Laying here sleepless in the throes of jetlag, I remembered thinking that there is no better time to write than in the crystal clarity of the dead of night. The joys of having no one around to disturb a roaming pack of meandering thoughts.
I arrived in Perth on time Friday, about 4:30 in the afternoon. I was more or less unable to sleep on the plane from Auckland to Perth, save a few hours after I finished watching Casablanca on the airline’s entertainment system. I found myself watching several movies on this trip, a varied lot from Dallas Buyers Club to Bullit, Casablanca and Rush. The movies had no real theme to tie them together, other than my desire to watch them.
Casablanca was a movie befitting its status as one of the greatest of all time. A love triangle set in motion by the fog of war, it showed the heartbreaking ramifications of decisions made on imperfect information.
Starting off in the expatriate cafe of Richard Blaine, a motley mix of characters ranging from European bankers to petty slight-of-hand thieves mixing about in a jazz age club in the end of the road city of Casablanca. Perched at the edge of unoccupied France, Casablanca has become a mecca for those looking to escape the war. Most people there are looking for some sort of travelling orders that will allow them to escape to America and start again.
The biggest theme from the beginning of the movie is the egalitarian nature of war. Some of those who find themselves helplessly stranded in Casablanca were citizens of the highest order in pre-war Europe. Now they find themselves sharing the same lot as all those around them, helpless to regain control against the undiscerning machinations of war. Their lack of power and influence is painful to them, notably seen in their spurned attempts to curry favor with the American proprietor, Rick. The toast of the town, he is the trusted confidant of all and a friend to none.
Early in the movie, Rick is asked by a man to hold two blank Letters of Transit, which would allow the two lucky holders to escape Casablanca for the country of their choosing. As the thief who procured the letters is unceremoniously arrested and killed, Rick holds onto the letters. While most German officers and collaborating Frenchmen know that he has them, his status in the community means that no one will directly accuse and arrest him for having the letters. However, he is closely watched from the start.
Soon a beautiful woman and her husband show up on the scene. While they go about their business as usual, there is a palpable fear manifest in both of them. The woman, Ilsa, seems to know more than she lets on, as evidenced by an interaction with the piano player, whom she seems to have known in a different life.
Fast forwarding a bit in the action, Rick interacts with the couple. The man, Victor Lazlow, is a famed organizer and writer for the Resistance, and he was the intended recipient of the Letters of Transit before the procurer met his sticky end.
After a congenial, but terse interaction with the couple, Rick finds himself drinking in his club after closing with the piano player Sam, ruefully contemplating the odds of “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Betrayed by an obvious jolt from the past, Rick’s aloof and uncaring nature has been put to the test by a former lover whose memory he had buried long ago.
Rick and Ilsa had shared a powerful romance years before, one which was rent apart as the Nazis rolled into Paris. In the final scene of a flashback to Rick’s memory, he and Sam are shown waiting in the rain for Ilsa to catch a train to Marseille. Upon boarding the train, Rick comes to grips with the fact that he will never see Ilsa again, and moves on with his life.
Ilsa comes creeping into the club, ruining Rick’s largely solitary pity party. She pleads with him that she never meant to hurt him, but the husband she had thought dead in a concentration camp had re-emerged in the suburbs of Paris, and she’d felt duty bound to go to him.
Rick chews this over for a bit, before reaffirming his love for Ilsa. For the rest of the evening, the two allow themselves the pleasant fiction that the past can be reborn and the scene ends.
The next day, Rick’s club is shut down on a flimsy premise, and he realizes that Casablanca won’t be safe for him much longer. With the Letters of Transit in tow, he tells Ilsa that they will take off the next evening, and to prepare herself.
In the penultimate scene, Rick shows that the plan he’d told her about was all a ruse, and allows Lazlow to escape with the only woman he’d ever loved. In the moment of truth, Rick puts the value of Lazlow’s anti-Nazi efforts above his own happiness, and becomes the sentimentalist that certain people have accused him of being. As he says goodbye to Ilsa, he looks fondly on the past, telling her that their time in Paris has again become real to him, and for that he is thankful.
Continuing on to tell her that this is the right play, he insists that she’s a part of Lazlow’s work, and the happiness of a few individuals is a poor trade against the efforts of global tyranny. As she walks away to board the plane with another man, Rick delivers his famous line, “Here’s looking at you kid.”
The true power of Casablanca isn’t the love story, which is compelling only in a two-dimensional manner, but the futility of the individual against the immeasurable destructive power of war. Whether in the opening scenes where this baron or that banker talks about how important he was back in Europe, or the closing scene where Rick sacrifices his own happiness for a cause he considers more noble than his own, there is a power to this film that seems to transcend time.
Shot in 1942, this was not a throwback film to a bygone era. This was as timely as media got at the time, and the outcome of the war was by no means decided. The contemporary viewers of this film must have projected some of their own fears onto the characters of the screen and in doing so imbued each black and white frame with a hue far more powerful than any Technicolor could have produced. This was a story about finding what one had known to be lost and being willing to lose it again. Hard as it is to imagine the pain of the ambiguous ending in our culture of instant communication, this is the story of people who lived their lives in the unknown, only to have a Lazarean rebirth of that which had long been lost.
There is no black and white morality when decisions are based on imperfect information. Ilsa wasn’t wrong to find herself in the loving embrace of Rick after learning of her husband’s demise in a concentration camp, nor was she truly wrong to return to Lazlow, having been told of his continued existence. Rick would not have been any less noble to whisk away his true love and leave Lazlow in the lurch, but he chose to support an outcome more important than himself instead. Each of these decisions were based on the information available at the time, and none can be faulted given the information.
Curious as my decision to watch Casablanca was, I am very glad that I did. This masterpiece of ambiguous morality fit the high praise afforded it as much as any film I’ve ever watched, if for no other reason than its encapsulation of the terrible powerlessness of those caught in the middle of war.
Now let’s see if I can run a few miles before catching some more sleep.