Many know me as a bit of a cinephile. I suppose I better be with a movie review blog. As such, a gift I often receive on the proper occasions are gift cards to movie theaters. Those are always handy, and I am more thankful for them than I seem to be able to express. In some respects, I enjoy it even more when somebody asks me for my opinion on a film. You know, person-to-person, rather than me replying so impersonally, “Check out my blog.” I do stand by that response in many instances, though. This review marks the 500th post by The Legionnaire, an accomplishment of sorts. Hence, I thought it only fitting that I make it what many critics see as the greatest film ever made, Casablanca (1942). Watching it also fills a glaring gap in my own movie viewings as I had never seen it before last night. Yes, you read that correctly. I have no good excuses, other than the fact that it was made decades before I was born. Perhaps that is why I referred to myself as “a bit of a cinephile” rather than a fully-fledged one. Now that I have seen it, can I officially join those august ranks?
The setting is the title city, Casablanca, on the coast of French occupied Morocco during World War II. As is explained in an opening narration, it is a place where many refugees from Europe seek to make it in getting away from the war-torn continent, then on to Lisbon, and then to the United States. Brief historical aside: after France surrendered in the early stages of the war, the supposedly independent government known as Vichy France remained technically neutral. Portugal was independent, too, making Lisbon the only truly independent port accessible to those seeking to get to the United States. As going through Spain was apparently not an option, they made it to Lisbon via Casablanca. This may seem like boring history crap, but it is central to the plot, and probably would have been more obvious to audiences in 1942. Near where the planes land and take off between there and the Portuguese port stands Rick’s Café Américain. The owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is a tough, though elegantly dressed, former anti-fascist fighter. Those days seem to be over, and he has developed a reputation for remaining neutral on everything. Such an attitude makes his establishment the perfect place for certain people to rub elbows. In it, you can find Nazis, Vichy representatives, free French supporters, those fleeing the war, those trying to profit from those trying to flee, and everything in between. One of those on the run is Ugarte (Peter Lorre), though his trouble is linked to him killing two Germans to obtain one of the rarest items in the city: transit papers to Lisbon. His initial plan is to sell them, but when the authorities track him down to Rick’s bar they come into the proprietor’s possession. It is not long before someone else needs them, but for Rick it comes in the devastating form of his former lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). She has come to Casablanca with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech freedom fighter who escaped from a concentration camp. Her presence is announced to Rick when the bar’s piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), begins playing perhaps the most famous song in cinematic history as requested by Ilsa: “As Time Goes By.” Only when Rick angrily tries to get Sam to stop playing the song does he see her. After hours, Rick is haunted by the memory of his relationship with Ilsa, which is told in a flashback sequence. They had met in Paris shortly before the German occupation and had fallen madly in love. As the German army approached, they made plans to get away, but she ended up abandoning him at the last minute. In the present time, the rumor has gotten around that Rick has his hands on the papers they need to make it to America and continue Victor’s anti-fascist work. Looking to stop this from happening is Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) of the Gestapo. Rick does not seem too inclined to help at first either, particularly given how she had broken his heart. Things would have remained status quo if it were not for Victor’s insistence on keeping up the fight, symbolized by him leading a rousing chorus singing “La Marseillaise” in Rick’s place in order to drown out the Germans performing their own patriotic tune. In desperation, Ilsa goes to see Rick one more time to plead for the papers. In doing so, she admits that she had been married when they knew each other in Paris, and she thought Victor dead at that time. Yet, on the eve of their planned escape, she received word that he was alive, and thus went to him instead of with Rick. Still, she confesses to having deep feelings for Rick, and tells him that if he gives the transit visas to her she will still in Casablanca with him. Rick agrees, but on the night of his departure he puts Ilsa and Victor’s names on the papers and tells her to go with her husband. They have their classic cinematic goodbye. In the end, Rick is left alone with the cheerfully corrupt Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who is happy when Rick kills Major Strasser.
Maybe it is because Casablanca had been built up so much in my mind, or perhaps it is because I am a different audience than the one for which it was intended in 1942, but I was slightly underwhelmed by it. That is not to say I thought it was bad. Still, I had somewhat of an emotional reaction. You see, I have been Rick. Maybe not exactly in regards to falling in love with a married woman, even if that woman did not immediately admit to her status. In short, Rick is jilted. What I do not like is the ending. If Ilsa is truly in love with Rick, then she should stay behind with Rick. Instead, she plays on his feelings to get what she truly wants, the transit visa. Because Albert, er, I mean Rick, is actually the nice guy he claims not to be (in the film, Captain Rains sees him for the sentimental fool he is), he gives them their passage to the United States. For once, I would like to see the nice guy get the girl.
My reaction to Casablanca comes from a place of woundedness. It hurts to have to go through what Rick has experienced, and the scene where he is drinking alone after seeing Ilsa perfectly exemplifies the depth of his hurt. While Rick seeks solace in the bottle, I have found mine in Faith. Honestly, I do not know where I would be without it. There are events in our lives that are so devastating that there is literally nothing we can do to receive healing on our own. There are some things that only God can do. Still, I will at least acknowledge that it showed a strength of character for Rick to give the papers to Ilsa and Victor. Had he gone through with his original intent, it would have been a selfish act that would have probably taken away from the impact of the movie. Instead, he saw the coming fight as bigger than himself, and in doing so it completes his character arc. In previous reviews, I have talked about how part of being a Christian is in seeking what is best not solely for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters as well. Besides, had Ilsa stayed with Rick it would have meant breaking up a rightful marriage. That is not a very Christian thing to do, either. Hence, as much as I might wish for Isla and Rick to be together, Rick ultimately does the right thing. Ultimately, as the famous song goes, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. Rick wants there to be more, and Ilsa kind of does too, but her loyalties lie with Victor. Some things must be accepted in life, and others fought against. So much of living our Faith is about discerning the difference between the two. Today’s film speaks to these truths.
I am glad that such a classic film like Casablanca is the 500th post here on The Legionnaire. In the end, I will chalk up my lack of enthusiasm for it to be its age. Older movies had yet to perfect some of the fluidity of modern filmmaking that I prefer. As to my personal feelings, that is all you are going to get out of me. In the meantime, here’s to 500 more. Play it again, Sam.