a commentary by Tony McRae

Why does Casablanca appear on many "favorite" lists but few "best" lists? Is Bogart too prototypical, too obviously the film fan's male icon of choice? Or maybe it's because of director Michael Curtiz, who churned out so many workmanlike popular entertainments that to place him among the likes of Ozu, Bergman and Renoir is inconceivable. David Thomson, the best writer on film today, holds Casablanca up as fine economical storytelling, but he eventually relegates it to "searingly effective" melodrama. Few would contend it is not well made. For me, however, the key question is: Does Casablanca possess the moral undertones inherent in great art--and great storytelling?

Let's start with Rick's Café Américain. It's the movie's centerpiece, at once refuge and hunting ground, a place of repose and anxiety. We enter along with women in evening dress and men wearing fez and white suits. A waiter looks directly at us as though we are expected; after all, everybody comes to Rick's. We're taken in, so to speak, even permitted to glimpse the small cabals that have one purpose and only one: to escape Casablanca and the Nazi threat.  The camera glides with deceptive ease, unwilling perhaps to settle down.

We realize we've crossed a threshold, entered a carefully delineated space.  Boundaries, both geographic/political and personal, underpin and frame "Casablanca."  

The movie begins with a map that extends from Europe to Casablanca in French Morocco, itself a construct of Nazi hegemony.  Rick's Café Américain is equally illusory, a supposed sanctuary from a world at war.  This saloon undergoes two "invasions," the first by the Third Reich in the person of Major Strasser, the second by Victor Lazlo and Ilsa Lund, who unknowingly breach the boundaries Rich has so carefully set for himself.    

We are permitted further ingress into the gambling room, where even an official of the Deutschebank, with a slight sign from Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to the burly doorman, is stopped at the door.  It's our first hint that lines have already been drawn:  no Nazis--or Nazi flunkies--allowed.  We've arrived finally at the heart of the matter, or rather at what the French call the point d'appui, the story's fulcrum. We realize that Casablanca, part of unoccupied France, is at uneasy stasis and the slightest push in one direction can cause crises. Rick Blaine doesn't know it yet, but he is at that mutable center and his decisions will affect the course of many people's lives.  

We see him as a solitary figure whose main preoccupation, he tells Major Strasse (Conrad Veidt), is to run a saloon; he may well have added "and maintain the status quo."  He is a man who sticks his neck out for no one, a neutral in an untempered time.  But the center will not hold: the Germans have seen to that.  Michael Wood has called Bogart's face "...a picture of what isolation looks like at its best:  proud, bitter, mournful, and tremendously attractive."  But not a face, I might add, content with inaction.  It is a face that invites curiosity.  Curtiz's straightforward style insures this symbiosis between audience and screen by not having anything come between us and Bogart:  no fussy camera work or artful sets or distracting sub-plots.  The story and characters rule.

For the first thirty minutes or so Casablanca is a carefully symmetrical work, like the opening bars of a Mozart symphony.  Consider a few pairings: Rick Blaine/Louis Renault, Allies/Nazis, Victor Laszlo/Ilsa Lund, Laszlo/Strasser--and by extension, captivity (Casablanca)/freedom (America).  (I might be tempted to pair Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorrie as well, only because through many movies I have come to regard them as inseparable opposites.)  Tellingly, this equanimity is threatened by a song.  "Play it, Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."  What intrudes on the present is the past, not only Rick and Ilsa's past together, but more importantly their pasts apart from each other.  The young Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) had fallen in love with a leader of the underground resistance, with an ideal really, embodied by a rather bloodless Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  Pre-Ilsa Rick had spent a good part of his life opposing fascism, which is all we really know about him. 

My reading of the movie is the inexorable movement of both Rick and Ilsa toward a rediscovery of that idealistic past.  The fun I get watching Casablanca is to see how the filmmakers (I do not single out Curtiz but would include the screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and Casey Robinson, the producer Hal Wallis, and others) play with the movie's symmetries, rearranging, sometimes ambigufying them.  We are never quite sure, for example, what to make of the friendship between Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) and Rick--until the very end of the movie.  Or, for that matter, the asexual husband-wife relationship of Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund.  Everything conspires to force Rick and Ilsa together.  And to keep them apart.  Even Capt. Renault, ever the realist, misreads Ilsa as she departs with Victor for America in the film's last scene.  "She didn't believe a word you said," he tells Rick.  On the contrary, Ilsa can leave Rick because she does believe him; she believes in the honor inherent in her own sacrifice.  And Rick's.

What is so important in this final scene is the underlying message Rick is telling Ilsa: by going with Victor she can rekindle the idealism she had when they first met.  "We'll always have Paris" is more than a bittersweet reminder of love lost: it is Rick's recovering his own pre-Ilsa idealism.

Renault is correct when he tells Rick that not only is he a sentimentalist--which he has suspected all along--but now he's become a patriot.  They both have.  This movie is, after all, about choosing sides, and in the end everyone has made a choice.  

Much has been written about the dialogue, perhaps the most quoted in all of film history, the impeccable casting of Bogart and Bergman, Greenstreet and Lorrie, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson--and especially Claude Rains who energizes the screen whenever he appears.  There is no need to talk of these qualities here.  

I am aware that by and large I've argued for a favorite movie rather than a best one.  I was shaped by the war, and, frankly, by Hollywood's portrayal of it.  Nostalgia has a persuasive face, yet I cannot be persuaded that it alone is capable of holding me for these many years.
Visit Vincent's "Casablanca" Home Page.
Buy the DVD or VHS at or at Barnes & Noble.

Back to Top TRIPS