, most of the cast is made up of Europeans, many of whom fled the Nazi war machine as refugees just like the ones portrayed in the film. Having that many foreign actors in sympathetic roles onscreen was bound to have some influence on the audience. In hindsight, it would be easy to forget that for the audience in 1942, the outcome of the war was hardly certain. Hearing a German character ask Rick how Rick would feel if and when the Germans conquered Rick’s old hometown of New York City might have been a real possibility for people then. And it wasn’t as if the big studios weren’t above blatant rah-rah patriotism, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sometimes it just doesn’t age well.
For example, I have a set of the Invisible Man movies from Universal, and the set basically includes every movie Universal put out using the invisibility effects. One of them was The Invisible Agent, in which a spy makes himself invisible to run around Europe and cause problems for Nazis and Japanese agents. At one point, the Agent gets the jump on the lead Nazi, during which he stops to make a speech about how the Nazis can’t win. The Agent earnestly refers to the Nazis as a bunch of bullies who won’t be able to stand up to good, decent people. And when I saw that I thought that this was far too tame and naive a way to describe what the Nazis were actually doing. Heck, I was reading the novel that was the basis for Schindler’s List at the time, and I knew full well that “bully” was way too soft a term to describe what the Nazis were actually doing.
But if Casablanca is any way wartime propaganda, it takes a backseat to the lovelorn sacrifice Bogart’s Rick makes when he tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa she should stay with her husband.
Casablanca was Bogart’s first romantic role, though it was hardly his last. And he’s really an odd choice for this sort of role. He’s not a conventionally handsome man. What he is here, though, is a highly cynical and apathetic one, and Bogie could do that well enough as seen by his noir work. Bogart’s Rick Blaine starts the film as a man who doesn’t believe in friendship. He runs the most popular place in Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe American, and as the unproduced play the film is based on said, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. But will he put his neck out for anyone? Not really. He keeps the local police chief, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), well-bribed, and even if he isn’t happy or pleasing whatever girlfriends he has, well, he has a popular place.
And then one day, in walks Ilsa (a radiant Bergman), and we find out why Rick doesn’t care.
But with Ilsa is someone Rick wasn’t really aware of: her husband Victor. Victor Lazlo is, for some reason, a very important person for the war effort as a Resistance leader. Ilsa had started a relationship with Rick in Paris before the city fell to the Nazis, only for her to learn he lived and return to her husband.
And that leads to the Rick’s big decision. Should he ferry Lazlo out of Casablanca, revealing he does care about the war effort after all? Should he make sure Ilsa stays with him or with her husband? Should he just let things fall as they may like he does at the start of the film?
Today, we know Rick chooses to not only help Victor escape the Nazis, but to make sure Ilsa goes with him in the most famous break-up scene in American film. It’s vulnerable, it admits to a love that he can’t have, and it explains why Ilsa, no matter how much she’d rather stay with the wounded Rick over the bland Lazlo, has to go with her husband. Rick isn’t important to the war effort the way Victor is, and Victor can’t go on without Isla. This is a major transformation for a man who was so heartbroken at the start of the film that he just didn’t care. what happened to anyone, including himself. We see cracks in the veneer when he helps a young couple, something he never would have done before, and he helps out now when it comes to Resistance Leader Lazlo.
I suspect it’s because Rick knows how special Ilsa is, and more than anything else, he wants the woman he loves to be happy, and as he says to her, even if she does love him, she’ll regret it eventually if she stays with him.
Then why does he shoot the Nazi?
I suspect it’s because, while he’s still hurting, Rick finds some sense of closure, knowing why Ilsa left him which acts as a reminder of how much things beyond himself matters. The Germans have to be stopped. Rick is back.
And hey, Louis will go with him, showing Rick’s newfound empathy is contagious.
Casablanca is just such a perfect film, the way it shows romantic and personal sacrifice for the greater good. It’s easy to see why some social conservatives site it as an example of the sort of filmmaking they wish would be made more often today. You know, ignoring the presence of Nazis and adultery.
NEXT UP: What else would the last film in the countdown be if not the 1941 film frequently referred to as the greatest ever made Citizen Kane?