It came to my attention earlier this week that this movie recently had an anniversary. That reminded me of when I first saw it at the age of 17 on TV (of course).
I think it was a lazy Sunday afternoon. I was in the living room, watching TV and eating cranberry sauce straight out of a can. And this … fascinating movie came on.
I’d heard of it and the oft-misquoted line from the film. (“Play it, Sam.” not “Play it again, Sam.”) But that opening sequence pulled me right in. The first appearance of Claude Rains as Captain Renault. (“Round up the usual suspects!”) The man gunned down in the street. The Nazis. The opening narration.
With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up – Paris to Marseilles… across the Mediterranean to Oran… then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait.
By the time the camera moved into Rick’s Café Américain, I was hopelessly hooked.
Humphrey Bogart is perfection as the tough, exiled American Rick Blaine. And he gets some of the best lines!
Ugarte: You despise me, don’t you?
Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would.
Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
When the man named Ugarte (played with unctuous sliminess by Peter Lorre) gleefully tells Rick about murdering two German couriers to steal letters of transit from them, then must flee from the cops, his pathetic pleas for Rick to hide him fall on deaf ears. (“I stick my neck out for nobody.”)
Ah, but things change when “guess who” strolls in. None other than Rick’s old flame, Ilsa Lund (played by the radiant Ingrid Bergman).
When Ilsa has Sam play “As Time Goes By” and Rick comes charging toward them with that look on his face, it’s a heart-stopping moment.
Then … the flashback to Paris.
Talk about priceless moments in cinema. I’d be lying if I said that scene in the rain at the train station didn’t get me bawling my damn eyes out.
And who doesn’t love the part where Victor Laszlo stands up in a bar full of Nazis and barks out, “Play the ‘Marseillaise.’ … Play it!”
This movie not only tells a great story, but as a 17-year-old watching it for the first time, it made a lasting impression. I actually learned things I hadn’t known about World War II. If someone had said the word “Vichy” to me before then, my first thought would have been of vichyssoise.
And how I can not mention the great supporting cast, which includes not only the aforementioned Claude Rains and Peter Lorre, but Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser,
the Nasty Nazi from Hell, Sydney Greenstreet as competing bar owner Signor Ferrari and winner of the Fattest Man in Casablanca Contest of 1941, and Dooley Wilson as that poor fellow at the piano , who had to put up with all the crap he did because he was stuck in the middle and probably didn’t even get a tip out of it.
The thing that’s always gotten me about this film is that so much drama could’ve been avoided if Ilsa had only told Rick from the start, “Look, I’m married, but I think he’s probably dead.” Then, later, she could have said, “Um, guess what? Turns out he isn’t.” But then it wouldn’t have been much of a movie, right?
So you have to buy into the whole business there, along with the idea that she’d rather be with boring old Paul Henreid than Bogie for Pete’s sake! Does the free world really depend on this choice?
At least, that’s the way I felt when I was 17 years old. Being a little older gives you a bit more perspective and makes you realize that love is complicated. And sometimes the problems of three little people really don’t amount to a hill of beans when the world is going crazy.
PS: I still can’t believe Ronald Reagan might have played Rick. Ack!