Why Casablanca Needs to be Played Again and Again

by Jeff Siegel

There is a moment in the movie Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart, who has spent the previous 80 minutes feeling incredibly sorry for himself, watches Ingrid Bergman and a look of shock crosses his face. Could it be that Bogey spent the first three-quarters of the movie being utterly and completely wrong?

This is why Casablanca remains an important American film, more than 60 years after it was made – and No. 3 on the new American Film Institute list of the 100 best. Yes, some movies, like Citizen Kane, are more artistic. Some, like Star Wars or ET, are more emblematic of the America we have become. But none force us to address what we are and how we act in quite the way that Casablanca does. That it does so – and is damned entertaining besides – speaks volumes about its strengths and why it is still relevant. This is something that has always intrigued me, and is one reason why I wrote a book about the movie.

The central question in Casablanca: What must we do to live honorably in a corrupt world? That is the dilemma facing Bogart’s character, an American expatriate named Rick Blaine. His entire reason for being since Ilsa Lund (Bergman) jilted him on a train platform in Paris has been to hate her, hate women in general, and hate most everyone else, whether they deserve it or not. As Rick mutters after the cops haul off Ugarte (Peter Lorre): “I stick my neck out for nobody.” The world’s corruption – Nazis, concentration camps, the pure evil of it all – doesn’t make any difference.

This is crucial in understanding why Casablanca is so important. Typically, film heroes are never wrong, never have a change of heart, never need to change their beliefs. Terrorists are bad, Bruce Willis is good, so let’s go blow things up. (For a different view, please see, "Film Review: Live Free or Die Hard.") Is the world corrupt? Who cares? Even in a more sophisticated film, like Dirty Harry (1971), the assumption is that the only way to live in a corrupt world is to be even more corrupt, but for the right reasons. Harry Callahan has no doubts he is doing the right thing, even when pounding someone’s face in. The system may be corrupt, but it’s the only system Harry has (see Magnum Force [1973], where Callahan brings down vigilante cops who believe in the same things he does).

Rick’s world view, unfortunately for him, isn’t that limited. He understands that systems can be changed for the better, and that feeds his despair. This may be a particularly difficult concept for a post-modern American to grasp, given that we have accepted a world of laissez faire economics, market forces, and multi-national corporations that seem beyond systems. But Americans once believed in the ability to improve the world, a period that runs roughly from FDR’s election in 1932 to John Kennedy’s death in 1963. This is not the neo-conservative idea of change, which has given us Iraq and carte blanche to alter governments and institutions to suit our needs, but a more American, more de Tocqueville-like view that takes into account not just the one, but the many. Or, as Paul Henreid’s character says in Casablanca: “You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.”

Which brings us to the scene where Rick finally realizes what’s at stake. Ilsa has come to his apartment to get the papers that will allow her and Henreid, her resistance hero husband, to leave Casablanca. She tries begging, arguing – even threatening. Nothing works. When, in despair, she gives up and turns away, Rick has his revelation. The look on his face is almost indescribable, the pain he feels at her despair. Don’t feel badly if you’ve never seen it – it’s just a couple of seconds of film, Bogart’s face in the shadows, before the camera picks up on Bergman. But in that moment, he understands that the world’s suffering is more important than his, and that he must do something about it. It doesn’t matter what the consequences will be or if even his efforts will be successful. The point is that that he must do something. It is a responsibility that he owes the world.

In this, Casablanca is perhaps the most political of Hollywood’s great films. But is also an argument for politics as part of American film, something that happens all too infrequently. We feel good at the end of A Wonderful Life (1946) because George Bailey’s life isn’t ruined. We feel good at the end of Casablanca because there is a chance the world may not be ruined.

(Promotional photo from Warner Brothers' Casablanca. Pictured left to right: Humphrey Bogart; Claude Rains; Paul Henreid; and Ingrid Bergman. To see a clip from Casablanca that includes two of the greatest lines in film history, please check below.)

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Daniel said...

I watch Casablanca regularly (at least once a year) and have tried to pass it in my teenage kids (who don't like it). This is an eloquent encapsulation of what's profoundly important about the movie. Thank you, and I'm looking forward to the arrival of your book.

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