As time goes by, how does Casablanca hold up? We know the fundamental things apply, but what good is that in an era when the word fundamental makes us so uneasy? Surely an American classic of political and romantic melodrama, set in an Islamic city whose name in English means “white house,” must have something important to tell us about today’s world.
“It stands for brave movies in a just war,” writes the eminent film critic and historian David Thomson in Have You Seen … ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. “It may be America’s great moment: hard-boiled, soft-centered, and with a dream coinciding with the real.” It certainly is a reminder that America just can’t seem to make wars, or movies, like it used to.
Yes, here is the film that first gave the order to “round up the usual suspects” — to defy due process, in other words, with righteous moral privilege — as a way of protecting liberty from tyranny. Today, we’re more likely to hear that phrase as a blown whistle against the perceived protection of tyranny from liberty.
Conservatives will lay nostalgic claim to the movie as an exemplar of tradition to be gotten back to; liberals like it because its idealism is worldy, not naïve, and tough enough to triumph over both wrongness and cynicism. It endures as a classic because both parties are essentially correct — and because it’s so elegantly written, acted, directed, photographed, scored and edited.
Right. So what, again, is Casablanca actually about?
Humphrey Bogart is Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who once stood up against fascism in Ethiopia and Spain but who now stays out of politics — except that he runs a café in 1941 Casablanca, the presumed penultimate stop on a long road to freedom through which many European refugees pass.
Rick’s Café Américain is the center of all the action, and this is still how America sees itself: a haven from the world’s oppressors and, when needed, a stronghold against them; a place of self-directed vitality and great possibilities. Which is to say a place for high-stakes gambling. Most of the time the tables are fixed.
Rick knows everybody, including one little weasel (Peter Lorre, naturally) who killed a pair of German couriers for their letters of transit (that is, get-out-of-totalitarian-Europe-free cards) and wants Rick to keep the letters safely hidden. That he’ll do, but the weasel’s on his own when the local police prefect Renault (Claude Rains, immortal) comes calling on the Gestapo’s behalf. It’s not just that Rick and Renault are pals, though they are. It’s that, as Rick puts it more than once, “I stick my neck out for nobody” — for which the admittedly corrupt police captain wryly commends his “wise foreign policy.”
Enter Rick’s old lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman, radiant). They had the perfect Parisian love affair once, but then Paris succumbed to the Third Reich. In the chaos, she left him, without saying why, and broke his heart. She’d thought her resistance-leader husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid, noble) had perished in a concentration camp, but in fact he was alive. And now he’s here with her here in Casablanca, at Rick’s club, wondering whether they might acquire those letters of transit in the name of the good fight.
And so it seems that Rick must choose between love and virtue. And the audience must make a choice, too, between wise allegory on the perils of isolationism and quaint, professionally packaged propaganda for the Allied war effort.
Yet somehow the movie is able to say these things aren’t mutually exclusive, and its legacy blooms from that achievement. Take the scene in which the Germans have commandeered the piano in Rick’s café to dominate the din with their pompously sung rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Laszlo orders the house band to strike up “La Marseillaise” in response, and, with Rick’s nod of approval and help from vocally patriotic clubgoers, the defiant French anthem finally drowns the Germans out. Even after more than 60 years, to be unmoved by this perfect movie moment is to be unalive.
Never mind, the film suggests, that this rousing scene is taking place in an African nation colonized by a European nation under occupation by another European nation. Never mind that among the cosmopolitan cast of characters, the only Arab is Rick’s briefly glimpsed doorman, Abdul, played by American actor Dan Seymour; and the only black man is Rick’s friend and piano player Sam — an important, plot-driving ally to be sure, but a servile one, and the least developed of the film’s otherwise sharply rendered supporting characters — played by American actor Dooley Wilson. Never mind.
Well, today, for better and worse, we’re beginning to mind. Ten years ago, Casablanca was a city to which any self-respecting American movie buff might like to make a romantic (or maybe even vaguely political) pilgrimage. Five years ago, it was a city under siege of suicide bombings — arguably a collateral-damage casualty from certain non-isolationist American military activities in the Middle East. But that doesn’t moot Casablanca‘s merits. It only reiterates them.