This Week’s Movie: CASABLANCA

It all starts here, people. Every cliche that you’ve seen in every movie in your whole life starts here, in Casablanca. And not just on-screen cliches, either: every time you hear about a movie being written on-the-fly during shooting, as the three stars struggle to get along, and unusual methods are taken to disguise how short the male lead is … all of that came from Casablanca, too. Studios still try those things today, in part because it worked back then, and it worked beautifully.

This was never intended to be one of the 10 greatest films ever made. The script started as a failed play, Everybody Goes to Rick’s, which had never been produced.* At the time, Humphrey Bogart was known for gangster pictures and was seen as a reach in this role; for a modern-day equivalent, imagine The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli being cast as a romantic lead in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

The script was only half-done when shooting began; Hollywood legend is that writers Julius and Philip Epstein came up with the famous ending (“Round up the usual suspects”) the day before it was shot. Bogart had to stand and sit on top of all kinds of boxes and cushions to hide the fact that Ingrid Bergman was two inches taller than he. It was only made because it was timely, with the German assault in North Africa dominating the newspaper headlines as the movie was released.

But let’s hone in on that last one for a second, because it’s important. In some ways it’s the whole reason that this film succeeds. The menace of the Nazis is a real thing in this movie. There actually were saloons and casinos in parts of Europe and North Africa where some mope at a table could tell you that he ran the second-biggest bank in the Netherlands, as happens to Rick Blaine (Bogart) in this movie, and it would be the truth.

Moreover, this movie was made before anyone knew that the good guys were going to win. I have yet to see a WWII film made after the war – even a great one like Schindler’s List – that wasn’t somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that Hitler will be defeated. Without that knowledge, there’s a perpetual sadness about the state of the world in this movie. When the Wehrmacht moves into Paris, it doesn’t just ruin Rick’s love for Ilsa Lund (Bergman), it ruins the idea that Paris will ever again be a place for lovers to meet.

Given that, is it really so surprising that Rick lives by the rule of not sticking his head out for nobody? If he does, the Third Reich would be all too happy to cut his head off. Instead he’d just like to keep his head down, practice neutrality, make a little money. It’s only Ilsa’s love for the other man in her life, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), that can shake him.

The idea that Rick’s cynicism could be shaken by a good woman will sound familiar to you. It’s not so different from Han Solo (who also is asked to spirit away a couple of rebels from a giant war machine) or Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way (which name-checks Bogart). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the movie stereotype of “hardened cynic who’s not actually that hardened” works because it was originated in a movie as good as Casablanca. I don’t know how often I’ve seen it in real life.

It helps that the movie invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us of Rick’s change of heart. The secretly great scene in this movie that you never hear about is when the Bulgarian girl asks Rick for help. The implication is that the crooked French police chief (the great Claude Rains) is taking advantage of her desperation in exchange for sexual favors. The movie has to dodge around that issue, censorship being what it was at the time, but the indirect dialogue actually makes her shame and vulnerability even more saddening. It would take a powerful story, one which painfully resonates with Rick’s own broken heart, to penetrate his defenses. That scene delivers one.

Even so, Rick is not ready to yield to Ilsa when she comes to him for help; I always get the chills at Bogart’s cold delivery of the line, “Go ahead and shoot me. You’ll be doing me a favor.” This is why I love this movie: even though it does’t look much like an epic – as good as the Warner Bros. backlot looked, it was still just a backlot – the characters’ emotions make it epic. For me, the scene where French and Germans sing competing national anthems feels every bit as big as the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, in part because most of the actors in that scene had been driven from their homes by the Nazis. Laszlo is ready to die for his people, Rick is ready to die for the ache in his heart, and the movie sells the idea that those emotions are equivalent. If they weren’t, it would be hard to see that Ilsa was torn between them.

If I were to have one complaint about the film, it’s that Bergman is a bit weak by the end. The idea is that Rick is making a huge sacrifice by giving up on the love of his life for the greater good in Europe, but … shouldn’t Ilsa realize that? It seems to me that when Rick tells her that she would regret staying with him “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of [her] life,” the speech should end there and Ilsa should understand. For her to persist, for Rick to say more, makes it seem like she isn’t capable of thinking for herself. If a lesser actress were in the scene, I probably would not buy it.

One complaint I have with a lot of studio movies today is that they try to manipulate our emotions without earning it. They use swelling, manipulative music, or create love at first sight via the meet-cute, but don’t put any effort into developing those emotions. In part that’s because those movies are made with the intent of making money first, and telling story second. Casablanca is one of those rare times that the money-first formula actually worked: the story came second but it ended up as a great one. Lots of movies assume that there are fundamental things which apply as time goes by; this movie proves it.

Reviewed by Mark Young

*According to Wikipedia, theater versions of Casablanca have been staged after the movie’s success, both under the movie title and under the title Everybody Goes To Rick’s.

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