Casablanca! The name itself conjures up a magical image of a place like none other.
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss; a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
You’ll find film lovers talk about Casablanca with glittering eyes as if they were describing their first kiss or the one that got away. And it’s all because there’s something about the movie that speaks to them. Maybe it’s the theme of decency and dignity, that of lost love and a second chance, and of rediscovered idealism that runs through the film. Casablanca is perhaps love’s most popular tryst with cinema.
A Moroccan city. A Café engulfed in cigarette smoke. A white tuxedo. A trench coat and fedora. A shady past. A woman faced with a dilemma. A broken heart. A pistol. And Paris. These are the things Casablanca transformed into pop-culture icons.
Oh, and one more thing, there are going to be SPOILERS. But does that really matter? Casablanca is as popular as Shakespeare. You quote it in your daily life, you refer to it more than you refer to the scriptures. It’s not just a movie, it’s a way of life.
The opening of the film sets up the backdrop of a city which is a Mecca for the hopeful and at the same time, a breeding ground for the hopeless. It shows us how important Casablanca is to the people trying to escape the turmoil of the Second World War.
The two centrepieces of this story are Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund. And theirs is the same old story.
“I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s what Rick would have you believe. But behind this charade, hides someone almost the opposite. Someone who is so adamant to not feel, that he numbs himself with alcohol till he cannot. Someone whose every breath is mingled with the aftertaste of the cigarette that he has been smoking because he can’t bear to breathe the same air as the person he once was. Someone who is doing his best to hide his vulnerable side way beneath a tough exterior. But his eyes tell you the truth. Oh, don’t we all hide behind a perfectly sculpted masquerade?
Some people cope by changing themselves. Change can do wonders, it can be liberating. Somewhat therapeutic. You surround yourself with change, wrapping it around yourself till who you were can’t be seen anymore. You grow a beard on a jawline that someone once loved. You change your hair, its colour. Everything. You get yourself some glasses, new frames to put your eyes on display. Or you start wearing a leather jacket and a pair of sick sunglasses all the time like some edgy youth, covering yourself in darkness. You get yourself new clothes, new shoes, new tattoos. Or you go goth. Tiny t-shirts become oversized shirts that you disappear into. You transform yourself till you can’t recognize any hint of past lives and loves on yourself. You order a different kind of food or stop eating altogether. You start sleeping a lot or you become an insomniac. As long as it wasn’t what you did before or the way you did it before. The music you listen to changes. You take to binging on fast food to calm your nerves instead of reaching for that cigarette. All is fresh and new and clean. You’re sterilized now, no more a mess. You are clinical, cold, calculated. But you can’t change who you are inside. Beneath everything on the surface, there you are. Same old you. Not new at all. Same old pretty thoughts. Same unshakeable, unnoticeable little tendencies. Your constant habit of shaking your legs when you can’t cope with the dull pace of things. That little dance you do when you’re unsure of something. How you pick at the skin on your fingers when you’re frustrated. The way you can constantly be found on the balcony at 2 a.m. trying to breathe. You’re still very much there. Despite trying so hard to run from yourself, all you end up with is a stranger staring back at you from the mirror and the same old problems whispering to you in your bed at night. You’re still very much in there. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Rick does stick his neck out for people. He sticks it out every time someone is in trouble, or whenever someone needs him. And perhaps everyone suspects him of this kindness, this gentleness…maybe, that’s why everybody goes to Rick’s.
Ilsa, on the other hand, is lively and not afraid to speak her mind out. But there’s a vulnerability in her eyes…eyes which have a mischievous gleam. Eyes which are starry, curious and, hopeful. Always raised to the heavens. Always searching for more. Never looking, always gazing. Always lingering on Rick. Hiding behind fluttering lashes and subtle glances. Always aimed at him. Laughing, bright and, empty. If you look deep enough you’ll find a pair of broken wings. They speak her mind even when she doesn’t. They scream. Getting louder with each pain filled tear that rolls down her flushed cheeks. Broken, beaten but, still hopeful.
The greatest folly of mankind has been its tendency to sympathise with the ones who sulk in the corner. We all feel for the Ricks of the world and in doing so we can be unduly tough on the Ilsas. Perhaps we like the idea of a person who doesn’t want to let go because we empathize with him…we see in Rick the person we were or perhaps still are. We romanticize pain and heartbreak. Whereas, it’s much tougher to pick up those shattered pieces and to place them back together all by yourself and move on. The guilt alone can drive a person mad. Just like paper, people burn from the edges, until there is nothing left but a dying flame.
“Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You’re bad luck to him.”
And when Sam plays ‘As time goes by’, I can’t tell what glitter more, her earrings or her eyes. And when he begins to sing it, a sadness is cast on her eyes. Perhaps I have never seen a sight as sad. It’s a pain that presents itself whenever both Ilsa and Rick share the screen.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
When Rick hears the song, he comes marching in. And then he sees Ilsa, a dramatic musical chord marks their close-ups, and the scene plays out in resentment, regret and the memory of a love that was real.
“Their eyes met and they stared together at each other, alone in space.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
And then we get those flashback scenes. We get Paris! The Rick we see is a complete juxtaposition of the Rick we saw in Casablanca. He is head-over-heels in love and we understand why he yearns for the past to wash over his bleak present. The flashback scenes capture the sensation of a romanticized remembrance…coloured and enhanced by longing. In reality, nothing could ever be this perfect and romantic and beautiful. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the confines of the mind of a drunk, lonely café owner. No wonder it looks pure, intimate, and beautiful – the antithesis of his own Café.
We see promises being made and then being broken. And I swear to god that as the rain washed the ink off of that letter, I could feel it erode Rick’s soul as well. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Rick can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.
“She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there–like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”
-Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
Ilsa’s abandonment broke Rick, and the lack of catharsis made him bitter. He’s caught in a Sisyphean rut, left to perpetually drink his sorrow away. He is not above being petty towards Ilsa. But he wears his heartbreak on his sleeves. We understand the way he behaves, especially in front of Ilsa.
Angry, and half absolutely in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Casablanca also relies a lot on Paul Henreid who plays the aged-beyond-his-years resistance leader, Victor Laszlo. The film needs us to not hate Laszlo even though he’s standing in Rick’s path to a happy ending with Ilsa. He’s the white knight.
And now, let’s talk about my favourite part of Casablanca: Claude Rains! He plays Captain Louis to perfection. He is witty, quick, funny, sardonic and yeah, a bit deviant. But even he has his heart in the right place. Casablanca is as much a redemption tale of Louis as it is of Rick. Oh, and the bromance! I ship Rick and Louis more than I ship Rick and Ilsa. It is, after all, a beautiful friendship.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
I read up a bit about the movie after watching it and while there’s certainly a lot of lore about the making of the movie, there’s something really inhumane. Every bit of press printed at the time of its release refers to Sam (Dooley Wilson) as a “negro”. I couldn’t believe it. And while it grossed me out, it also made me realise how nobly the movie treats Sam (something that I thankfully hadn’t picked up on the first time I saw it, and perhaps this means that there’s still some hope left for humanity). Every time I write one of these things, I find myself digressing about things not pertinent to the movie but then, isn’t that the point of movies? Sparking conversations?
Oh, it’s getting too long. Perhaps we should talk about that ending.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
There’s something inherently likeable about stories with happy endings. In most of our dreams, the underdog overcomes all the obstacles on his path to glory, the hero slays the monster, and the boy gets the girl. Well, those are, for the lack of a better term, flights of fantasy. In real life, things seldom pan out the way we want them to. We don’t get a deus ex machina in real life. Heck, in my 23 years of existence, I haven’t had a single decent haircut! And if art is supposed to imitate life then why do most movies end on a note that makes us go all gooey on the inside?
Man has always looked towards art as a mean to escape his reality. And thus, storytellers perfected the art of storytelling by accommodating man’s need for happy endings. But Casablanca doesn’t follow suit!
We all look up at the characters on the silver screen with glittering eyes. We identify with the characters and we revel in their success, we feel for them when life knocks them down and if the story is told effectively we feel whatever the character is supposed to feel, be it love, betrayal or loss. How do you trudge through mile after mile of meadow without disturbing a single blade of grass?
Casablanca hooks you by making you invest in their love story…and then it reels you in by unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis. Hook, Line and Sinker!
The bittersweet ending has gone the way of the black-and-white cinematography. If it were to be made today, Casablanca would end with Rick and Ilsa escaping on the plane after dodging a hail of gunfire and perhaps Rick would even indulge in some Gun-Fu! Even (500) Days of Summer ends with Tom meeting Autumn. But Casablanca does something that’s almost unimaginable, it lets the star-crossed lovers be. And yet, it is one of the most beloved love stories of all time.
We all feel it in our bones that Rick and Ilsa belong together and that they will always be incomplete without each-other but, Rick lets her go. Rick does so because, in Laszlo, he sees the man he could have had been had he not abandoned himself to self-pity. And when Ilsa is tempted to renounce her ideals, Rick tells her: “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” In Rick, we see a man who speaks from experience…in him, we find the voice of a man who has been hiding behind a façade of indifference.
“I promise you, I’ll never lose myself to self-pity again.”
-Daisy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
They’ll always have Paris. They didn’t have it, they, they had lost it until she came to Casablanca. They got it back that night.
It will be a very long night indeed. But it will end. In the morning when the sun rises, sometimes it’s hard to believe there ever was a night.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.