There is a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, untold thousands fleeing war and persecution. Swirling amid the rumours and intrigue there is a strange haven, a neutral staging post, an interzone, a place of waiting where the rules are in flux: Casablanca. Here is where you come when you need to go; and congregated here too are all those that seek to profit from your coming and going. There are thieves and pickpockets, smugglers and forgers, bandits and gangsters. Most of all, there is a bar, run by an enigmatic émigré American called Rick (although he is given different names by different people) where everyone meets, where everyone hopes, where everyone waits. Know the right people, have enough currency – or luck – and perhaps you will escape.
Escape to where? Why, it’s obvious – America. America in 2017 may be refusing entry and beginning to build walls, but seventy six years ago – the film is set in December 1941 - the United States of America was a beacon for the world. For the desperate young Bulgarian couple that Mr Rick helps by fixing the roulette wheel; for the elderly German couple tasting one last brandy before they leave, speaking now only in English since this is the language of their future; for Victor Laszlo, freedom fighter on the run from the Nazis and given ambiguous shelter by Mr Blaine; for the beautiful Ilsa, wife to Laszlo and Rick’s true love – for these and innumerable others, America is the answer.
How odd that one of the movie screen’s greatest love stories should be looking back at us like this. Or perhaps it is not odd at all. The truly great stories are those (think Shakespeare) that work in and for every age. And the way that they do this is by allowing us, whoever or whenever we are, to project ourselves and our contemporary fears and foibles onto and into the characters and situations portrayed. The film Casablanca, an archetypically ‘great film’, really is an actual great film: brilliantly conceived and beautifully directed, it has a razor-sharp script full of astonishing dialogue and one liners delivered by a group of actors at the absolute top of their game. It is clever, funny, moving and dramatic. (It is also extraordinary to realise that the film was not merely set in December 1941, but it was made in the summer of 1942 and released in December of that same year – which is by way of saying that, at the time it was made, World War II was still underway. We take it for granted that ‘we’ won – but the writers and actors and everyone else involved in the film did not know!)
Rick - or Richard, or Mr Rick, whatever you need to call him - is the film’s central character. He first came to Casablanca ‘for the waters’, but he had been ‘misinformed’. He claims throughout the film to be concerned solely with his own interests, but he is clearly loved by all those around him and is progressively exposed as a ‘sentimentalist’. He ran guns for the rebels in Ethiopia, fought for the socialists in the Spanish Civil War and is wanted by the Nazis. He fled Paris eighteen months earlier, on the last train before the Nazis marched into the city, having fallen in love with Ilsa. She had arranged to meet him at the station, but she didn’t turn up, leaving him standing in the rain “with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out”.
His relationship with Ilsa is one of the two central relationships around which the entire story hangs. She really does love him – but she loves her husband, Victor, too. At the time she met Rick, she thought her husband was dead. He escaped a concentration camp and arrived in Paris just before she was due to meet Rick at the train station. A year and a half later, fleeing persecution like so many others, she and her husband arrive in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” How does Ilsa love Rick? Is it the same kind of way she loves Victor? And how does Rick love Ilsa? Will he help her escape, with her husband? Or will he ask her to stay? Or will he go with her, back to America? Love always asks the biggest questions; during wartime, love asks them with particular intensity. ‘As Time Goes By’. Play the song, Sam. You played it for them; now play it for us.
But there is a second relationship, of a very different kind, between Rick and the local police chief, Captain Louis Renault. Renault is sharp, sly and intent on survival. He abuses his authority, but does so with humour and good grace. He is smarmy and obsequious with the Nazis (who are present in Casablanca, and menacing, but who have no formal authority because ‘French Morocco’ remains unoccupied) but is secretly a patriot and loves Rick just as much as everyone else. (“If I were a woman,” he tells Ilsa, in the moments before she first realises that the Rick of the bar in which she now sits is the Rick from Paris, “and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.”)
Rick and Renault depend on one another – without Renault’s consent, the bar would not be open; and without Rick’s consent, Renault would not enjoy the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed – but are also both aware that the other is a survivor, which means there are limits to how far they can trust one another. Survival, in these circumstances, means relying on a high degree of selfishness.
Or does it? Perhaps it depends on what is at stake. You? Someone that you love? An idea? Hundreds, thousands, millions of people? More questions, more intensity.
Between 1965 and 2016 I somehow never saw the film Casablanca. I’ve now seen it three times in less than three weeks. I laugh more, and cry more, each time. I firmly expect to watch it many more times. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have seen it, you already know what I’m talking about – so watch it again!