“… this gun is pointed right at your heart.”
“That is my least vulnerable spot.”
—An exchange between pistol-wielding, expatriate nightclub owner Rick Blaine and French Captain Louis Renault as Casablanca crescendos toward its climax
At the heart of Casablanca is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine. And Rick Blaine’s heart is vulnerable.
There are many elements that conspire to make Casablanca a great film: its pointed, Saharan-dry script; a deep, top-notch, international cast that volleys dialogue like sparring duelists; the shrewd direction of the underappreciated Michael Curtiz, whose start in the silent era reveals itself in the movie’s plaintive moments; and the seamlessly interwoven subplots and supporting characters, which fill the black-and-white Casablanca with vivid color.
But it may be the wounded heart beating beneath the smoky, cynical, intrigue-packed exterior that elevates Casablanca to the status of enduring classic. The film’s historical window is merely a backdrop, a canvas on which is rendered a cultural icon of lost love. And who can’t identify with heartbreak?
The source of Rick’s heartbreak is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who arrives in Casablanca in December 1941 with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a fugitive leader of the Czechoslovakian resistance, seeking letters of transit and escape to America. In flashback, we learn that Ilsa, believing her husband dead, fell in love with Rick while in Paris only to learn the truth as Nazis descended on the city.
Standing rain-soaked on a train platform waiting for Ilsa to join him and flee the German army for French-controlled Morocco, Rick is handed a letter, the ink of which weeps away in the deluge as he reads Ilsa’s fabricated explanation. When she appears at Rick’s Café Americain—“of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”—reunited with her husband, the outwardly hard-boiled Rick (motto: “I stick my neck out for nobody”) begins to crack as he struggles to decide whether to help his former love.
The characters not only have something at stake, they have a perceptible past and, in the case of Rick and Ilsa, are forced to make decisions that are outside of—but informed by—their affair. It is a film filled with romance and resentment; deceit and truth; corruption and integrity; cruelty and compassion; and, above all, a love that is enduring if irretrievable.
In other words, it is a film in which viewers can find parallels with their own lives and loves (albeit in a more exotic setting and with wittier banter).
Casablanca is among those rare films that reward repeated viewings; if watching it the first time is indeed the beginning of a beautiful friendship, seeing it thereafter strengthens one’s affection for it, as the film reveals its layers.
Consider the scene in which Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s piano-playing band leader, first plays As Time Goes By, igniting an outburst from Rick: “I thought I told you never to play…!” Rick’s rage is cut short when he sees Ilsa and realizes Sam was playing at her request; it isn’t until later we understand that, for Rick, a kiss from Ilsa is not necessarily just a kiss.
Bogart’s reaction in this scene, in which Curtiz cuts to him in close-up after Rick recognizes Ilsa, is devastating in its vulnerability (he may not have been a rangey actor, but Bogart was a smart and subtle one). Until this moment, Rick is blunt-edged and glib, playing hardball with the president of the Deutsche Bank (“You’re lucky the bar’s open to you”) and rebuffing an attempt by rival club owner Ferrari (an unctuous Sydney Greenstreet) to purchase Rick’s or, at the very least, Sam (“I don’t buy or sell human beings”). But here, in the presence of Ilsa, Rick’s soul is laid bare in such a way that even the corrupt Captain Renault (Claude Rains, teasingly fey) begins to confirm his suspicion that the nightclub owner with a sketchy past is really “a rank sentimentalist.”
Casablanca‘s conclusion manages to be both true to itself and crowd-pleasing; the hero doesn’t always have to get the girl (sometimes the prefect of police is a suitable substitute). Although the final scene seems decisive in its design, it was, in fact, unresolved during production whether Ilsa would depart with Rick or Laszlo; not only was the right decision eventually made, but the ambiguity during filming had the added benefit of enhancing Bergman’s performance as Ilsa, who is conflicted about her feelings for the two men and faces heartbreak of her own either way (that said, I never understood what Ilsa saw in a stick-in-the-mud like Laszlo).
People are made to fall in love, even though there’s always a chance it won’t last. Casablanca is about the lost loves that can haunt us, the worthwhileness of embracing those fleeting passions while they linger and having the strength to move forward in their wake. And it aims right for the heart.