After reading so much about its production, watching it three times (once with a delightful commentary by Roger Ebert), and presenting it for a small audience in our tenth free Thousand Movie Project event at Tea & Poets, I finally feel like I can talk comfortably about Casablanca – which isn’t to say that this is how much time you would have to spend with the movie before you can become conversant on it in your own right. The only reason I took so long to pick up the confidence is because, leading up to this recent study of it, I’d probably, throughout my life, spent more time reading about the movie than I did watching it. All that reading, all that verbiage and analysis, got me to thinking the movie was more complicated than it really is.
Yes it’s a masterpiece, and probably one of the greatest films to ever come out of America, but it’s also way simpler than you’d be led to believe by the trove of critical analysis about it, which has accumulated over the past 70-odd years into something insane, and even simpler than the movie’s ostensibly-complicated plot would have you believe. It’s like the director is trying to cover up its simplicity. The cast is big, each character commanding attention in their own special way, and while repeated viewings do shed light on little ways in which each character and subplot contributes to the next, the crux of the story breaks into two parts, two relationships: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines.
Quick summary: the movie’s about a guy named Rick (Bogart) who owns a restaurant called Rick’s Café in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. The city is occupied by Nazis. Rick has a mysterious past that involves rebellious political engagements, fighting for underdogs, and once, in Paris, he carried on an affair with Ilsa (Bergman) who abandoned him there as the Nazis invaded. Now Ilsa is back with her husband, a major anti-Nazi figure, and they’re looking for black market exit visas. They wanna get to America. Rick can help.
So the plot, as you can see, is convoluted, and it does take a few viewings before the movie really stands tall and naked in front of you. But strangely it’s a story whose powerful simplicity is hidden beneath that plot. You can feel, in those early viewings, that this is just a movie about people in love, but you can’t quite feel that love until you’ve gotten the plot outta the way (if that makes sense).
Right now, thanks to Ebert pointing it out in the commentary track, what I’m responding to more than anything else in the movie is Rick’s relationship with Captain Renault (Claude Raines). The male friendship thing. I remember discovering Christopher Hitchens’s work when I was in college, shortly before his death, and being a bit puzzled by the frequency with which he addressed – or an interviewer asked him about – friendship. They’d speak of how he was one of few people to come to the aid of novelist Salman Rushdie when the Ayatola Khomeni put a fatwa on him. Hitchens’s rapport with the novelist Martin Amis was also brought up, and the two would occasionally appear on TV together, looking like a couple. Amis was comfortable enough to say that their friendship was basically an unconsummated romance.
My brother has this annoying habit of referring to everybody as his “best friend”. Whenever he’s telling a story about some misfortune that’s befallen somebody he knows, if only passingly, the guy suddenly becomes “one of my best friends”. I think I get cringy about it because – well, for one thing, the phrase doesn’t mean anything from him anymore, he’s only trying to dramatize his relationship to somebody else’s misfortune so’s to siphon some pity – as I get older, and life becomes more fragmented, I don’t think I have a best friend or see myself having one for a while. There’s one friend who’s ideal for the work environment, another friend who’s ideal for being silly with, another who’s ideal for talking about books or sex or the future with. I’m also becoming more mindful of my moods. They shift pretty often, and the shifts can be drastic. I notice it happening at work almost every day. I’m dutiful and energized and productive for like two hours, then I get sleepy, then I get giddy and playful, and then I crash again. Hard. With maybe a little burst of energy toward the end of my shift. In all of those different moods I gravitate toward a different co-worker.
The difference between Rick and Renault is that they’re equally principled, they’ve got similar sensibilities and dispositions, but they happen to find themselves in oppositional positions. Every now and then one bends toward the other, allowing for leeway, but – as I think Ebert rightly points out in his commentary – each is probably willing to kill the other if circumstances call for it.
There’s a moment in the last season of The Sopranos where Tony’s in the hospital and so his consigliere, his right-hand man, has to step up and operate as boss. He’s getting dressed one day and he and his wife are speculating about what might happen if Tony dies in the hospital and this guy, Sal, has to actually become the head of the family. Sal expresses uncertainty. Says he probably couldn’t handle all that stress. His wife says, “It’s not the man who makes the times, it’s the other way around.”
Renault and Rick seem like men who’ve been made by their times. Each has a violent and troublesome past behind them, they’re both in a situation they probably never could have foreseen, and we see from their rapport that they’re just kind of amused by life. Resigned to their helplessness. Each just trying to navigate the currents of chance as best they can. Trying to steer things a little closer to their favor.
The characters are beautiful, I love it, but I’ll cut this short because I’ll end up doing what most people seem to do when they get started on Casablanca: riff endlessly on how good it is. But yeah: while I’d group this with Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane as movies that are made to seem more complex because they’ve been written about so much, I’ll also concede that Casablanca is probably the most difficult of the three. I’ve seen this a few times over the years before sitting down to watch it three times in the past month or so, and the story’s only recently begun to totally make sense.
But don’t let that discourage you. If you haven’t gotten around to Casablanca, I’d say to get the initial viewing out of the way. Grow old with it. Force yourself to watch it once a year, or every eighteen months. Grow up with it. Make an old friend of it.