Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Casablanca’: A Mercenary Redeems Himself

July 10, 2020 Updated: July 10, 2020

PG | | Drama, Romance, War | 23 January 1943 (USA)

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.

Here’s some advice: Watch the movie immediately, and never go anywhere near Kate McKinnon beforehand. Or after, for that matter; I strongly suspect her hilarious impersonation could mess with your “Casablanca” experience even retroactively.

It’s About the Romance

But 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.

two men at piano in white jackets in "Casablanca"
Rick’s Café Américain is a political no-man’s land for an exotic clientele. Rick (Humphrey Bogart, L) and Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing piano in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

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.”

Overall hangs an atmosphere of life disintegrating: Nazis hounding unoccupied French officials. Passports are pick-pocketed. Spies executed. There’s no certainty in sight. There are desperate hopes—a young wife willing to sell her body to save her husband. There’s the occasional raid. And yet all this is rendered with the panache of 1920s flapper nightclub style. And everyone pours glass after shot glass of bourbon, whiskey, or champagne, every other sentence, in order to remain blissfully numb.

We’re Getting to the Romance

With 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.

black man, white man, woman, at piano in "Casablanca"
A last drink as the Nazis roll into Paris: (L–R) Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick (Humphrey Bogart), and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

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?

man and woman in "Casablanca"
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

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.

three men and seated woman in "Casablanca"
(L–R) Rick (Humphrey Bogart), Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

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.”

man in white dinner jacket and bowtie and seated woman in "Casablanca"
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

“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.

But that remake probably won’t get made. Warner Bros. no longer has the last word in decisions. Journalist Patrick Brzeski, in a Sept. 20, 2015 article, said: “Flagship Entertainment will be owned 51 percent by a consortium of Chinese investors led by CMC [China Media Capital], with Hong Kong broadcaster TVB [Television Broadcasts] holding 10 percent within the group. Warner Bros. will own the remaining 49 percent.”

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 …

woman with tears in her eyes in "Casablanca"
Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Warner Bros. (Fair Use)

‘Casablanca’
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 23, 1943
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch