December 2, 2004


This is a reworked version of a post that first appeared here one year ago today.

The action in Casablanca takes place on December 2, 3 and 4, 1941. So tomorrow night, I will be tearing up to La Marseillaise, as I do at least once a year, thinking again that only great art could cause that reaction.

That Casablanca is great art I have no doubt. Michael Curtiz' direction is workmanlike, but he gets great performances from his actors. His instruction to Ingrid Bergman – to play it down the middle between Rick and Laszlo because the writers hadn’t decided with whom Ilsa would end up – results in a great performance in a key role. A great movie is so fragile a concoction that had Bergman played up to one or the other, the whole edifice might have come crashing down. The fact that Curtiz was lying (there was no chance that Ilsa would stay with Rick) only adds to the credit due him.

The real art in Casablanca, however, is in the script, a wonderful piece of American literature on many levels. It is the story of three little people. It is also an allegory about America's entry into WWII. Rick is America. Weary, cynical, with an idealistic past but unwilling to get involved, Rick says that he sticks his neck out for no one but, as Ferrari tells him, “isolationism is no longer a viable foreign policy.” Ilsa, Laszlo, Strasser and Renault are the various faces of Europe. Old enemies, old allies and new victims, all eager to know what American will do. Will America act selfishly or will it act idealistically? It is, of course, no accident that the movie (released in 1943) is set during the first week of December, 1941, when "they're asleep in New York. I'll bet they're asleep all over America."

On a technical level, the script has one of the great McGuffins in movie history. The McGuffin, which I'll define as what the characters think the movie is about, in Casablanca is the letters of transit. The plot opens with the murder of the German couriers to get the letters and is driven, throughout, by Laszlo's need for them in order to escape the Germans. The whole idea is, of course, entirely absurd. I always like to imagine the scene in which Laszlo, having obtained the letters, presents them to Major Strasser, one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation that it does.

Strasser: You are an enemy of the Reich. You cannot leave.

Laszlo: But I have these letters of transit. They cannot be rescinded, or even questioned.

Strasser: Oh, excuse me, sir. Let me show you to your seat.

The heart of script is its love triangle (or quadrangle, or possibly pentagon). This involves not only Ilsa, Laszlo and Rick, but also Renault and Ugarte for, like most great American literature, Casablanca has a homoerotic subtext or two. There is, of course, Renault's puzzling statement, made only seconds after being introduced to Ilsa, that Rick is the kind of man that, "if I were a woman and I weren't around, I should be in love with Rick." He then says to Rick that the way Ilsa was speaking about Rick "made me extremely jealous." This is generally understood to mean jealous of Ilsa, though they had just met and their relationship was bound to be hostile. It is more easily understood as meaning jealous of Rick. Finally, there is Rick's famous closing line.

Equally odd is the relationship between Rick and Ugarte. In this relationship, Rick is dominant and Ugarte is desperate for Rick's admiration even though Rick despises him. Was Ugarte's motivation the money he would get from selling the letters of transit, or was it to impress Rick? He certainly mentions the latter more than the former. It is also a little odd that, having escaped from and shot at the officers arresting him, Ugarte runs directly to Rick and grovels to him, pleading to be saved. But oddest of all is what Rick says as he sits up waiting for Ilsa that first night: "They grab Ugarte and she walks in. Well, that's the way it goes. One in, one out." Given what we know about the relationship between Rick and Ilsa, what the heck can he be talking about?

The heart of the movie, though, is Rick and Ilsa. The usual question, “who does Ilsa love?”, is irrelevant. She loves Rick (as does everyone in the movie except Major Strasser), but is devoted to Laszlo. For a movie made during World War II, the whole point is the primacy of duty over all else. Ilsa’s duty is to do whatever is necessary to save Laszlo. This puts the lie to one of the common criticisms of the movie: Ilsa's supposed passivity. She does tell Rick to do the thinking for both of them, a line almost as jarring to modern ears as her references to Sam as "boy". But far from passively turning over all the decisions to Rick, Ilsa tries a series of stratagems to convince Rick to give Laszlo the letters of transit. Appeals to idealism, greed and their past love fail. Her threat to shoot him fails. Finally, she agrees to pay for the letters of transit with the only coin Rick will accept: not her body, but her future.

It is not clear that Ilsa understands the subtle deal she is making. By allowing Rick to choose her future, she is putting herself under his protection and Rick, being Rick, can not then betray her. Whether Ilsa acts knowingly or not, by giving her future to Rick, she saves them both.

The key to understanding the major plot is the minor plot involving the Bulgarian couple. Once you start looking for them, you realize that they pop up all over the movie. They are in the line at the beginning looking at Major Strasser's plane, they are in the prefect's office when Victor and Ilsa come in, she is the "visa problem" that interrupts Louis' meeting with Strasser and they are meeting with S. Ferrari when Rick comes in to the Blue Parrot to get his cigarettes. When the wife asks Rick's permission to sleep with Renault in order to get an exit visa, something she would do only out of her love of her husband, she presents Ilsa's dilemma in a lower key. When Rick intervenes and lets the husband win at Roulette, the end of the movie is cast in stone. He will not let Ilsa make her sacrifice – staying with him to save Laszlo and his work – any more than he would let the Bulgarian woman sleep with Renault.

By choosing to let Ilsa leave with Laszlo, Rick saves himself. By giving Rick the chance to make that choice, Ilsa is redeemed. She needs redemption because in Paris she betrayed her love for Rick. Leaving Rick was not a betrayal. She left Rick for her husband, to whose important work she is critical. She could not do otherwise. Her betrayal was in doing the thinking for both of them; that is, by manipulating Rick by not telling him about Laszlo and denying him the choice of noble sacrifice. It is by finally telling Rick to think for both of them, by allowing Rick to make the choice he should have been allowed to make in Paris, that Ilsa is redeemed and Rick is reborn.

Posted by David Cohen at December 2, 2004 10:07 PM

Col. Renault, is reminiscent of the type of
cynical Vichy bureacrat that young Mitterand
was in the 1940s; on the other extreme, is
Bousquet; Barbie's Vichy counterpart in Lyon.
Maurice Papon, who ran the rolodex from Paris
police chief to Colonial and Finance Minister

Posted by: narciso at December 2, 2004 11:00 PM


As with great art, one never tires of great posts. Thanks.

Posted by: Peter B at December 3, 2004 6:37 AM

I second what Peter said, David. This is the only complete explanation/review of this esteemed movie that has ever made its way to my eyes.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at December 3, 2004 8:12 AM

Thanks David that was a very satisfying review. It clarifies the fundamental nature of Ilsa's mistake and her obligations to Rick. Really wonderful work.

Why don't you see if you can displace Ebert, whose persistently liberal worldview is getting as old as he is round.

Posted by: Ray Clutts at December 3, 2004 12:01 PM