Casablanca (1942)

Directed by Michael Curtiz


I look at Casablanca as a much older version of The Notebook.  It’s great, sure, but it’s so damn popular, and it’s just a love story that it can’t be that great, right?  It features starts Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, though I imagine their fame increased dramatically following this film.

It’s a story that never pretends to be about anything other than Romeo and Juliet-esque love, but there’s still a lot of interesting stuff going on.  The film involves Nazis, after all, and we find out that during Ilsa and Rick’s Paris affair, during the outbreak of World War II, she was married to another man who was a bit occupied, seeing as how he was in a concentration camp.

Rick is a very mysterious character from the start, kind of playing off the persona of his character in The Maltese Falcon only one year earlier.  He’s a mostly silent character, and we learn that he can’t go home to America, but we’re not sure why.  He’s got a dark side, to be sure, and he traffics in some illegal activity, but he’s friends of everyone, kind of like a mobster in Goodfellas.  Rick owns a club called Rick’s American Cafe.  It’s where everyone goes to drink, gamble and listen to Sam the piano man play his music.

Rick doesn’t seem to care who you are as long as you don’t cause too much trouble.  Earlier in the story, he’s visited by a man named Ugarte, who hands him two “come to America no questions asked” passes, essentially, and later that night Ugarte is arrested, then killed.  Rick seems unmoved by Ugarte’s death, and they seemed like they might’ve been considered friends.  But Rick doesn’t really have any friends except for Sam.

When Ilsa Lund (Bergman) shows up, however, his cool facade crumbles.  They used to be in love, we’re told, and soon enough we see the love affair that has been hinted at in a long sequence.  The Rick in Paris is full of life while he drives in a convertible, his arm around Ilsa, nothing like the man here in Casablanca.  Their affair ended, however, when Ilsa never made the train out of the city following the imminent arrival of the German army.

And Rick’s pain (“of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine”) makes him into a nasty figure.  He chews out Ilsa for not showing up, and he drinks excessively, a stark contrast with the man Ilsa is now married to, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  But Isla was always married to Victor, we learn, only she had thought him to be dead.

Laszlo is basically a hero.  He’s Jewish, and he fights the Germans every way he can.  Because of that, their goal is to keep him here in Casablanca, stuck in purgatory like Rick.  Presented with the opportunity to offer Victor and Isla a free pass to America, Rick instead attempts to make Ilsa leave Victor and come with him to America.  He’s a ‘me first’ character, but he ultimately sacrifices his own happiness to let Ilsa and Victor escape together.

It’s a nice story, with a couple fascinating twists and turns, and I guess what stands out most about this story is just how anti-Nazi it is.  It certainly stands up well over time, but this was released in 1942, almost right after the U.S. became involved in the war.  Everything was fresh at the time, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the rest of the world didn’t realize just how evil the Nazi party was until years later.  Or maybe they really were just so clearly awful that everyone knew it, the Allies at least.

But it’s fascinating that the film takes on such a perspective while following a protagonist who pointedly stays out of these affairs.  He repeats the phrase, “I stick my neck out for no one,” several times, though his ultimate arc is to finally stick his neck out for someone who deserves it.  To really drive home point that Rick is a goddamned American hero, the last thing he does is shoot a Nazi.

I can see why Casablanca is so revered.  It’s a love story, but it’s also a political film, and the its main character evolves from a man of non involvement to a man deeply involved in the complex, tense relations between everyone who comes through his gin joint here in purgatory.  In a way, I suppose Rick’s arc mirrors America’s involvement in the war.  The U.S. avoided getting involved in the escalating shitstorm in Europe until they were finally pulled in by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Rick avoids having anything to do with the people around him until he’s pulled in by Isla’s arrival.  Hell, just Isla showing up in his gin joint is enough to put Rick down a dark and dirty spiral of self-loathing.  His brief depression might as well be America’s response and shock at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Holy shit, this film is amazing.

So as a piece of fiction, it is entertaining and tense.  The story escalates the third act drama, and ‘twist’ I suppose, very well.  The arriving and soon to depart plane is like a ticking time bomb, something that forces the characters to work against the clock, and the film has clear good and evil, with a main character navigating his way between the two.

When I found out that Isla’s husband was in a concentration camp during her love affair with Rick, I gasped, loudly in fact.  It’s one of those things I don’t know if people actually remember about this film.  Everyone knows about the love story, the “here’s looking at you kid,” and “We’ll always have Paris,” lines, but do people remember that they had an affair while her husband was in a goddamned concentration camp?  That’s some dark stuff.

Rick had to let her go if we were going to have any sympathy for him.  Going into the viewing, I imagined that him letting Isla and Victor go would feel tragic, and it is a sacrifice, but it’s one he had to make.  It shouldn’t have been all that surprising because up until we learn of that decision, Rick is kind of an asshole.  He conspires behind Victor’s back, and Victor is nothing but perfect.  You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out he doesn’t really like Isla or that he’s secretly an awful person, like the Bradley Cooper character in Wedding Crashers, but Victor is super awesome.  So Rick had to let them go.

And the real story is Rick’s growth.  Everything about him is selfish, maybe not greedy, but certainly self-involved.  Even his love affair with Isla could be seen as selfish.  Love, in some ways is selfish because the idea is to be loved and to believe that the way you love someone else is better than the way anyone else could love that person.  There is ego in love, I suppose, so for Rick to abandon that love suggests a loss of ego or at least a little progress for his character.

So the more I think about it, this is a beautiful film.  It’s better than an old version of The Notebook, actually, way better.  A crappy love story is one in which two characters claim to love each other, and the point is to show just how much they love each other, to show that their love was fated.  But a good love story shows how two people can help each other become better as individuals, and how they can grow.  It’s a story that demonstrates how two people can find a meaningful connection but also learn to evolve themselves.

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