Just in time for Valentine’s Day I thought I would take some time to talk to you about one of my favorite movies ever and objectively the most romantic movie ever made: 1942’s Casablanca.
For those of you who’ve never seen or even heard of this movie (what!?) Casablanca tells the story of a Rick Blaine, an upscale nightclub and casino owner in the city of Casablanca during World War II. During the war Casablanca was one of the last stops for people escaping war-torn Europe fleeing for America. Excessive paperwork and corrupt government officials, however, kept people in Casablanca for a long time. Rick’s is one of the most popular places in the city for people to drink away their problems or try to win enough money to buy exit visas.
Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart (in his first romantic role ever) is a bitter, cold, and angry man. He refuses to have a drink with or even talk with any of his customers and will never pick up a bill for everyone. When asked by his current girl if she’ll see him later tonight Rick replies “I never make plans that far ahead”. He looks out for himself and refuses to ever stick his neck out for anyone, a fact which Captain Louis Renault played by Claude Rains points out to explain why his establishment has been allowed to remain open.
The film opens with the death of two German couriers and the theft of ‘letters of transit’ which are irrevocable letters of free passage to anywhere in the world, a valuable item in Casablanca. A man, Ugarte, show’s up at Rick’s bragging to him of his possession of the letters. He asks Rick to hold onto them for him until he is ready to make the sale, which Rick does. Apparently Rick’s complete indifference towards people makes him easy to trust. Suddenly, Ugarte is arrested for the murders of the German couriers. Though he begs Rick to hide him, Rick refuses. Once again, he never sticks his neck out for anyone. But the letters remain hidden in Rick’s possession.
Almost immediately as Ugarte is dragged away, Victor Laszlow, leader of the secret resistance against the Germans and a concentration camp escapee arrives at Rick’s. Laszlow isn’t alone however. He comes with his wife, Ilsa Lund played by the beautiful Ingrid Bergman. Ilsa, is, as it happens, also a former love of Rick’s and the reason for his angry bitterness. Laszlow and Ilsa are looking to escape Casablanca, and the Nazis hunting them. And the only person with the ability to assist them is the man with the German letters of transit; Rick.
This film is a masterpiece for many reasons, but the biggest one is the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman. From the minute Ilsa walks into Rick’s bar the two of them are absolutely transfixed by each other. Even before you learn the back story between the two of them, you can see it all in their faces. Rick is bitter, angry and hurt, but still very much in love with Ilsa. Ilsa shows the guilt she feels on her face, but she hasn’t moved on either. When she recognizes Sam, the piano player that she and Rick were friends with in Paris, the first thing she asks him to do is play their song:
“Play it once Sam, for old times sake. Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By'”
You see the change in Rick almost instantly. The first thing he does is break one of his old standing rules and has a drink with Laszlow and Ilsa. Everyone starts almost instantly pointing out how Rick is acting differently, almost as if to sell it. As they get up to leave he pays for their bill as well. “Another precedent gone!”
After the bar closes Rick sits alone drinking. He says he knows Ilsa is going to be coming back because at the end of the day, Rick is still waiting for Ilsa to show up. She never showed up at the train station, but he’s always been waiting for her. He hates her for it, but he also can’t help himself. Despite himself, he will always love her.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine”
Of course Ilsa and Rick end up reconciling their relationship, but Casablanca isn’t done there. The climax of the movie happens on the runway as they prepare to put Laszlow on the plane and then begin their lives together. Most of you probably know how this ends as it’s one of the classic stories. Rick decides that even though he and Ilsa love each other, even though they want nothing more than to be together, they can’t. Ilsa has to get on the plane with Laszlow and Rick has to stay behind. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to copy in their entire conversation. Firstly, because it’s amazingly written and secondly because there are at least four timeless quotable lines in this one section of dialogue alone.
Rick: Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.
Ilsa: But, Richard, no, I… I…
Rick: Now, you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we’d both wind up in a concentration camp. Isn’t that true, Louie?
Captain Renault: I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.
Ilsa: You’re saying this only to make me go.
Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but 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. Someday you’ll understand that.
[Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry]
Rick: Now, now…
[Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet]
Rick: Here’s looking at you kid.
Guys, this shit is romantic as hell. Sacrificing yourself and your personal wants for the greater well-being of others. That’s what it’s all about right? In the span of a couple of hours we’ve seen Rick go from a man who cares for nothing but himself to a man willing to give up everything for the woman he loves. To quote Huey Lewis and the News: “That’s the Power of Love”.* This message was important to America at the time. We had just entered World War II and the outcome of the war was far from certain. People wanted to believe that sacrifice for the greater good was worth it and here comes Casablanca declaring it to be so. But more than that, it’s also a timeless message. The film holds up so well today because self-sacrifice for love is one of those stories that we all truly love to see. That Jesus guy did it and it was kind of a big deal.
So whether you’re alone this Valentine’s Day or with your loved one, you can’t go wrong sitting down to watch Casablanca. Timeless, romantic, beautifully written, and wonderfully acted, we’ll always have Casablanca.
*I can’t believe I worked a Huey Lewis reference into this entry. I’m awesome.