WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Casablanca.’
Made at the height of World War II, Casablanca is a romance set in neutral Morocco, just as the fighting is getting worryingly close.
Few of those working on the production thought they were making a great movie. Ingrid Bergman, who had not been the producers’ first choice, was anxious to move on to For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943); and by all accounts, there was no love lost between Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid, who played his rival for Bergman’s heart. And yet the movie was an instant success.
At the end of the movie, Bogart’s character Rick says, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca manages to make its audience feel that the problems of these people are the most important thing they can imagine. As we discover part way through the movie, Rick, the cynical, hard-drinking owner of Rick’s Café Américain, an upmarket nightclub, has been stung in Paris by the sudden desertion of his lover, Ilsa (Bergman), as the Germans were invading. Hurt, he has retreated to Casablanca, a town full of spies, Nazi collaborators, Resistance fighters, and desperate refugees.
In the Shadow of War
“I stick my neck out for nobody,” says Rick, in reply to Major Strasser’s question, “What is your nationality?” Rick’s reply is, “I’m a drunkard.” But in a telling parallel with the real war, such a neutral stance proves impossible. In his bar, different factions end an evening competing with their national anthems, and Rick must choose sides. He allows the band to play the Marseillaise to drown out the Germans. At the very time Casablanca was being filmed, a previously neutral US joined the fight against Germany and Japan, and, as it premiered in New York in November 1942, the Allies were advancing on the Axis powers to capture Casablanca for real.
When Ilsa arrives at his club, Rick is decidedly cool toward her, commenting wryly: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” But Ilsa still loves Rick. Her Resistance-fighter husband, Victor Laszlo (Henreid), turned up alive when she believed him to be dead, and that is why she abandoned Rick. When Rick discovers that Ilsa and Laszlo need his help, he is forced to make a choice.
Does he keep the papers they need, and so keep Ilsa, or does he let her go? In the end, Rick does the noble thing, and puts Ilsa on a plane to freedom with Laszlo. In a heartrending parting, as they stand by the plane, he explains why she would regret it if she stayed with him: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
When Rick tells Ilsa, “You’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong,” the audience shares his heroism and her self-denial—basking in the reflected glory of renouncing romantic love for the greater good. Clearly a powerful message at the time of the movie’s release, it has not lost any of its power over the years. Indeed, audiences today may be tempted to look back on a better, albeit fictional, world, in which personal gratification appeared less likely to prevail over the common cause, while the on-screen chemistry of the movie’s stars enhances the viewer’s pleasure at identifying with them.
However, the movie’s appeal does not lie in the passion and selflessness of its leads alone. It has a strong cast of minor characters, including a black-marketeer played by Peter Lorre and a police chief by Claude Rains. Both play morally ambiguous roles in a corrupt world, yet are ultimately redeemed along with cynical, hard-drinking Rick.