So once again we have survived.

Casablanca

You guys know about this CASABLANCA? 1942, hill of beans, they don’t really say “Play it again, Sam,” etc.? Yeah, well, until recently I’d never seen it. And that’s always intimidating, trying out an iconic classic way after the fact. You don’t want to find yourself very respectfully trying to enjoy it. But that wasn’t a problem here – I loved it. I won’t have to research why it was considered good at the time.

If you haven’t seen it either, it’s a story about love, heartbreak and duty in a limited, colorful location: Rick’s Cafe Americain, a popular “gin joint” in Casablanca, Morocco, the next-to-last stop on the trail of European refugees trying to flee the war and get to the Americas. It’s based on an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and that title is accurate: Rick’s is a hangout for people of all backgrounds and proclivities. Club owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is a disillusioned ex-mercenary from the U.S. whose alleged neutrality makes him the perfect person to welcome Moroccans, French occupiers, immigrants, police, criminals, Nazis, the Resistance. They all come to this place where Rick discourages political arguments and police overlook (and enjoy) gambling.

The opening establishes the cafe’s proximity to the airport, with crowds of refugees watching planes come in and out, dreaming of getting their visas so they can be on one of them. Of course, the world famous “hill of beans” scene will take place at the airport, but 95% of the movie takes place in the cafe.

Just because Rick welcomes everybody doesn’t mean he has to like them. When a sleazy small time criminal named Ugarte (Peter Lorre, who in real life fled Germany when the Nazis came to power) tries to talk to him, Rick obviously thinks he’s a piece of shit. But Ugarte has valuable letters of transit he needs to hide until he sells them to someone in the cafe at night, and Rick reluctantly takes them. That gets him into a big mess for two reasons:

1. Ugarte is arrested by corrupt French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and ends up “mysteriously” dead. I mean who knows what could’ve happened.

2. The guy who was supposed to buy the papers was Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC), a leader of the Czech Resistance, who shows up with his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), which is bad because Rick has… history with her.

For such a tough guy, Rick is real sensitive about this one song, “As Time Goes By,” which he has specifically banned from the club. Not because he thinks it sucks or it gets stuck in his head or something, but because it reminds him of his heartbreak over Ilsa. This is kind of like how I used to feel about the song “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” because it was playing on a radio while I got a catheter put in. (Long story.) So Rick gets pissed when he hears the in-house pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing that song, but then he comes over and sees Ilsa standing there, having requested it. Poor Sam knew it was gonna get him into trouble but she pressed him on it. Awkward social situation there.

Later Rick and Sam are alone in the darkened club, Rick trying to find a mix of liquor, conversation and music to help him stew in his blues. This is when it skips back to show us Rick and Ilsa’s brief romance in Paris, before she ditched him without explanation. Sam tries his best to talk Rick down. He doesn’t think Rick should talk to Ilsa, so he suggests taking the car and driving all night, getting drunk and going fishing. I wonder if this is something they’ve done before, or if it’s just the best he come up with to try to save his buddy from jumping in this hole? Actually, that would be a good idea for a prequel. A dialogue-driven two-hander about Rick and Sam’s drunken fishing road trip. Probly some good adventures along the way.

I like the friendship between Rick and Sam, which seems genuine, but you can’t help but cringe a little at the racial politics of the time. A black man could only be in this movie as the entertainment. I read that the only other black man on the set was Elliot Carpenter, who was the one actually playing the piano. The worst part is when Ilsa, intending no offense, refers to Sam as a “boy.” The man was in his mid-’50s! Not cool.

Another loyal staffer and friend to Rick is his head waiter, Carl, played by S.Z. Sakall, who was Jewish and had himself fled Germany a few years earlier. It’s easy to get swept away in the slick Hollywood romance of it all and forget that it was made in the thick of it. This shit was real.

Anyway, poor weepy Rick is stuck in a situation where he could give or sell the papers to Laszlo and get it over with, but he wants to know why Ilsa left him, and obviously part of him thinks he can get her back. Meanwhile German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, who had also fled the Nazis; he was one of Germany’s biggest movie stars but could not work there because he wouldn’t swear allegiance to the regime or leave his Jewish wife) is snooping around looking for these papers and this Resistance leader and whoever else he can torment.

Like in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS they have to play nice with Nazi officers, sit in restaurants with them and pretend to be polite. Act like it’s normal, just a little political disagreement. This is not a real conversation, it’s a chess match. The Nazis must be outmaneuvered. The stakes are life or death.

Bogart is Bogart. A granite shell of weathered masculinity with a little crack in it where the glow of his sensitive center is shining out like a floodlight. I’m no scholar of romance tropes, but there’s something really effective and beautiful about this we-used-to-have-something-and-we-still-kinda-do-but-life-has-changed-and-we-gotta-just-go-our-separate-ways-and-remember-the-good-times type of unrequited (or no-longer-requited) love story, in fact it was used very well in one of this year’s most acclaimed movies, LA LA LAND. But of course it requires a strong chemistry between two really powerful leads, and they have that here. I guess it’s hard to reconcile Bogart with our modern idea of a dreamboat, because they don’t really make men like that anymore, but I assume since his appeal as a male role model still works that he must’ve been attractive to women at the time. And I definitely believe he’d moon over Bergman.

One thing I read about the making of CASABLANCA sounds like an ancient cliche about diva ingenues: they always had to shoot Bergman from her “good side,” and they shot her in soft focus not for the idealized dreamy quality it gives her, but to hide her flaws. Well, shit, it worked. And Ilsa is a strong character, it’s not all about her being pretty. She does much of the emotional heavy-lifting with her wordless reactions to the situations, showing her pain over having betrayed Rick, and at not being able to be with him again. And I’m glad it turns out she was just hiding a marriage to a guy she thought was dead at the time but went back to when it turn out he wasn’t. I thought she was a Nazi double agent like the Ilsa in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. Don’t worry, everybody. Not a Nazi! We can still love her!

As much as this is about love, an even stronger undercurrent is the duty to stand up for what’s right. The stronger the love is, the more profound it is for Rick to sacrifice it for the greater good.

I always think it’s weird when people proudly say they have no politics. Rick keeps saying that, but he’s full of shit. As people keep pointing out to him, in his badass mercenary past he couldn’t have really been doing it just for the money like he says, because he was always fighting for the underdogs. He has beliefs, he just doesn’t want to admit it. Here he is trying his damndest to be a scoundrel, but he can’t be pure about it. His conscience is still in there. So how the fuck is he not gonna help these people that fight Nazis?

He actually gets his chance to get back together with Ilsa, but on the other hand he could fight evil and save lives. To be honest, what he’s giving up is not a guaranteed happy ending, it’s an exciting relationship with a woman who is already married, and if you think about it Paris was a short rendezvous where they weren’t even telling each other about their lives. Once they move in together who knows what little things will grate on each other. Is she still gonna be charmed by “here’s lookin at you kid” after a couple years of living together? And anyway they’d feel like such dicks for choosing each other over helping the leader of the Czech resistance escape. I think Rick was making the hard, moral decision, without realizing that it was really the sensible one too. Very likely it’s better to just “have Paris”.

Still, we can take a lesson from Rick that is clearly very relevant today. There are times when staying neutral, staying out of it, minding your own business, is shameful cowardice. It’s good to care about the world, about other people, and to try to figure out what you can do to help and then do it. I watched and started writing about this last month, and didn’t realize how many of these things I’d be thinking about while reading the news in the coming weeks: the loud voices of isolationism, the hateful monsters being treated as legitimate elements of society, the callous disregard of people desperately fleeing war zones. I couldn’t believe it when some Twitter dude spammed me with an article in defense of Trumps’ sickening Muslim refugee ban and the banner on his profile was a still from CASABLANCA! In the scene where he helps refugees get on a plane to America, where he knows they’ll be safe.

This is not only a great movie, it should also be a reminder of lessons we’ve already learned, and values we hold dear. Good job director Michael Curtiz and Don Siegel who did the montages.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 31st, 2017 at 10:27 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Romance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

32 Responses to “Casablanca”

  1. “A granite shell of weathered masculinity with a little crack in it where the glow of his sensitive center is shining out like a floodlight.”

    One of the best descriptions of Bogart I’ve ever read. Great stuff.

    It’s been too long since I’ve seen this. Going to correct that tonight.

  2. Depending on what day you ask me what my favorite movie is, it would either be this one or the original KING KONG. It’s kind of a cliche and a bit pretentious to say “CASABLANCA is my favorite movie” so I usually just go for KONG. Anyways, glad you’re giving Rick his due. I always felt despite being a classic movie that is referenced and parodied to this day, Rick is still a greatly under-rated reluctant badass character. Can’t help but think that the writers/directors/actors of movies we typically discuss here, who grew up with this movie, were at least subconsciously tipping-the-hate to the Rick character.

    Since this movie has been discussed to death I don’t feel I can add much but I will say I don’t think Claude Rains gets enough of a shout out for this movie. Rains is always great but this particular character remains a huge standout in his career. Such a hard balance to do: be funny, despicable, and likable all at the same time.

    We also discussed a lot here about how people can’t process art/storytelling. It’s no surprise that someone can watch this movie about doing the right thing and then turn around have the exact opposite mindset (I guess it could be argued that we do the same things with DIRTY HARRY and DEATH WISH but it’s not like we’re going out and shooting people we define as bad guys). Just the other day I witnessed a guy on a Godzilla forum fervently defending Nazis (!) being part of the fandom even though Nazi-values do not line up with the values of Japanese Monster Movies. He definitely didn’t seem to be trolling and his big defense was that anyone who doesn’t want a Nazi in their fandom is the problem. He also no correlation between the values in the movies and his own terrible ones. So no surprise there that a CASABLANCA fan can still be pro-anti-Muslim.

  3. Crushinator Jones

    January 31st, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    “There are times when staying neutral, staying out of it, minding your own business, is shameful cowardice. It’s good to care about the world, about other people, and to try to figure out what you can do to help and then do it.”

    Some beautiful turns of phrases in this review, Vern, but it’s this sentiment that shines the brightest.

  4. This was pretty much my gateway into classic movies, realizing that it didn’t have to feel like homework. It was actually a good movie. I still haven’t seen as many pre-70s classics as I’d like to but I’m getting there. And I don’t think it occurred to me when I first saw this that it was made as WWII was happening. That is considerably bolder than making it in hindsight. Glad you enjoyed it, Vern. Thanks for the review.

  5. I have to watch it again at some point. The last time I saw it, it was still a VHS recording.

    Everything was better with Peter Lorre, btw. Thank god he was nearly everywhere back in the days. Kinda like a Lance Henriksen or Ron Perlman of his time.

    Fun Fact about Conradt Veidt: One should think a guy who fled his home country, because its government sent a god damn death squad (!) after him one day, wouldn’t be too willing to play a Nazi, but he loved the idea of teaching Americans (and the rest of the world) that way, the dangers of the eloquence and suaveness (or whatever the word is) of Nazis. (Kinda like how we still think of Nazis and Trump voters as rednecks and skinheads, while they are actually successful businessmen and politicians.)

  6. BTW, talking about “no politics”. As you can imagine, my Twitter timeline is full of celebrities who tweet about the shit that’s going down in the world. Basically everybody does it! The “serious” actors, the comedians, the DJs (although they still promote their stuff most of the time), everybody, except the WWE wrestlers. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s obvious, that it must be some kind of order from the management, but I don’t know if I should be happy that we still got our stupid wrestling as “safe space” from all the horrible shit that’s going on right now, or be mad at them for trying to be unpolitical, in a time when we simply can’t afford it!

  7. Claude Rains makes this a great movie. Paul Henreid is saddled with a noble character. Ingrid Bergman is good but doesn’t really get to show chops. Peter Lorre is wonderful but only there for five minutes. Sidney Greenstreet is not used wisely either – i want more than black market shenanigans from Sidney. Bogey is Bogey and there ain’t no one like Bogey, but Rains brings much-needed humor. He sets up of Bogart’s great lines, and comes through with some absolute corkers himself. And he’s having a blast out there. His glee, and absolute confidence that the German dolt doesn’t get irony, makes this my favorite line of a film packed with quotables: (introducing sniveling German dolt to Rick) “Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation is has”. Can’t do italics here, but the emphasis he puts on “Third”, while smiling, makes it priceless.

  8. CJ: It’s most definitely from management. Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame, Triple H and Stephanie were at the inaugural, and Vince’s wife was chosen for the cabinet. The closest anyone has spoken out was John Cena, who wrote a tweet in support of the women’s march and did a skit impersonating Trump on SNL. But there really wasn’t much direct animosity in either the tweet, or his appearance in the skit. But still, he’s able to get away with it because he’s been the top dog for so long.

  9. CJ – I know he probly doesn’t count as WWE anymore, but I was happy to see Dave Bautista speaking out a little on Twitter. Or more like shaking his head in disgust.

  10. (let’s not turn this into too much of a wrestling discussion though.)

  11. Let’s recast this movie with WWE wrestlers in the lead. Who should play Rick?

  12. I’d hazard a guess that “swooning” was an activity in which Humphrey Bogart took little part.

  13. Sternshein: Okay, that’s actually a good discussion topic.

    flyingguillotine: Should I change it to “mooning”?

  14. Wrestling Casablanca: “My name is Rick Blaine! And I am a certified bar owner and a bonafied ex-mercenary! And you can’t! Teach! That! Play it again, Sam!”

    “New! Day Rocks! New! Day Rocks!”

    Okay, I stop now.

    James Ellsworth in the Peter Lorre role.

    Now I really stop. Apologies.
    BTW, I’m always glad when you randomly review one of those old movies, Vern. You should do it more often, although I can imagine that the difficulty of finding anything new and interesting to say about them, is preventing you from it most of the time.

  15. @Sternshein

    Rick = Steve Austin: the hardened loner, says he doesn’t give a damn and is just out for himself, but who actually does have ideals he will sacrifice for when the rubber hits the road.) But Austin could be rough for some of those romantic scenes, unless they got someone he had fantastic chemistry with. Backup would be Randy Savage because he’s intense as hell. He could’ve sold being heartbroken, upset, and, of course, jealous, but deep down somebody who still cares and loves his former flame. Just cast Miss Elizabeth as the female lead.

    Laszlo = John Cena (charismatic, prone to big speeches w/ convincing passion on the right issue, and you can see him as a heartthrob. But if he wasn’t fighting the nazism, you can kind of see why the audience might not fully get behind him from how he can come off, so they’ll still pull for Rick.)

    Capt. Renault – Gotta be a bad guy talker that has some charm, and you can see as a buddy of Rick. 1980s Jesse Ventura or Roddy Piper, probably Piper, would be fun. Lie, cheat, and steal Eddie Guerrero would be my 3rd pick. If you want to go heavy comedy, Bobby Heenan would be an option.

    Major Strausser – Sgt. Slaughter seems obvious. Maybe I’m being unoriginal? Actually, Vince McMahon would a good pick. Egomaniacal guy who thinks he runs everything and heavy-handily makes demands. He can be calculating and craft, but he’s got the arrogance and pride that make him vulnerable to rush and make mistakes.

  16. All this political talk kind of stresses me out, but when a WWE Studios version of CASABLANCA is proposed it eases some of that stress.

    I don´t know what female wrestler you would cast in the Ingrid Bergman role. I don´t know any female wrestlers to be honest. They always seem more like throwway part of the WWE shows. At least it has been those times I watched it. There are no real personalities. Just tits-on-legs for the audience.

  17. My one frame of reference for this is the barely audible dialog from it, used in the Pink Floyd song “Yet Another Movie”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCAIgmmWp0c

  18. Vern – that catheter callback made a drink come out of my nose. Excellent review also.

  19. Ha, I just caught this recently too when Amazon had this (and Gone with the Wind) for a $.99 rental, and I’m glad I finally caught up on two classics I’ve never seen before (next….The Godfather. Yeah, yeah, I know). I’ll be honest and admit I fell asleep a couple of times at first, probably because the sound of old movie dialogue makes me drift off, plus I didn’t expect it to be so stage-bound and play-like. Oh, and this might be racist but I really had trouble telling all the non-Bogart white guys apart (then again I couldn’t tell Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc apart at first and I still have trouble telling those 3 guys apart on It’s Always Sunny…)

    So yeah, after a few tries, I finally made it through the movie and it’s great. Endlessly quotable, with two truly great lead performances (Bergman in particular is fascinating to watch). You can see the blueprint for a ton of reluctant Han Solo-esque action movie heroes here, as well as the general plot (man sacrifices his chance at happiness with his old flame for the greater good) of about half of the Nicolas Sparks movies.

    Funnily enough, like onthewall, my main frame of reference from this is from a song too- specifically this video which was on MTV all the time growing up that I always got confused with the Hungry Like the Wolf video.

    Chicago - Along Comes A Woman

    Along Comes A Woman

  20. It’s a beautiful movie.

    And we all live in Rick’s Bar now.

  21. Perfect perfect timing Vern. Most days CASABLANCA would not register in my all time favourites, but today this review reminds me how great it is.

    I have to agree that Claude Rains is one of the best things about it – he was something of a signature actor for Curtiz, in as much as such things were possible under the studios – but how do we feel about the redemption of Captain Renault? Renault is a collaborator and an abuser, but inspired by Rick, he does the right thing at the end. It feels odd though.

    If we all live in Rick’s Bar now, I guess that makes us all CHILDREN OF MEN:

    Children of Men

    There was a time a couple years ago when it seemed like every day the headlines were just trying to out-crazy the day before. Planes falling out of the sky, anthrax in the mail, snipers on the loose, hurricanes, that lady releasing doves for each charge Michael Jackson was acquitted of... you wouldn…

  22. If you are going to review Casablanca you have to also review the Pamela Anderson classic, Barb wire. Do a side by side comparison.

    Thems the rules!!

  23. It never ceases to surprise me by how goddamn entertaining Hollywood films from the ’40s and ’50s were. Casablancas a near perfect example of the era’s consummate craftsmanship. It has great characters, memorable dialogue, and a touch of complexity.

  24. That opening intro with the globe and the smoke effects is soooooo tight.

    And there’s one scene I caught that I never had before, when the German host of Rick’s is talking to the two German refugees, the older couple, and they are telling him all about how much English they’ve learned and how prepared for America they are…

    MAN: Honey, what watch?

    WOMAN: (checks watch) Ten watch.

    OLD MAN: (surprised look) Such watch? Hm.

    GERMAN HOST: Ehhhh I’m sure you’ll do fine in America.

    I was surprised by how funny that exchange was. That’s some Simpsons humor right there.

    GERMAN HOST: Uhhhh…I’m sure you’ll be fine.

  25. In editing that I fucked it all up. You understand what I was going for.

  26. Such a magnificent movie!

    I know generalisations are inherently worthless but if you dont like this movie, you dont like movies or humanity

    It’s this movie that sold me on the idea that ‘La Marseillaise’ is the greatest of all national anthems (even if the lyrics are undoubtedly dangerously nationalistic.”impure blood” indeed….mind you, what national anthem isn’t a load of spurious old wank)

  27. FYI: It’s playing on TCM tonight (Sunday, February 5) at 8:00pm

    If you’ve managed to not see it somehow, you really should rectify that tonight. I know it’s up against the big football game, but I guarantee Casablanca will be more fulfilling.

  28. Are you talking about the original movie or the TV show now? ‘Cause I’ve seen the David Soul version…

  29. The original Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains movie.
    Tonight, 8pm, Turner Classic Movies.
    Make it a date.

  30. I miss the German Turner Classic Movies. They turned it into TNT Film a few years ago and show now mostly modern movies. (In all fairness, with some bonafide classics from before the 80s inbetween and some of the more obscure-ish old stuff at night. They are also the only German channel that shows A CHRISTMAS STORY every year, so I can’t hate them too much. Right now they show Burton’s BATMAN, followed by BEETLEJUICE, E.T., BLUES BROTHERS and at 4am JULIUS CAESAR with Marlon Brando as part of their Oscar winning movies marathon.)

  31. Lovecraft In Brooklyn

    February 5th, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    There’s some Ebert quote about how when two film lovers meet they both reveal that Casablanca is their favorite movie. Count me in – I saw it in a screening in middle school with somebody I had a massive crush on… felt it. Such an awesome movie

  32. The “La Marseillaise” scene always make me tear up no matter how many times I watch the movie.

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