I guess it’s fitting that the first film in my “Movie A Week Blog” is the 1942 classic ‘Casablanca’. ‘Casablanca’ is my all time favorite film. I never caught the bug for it until I was well into my college years. Somehow when I discovered ‘Casablanca’ as a young adult it spoke to me in a way that my youthful mind and heart just didn’t comprehend.
I’ve been debating for a week now on just how to write these blogs. Do I keep them very technical? Do I focus on the storytelling of the pictures? The camerawork? Do I just write about how the film’s make me feel? While watching ‘Casablanca’ tonight I came to the conclusion that I’m going to avoid any sort of dedicated structure to these entries. I’m just going to write about these movies as I see fit from film to film.
‘Casablanca’ is a film that never resonated with me as a child. Sure, a kid in the 80’s wasn’t supposed to enjoy a classic Black and White film from the 40’s. I mean really! Where’s the color? But it was more than that. There is so much about this movie that doesn’t really resonate until you’ve got some life experience under your belt.
I think one of the things that struck me tonight with the film is how the core story, to me, is about how guarded and fragile a man becomes when his heart is broken. Bogart’s “Rick” is a man who seems to have everything in control when we first meet him in the film. He’s cool, collected and seemingly untouchable. The very model of a strong man. Everyone looks up to him, he’s respected by even the most powerful men in Casablanca and wanted by the beautiful young women. He seemingly has it all.
Then Bergman’s “Ilsa” comes through the door. Her arrival, and Rick’s subsequent emotional dive, gives us a full picture of the man. The demeanor that at first glance comes across as so cool, refined and above everything is suddenly revealed as a defense mechanism. This man isn’t that suave, he’s distant, cold and unwilling or possibly unable to let anyone get close to him. He’s a lonely figure in a room full of people. And she’s the reason he is so. She’s the woman who did what only a woman can do, she destroyed his heart and left him without any answers.
And in that instant, Rick, the man who seemed to be what every man wished he was and every girl wanted to be with becomes one of us. A normal person. A flawed, pained, unenviable… normal, person. Suddenly we connect with him on a very deep level that anyone who’s experienced a painful breakup can completely understand.
The film, again to me, is really about the healing of Rick’s pain and how that healing turns him into something far more powerful than the cool loner he was at the beginning of the film. Through his emotional healing Rick gains much more… he discovers himself. He discovers strength and purpose in his life. His sacrifice at the end of the film is about him moving beyond the convenient safety of selfish introspective self-pity and into the world of caring so much for someone else that you put their happiness before your own. Rick sends Ilsa off with Victor because it’s what’s best for her. She needs to go with Victor. Keeping her in Casablanca with him would be selfish, and ultimately a completely unloving gesture on his part. Leaving with Ilsa and letting Victor fall into the hands of the Gestapo would also have left her with the guilt of allowing a truly good man in the hands of evil. A guilt and a pain that ultimately would have eaten her alive.
Rick’s decision to send her off with Victor freed her in every way possible. She was free of the Nazis, she was free of the responsibility of choosing which man to be with and she was free of the guilt of leaving Rick on that railway platform in Paris. He set her free. And in so doing he set himself free.
Perhaps my favorite relationship throughout the film is the one between Rick and Rain’s “Renault”. In the beginning you see how Renault has a fascinating respect for Rick. In all the ways I described above, Renault looks upon Rick with the same eyes as the audience. And as Rick’s soul is bared for the audience so too is it revealed to Renault. In many ways Renault is the same as Rick. He’s a man of means, with a charm and a way of doing things that has suited him for some time. But as the film progresses Renault is increasingly faced with staying true to being a Free Frenchman or a Nazi lap dog. As he increasingly gives up his power to the Nazis we see him shrink. The man increasingly seems to become less and less himself. That is, until Rick reminds him that it’s good for the soul to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost. The exchanged glances between them on the airfield before Renault commands the round up of usual suspects speaks volumes about what Rick’s sacrifice has done for Renault’s own piece of mind. And as they walk off into the horizon together and we hear, “this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” we are reminded that hope is what keeps us alive. It’s what keeps us fighting, it’s what keeps us moving forward no matter what. Rick found that hope again when he put Ilsa ahead of himself. And Renault found that hope again when he put Rick’s well being ahead of his professional duty to turn him in. Together these “new men” have found a renewed sense of self, duty to what’s right and, I think, they have rediscovered their own souls which they had lost due to the circumstances of their lives.
Indeed the film is full of characters making sacrifices for the love, honor and ideals. There is the wife who is willing to do anything to make sure she and her husband can get to America to raise their children in safety. Rick saves her too. There’s Greenstreet’s “Signor Ferrari” who is the self proclaimed King of all criminal activities in Casablanca who willingly reveals to Henreid’s “Victor Lazlo” that Rick has the papers he needs to get out of Casablanca. A move that provides no financial or political gain to Ferrari. It’s simply ‘the right thing to do’. Even Victor, who is ‘the other man’ in the eyes of the audience is able to be a likable and sympathetic character. Even though he’s the obstacle between our hero and his true love, Victor is more than just a grand war hero. He’s a good man. He loves Ilsa. He wants to see her happy. He’s always put her safety before his own. And he’s the understanding man, free of jealousy when he realizes Rick is the man Ilsa loved when she thought he was dead. He passes no judgement on her and doesn’t push her to explain herself or make her to feel guilty for being in love. He’s even willing to push for her freedom out of Casablanca, even if he can’t make it out himself. You just can’t hate Victor Lazlo. And, in the end, you know that Rick’s decision to send Ilsa off with Victor is the right thing to do. He’s a good man, who will take care of her and love her. And he’ll help inspire the opposition against the Nazis. Can you imagine how different the film would have been had Rick ran off with Ilsa? Would we have cared about Casablanca if that had happened? I don’t think so.
Rick had to be what we all aspire to be. The man who loves so much he puts everyone else ahead of himself. His happiness had to come secondary to the happiness and well being of those he loved. We often fall into our own petty jealousies, bitterness and selfishness. Rick had to become the guy who got past that and became the hero.
And I think that is why this film still works so well 66 years after its release. Sure it’s a WWII film, set against the backdrop of the Third Reich. But it’s not really a war movie. It’s a movie about relationships, and the inner journey of our hero. And in that way, the story is just as relevant and true today as it was then, and will be forever. It’s about the journey of the heart and redemption of a man’s soul. I love this film.
We should also remember that Casablanca is one of the most quoted films of all time… here’s a few lines you might recognize even if you haven’t seen the film:
- ?Here’s looking at you kid.
- ?Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world… she walks into mine.
- ?We’ll always have Paris.
- ?Round up the usual suspects!
- ?If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it… maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life.
- ?I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Humphrey Bogart was defeated for the best actor award by Paul Lukas for “Watch on the Rhine.” Ingrid Bergman wasn’t even nominated.
Did you know?
That Casablanca was voted #2 in AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time?
That Humphrey Bogart was voted #1 Man in AFI’s 50 Greatest American Screen Legends?
That Ingrid Bergman was voted #4 Woman in AFI’s 50 Greatest American Screen Legends?
That Warner Brothers originally wanted Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan to star in a medium budget picture called “Everybody Goes to Rick’s?” Deciding instead to capitalize on the rising popularity of Humphrey Bogart, they rethought the project, gave him a new leading lady, Ingrid Bergman, and renamed the movie to Casablanca.
That the script was constantly revised, often by Bogart himself, so that the actors didn’t know until the last moment how the story would end. This was especially unsettling to Ingrid Bergman.
Humphrey Bogart is believed to have written the lines, “of all the gin joints in all the world”… and “here’s looking at you, kid”