“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” —Rick
Casablanca is so enshrined in Old Hollywood nostalgia, so widely quoted, so frequently parodied and lampooned, so totally woven into the fabric of what you stereotypically think of when you think “classic Hollywood movie,” that, like Great Expectations, it becomes easy to completely lose the plot amidst all the trappings. This is unfortunate, because that plot and those characters are the deeply satisfying steak underneath all the seductive sizzle of Claude Rains’ dry wit or Humphrey Bogart rocking a white tux.
As this revered film turns 75, all that glamor—all that unmatched quotability—is a welcome tonic to the loud films of 2017. Movies today just don’t do subtlety the same way Casablanca did. But it’s the arc of protagonist Rick Blaine—the sullen anti-hero whiling his life away in the deep, dark purgatory of being a successful businessman that all the single ladies feel weak-kneed around—that makes this essential viewing no matter the year.
“Round up the usual suspects.” —Louis
It might surprise people to know that Warner Bros., the studio which now uses a lofty orchestral motif from “As Time Goes By” as its logo’s theme song, didn’t think much of the film as they were making it. By all accounts it was a rushed, factory-setting film, just one more ensemble thrown together with a keen eye toward the ruthless studio contracts of all involved, and based on an unproduced stage play, no less.
Just as the hair’s-breadth escapes and happenstances of the film itself thrill the audience with the knowledge that Rick and Ilsa’s reunion might never have occurred but for fate, it becomes really easy to see how the beloved classic might have never come to be had one or two stars failed to align. Ingrid Bergman, the young Swedish actress just getting her start in Hollywood, played the part of Rick’s lost love Ilsa Lund, but only after Warner Brothers dispatched two of its star writers to put on a song-and-dance routine for producer David Selnick, who held Bergman’s contract, according to a 1973 memoir by screenwriter Howard Koch.
Koch himself was an unlikely source, by his own admission, for what’s become the quintessential silver screen classic. He reflected on his unexpected entry into Hollywood after he became known for writing a little radio play called War of the Worlds for Orson Welles.
“Since it was the Hollywood custom to typecast their writers as well as their actors, I posed a dilemma for the studio,” Koch wrote of his Martian invasion expertise. “Fortunately, this was before science fiction became fashionable or I might have been writing about outer space monsters for the rest of my literary life.”
The plot wasn’t even fully baked as production began, with screenwriter Howard Koch saying the stars were wondering about it as filming began.
“I had only the vaguest notion where each scene was leading, just hoping that it would lead to another scene and another and that the sum total, if I lived that long, would add up to a film that wouldn’t be bad enough to end my brief career in Hollywood,” Koch wrote.
Actress Ingrid Bergman in particular was nervous about charging into the production without knowing where her character was going, he said.
“When we began we didn’t have a finished script … Ingrid Bergman came to me and said, ‘Which man should I love more…?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know…play them both evenly’ … you see we didn’t have an ending, so we didn’t know what was going to happen!” Koch said in a 1995 interview—his very last, as he died shortly thereafter at age 93.
All this has obscured the importance of the original play on which the script was based, Everybody Comes To Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. It didn’t make it to stage until 1946—when Casablanca had already so conquered the world that the Army used “Rick’s place” as code for the actual city of Casablanca in Morocco. Burnett and Allison’s play lays down ground rules the film would crib scene-for-scene, including a gentleman’s gallows-humor bet over the fate of a resistance leader, using “As Time Goes By” as a musical touchstone, and even the skeleton of the ending, in which Rick performs cinema’s most famous heel-face turn.
Burnett and Allison would even, at points, sue for more recognition of their contributions to the story.
It’s worth it to mention that there was tension among the actors, too, with Bogart avoiding Bergman while offstage so as not to excite the jealousy of his wife and Paul Henreid rubbing both Bogart and Bergman the wrong way.
Strasser: “What is your nationality?”
Rick: “I’m a drunkard.”
All that studio wheeling and dealing was in service, ostensibly, toward a film that nobody expected to be nearly the hit it later became. The film garnered mostly positive reviews in the papers and performed well but not shatteringly so at the box office, but it did garner high-profile Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, with acting nominations for Bogart and Claude Rains as Captain Renault.
Yet, people loved it, and in the bygone time before video extended the life of just any old movie, Casablanca played successful revivals time and again over the years.
It’s not hard to see why. The plot is straightforward, the characters well-drawn inside of just a few lines of dialogue, and the script itself sparkles with cleverness and humor at every turn. The film takes us on a caper that plays out almost entirely within the walls of Rick’s Café Americain, the “gin joint” Bogart’s world-weary American expatriate runs in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which dire narration informs us has become a hive of desperation and exploitation as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe huddle in fear, hoping against hope for escape to Portugal and from there to the United States.
Two German couriers are murdered on their way to Casablanca, and, we discover, they were carrying a pair of high handed Maguffins: Transit papers signed by Charles de Gaulle, which we understand are golden tickets to Lisbon and safety. (Why in the world the Vichy French government or the Gestapo would care a snail’s fart about papers signed by the leader of the Free French is best ignored.)
By virtue of his cynicism and his connections, Rick comes into possession of the transit papers just as two high-profile refugees enter his bar. One of them is the bold Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Austrian-American actor Paul Henreid, who in real life smuggled a Jewish friend out of Nazi Germany and was so anti-Nazi he was actually declared an enemy of the Third Reich). The other, to Rick’s great consternation, is Laszlo’s wife Ilsa Lund, whom we learn was an old flame of Rick’s who abandoned him without explanation as Paris fell to the German war machine.
Rick’s heretofore unshakeable exterior cracks in an instant at the mere sound of “As Time Goes By,” their favorite song as the artillery began to fall all around Paris. It doesn’t come out until later, and much vindictiveness on the part of Rick, that Ilsa had thought Laszlo to have died in a Nazi concentration camp, and only left Rick upon learning he was alive.
Bogart, with his mean mug, nasal lisp of a voice, and wounded looks, gives us one of the smoothest anti-heroes in film history. Pretty much anybody with an ounce of masculinity wants to be Rick Blaine. And everybody in the whole world has gone through some time in his or her life when slinking away to some exotic hive of villainy and leaving it all behind, choosing to become a cynic who looks out for number one, seems like the best option.
But that’s not really who Rick is. As other characters repeatedly bring up, beneath the cypher he presents to the world, there’s a stubborn idealist, or there was. He ran guns to the Ethiopians, he fought against the Fascists in Madrid. His protests that he was well paid to do so ring false, even to Rain’s cynical French captain, Louis Renault.
As Rick angrily broods over Ilsa’s presence, he similarly can’t help idolizing Laszlo, who so chafes under the presence of drunk Gestapo singing the German national anthem at Rick’s that he organizes an impromptu counter-protest. With Rick’s approval and at Laszlo’s insistence, the whole bar bursts out into “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.
It is a blood-quickening joy to watch it every time, and, as Aljean Harmetz pointed out in his 2002 book The Making of Casablanca, a scene of real emotion for the diverse cast of actors Warner Bros. brought in as extras in the charged scene—some of whom were actual refugees from war-ravaged Europe. It’s a happy detail that puts these humble bit players in that rare club of timeless art-as-raised-middle-finger masterpieces that includes The Divine Comedy or anything by Salman Rushdie.
As, too, does Conrad Veidt’s remorseless asshole Gestapo officer, Major Strasser. Veidt, a famous German actor, had himself run from Nazi Germany, and would endure what had to be the insane dissonance of portraying Nazis in movies time and again. It might explain the casual malevolence with which his character snarls out every line. It’s fun to think his performance is a furious bit of slander against the Third Reich.
After Laszlo’s act of rebellion draws the ire of the Nazis and shuts down Rick’s, Ilsa tries to get the transit papers from Rick, and vacillates between the man she married and the way, way sexier Rick.
At first it appears Rick will do the selfish thing and abscond with Laszlo, or at best send Laszlo onward to Lisbon while he keeps Ilsa to himself. He doesn’t. In a rousing about face, he sticks up Louis and guns down Strasser, but not before sending Ilsa off with her husband, safe in the knowledge they will go on to make life harder for the people who make life harder for us all.
Louis, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.” —Rick
In the same 1995 interview, Koch said the ending of the film was up in the air until the very end of production—though its similarity to the stage play, in which Rick does indeed get over himself, can’t be ignored. It’s hard to imagine the film without that ending because it solidifies everything about the film’s message.
Rick is a sullen, self-centered guy who has let disappointments in his life drag him down and make him think people and ideals—and even love—aren’t worth it. His redemption comes when he pulls his head out of his own ass, forgives his old girlfriend for needing to move on, and commits his life to warring against fucking Nazis. (That is to say, when he does what I really, really need every decent guy I know to start doing now.)
The film isn’t without its uncomfortable spots after three quarters of a century. Renault basically coerces cute women into sex. Even as he lets Ilsa go, Rick, like the script itself, still treats Ilsa like a trophy instead of a woman in charge of her own destiny. Those parts aside, it is still a tale of rejecting one’s bruised ego and standing upright in the face of evil. It is a film that says if your girlfriend needs to go fight evil, let her. And if the enemies of liberty, equality and brotherhood start singing Nazi songs in your bar, you should sing “La Marseillaise” louder. You’ll find yourself in good company.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.