Here’s looking at you, kid, so round up the usual suspects and play it again, Sam, because of all the gin joints in all the world, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship; we’ll always have Paris. Even if you’re the kind of person to lump black and white movies in with Vanilla Ice and Myspace as past trends we humans have hopefully evolved beyond, Casablanca’s influence on American culture is still both impressive and pervasive. And the funny things is, it was totally on accident.
When people talk about Casablanca, it’s usually in reference to the fog-soaked finale, in which Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s lovers mean to catch the last plane to Lisbon. They had fallen in love in Paris under the growing shadow of Nazi invasion, and on the day the Germans march in, she leaves him for parts unknown and breaks his heart. They meet again in the titular Moroccan way-station for refugees, spies, and all-purpose rogues, where he owns a popular saloon and she arrives with a husband on her arm, Victor Lazlo, a hero of La Resistance who needs to get to America. Complications ensue from there.
The pleasure of a first viewing of Casablanca is indeed in getting caught up in Rick and Ilsa’s perfect, stolen romance. But neither Bogart nor Bergman knew whether their characters would end up together in the end – the script was being written and rewritten while they were shooting it. This gives their scenes together an immediacy that would be almost impossible to achieve in a big Hollywood picture nowadays, the actors unable, even subconsciously, to shift their performances one way or the other. Apart from a flashback to Paris, the two lovers actually have precious little screentime just to themselves, which makes the moments they do share all the more potent, their passion all the more desperate, and the shadows that cover their faces as they finally embrace all the more evocative.
This is what you’ll find under any dictionary’s visual definition of SEX.
But, Casablanca isn’t the movie your grandmother won’t shut up about solely because of its love story. It wouldn’t work if the world of the film were not so well realized and filled with such wisecracking, desperate, and (mostly) decent figures in the background. The employees and frequenters of Rick’s Café American are a veritable coalition of the witty – “Karl, make sure Maj. Strasser gets a good table.” “I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.” – and it is their unbridled admiration of Rick that gives Bogart’s ultimate decision the consequence that it does.
Technically, the film isn’t remarkably innovative so much as totally sound, a textbook-perfect example of classical Hollywood narrative-driven style. What sticks out, instead, is the film’s humor. Everyone – except the Nazis, of course – is likably funny; the humor is wry, sharp, and spare, with the effect that, unburdened by cultural references or a particularly 40s sensibility, it holds up well over time. You really don’t need alcohol to watch this movie. Claude Rains is your alcohol for Casablanca. His Captain Renault delivers wicked bon mots with a placid cheerfulness, such as could only come from someone deliciously depraved, or French.
I have more pointed political quips in my pocket than a Daily Show intern.
All this comes together in the airport finale, one of the most famous sequences in cinema: the gallows humor, the bittersweet romance, and the heroic sacrifice. Casablanca, it’s sometimes possible to forget, is a war film, with all the attendant calls for selflessness and chivalry of that genre. Rick and Ilsa ultimately part ways not because of Lazlo, or because they aren’t deeply in love, but because the Allied effort requires it. Because they sacrifice it, their love becomes ennobled, legendary, far bigger than the ‘hill of beans,’ as Rick says, from which it sprang. But the genius of Casablanca, the reason why it lasts, is in how, by the finale, the film has demonstrated to us exactly how much that hill of beans really matters.
Rightly as iconic as everybody says it is, Casablanca’s dry humor and lush love story never get old, no matter how many times you ‘play it again.’
Take a Drink: every time one of the side characters represents a nation of the allied powers.
Drink: Guys drink every time Rick says, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Girls drink every time Ilsa says, “Oh, Richard.”
Take a Sip: (seriously, nothing more) every time anyone lights a cigarette.