December, 1941. Casablanca, Morocco.
It’s a night like any other at Rick’s Café Américain. Every table is filled with broke couples, wealthy couples, bank managers, pickpockets, pastry chefs, and thieves.
As World War II rages on in Europe, those who can make their way to Vichy French-controlled Casablanca, where they hope to obtain passage to Lisbon and then America.
Some will wait for days, some will wait for years.
Some will die in Casablanca.
Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the café’s mysterious American exile owner, provides liquor and gambling and music while they wait.
Nobody’s happy, but at least they’re having a good time.
Rick keeps everyone at arm’s length, a cynic who treats his employees and customers decently, doesn’t kowtow to anyone, and “sticks his neck out for nobody.”
Until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks in and asks Sam to play, “As Time Goes By.”
She’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart, the lover who left him waiting at a train station the day the Germans marched into Paris. The Germans wore gray.
Ilsa wore blue.
She’s on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the tireless leader of the underground resistance who inspired the world when he escaped from a concentration camp and will continue his work despite great personal danger.
And thus the stage is set for the greatest love triangle in Hollywood history—Ilsa Lund, torn between a sinner and a saint.
A cruel twist of fate forced Isla from Rick in Paris—she learned her husband, the great Victor Laszlo, was alive, not killed in a concentration camp as she’d believed. It’s an ever crueler twist that brings them back together—Rick possess the only two letters of transit in Casablanca, papers that would give the Laszlos passage to Lisbon, ensuring their safety and the continuance of Victor’s work.
There’s a less famous moment in the film that I love, a gesture so small you’ll miss it if you blink. Victor tells Ilsa that Rick would not give him the letters of transit, not for the cause, and not for any price.
“Did he give you any reason?” Ilsa asks him.
“He suggested I ask you.”
“Yes, he said ask your wife. I don’t know why he said that.”
Ilsa knows why. She turns away from Victor, puts her hand on her neck, runs it through her hair, and smiles. It’s not even a full smile, just a flicker of one that reveals her first subconscious thought.
Victor could die or be recaptured by the Germans without those letters. The tide of the war could change with them. While she will eventually rage at Rick to give her the letters, threaten to shoot him over them, her first instinct was to smile.
Because Rick is so jealous that he is willing to let the world burn out of spite.
What woman wouldn’t want to be wanted that much?
She admires and respects Victor. But with Rick it is passion and desire.
We’ll never truly know who Ilsa would’ve chosen if she’d been free of the war, free of her prior commitment to Victor. For Rick, it’s enough to know that Ilsa hadn’t made a chump of him when she left him at the railroad station.
He might not have her now, but they’ll always have Paris.
Casablanca exceeded everyone’s expectations, delighting wartime audiences, and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with acting nominations for Bogart and Claude Rains. It put Ingrid Bergman on the map. It is number 2 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American Films, and its lines dominate the AFI’s List of 100 Greatest Quotes.
Humphrey Bogart was finally a romantic leading man.
Though his professional life was at its peak, things were falling apart at home. His relationship with wife Mayo, while always volatile, had become dangerous and began interfering with his work.
“They were poison to one another,” actress Jane Bryan said.
A failed actress, Mayo was jealous of Bogart’s career. She believed he was having an affair with Ingrid Bergman during Casablanca (he wasn’t) and began showing up on the set, “always looking like the wrath of God,” assistant director Lee Katz said. “In fact, looking like somebody you wish would never darken your life.”
Things were so violent at home that Bogart had to learn his lines on the set. One night he came home to find Mayo lying in wait, and she stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife. During another incident, she set the house on fire and nearly burned it to the ground.
She was a woman with demons, haunted by alcohol and thwarted ambitions, a full-blown alcoholic on her way to killing herself with booze.
Still, Bogart soldiered on with the marriage.
In the first half of Casablanca, a young girl, Annina, asks Rick for advice.
“M’sieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing in the world that she wanted and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”
“No one ever loved me that much,” Rick replies gruffly.
Rick was wrong, but it was true that no one had loved Bogart that much in 1942.
That was all about to change.
Next week, Bogart finally meets Bacall.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
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