One of my favorite films, Casablanca, turned 77 on November 26. Whenever it’s on television, I never miss it. But what about it leads me to watch it over and over again? We do the same thing with movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.
Is it the nostalgia? Possibly.
Or is it because they check off all the right storytelling boxes?
Let’s stick with Casablanca. Our protagonist is the mysterious owner of a café in a very dangerous, exotic location against the backdrop of World War II. Our hero, or anti-hero, is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man with a dark past. He’s known to have run guns to Ethiopia during its war with Italy and to have fought with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. But something in his past has made him bitter, unwilling to take sides. He says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
And yet, we see a soft side of Rick when the randy opportunist Captain Renault (Claude Rains) offers to trade letters of transit to a young couple, newlyweds and refugees, for sex. Okay, it’s never actually said out loud in the film, but it was 1933, and we know what Renault wants. Rick lets the husband win at roulette, allowing them enough cash to buy their way to safety.
Casablanca comes with a fabulous MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is an object or a device in a book or a movie that moves the plot forward but is largely irrelevant. In this case, it’s the letters of transit that the creepy Ugarte has stolen from two murdered Nazis. Ugarte is played by Peter Lorre and nobody does creepy any better than him.
The Germans are hot on his trail and he begs Rick to take the letters of transit and hide them until he can come back safely to retrieve them. They’re worth a fortune on the black market. Ugarte is arrested and eventually dies in captivity. In the words of Renault, “I’m making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”
The letters of transit are papers allowing their bearer to move about Nazi occupied Europe. They are the key to getting to a neutral country and safety.
Enter the love interest. Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) is part of Rick’s dark history. She thought that her freedom fighter husband had died in a concentration camp and Ilsa had fallen in love with Rick. On the day that the Germans stormed into Paris, Rick and Ilsa were supposed to meet at the train station and leave for a safe haven. Rick waited at the train station in vain, never knowing why Ilsa never showed up, why she had forsaken him.
It wasn’t war that had made Rick bitter, it was lost love.
When she arrives in Casablanca, it is with her husband, alive and well, having escaped the concentration camp. Her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) is a famed Czech resistance fighter, someone the Germans want badly to get their hands on again.
Lazlo and Ilsa need letters of transit to find their way to neutral Portugal and time to organize their fight against the Nazis. They need the letters of transit that Rick has in his possession.
So let’s review what we have here in this storytelling process. We have Casablanca, an exotic location in a dangerous part of the world during World War II. We have a strong, taciturn, hero who is reluctant to help anyone but himself. We have Rick’s former love, Ilsa, torn between her feelings for Rick and her love and loyalty that she has for her husband. We have Lazlo, who desperately wants to get his wife to safety but also to fight the Germans.
And then we have the bad guys. Captain Renault is part of the Vichy police force but willing to play both sides of the fence. But the actual villain is Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) willing to go any length to, once again, take Lazlo into custody.
And percolating behind the story is the tension between the French, yearning for their freedom, and the Nazis. One of the most stirring scenes of the film takes place when a group of Nazis gather around the piano at Rick’s Café and loudly sing “Deutschland Uber Alles”. Disgusted by what he hears, Victor Lazlo leads the band and the rest of the bar in singing “La Marseillaise”. It’s a duel of national anthems that the Nazis lose.
The story arc is nearly perfect. In the end, the bitter loner has regained his humanity and his patriotism. He proves his love to Ilsa by allowing her to leave with her husband, after she’s tried to make a deal with Rick for the letters, telling him that she’d stay in Casablanca and leave her husband.
I won’t tell you how the movie ends, although I’m sure anyone who’s reading this has seen the film a dozen times. But for me, as schmaltzy as it is, I thought it was the perfect way to tie things up.
And finally, the movie has some of the most memorable lines in movie history. My favorite? “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Play it Sam.