I saw the legendary “Casablanca” in the early 1980s, after stubbornly avoiding it for decades (along with “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind’). I was into Bruce Lee.
I was floored by the stupidity of waiting so long; there’s a reason these movies are iconic. It’s because they’re, um, you know, good. Top quality. Doh. Live and learn. The romance of it all blew me away, as advertised.
Rewatching it in 2020, however, after a career as an actor, and especially after watching Kate McKinnon send up Ingrid Bergman’s "Casablanca" role on "Saturday Night Live," I’m unfortunately no longer quite as floored. One cannot un-hear McKinnon nailing that 1940s cinema-speak.
It’s About the RomanceBut first, overtly, “Casablanca” is about politics. In the early 1940s, the Moroccan city of Casablanca under French colonial rule became part of an escape route for European migrants fleeing the tentacles of Adolf Hitler.
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American ex-pat who remains politically undefined and runs Rick’s Café Américain, a kind of African Cotton Club. It’s a classic, sprawling, drinking establishment with bar, bandstand, and beloved on-staff piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). Potted palms cast shadows on the white-stucco grotto-like walls, with black-and-white American vintage film retro chic.
The nightclub is a political no-man’s land for an exotic clientele, all stranded, as mentioned, in unoccupied France (colonial Morocco) to congregate. This includes gamblers, resistance fighters, refugees, black-marketers, French colonial constabulary, ladies of the night, foreign entertainers, and a pack of German officers who like to sing Nazi songs only to incite the rest of the club to shut them up by bellowing "La Marseillaise."
We’re Getting to the RomanceWith all these people stranded, business is good for one of Rick’s clients, the slimy Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who manages to get hold of two letters of transit. Those in possession of such documents are free to travel in German-occupied Europe—priceless, in that time and place.
One night, in strolls Rick’s ex-love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with her debonair, high-minded Czech Resistance leader husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who’s famously escaped Nazi imprisonment twice.
There may never have been a more stunning entrance by a Hollywood actress than Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa into Rick’s nightclub. She radiates an otherworldly glow; she’s addictive to look at.
And Rick is floored. Devastated. Stays up all night and polishes off a whole bottle of something toxically alcoholic, and you get the first two of many renowned quotes: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” and “Play it again, Sam.” Actually it’s “Play it Sam,” but “Casablanca” has been so famous for so long, even its misquotes live on.
Rick and Ilsa had a fling in Paris when she thought her husband had died. But he hadn't died. And now he’s back. And they need to get away to America. Will Ilsa fall back in love with Rick?
It would appear to be the case, prompting another classic line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But why am I trying not to spoil this 1943 classic movie with spoilers? Because I’m assuming there are still some of you out there as stubborn as I was, who’ve never seen it yet.
Eventually, Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) threatens Laszlo but has limited power due to Casablanca really being run by the corrupt and exceedingly charming magistrate Louis Renault (Claude Rains)—and, of course, Rick. Rick’s got clout; Rick’s got chess moves. Rick can get away with things—because Renault likes him a lot.
But ultimately, the heretofore cynical, isolationist, mercenary Rick, who “sticks his neck out for no man,” and who formerly ran guns into Ethiopia and fought in Spain for the Loyalists (because he “was well-paid for it each time”) only regains his moral clarity by way of a giant, gallant sacrifice.
Which prompts the last three highly quotable "Casablanca" quotes: “We’ll always have Paris,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Casablanca” has long been considered an appeal to the honor of the French, who’d succumbed easily to the Nazis, and an attempt to enrage the Polyphemus-like, apathetic America, with hopes that America would roar “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of a Ger-mun!” Because “Casablanca” was shot in '42 and debuted in '43, but the story was set in December of '41, the time of Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese woke the American Polyphemus.
It's probably high time for Warner Bros. to do a "Casablanca" remake, because our American Polyphemus is sleeping again. Except now it's the Chinese Communist Party hell-bent on world domination.
That said, what you’re going to really take away from the original "Casablanca" are Ingrid Bergman’s exquisite eyes—both tearful and not tearful (stay away from Kate McKinnon), and the inspiration of Bogy's monumental sacrifice of the love of his life for the greater good: for what Laszlo, a great man, might be able to accomplish in the world with his beloved wife standing behind him. Because (speaking of quotes), as we know—behind every great man ...