Quest for the Classics: Casablanca

by Tom Ingram

My knowledge of classic movies is woefully small. I can think of only two pre-1950 films I’ve seen before, and while both of them are excellent, they’re not the standard ones everybody knows. It’s not good to be so ill-informed about anything, but especially not something as important as cinema. I had to watch some old movies. But where to start? How do you kick off a movie-watching spree that includes some of the greatest films ever made? What could possibly take that place?

Why, Casablanca, of course.

The film opens with a narration explaining how refugees from the Nazis invariably end up in Casablanca, waiting to go home. This sort of thing must have been very effective at the time, but by now it’s been used and parodied so much that the impact is diminished. We cut to a crowded street, where police are rounding up suspicious characters after two German soldiers were found murdered. One man tries to run away from them and gets shot in the back.

This is one of the biggest problems with watching classic movies nowadays. There are things that were done better in the old days, but if there’s one thing we’ve gotten better at putting to screen, it’s violence. The gunshot is clearly fake. The man’s suit jacket is unmarred by the shot. They attempt to hide it by having him grab the “wound” and fall over, but the lack of blood or a bullet hole where they should be is apparent long enough for it to become jarring.

The Nazi officer Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt) arrives in Casablanca and meets with Louis Renault, the corrupt Prefect of Police. Louis rounded up twice the “usual number of suspects” after the killing, despite the fact that he knows who the murderer is. He tells Major Strasser that there’s no need to worry. The murderer, like everyone, will be at Rick’s Cafe Americain that night, and the arrest will be made there.

I had a very different image of Rick’s before I saw the movie. I thought that it was supposed to be a small, seedy dive, but it’s actually a swingin’ upper class club. An excellent big band is led by Sam, the pianist. Note that Sam’s playing doesn’t actually match up with the music you’re hearing. The soundtrack has eighth notes moving all over the keyboard, while Sam’s hands are actually playing quarter notes in one spot. I didn’t notice this on the first viewing, but apparently the piano was dubbed in because Dooley Wilson was a drummer. The voice is real, though.

A man named Ugarte accosts Rick. Rick tries to blow him off, but he won’t go away. Ugarte has blank letters of transit, papers signed by a French general that will allow anyone to go anywhere unquestioned. He plans to sell them later that night, but he asks Rick to hold onto them in the meantime. Rick reluctantly takes them, hiding them in Sam’s piano.

This is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema. Humphrey Bogart convincingly plays Rick as cold and uncaring. It’s easy to make the mistake that this is Rick in his entirety, but he’s quickly humanized. The police secure all the exits to the bar and arrest Ugarte. He slips out of their grasp and hoofs it, slamming a door behind him and running into Rick. Ugarte begs for help, but the police burst through the door and catch him. The look on Rick’s face says it all: he wanted to help, but he was torn. He hesitated for just a moment, and then it was too late.

That’s the running theme in this film. Everyone is either an outright idealist, an idealist trying desperately to hide behind a facade of cool toughness, or a Nazi. It’s a wonderfully uplifting and humanistic view of the world: it might be a terrible place sometimes, but it’s worth fighting for. People are bastards, but we love ’em anyway. And maybe, once you really get to know them, they’re not such bastards after all. It’s impossible not to feel better about yourself and everyone around you after watching Casablanca.

The arrival of Victor Laszlo, a Czech resistance leader (with an oddly Hungarian name), causes complications for Rick. He’s warned by Louis not to help Laszlo, as the Nazis are absolutely adamant that he cannot escape to the States. However, travelling with Laszlo is Ilsa Lund, the woman who broke Rick’s heart. Rick and Sam spend that night drinking and reminiscing about the old days in Paris before the invasion. Rick and Ilsa were infatuated with each other. As the Nazis drew closer and closer, they decided to flee the city. Rick arranged to meet Ilsa at the train station, but when he got there, she didn’t show up. He received a letter on the station platform explaining that for unspecified reasons, she can never see him again.

This sets up the archetypal love triangle that drives the plot of the movie. Rick has a way for two people to get out of Casablanca and into Allied territory. But Ilsa is in love with both Rick and Victor. Rick’s torn between helping Victor and Ilsa escape (which he knows is right, deep down) and running off with Ilsa himself (which is what he really wants to do). Of course, you probably know how it ends, leading to another problem with classic films: there are no surprises.

The movie has a number of triumphant scenes that make you want to cheer. When the German soldiers, having commandeered the piano, start singing the German national anthem, Victor Laszlo strikes up the band and the entire rest of the bar sings a stirring rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” to drown them out. This scene is especially moving when you notice that many of the actors are in tears. At least six lead actors and probably a good deal of extras were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Also take note of Louis. On the surface he’s just a corrupt bastard, but throughout the movie it’s constantly hinted that he supports the French resistance. When Major Strasser makes a comment about “blundering Americans”, Louis says “But we mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.”

Although I knew ahead of time how it ended, the moment was no less moving. Rick gets Victor and Ilsa safely onboard the plane to Lisbon, and kills Major Strasser when he tries to intervene. He and Louis walk off, planning to flee Casablanca and get into all kinds of mischief.

It’s impossible not to like this movie. From the wonderfully stirring score to the fast-paced, witty script, right through to the brilliant acting, it’s hard to criticize any part of it. Casablanca is an unforgettable experience, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always powerful. This is going to be a hard one to top.

Quotes: Too many to list here. This movie had six quotes on the AFI’s top 100 list. There’s no sense listing them. You already know them all.

Moments to watch for: Again, plenty. I’m partial to the last scene, just after Rick kills Major Strasser. The police show up almost immediately, and Rick’s still holding the gun. It’s obvious what happened. Louis says to the officers, “Major Strasser’s been shot.” He pauses for a moment, and there’s tension in the air. Then, “Round up the usual suspects.”

On the next Quest for the Classics, look out for Citizen Kane.