Monday, April 19, 2010

Casablanca: You Must Remember This Film

Okay, this is the scene—a girl walks into a bar. Everyone is drinking and dancing; a good time is to be had by all. The piano player is playing songs everyone loves. The piano player sees the woman—he knows her from a time ago—and a look of worry passes over his face. The woman is accompanied by a tall and handsome man. The man looks special, important. The woman is left alone as the man tends to business. She sits down next to the piano player. He pretends not to see her. She engages him in conversation, and the piano player replies in clipped, terse answers—it is as if he is afraid someone will see whom he is speaking to. The camera closes in on the girl, the left side of her face softly lit, and a sparkle in her eye. She leans toward the piano player, touches him gently and requests a song. “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Although Sam has been expressly forbidden to play the song, he cannot deny the girl. The first notes of the song and the weariness in Sam’s voice flutter gently throughout the bar, the music freezing the place in time. “You must remember this; a kiss is just a kiss…” The bar owner comes out, indignant upon hearing the forbidden song—but he is stopped when he sees her radiant face. He knows now why Sam is playing “As Time Goes By”—and who has requested it. His heart is breaking all over again.

Perfection in film is witnessed when Ilsa Lund walks in with Victor Laszlo to Rick Blaine’s Café Américain and asks Sam the piano player to play “As Time Goes By.” The loneliness of the two former lovers, the way Sam appears frightened (he knows too well the heartache Ilsa has caused Rick) as Ilsa walks into the bar, the way Ingrid Bergman’s face seems to glow and calm Sam, the devastating reaction Humphrey Bogart gives Rick once he sees Ilsa, the perfect use of “As Time Goes By” and the way Dooley Wilson sings it—with such tenderness and alacrity (though he is mimicking tickling the ivories; Wilson couldn’t play a note—chalk the success of his part up to movie magic)—evokes in the audience memories of a melancholy song too personal for them to bear, even if this is the first time you have heard the Herman Hupfield standard. When you watch Casablanca, this scene is the one that I guarantee will suck viewers into the world of the film—unless, of course, you are already there. Were this the only scene filmed for the picture, Casablanca would be deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. That the rest of Casablanca is as good is a testament to the greatness of the film and one of the only times that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the absolutely right movie.

Casablanca is a film where perfection looks so easy. In reality, the picture was designed to be just another movie rolled off the Warner Brothers lot. Director Michael Curtiz, a veteran director known more for his ability to work quickly rather than having a particular style (he shot over forty previous films for Warner Brothers), was the fourth-choice director on a list topped by William Wyler. Curtiz was known to have clashed with the writers over the script. The writers would point out an inaccuracy or questionable logic in the story, but Curtiz preferred to keep things moving as fast as possible, trusting that the images on screen would sweep the audience away in suspended disbelief (and Curtiz was right). The story is lauded as the best screenplay ever written—the lines are among the wittiest and funniest and most divine dialogue ever penned (on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes, lines from Casablanca occupy six positions on the list—Nos. 5, 20, 28, 32, 43, and 67—far more than any other film)—but the script was being constantly rewritten by a hodgepodge of writers, usually a sign that a film is doomed to failure. Max Steiner, who scored the film, didn’t even want to use “As Time Goes By,” originally used in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the play from which Casablanca was adapted. Steiner wished to compose a new song, but by the time he got around to scoring the film (the score is one of the last pieces of the film to be completed, always after the final footage has been filmed) Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair for For Whom the Bell Tolls and reshoots were impossible. A much appreciated thanks goes out to Ernest Hemingway, because Casablanca is unimaginable without that song, and Steiner eventually built the score around leitmotifs from “As Time Goes By” and the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” (more on that later). A whole book could be written on how Casablanca came together in spite of itself. The film is the ultimate miracle ever created by the Hollywood studio system (the whole film, save the airport scene at the end, was shot on the Warner’s lot).

I’m not going to delve too deeply into how Casablanca was created. The special features on the DVD are the place for that. Instead, as I have done with How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver, I will analyze Casablanca as it compares to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief—in this case, bargaining.

The entire theme of Casablanca concerns bargaining. This is a film that speaks the language of deals and compromise. Kübler-Ross defines bargaining as hope that an individual can postpone or delay dealing with death by offering an exchange of a reformed lifestyle with a higher power. In the world of Casablanca, characters must bargain to survive—in a literal and spiritual sense and often both at the same time. In the film, the city of Casablanca is represented as the last station for the waylaid. For European refugees looking to escape from the Nazi regime, Casablanca is the transfer point for those wishing to journey into America (crucially, the film is set before the events of Pearl Harbor, allowing for both the plot device and for Rick to retain his cynicism). Any refugee looking to escape Casablanca needs “letters of transit” to enter neutral Portugal then into America. Therefore, a letter of transit can fetch a considerable sum, effectively placing a price on freedom. This necessity also creates a city that attracts all sorts of vices and black market activities. Refugees are easy prey for the pickpockets, gamblers, con-men and counterfeiters who make up the permanent residents of Casablanca. The scarcity of letters of transit forces those wishing to escape to make moral compromises. How far will a person go to obtain freedom? How soon will someone turn to illegal measures? What cost will they pay? These are the conflicts the characters in the film come into contact with on a daily basis.

The plot of the film really kicks in when a petty criminal, Ugarte (finely played by character actor Peter Lorre, who will forever be remembered by his nasal, desperate, whine for “Reeeeck!”), steals two letters of transit from Nazi officials, signed by none other than General Charles de Gaulle (if you ever want to know the definition of a MacGuffin, look no further than these letters of transit—they are a classic one). It is implied that Ugarte murdered the two Nazis carrying the letters, so he is targeted by Captain Renault (an unflappable Claude Rains, who steals his every scene), a corrupt opportunist and completely amoral police official working for the Vichy-controlled government in Casablanca. Renault sums up his philosophy thusly, “I have no convictions. I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy,” proving himself to be one who bargains exclusively with those who have the most power and will provide him with the most opportunities to get rich (Renault is no stranger to bribes in the film). What Renault doesn’t know is that Ugarte has entrusted the letters to Rick Blaine (Bogart, in his most famous role), an American expatriate who owns a popular bar, the Café Américain. Ugarte gives Rick the letters because “somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I can trust.” Ugarte’s rationale perfectly encapsulates how topsy-turvy the state of bargaining has become in Casablanca: the people who hate you are the least likely to screw you over.

Though Rick appears to be as amoral as Renault—saying, with utter conviction, that “he sticks his neck out for nobody” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in”—his cynicism masks the compromises he has made for survival. The escape Rick is looking for isn’t from Casablanca; instead Rick seeks an emotional withdrawal, and the bargain he has made with himself is this: to not care about anything is better than having your heart broken. In Café Américain, politics are a taboo topic. When asked his nationality, Rick replies “A drunkard.” (This causes Captain Renault to retort, “That makes Rick a citizen of the world.”) Rick even drives away any chance he may have at love. A scene in the first act of the film has him coolly dismiss a former flame (Madeleine LeBeau). For Rick, his bargain is all about emotional survival.

Almost immediately, Rick’s attitude is revealed as a façade. He does, in fact, stick his neck out for his employees. Emil, his bartender, sneaks drinks to women he is trying to pick up. Carl (S.Z. Sakall), his waiter, is allowed to place refugees in contact with bar patrons who will more expediently secure their escape. Rick’s croupier runs a rigged roulette game which helps refugees secure bribe money for exit visas. The doorman Abdul is a trusted confidante. Sam, in addition to being the star piano player, is Rick’s right hand man who came with him from Paris. (Of all the Best Picture winners thus far, Casablanca is the only one which treats foreigners and minorities as equals. Sam is the first black character in an Oscar winning film to really be treated as an equal to whites. The multicultural cast is one of the tricks used by Curtiz to sell the illusion of Casablanca as a truly foreign place.) Rick himself allows certain customers to pay using IOU’s, but yet refuses to allow Germans to play games in the casino. Every member of his staff is crucial to the smooth operation Rick runs at his saloon, which on the outside appears to cater to everyone equally but masks a small resistance unit to help the needy. (One of the lies the audience is willing to forgive is how this saloon, which bleeds money, can possibly continue to operate in the red and evade closure by the Vichy officials.) Rick’s balancing act becomes truly tested when freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) walks into the café with his former flame, Ilsa (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine”).

Laszlo, of all the characters in the film, is the least compromising. He’s also a bit of a bore (this aspect of the character isn’t helped by Henreid’s stiff performance, easily the weakest part of an otherwise all-around strong film), and primarily functions as a foil to Rick’s cynicism. The audience is told that Laszlo is part of the Czech Resistance to the Nazis, but exactly what he does is never illuminated (and it isn’t really important). Laszlo needs to reach America to continue his work with the underground resistance, and he cannot do the work well unless Ilsa, the love of his life, is there with him (as Renault astutely observes, when Rick—before knowing he is with Ilsa—says that Laszlo needs only one exit visa, “I think not. I have seen the lady.”) Awfully convenient for Laszlo that two letters of transit are hidden in Sam’s piano, isn’t it? The only bargain Laszlo makes with Rick is to appeal directly to the better nature of his humanity.

Laszlo has some evidence that Rick is a deeper man than his bitterness suggests. Rick’s past as a freedom fighter in Spain and Ethiopia is widely known to everybody in Casablanca. Laszlo is quick to note that Rick also seems to stick his neck out for underdogs—though Rick replies that he was a mercenary in both of those fights, causing Renault to remark, “The winning side would have paid you better.” Laszlo is also aware of the bargains Rick has struck for some of the wayward refugees in Casablanca. A minor subplot involves a young Bulgarian couple trying to escape to America. The girl is offered two visas if she sleeps with Renault, but when she comes to Rick’s her husband is shown how to win at the rigged roulette wheel. Laszlo cannot help but notice Rick’s compassion. Finally, in the film’s most rousing sequence, Laszlo finds the clearest evidence yet that Rick is on his side.

Before Ilsa and Laszlo walk into Rick’s, the antagonist of the picture, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, a German actor who escaped Hitler’s regime and ironically made a career of playing Nazis) is also introduced. Ah, Nazis, the great bastards and villains of American cinema. Strasser is in Casablanca for one purpose: to keep Laszlo from making his escape, or better yet, kill him. Sides are immediately drawn, new allegiances are shaped. To nobody’s surprise, prevailing winds make Renault an ally of Strasser. Yvonne, Rick’s discarded girlfriend, also finds a new beau within the Nazi ranks. The day after Laszlo’s arrival, Nazi soldiers are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine)”, a popular patriotic German song. A furious Laszlo orders Rick to have his band play “La Marseillaise”, and Rick accedes to his request. Laszlo leads the entire saloon (save, of course, the Germans and Rick—still trying to give off the appearance that he is apolitical) in a stirring rendition of the French national anthem that sings down the Germans. Even Yvonne, there with her Nazi boyfriend, becomes so caught up in the fervor that she too joins in the singing of “La Marseillaise”, a tear in her eye. Strasser is incensed, and orders Renault to shut down the Café Américain. (This brings about my favorite line in the film. Rick asks Strasser the grounds on which the Nazis have ordered his business closed. Renault says illegal gambling. The croupier tells Renault, “Your winnings, sir.” Renault says “Oh, thank you very much,” then “Everybody out at once!”)

Rick’s act of patriotism has cost him his business. Rick sees the writing on the wall; Nazi occupation in Casablanca is only going to make things increasingly difficult for him. He has however arranged for the Café Américain to be sold to Signor Ferrari (the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet, a frequent costar of both Bogart and Lorre), who describes himself as “the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.” Although Ferrari runs an establishment—The Blue Parrot—that is the chief competitor of the Café Américain, like Ugarte, Rick trusts Ferrari precisely because he is his rival. Again, the safest negotiation one can make in Casablanca is with one’s enemy (and Rick also knows that Ferrari will look out for his staff, especially Sam, of whom Ferrari says “It wouldn’t be Rick’s without him”). The most dangerous bargain Rick has left is with the person he loves most—Ilsa.

Curtiz uses an extended flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris to fully flesh out the background of their relationship. The most important thing the viewer is left with is that Rick is still impossibly in love with Ilsa (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”), and Ilsa, though married to Laszlo, still loves him. Ilsa tries to use the relationship to her advantage. The film has established that sex can be used to buy freedom, and the rekindling of a sexual relationship is implicit when Ilsa comes to Rick alone. When that doesn’t work, Ilsa draws a pistol on Rick, but is unable to shoot, proving to Rick her love for him. Ilsa offers him this bargain: “You have to think for both of us. For all of us.”

Rick, now holding the upper hand in negotiations (and lest the audience forget, he is still in possession of the letters of transit), is free to determine Ilsa’s fate. I think everyone who has seen Casablanca has asked themselves: Why doesn’t Rick use the letters for himself and Ilsa and leave with the love of his life? Ilsa certainly has nothing to lose. By this point in the film, it is assumed that she will receive one of the letters. She will be safe. She will leave Casablanca with a man who loves her. And why wouldn’t she want to be with Rick? After all, he’s proven himself to be capable of protecting her, she knows he truly loves her, and facetiously, Rick is the more exciting man than Laszlo—and just as noble. Who isn’t charmed by him? If Rick gives the papers to Laszlo, he will certainly be doing right for the cause of resistance, but he will be left in Casablanca a wanted man without his livelihood, his heartbreak amplified. Rick’s bargain now has life-changing consequences: leave with the woman he loves or sacrifice that love for the greater good. Which is more important—love or freedom?

The ending of Casablanca has seeped into pop-culture consciousness through osmosis. Everyone knows that Ilsa gets on the plane to Lisbon with Laszlo (and if you haven’t seen Casablanca, sorry to spoil it, but I must ask you—why the hell haven’t you seen this masterpiece yet?). The tension created in the film is phony, because ultimately the Hays Code which governed morality in films at the time would have never allowed a married woman to abscond with a single man—it is a testament to the skills of Curtiz, Bogart, and Bergman that the audience is kept on the edge of their seat when the outcome is so obvious and by now so well known. It is the new bargain Rick makes with himself that gives the ending resonance. Ultimately he knows that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” and that Ilsa will regret not boarding the plane with Laszlo. Regret becomes the emotion that Rick also does not want to feel. He knows that if he goes with her then Laszlo will likely die. Rick knows that if he takes the letters and leaves with Ilsa he will feel regret over the loss of an important life. He is also then able to reconcile his memories of their relationship. No longer will Rick’s memories of Ilsa bring him sorrow. (“We’ll always have Paris.”) Because he has sacrificed his love for the greater good, Rick is able to find happiness in his memories and his soul is at ease. In his new bargain, Rick listens to his conscience.

Appropriately, Casablanca concludes with the two craftiest bargainers—Rick and Captain Renault—walking off into the fog together. (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”) Renault, who in the final act is utterly played by Rick, finds a bargainer worthy of future co-conspiracy. After all, he witnesses Rick murder Major Strasser. Renault’s response—“Round up the usual suspects.” He knows that justice in Casablanca is best levied by leaving a crime unsolved, and that the prevailing winds will now blow him over to Rick. Inaction leads to a minor redemption for Captain Renault. I love that it isn’t a sunset the two men walk off into, but a fog. Their future is uncertain, but as the film fades to black the audience is left with a sense that no matter what fate awaits Rick and Renault—and since the audience has the benefit of knowing world history, it can be safely assumed that the adventures that the pair will embark on will be perilous—they will be able to bargain for both survival and a clear soul.

I think the reason Casablanca has resonated so deeply with audiences is because that despite its ultimate artifice, the film recognizes that its audience also makes bargains, deals and difficult choices on a daily basis in order to survive. The characters in the film mirror the audience watching them, and this is why the film has rooted itself so deeply in the consciousness of American popular culture. Certainly in 1943, Americans could no longer afford to be in denial about the war and the time for being angry about the rotten state of the globe had come to pass. It was now time to deal with it. As time goes by, our world continues to grow more complicated, and Casablanca will continue to resonate. Most movies—and certainly most films that win Best Picture—wish to provide audiences with a sense of grandeur, romance, and escape from reality. Undoubtedly, Casablanca succeeds on all of these fronts. Long after the lights have come up in the theater, long after the DVD has stopped playing, this film sticks with you because—like Victor Laszlo—it dares to pierce right through the masks we wear and the bargains we make and says that human beings are people of conscience, righteousness, and good. Casablanca wants everybody to be like Rick Blaine.

Readers, the bargain I will strike with you is this: you must remember Casablanca.


Casablanca (1943*) (The film gets an asterisk because it first premiered in New York City on November 26th, 1942. However, Academy rules state that for a picture to be considered for an Oscar within a calendar year, the film must be released in Los Angeles County by December 30th in its year of eligibility. Since Casablanca went wide the following January, it was thus eligible to compete against films released in 1943. Mrs. Miniver should consider itself lucky.)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau

Studio: Warner Brothers

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Director—Michael Curtiz, Best Adapted Screenplay—Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) out of 8 total nominations (Best Actor—Humphrey Bogart, Best Supporting Actor—Claude Rains, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score—Max Steiner)

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