On Saturday night TCM aired Casablanca and I watched it (again) because that’s what you do when Casablanca is on: You watch it. People can quibble as to whether it’s the best film ever made but I do believe it’s the best script: there are too many classic lines and sly references for me to unpack here (“You know how the Germans love destruction”). The performances, beginning with the four stars above (my favorite is Claude Rains as Captain Renault) are outstanding. Historic.
What I’d like to discuss here, briefly, is what most often gets overlooked. Is Casablanca a romantic film? Sure. A suspenseful drama? Yes. A war film? Certainly. But what it is, as much as anything, is a propaganda film. And to judge by the annals of history, it worked.
The film is based on a play, Everyone Comes To Rick’s, that was written in 1941 by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison and went unproduced. No one had seen it because no one had done it. Then, in January of 1942, just one month after Pearl Harbor, Warner Brothers wisely paid $20,000 for the rights to it. That’s the most any studio had ever paid for an unproduced play.
Filming began in May of 1942. Yes, the U.S. had by this time been dragged into World War II but it was still a reluctant participant. The Americans did not fire a single bullet outside the Pacific theater until November 8, 1942, in North Africa. Less than three weeks later, Casablanca made a limited release in New York City. It did not open wide until January of 1943.
So, consider: The play was written during a time when Hitler and the Nazis were overturning Europe and America was still hoping not to have to become ensnared. The movie was made after America had suffered the attack on Pearl Harbor but before any American lives had been spent on European (or African soil). And so it is clear, as you watch the film with this perspective in mind, that cafe owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a surrogate for the United States of America.
Early on in the film, Rick is asked by Ugate (Peter Lorre) to hide him from the Gestapo (he’d been involved in the murder two German couriers). Rick’s quite public reply: “I don’t stick my neck out for nobody.”
Not long after (or is it shortly before), Rick is introduced to the Nazi commander Major Strasser, who asks him his nationality. “I’m a drunkard,” Blaine cheekily replies. He clearly has no intention of being drawn into a political conversation. When Strasser asks him what he thinks of the Nazis invading the USA, Blaine advises, “There are certain parts of New York I would stay away from.”
Not long after, however, after Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) reenters his life (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”), Rick’s mood is more sober (ironically, because this is when he decides to go on a bender). Sitting alone late at night with Sam (Dooley Wilson), his piano player and faithful sidekick, Rick says, “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.”
When at last Rick and the heroic Nazi resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreid) have a confab about the letters of transit, Rick tells Victor, who also happens to be Ilsa’s husband, that he will not sell him the ducats to freedom. Lazlo appeals to his sense of duty in terms of fighting the Nazis. What does Rick say in response? “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
We are rooting for Rick, even though he’s somewhat cynical and jaded. Somewhat? He helps a young couple avoid a compromising situation, at great financial loss, and does so without fanfare. His loyal staff notices, however. He is a sentimentalist, after all. And perhaps a patriot.
In a later scene, as Lazlo and Rick meet again to discuss the passage of the letters, Rick asks Lazlo why he’s willing to risk his life (and that of Ilsa) to continue doing what he’s doing. “You might as well ask me why I breathe,” Victor answers. When Rick mildly protests Lazlo’s idealism, Lazlo utters the words that must have sent a chill up the spine of every American watching this film in a theater in 1943: “You know how you sound…? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.”
You know how the story ends. When Rick shoots Major Strasser, and he waited until the last possible moment to do so, he knows that he has made the choice to join the fight. He didn’t have a lot of time to think about it but in that split second, he made the right choice. And if by doing so he just happened to save the lives of a man from Czechoslovakia and a woman from Norway, two countries that were and would feel the stranglehold of the Third Reich, well, that was no coincidence.
“Louie, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” might as well have been FDR phoning Churchill to announce that the Yanks were coming.
Nothing in this film is incidental. In the opening scene, when the man flees the police and is shot in the street by police, he is gunned down in front of a wall that has a giant mural of Marshall Petain, the French hero from World War I who would lead the puppet government of France, the Vichy French, which allowed Hitler and the Nazis to invade in exchange for France’s “freedom.” It was anything but. The Petain mural symbolizes France’s submission to the Nazis.
One last bit, unrelated: identical twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, wrote the script. It is simply incandescent, the screenplay by which all others should be measured. However, as sublime as it is (and they rightfully won an Oscar for it), they did not write the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” And that line appears four times in the movie.
No, that was something Bogey would say to Bergman between takes as he taught her how to play poker. The line sort of stuck and Bogey used it in a few scenes. It’s arguably the most quoted line in film history. By the way, Bogart was 41 (his character is 37) during filming and Bergman 27.
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