An Appreciation – Casablanca
“We’ll always have Paris” – Rick Blaine
If there was a vote taken to choose only one film from the 20th century to preserve for future generations to experience, my guess is that Casablanca (1942) would be that film. It is so iconic, so memorable, so enjoyable to watch, that it’s no wonder that it is one of the most popular entertainments ever made. The film has been copied and parodied so often that people know of it without ever seeing it. The story of Rick, Ilsa, Victor Laszlo, and their love triangle is one of the most famous stories ever seen on screen; it is a representation of all that is great with the movies.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the magic of the film was caught almost by accident. Yes, the cast was made up of Hollywood superstars of the time, but during this period the film was seen as another in a long line of factory made films by Warner Brothers. It was made cheaply and with moderate expectations, none involved could have predicted the stature it would achieve in the years to come. It is now considered one of the great films of classic Hollywood. Seeing it today, the film captures the spirit of great storytelling: we are brought effortlessly in to a time and place that exists only in the movies, where every character is one of a kind, every scene filled with elegance and grace, every word and musical note etched in to our memory.
The story is set in Casablanca during the middle of WWII. Many refugees, in an attempt to flee the grasps of Nazi control, escape to the town in hopes to catch a flight to Lisbon, and then finally onward to America. Colorful people of all cultures make up the dynamic of this town, where back room deals are made, bribes are taken, and secret plots motivate all in hopes to land a spot on a departing plane. It’s interesting how the refugees move and work so freely within the confines of the city, often with the Nazis in clear view, but that’s the reality of the movies. In an early scene, we see two German couriers killed in the street, suspected with carrying letters of transit that gives whomever has them free leave from the town. These letters end up in the hands of Ugarte, played by that great, sad-faced actor, Peter Lorre. In hopes to hide the letters from the Nazis, Ugarte turns to his one friend in Casablanca, Rick Blaine.
Humphrey Bogart, who stars as Rick, displays all the coolness and detachment of a man hurt by his past, and is seemingly looking out only for himself. When Ugarte pleads with Rick to help him hide from Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and the other Nazi soldiers, Rick’s only response is “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Rick moves throughout his café in a dapper white suit, as if in the shadows, surveying the entire room, making sure the wine is properly poured, the entertainment top notch, and the profits of his gambling tables securely collected. Although Rick stands by his motto of looking out only for himself, his past would indicate otherwise. He has had a history of gunrunning, working as a freedom fighter for countries in need of support from threatening powers.
That is, until he meets Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the woman he would fall in love with in Paris, and the woman he would blame for his heartache. Rick appears to have everything in order, until Ilsa walks in to his café, and back in to his life.
In a flashback sequence, we see Rick and Ilsa enjoying a passionate affair in Paris, where neither would tell each other of their past. They dance, drink, and listen to music, it is clear here that they both love each other. However, as the Germans march in to France, and escape becomes necessary, we find Rick abandoned at a train station, with Ilsa apparently leaving him for reasons she could not tell him at the time. Flash forward to the present, and we come to find that Ilsa was married during her time with Rick, to the underground resistance fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). The two of them have come to Casablanca in search of the letters of transit, the same letters of transit that Rick now has in his possession. The rest of the film revolves around the choices Rick has to make, and the destinies of all three characters based on those decisions. Will Rick give the letters to Ilsa and Victor? Will his pride and heartbreak get the best of him? Or will he take Ilsa, who still obviously loves him, and escape together? All these questions are answered in the final scene at the airfield, one of the most famous endings in all of movie history.