It is the late 1930’s, and everywhere in the world, from Europe, to South America, to Japan, and throughout China, indeed everywhere except perhaps the comfortably-isolated Anglo-Saxon lands, the Bolshevik terror has a grip on the peoples of the world. Communism’s goal is the world, not an outpost. Governments everywhere are in danger of toppling through assassination and infiltration. Whole nations are carted off to Siberia, or dispatched with bullets to the back of the head. Yet, mirabile dictu, a nation arises from the ruins with the energy and will to resist the red flood. Most of the East European nations ally themselves to heroic Germany, determined to stop the Soviets. Meanwhile, refugees pour into Casablanca, which, though technically neutral, is freely occupied by Soviet troops. Czech Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is mastermind for the underground resistance to the Soviet flood, cooperating with the German liberators. Having escaped from a Soviet concentration camp, where he was tortured and reported dead, he arrives in Casablanca for a respite, hanging out at Rick’s Cafe with Aryan goddess Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the American owner of the club, has become cynical because of a terrible jilting a few years earlier in Paris. As a result, now he “sticks his neck out for no one.” Meanwhile, Major Chernov of the Red Army is hard on Laszlo’s heals. Chernov summons Lazlo to police headquarters and offers him freedom in exchange for giving over the list of freedom fighters throughout Europe. Laszlo refuses, and in a stirring speech, says, “And what if you murdered all of us? From every corner of Europe hundreds, thousands would rise to take our places. Even jews can’t kill that fast.” Chernov lets him go, but vows he will never leave Casablanca. Laszlo’s only hope of escape is to acquire a pair of transit visas signed by de Gaulle, which, by an unexpected twist of events, has fallen into Rick’s hands. But Rick is disinclined to give them over, for it turns out that Laszlo’s goddess is the very girl that had jilted him in Paris! In the end, however, he is able to rise above his just outrage and see the bigger picture: he casts his lot in with the Germans, sets up Laszlo’s escape, and returns to the US to encourage America to join forces with the Germans in the desperate struggle against the Bolshevik terror.
Okay, movies are the stuff of dreams, right? So forgive me my dream. For the seven people in America that still haven’t seen this great film, let me hasten to explain that the above summary is pretty accurate, except for the changes you would expect when you realize that Hollywood was controlled by the same trans-national tribe that pulled off the Russian Revolution. Thus, hero- and villain-nation are interchanged; replace “Chernov” with “Major Strasser” of the German Reich, and you have the story. (In the event, of course, things panned out the opposite of what I hopefully indicated above. The Soviets triumphed, enslaving East Europe for a half century, decimating the church, and bringing about more than 100 million unjust deaths, according to Solzhenitsyn. And we “allies” — our hands our bloody with that outcome as well!)
Despite the propaganda at its base, only Godfather can contend with this film to be named the greatest of all time. The elements that propel its greatness are the choice of actors (right down to the bit parts), the tremendous dynamic of the romantic triangle, the waste-free dialogue, and not least, the music, especially the engaging jazz piano — now tender, now raucous — faked by Dooley Wilson.
The crisp dialogue is particularly effective with Bogart to pull it off. Examples:
- Excuse me gentlemen, your business is politics, mine’s running a saloon.
- I came for the waters. (Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.) I was misinformed.
- (After a gun is pulled on him) go ahead and shoot; you’d be doing me a favor.
- (Yogi-Berra-like: Capt. Renault is) just like any other man, only more so.
Claude Rains as the French pragmatist prefect of police adds humor with lines like “How extravagant you are throwing away women like that. Some day they may be scarce” (15:50) and “round up the usual suspects.”
Little hints of a bygone era can be noted in passing.
- Ilsa asks for the “boy” at the piano (27:30) — he was a “boy” of 47 — and there is an asymmetry of who uses first-name, and who uses “Mister” and “Miss.” Yet I have never heard leftist film critics demand that such a bigoted film be boycotted: I guess a few put-downs are okay if done in service to the Chosen.
- Another is the confident power of the female. Rather than being so quick to gush “I love you, too,” modern women would do well to study the oldies. Lazlo: “I love you very much, Ilsa.” She, laughing: “Your secret will be safe with me.” (59:50) Again, Lazlo: “I love you very much, my dear.” Ilsa: “Yes; yes, I know.” (1:17:30). Sixty years of feminism have weakened, not strengthened the power of women, at least in the realm of love.
Many serious critics suggest that the film is nothing but schlock, clichés. It has drawn the attention of no less a luminary than semiologist Umberto Eco, who suggests “Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” But if these are clichés, maybe the question needs to be inverted — why do certain themes lend themselves to becoming clichés? Is it not the very deepest sinews of life that are most in danger of being trivialized? There are few clichés dealing with personal hygiene, or the need for sleep.
More seriously, the film is laced with dishonesties. The pickpocket explains, “This is the customary round-up spot for refugees, liberals, and of course beautiful girls…” (Thus in one line the meme is planted that conservatives are the persecutors of liberals amongst whom are the beautiful people.) One of the great scenes — Laszlo striking up La Marseillaise while the Germans are singing Wacht am Rhein — was cribbed right out of Grand Illusion. There are vicious anti-German slanders, like Carl’s “I have already given him the best [table], knowing he is German and would take it anyway.” Renault: “I told my men to be especially destructive. You know how that impresses Germans.” The producers, who, despite their genetic chutzpah, perhaps felt they were nibbling at the outer limit of credibility, balance those slurs a bit by including among the refugees a jovial German couple (or at least, German-speaking): “Sweetness, what watch?” “Ten watch.” “Such much?” Thus, the movie is not completely dishonest at the secondary level: you can only push so far. Major Strasser (played by the same Conrad Veidt that did the zombie in Caligari) chuckles amiably when Rick identifies his nationality as “drunkard,” bows graciously to “Mademoiselle Lund,” and follows strict protocol in the police office; whereas my “Major Chernov” would have cut to the chase with a simple bullet to the head. In other words, the jewish-bolshevik way of doing business, if imputed directly to the Germans, would have failed the credibility test for anyone that has actually met a German; so they are shown as relatively decent, sentimental, and law-bound like us, but insinuated to be monsters.
Despite the tapestry of tricks and the fundamental lie the story is based on, this film must still rank as a great. We can perhaps gain a perspective, that truths at one level can be conveyed even by arrant lies at another. Of course, it is also just plain fun to watch, and without a dull moment. At the end of the day, that is the main thing for entertainment, no?