Since no female in my family has ever been able to stay awake during the movie, I was alone. As I watched the theater fill—and it was almost sold out—I noticed a lot of groups of women and many couples, mostly older, but with a few youngish ones scattered about, but no male groups and I seemed to be the only male in the place not in the company of a female.
We know the story:
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical American ex-pat and former mercenary who owns, “Rick’s Café Américain”, in Casablanca. Of course, Rick’s is the place to see and be seen, with a mixed-bag clientele: Vichy French, Italian, and Nazi officials; refugees trying to secure passage to Lisbon and then America. He seems uninterested in the war itself, but we learn that he was hurt by Ilsa and that embittered him.
Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre, shows up and boasts to Rick of “letters of transit” he obtained through the murder of two German couriers, but it is unclear if he did the actual crime, or at least it is to me. The papers allow the bearer to travel freely around German-controlled Europe and to neutral Portugal. The poser of these papers seems talismanic and I do not know or care if such a thing existed. In the movie, they worked. Ugarte plans to sell them and exit Casablanca with the proceeds. Before this happens, he is arrested by the local police under the command of Vichy Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), a self-confessed corrupt official. Ugarte dies in custody without revealing that he had entrusted the letters to Rick. We later learn that Renault is trying to decide if Ugarte committed suicide or dies while trying to escape, which says a lot about the situation in Casablanca.
Shortly after Ugarte’s arrest, in comes Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the root of Bogie’s bitterness and the story takes off. Isla is married to Lazlo (Paul Henreid), a leader of the French Underground and together and separately, they try to get Rick to sell them the transit papers.
Of course it is more than that.
When Ilsa returns to Rick’s that first night after closing, she opens the front door just as the spotlight passes by, backlighting her brilliantly in the doorframe. This dramatic image is important for several reasons, they told me in film class in college, but the main one for me—and probably what the director had in mind—was that the backlit Bergman seemed to glow, seemed almost ethereal. This enhanced her beauty—as if that was necessary—and made us see her the way Rick obviously did.
Rick is the more romantic of the two men in Ilsa’s life, and I believe that it is he that all the girls who cry at the end wanted her to end up with. I have never cried at this point in the movie. OK, well, maybe a moistening at the corners of the eyes.
What always gets me is Yvonne singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. I learned that her tears during the song, and the tears of many signing it on camera, were real, that the actress playing Yvonne had to escape occupied France in much the same was as did the characters in Casablanca. After hearing it sung at The Arc d’ Triomphe in honor of the Unknown Soldier in at least six languages, it made the scene in the movie all that much more effective.
That is the turning point of the movie to me.
The story is about life and love and loss, about patriotism and corruption and loyalty. It is about hope and friendship and honor and sacrifice. The movie touches on so many levels—perhaps that is why it is still real today. And oddly, the movie improves every time you see it. You see something new or in a new way. Last night, I was caught by the pain in Ilsa when she kisses Rick goodbye in Paris, knowing what we only learn later.
I wonder if the movie would have worked if Ronald Reagan had been cast as Rick or Ann Sheridan as Ilsa. Both easily could have happened because at that time, this was just another film to crank out of the factory that was Hollywood in the 1940’s. This fact alone makes the film a marvel—it was lightening in a bottle, a happy accident, and one that will probably be watched so long as star-crossed lovers exist.
Yeah. I guess you could say I like the movie. Watching it with a couple of hundred other people, most of whom have probably seen it a dozen times each was fun. The laughter was real—I’m shocked, Shocked! to find that gambling is going on in here. Sad it was a one-night only event. We will remember this.