A Few Thoughts on Casablanca

by Brad Nelson10/22/17
This is not a full and complete review of Casablanca, although it should serve as a launching point for further discussion. I posted this on Facebook in 2010. It’s nothing special. I’m still not the writer I need to be to tackle this review. But here are those few thoughts (slightly edited) from the Wayback Machine:

One movie I’ve wanted to review, but haven’t yet, is Casablanca. I’m intimidated by it. This movie is brought to mind because I caught it on a movie channel last night. I was again blown away by it. Eloquence is lost. It’s like one of those Warner Brothers cartoons where the gorgeous blond walks in front of a line of construction-worker cartoon wolves and their eyes bulge out and their tongues roll out and smoke comes out of their ears. If they speak at all, a wolf whistle is as eloquent as they can get in the face of overwhelming beauty.

To me, Casablanca is the quintessential movie. (Eloquence may yet be coming. I used a five-dollar word). There is TV. There is theatre. There are books, commercials, radio, documentaries, and all kinds of media. But Casablanca is a form unto itself.

When I came to the end of Casablanca I thought, This is one of the Platonic Forms, a basic element, not a derivative of anything. It’s got great characters, a great story, great music, a great ending. (I’m wolf-whistling “great,” but I can’t help it.) It’s got the most amazing dialogue. [Editor: I sounded a bit like Trump back in 2010.] Almost every line has become a cliche in popular culture, and yet in the movie these lines work smoothly and perfectly. Rarely, if ever, are the lines self-consciously delivered.

It’s difficult to say something unique about Casablanca, but after viewing it this time I was struck by how magnificently the dark and the light, the romantic and the deadly, the selfish and the selfless, the dirty nitty-gritty of petty lives and the grandness of great things were all so seamlessly woven together.

Perhaps this is the backbone of Casablanca and why it is able to soar to such heights. It encompasses so many themes and memorable characters. In lesser hands, the character of Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman) would have been little more than a flippant girlish Carmen Diaz chick-flickish dolt. But Ilsa Lund is deeper and makes the light and shadows of this black-and-white picture as stylish as any Technicolor flick. This is Bergman’s best film and, frankly, I can’t think of her in another role that I enthusiastically like except for her role as Sister Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Bergman, to me, normally comes off as too much — too stylistic, hovering far above having real human emotions. But in Casablanca she is perfect and engaging. She’s vulnerable. She’s cruel. She’s desperate. She’s in love. She’s confused. She’s in control. And, at the end, she’s completely in the hands of others. She was a complex female form before modern feminism reduced women to mere one-dimensonal political toys. And although I’ve seen Bogart in many great films, I don’t think he’s been better than in Casablanca. This is an elegant movie, as weighty and dangerous as it may be sometimes. And Bogie and Bergman light the screen up. I don’t think this kind of chemistry can be planned. It just happens.

It shouldn’t matter what goes on behind the scenes in terms of enjoying a movie, but I’m struck by the fact that the filmmakers didn’t come up with the ending until quite late. I think the initial script had Rick flying off with Ilsa. And then it went through a few more re-writes. It was worth the effort for this is the best ending of any movie ever made. It’s not a happy ending, per se. It’s not a gadget ending, which is the plague of so many movies. It’s just an ending that takes all that has come before it and weaves it into a clever, plausible, and surprising conclusion. It is the fine dessert at the end of a sumptuous meal. It is the cannons at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It is the rainbow at the end of a thunderous storm. [Editor: It’s the “yuge” before the Trump.]

This movie is as good as it gets. Magnificent.


Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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31 Responses to A Few Thoughts on Casablanca

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Bergman was also a Hitchcock favorite, appearing in Suspicion, Notorious, and Spellbound. Then he discovered Grace Kelly.

    Naturally, I like Bogart as the villain who isn’t the villain in The Caine Mutiny.

    I have a book on Casablanca (back at the house and therefore effectively gone forever, like most of my books). It points out that the movie became more popular in the Nixon area, as Captain Renault went from being a Vichyite to mock to someone who seemed all too familiar. (“I’m shocked, shocked, that you have gambling going on here” — right before being handed his “winnings”, or in other words bribe.)

  2. Steve Lancaster says:

    The movie was released in the fall of 1942. For the US the first year of the war. There were areas of optimism, Coral Sea, and Midway had turned the Japanese back and on Guadalcanal the 1st Marines had mostly secured the island.

    However, in Europe the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad was still in doubt. In North Africa Rommel was knocking at the door of Egypt with the second battle of El Alamein, and German submarines were sinking ships in the Atlantic faster than they could be built.

    History could have turned on only a few things going another way. The winter of 42/43 could have been a warm one and the Germans might have taken Stalingrad, Rommel might have actually received his promised reinforcements and defeated the British in Africa and the North Atlantic might have been closed to shipping because of the U-boat threat.

    I think, all of these things are subconsciously embedded in Casablanca and the basic optimism of the movie still wins out. It is a great movie worthy of rewatching on a regular basis.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Good points, Steve. And I think the basic optimism of this movie does win out.

      It’s interesting that I can’t find any liberal heroes in this. Victor Laszlo (and, for that matter, Ilsa Lund) are not Hollywood actors pontificating from the sidelines against…well…one would assume they would be denouncing Hitler, but you never know. We were bombing German cities and no doubt Michael Moore and his ilk would have saved most of their wrath for the Allies.

      But Victor and Ilsa were putting it on the line. These were not talking-head liberals. They saw the evil firsthand and knew it by name. Does Rachel Maddow? Unlikely.

      The only liberalesque character is Captain Renault. He’s an accommodationist. He’ll dance with evil if it is expedient. But then the heroism of Bogart and Laszlo rub off on him. It was then no longer “Nazi Lives Matter” for him. He’s transformed. Best line in the film: “Round up the usual suspects.” Well, I lie. There are literally a dozen lines as iconic and great. But that’s a good one.

      Certainly Yvonne is not your typical French white-flag-waver. The best moment in the film (I know, I know…there are dozens of them) is when she sings La Marseillaise in response to the Democrats (sorry…I mean “Nazis”) singing one of their German songs. There are tears in her eyes. And what that impassioned looks always says to me is “Fuck you very much, Democats” (Nazis…whatever). The nads of Laszlo. That hero-worshipping look of Ilsa while he leads the singing. The anger of the Nazis.

      And all followed by the best line in the film (truly): I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” Okay, maybe there’s that “gin joints” line.

      The film grain in Casablanca is better than most movies.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Note that Renault seems to delay in his response to the death of the Gestapo officer. He knows perfectly well who did it, since he just witnessed the crime. But after a moment’s thought he tells his subordinate to round up the usual suspects, and then drops the bottle of Vichy water he finds himself somehow holding. He has made his decision — one that Ric thinks could lead to a “beautiful friendship’.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        By the time Casablanca was in production Jewish refugees from Europe were filtering into Hollywood. The composer Erich Korngold was an early escapee (1934) and was a close friend of Franz Werfel. The Jewish community in Hollywood was very close at that time. There is every reason to believe they were using every means possible to expose the horror happening in Europe.

        The screenplay for Casablanca was done by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch. I believe that they talked to refugees like Franz Werfel and others who fled Europe. The Nazis needed to be as odious as possible.

        Werfel had a harrowing experience in Austria and fled to Paris and then fled to Lourdes. Where he was hidden from Nazis and the French puppet government until he escaped. It was in Lourdes that he vowed to G-d that he would write the story of Bernadette. A secular Jew writing the story of a Catholic saint–go figure.

        The movie, based on his novel won 4 Academy Awards and was nominated for 8 others and was one of the biggest hits of the war years.

        A note on the music of the war years. The Axis was decidedly martial in Europe and Asia, while the music of the US and UK was always upbeat, optimistic. In the UK Vera Lynn occasionally over sentimental, “We’ll Meet Again”, on our side of the pond. The Dorsey brothers, Glen Miller and Kay Kaiser. As much a contribution to the war effort as any.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Here’s the book by Werfel. I don’t know if I’ve seen the movie in years, although a rerun of “Biography” yesterday featured the life of Vincent Price who played Prosecutor Vital Dutour in the movie.

          As long as they had clearcut Nazis to oppose, Jews were on solid ground. Today “the right” is generally spoon-fed to them since birth as the New Nazis. One of the aspects not mentioned regarding Howard Weinstein is the propensity of many Jews to contribute to the dissolution of our Christian culture. Many Jews are taught to hold the West in disdain, although it seems Weinstein could have been a bad apple in his own right.

          Jews, like most Christians, have gone offtrack. As Susan D. Harris notes, the disdain for the West in the name of “social justice” is being shown officially by the Marxists of the Catholic Church. The only “sins” are economic in that some people have more than others — with no acknowledgment at all for the ethics, systems, beliefs, and practices that go to creating material wealth. Jesus is not concerned with sin but with the distribution of wealth.

          The Nazis, of course, made the difference between good-and-evil fairly plain. Trump and Hillary blur that boundary. Life doesn’t always offer clear differences. But in Casablanca, we do see a whole range. Laszlo is the true believer. So is Rick, even if he is momentarily on vacation from the fight. Ilsa, like many women, knows only what she wants. Most people in our own culture are like Louis, making accommodations with the devil. A few are like Sam, showing loyalty to a good man. Many are like Signor Ferrari, seemingly this film’s version of Mr. Potter, concerned only with how he can make a buck.

          I like the story of the young couple who ultimately betray Rick’s feigned neutrality. There’s even a little Harvey Weinstein in Louis who takes advantage of the beautiful girls who so desperately need a letter of transit. When they lose their money gambling, this is good news for Louis, so he is naturally disappointed when Rick rigs the roulette wheel in favor of the young couple.

          In the end, the people who need to take sides do so. In our own age, most are still like Louis and Rick in the early part of this film.

          • M Farrell says:

            Brad– I think the reason “Casablanca” holds up so well is that even though it is a movie/story, it resonates the true life experience (honestly) of so many that lived through that time– So many did not get even a chance at “happily ever after” endings– They watched as world events overran every one of their plans– So very many watched loved ones/sons/fathers/husbands/brothers walk away (many never to return)– My mother, who at 22 in 1944 lost her 25 year old fiancé, could bearly watch the movie all the way through in one sitting, loved the film– She could relate to Rick having to watch Ilsa walk away because there was no place for them in the world as it existed– There is a sense that life was reality based and that reality, as ugly as it was, could not be avoided, sidestepped, or fantacised away– Compared to the fantasy/nonsense/irrational narrative driven popular culture of today, the movie conveys an underlying concreteness/honesty that makes it attractive even if we can’t quite identify what it is that draws us in– There are no spoiled snowflakes being irrationally catered to– There is real evil/horror/death in the world that being a wining, spoiled SJW will not solve– and although just a movie, “Casablanca” never lets you forget that bigger reality– And so, we can’t resist continuing to watch, because in today’s world, it’s still a breath of fresh air–

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Interesting point. Of course, when it came out not so many Americans had lost loved ones, though a lot had — probably enough for that to resonate. Just a lot less than would die over the next 3 years.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Well said, M Farrell. There is indeed an underlying concreteness to the movie. Included in this decidedly non-Snowflake plot is an arrow pointing from moral ambiguity to moral clarity. Many movies these days relish the role of moral ambiguity and spend most of the time there.

              In Casablanca, there is a resolution to the moral ambiguity. The movie hinges on the scene at Rick’s where Victor Laszlo leads the singing of La Marseillaise.

              Perhaps what makes Casablanca special is how a love story is woven into the plot. Too many movies simply throw one in as if doing little more than following some check-off list.

              And therefore they got the right ending, because even romance was subordinate to the larger issues involved. I’m quite sure that many in today’s self-involved crowd would laugh at the ending, thinking it naive, at best. Surely, they would suppose, Rick ought to have let “luv, twu luv” triumph, to heck with causes (unless it’s global warming, of course).

              • M Farrell says:

                “Surely, they would suppose, Rick ought to have let “luv, twu luv” triumph, to heck with causes”

                Brad– This is where we have become completely unhinged from our Judeo-Christian foundation– In “Casablanca”, a true/mature love did triumph– It was once recognized that “no greater love” could exist than the willingness to sacrifice (even to the point of one’s own life) for a loved one’s life, safety, and future– The “luv, twu luv” impulse is beyond trite in comparison– The movie demonstrates that often “doing the right thing” is often the greatest love–

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Although other language uses still exist, many today can only understand erotic love as a concept, not the other forms that led the Greeks to have 3 different words for ‘love’.

  3. oldguy says:

    “I came for the waters.”
    “You’re in the desert!”
    “I was misinformed.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That kind of snappy, snarky dialogue is obviously not easy to write or to deliver. But Bogart does so wonderfully and sets up his character as the supposedly completely pragmatic, but plucky, morally-neutral character.

      We, too, are being invaded by Nazis (of the Progressive variety) and often have to deflect and dissemble. We are occupied and behind enemy lines.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I believe the theme which most resonates with people is Rick’s choice to sacrifice his personal happiness for something(s) bigger than himself, i.e. the war effort and sanctity of marriage. We call this, “doing the right thing.”

    It is much easier and less painful to watch a person do the right thing on a movie screen than to do it oneself. But I suspect more people were attempting to do the right thing in 1942 than are in 2017, at least percentage-wise. I fear this might even be true in absolute numbers.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I doubt sanctity of marriage much concerned Rick, since he had certainly been ready to ignore it (though the initial affair in Paris happened when Rick and Ilsa thought her husband was dead). In the end, Rick decided that the cause of anti-fascism was more important — and that Victor needed Ilsa for him to be at his best in fighting fascism. There was an element of humility, of realizing that his and Ilsa’s happiness was unimportant by comparison.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I agree that the anti-facism cause was the most important motive for Rick, but this was 1942 and I think there is some underlying theme of “she’s married man” in the film. The belief that Ilse’s husband was dead before the affair with Rick is, I believe, important. Again, this was 1942. The West had not yet become complacent about such things. That took the 1960’s.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The full range of humanity was on display in Rick’s….at least that part suitable for a movie screen in 1942.

        This is what is quite adult, but still good, about the movie. There is adultery going on (the circumstances, as Mr. Kung pointed out, blunting this quite a bit)…and yet it’s not ultimately ratified. Ilsa herself is torn between her romantic love for Rick and her more fatherly love for Victor. She’s overcome by it all and asks Rick to figure it out for her (which he does). As much as “vulnerability” such as this is heralded as something to save us from “Toxic Masculinity,” a modern-day Ilsa would have dropped the Nazis with a judo chop to the neck and flown the plane herself — leaving both Rick and Victor on the runway as she escaped with her lesbian lover.

        That is, there exists not the kind of nobility or even sense of romanticism today that could ever write and direct such a movie as Casablanca.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          It’s interesting to compare the roles of the wife in the two Hitchock movies of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the 1934 version, the wife (already established as a professional sports shooter) plays a key role in taking out the assassins at the end (the police are normally unarmed, and thus not well trained at shooting). In the superb ’50s remake with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, her key role is a well-timed scream that distracts the assassin as he’s about to shoot, and causes his shot to go astray — merely wounding the target (and not badly) instead of killing him.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Great points, Mr. Kung.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Casablanca: Summer Camp Ending. An “A” for effort. These kids can’t be all bad.

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    Elliot Resnick has an article on the movie at Town Hall which makes very similar points to those here, contrasting the higher ideal to which Rick Blaine sacrificed his love to the self-absorption of so many today. The link is:

    https://townhall.com/columnists/elliotresnick/2017/11/20/casablanca–75-years-later-n2411905

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thank you Timothy. That was a great article. That’s right up our alley.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      One would think Resnick has been reading ST. Or perhaps he is one of those people who have not yet ceded their souls to the modern American Zeitgeist, me, me, me. George Harrison’s song, “I, Me, My” is our national anthem.

      A couple of things stood out to me. One was the professor who notes that her students write, “I feel.” I had to laugh as when I was in school, we were admonished to specifically avoid the phrase, “I feel” and use “I think, or I believe or it is my opinion” as all these expressions tend to express considered thought more than “I feel.”

      I also loved his taking the piss out of Paul Simon’s words about love. While love is a great thing, it has been my experience that “love” can be both fleeting and fickle thus is a very weak foundation upon which to build one’s life, unless one is determined to temper love with reality. Sometime “love” is merely lust or worse, the use of another for support because of one’s own shortcomings and complexes. This means its not really love, but a crutch which one will cast aside once one is no longer an emotional cripple.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It seems we humans are always skipping blindly toward one extreme or another.

        I’m reading a novel (Shinju) set in 18th century Japan. You might certainly agree that there was much more stress on duty, rather than love, in regards to marriage. A common theme in stories probably since the early Greeks is of the lovers who want each other but, because of circumstances of class and family, cannot have each other. Romeo and Juliet comes to mind in this regard.

        Now we’ve swung the pendulum to the other side. It’s self-fulfillment, not duty, uber alles. If Seppuku is indicative of a culture that puts too much emphasis on a misplaced or exaggerated sense of honor, certainly abortion can be seen as this modern culture’s Seppuku in regards to misplaced and exaggerated self-fulfillment.

        In terms of Christendom, it’s never been an either-or proposition. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” There’s the sense that duty and burden are necessary, even desirable, for in at least a certain amount of duty one finds comfort, meaning, and good works. Much of the culture is now adrift in excessive attempts at self-fulfillment…thus the tattoos and staring into phones to the point of experimenting with padded lamp posts in some cities. The LED light emanating from them is not as warm or fulfilling as they hope, but still they keep searching.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          My mother used to tell a story of an Indian lad and the maiden he loved. They lived across a lake from each other, and one stormy day he decided he just had to see her. So he started rowing across the lake, only to get drowned by the storm. The Indians even named the lake after him — Lake Stupid.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            What was the song, “Running Bear”? Didn’t he and Little White Dove sink beneath the waves and go to the happy hunting ground?

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I may have heard that, but I doubt it’s the same story (particularly the Lake Stupid part). The story can be considered a parody of the Greek myth of Hero and Leander, which my mother probably knew about, if only from the studies in Greek culture my parents had in preparation for my father becoming Assistant Army Attache to Greece.

              I seem to recall that SF writer William Sanders, a halfbreed Cherokee (which is why one of his alternative histories featured a party rescued from the cavalry by the Indians), also knew the story. I don’t know where my mother got it from.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I just checked on wikipedia, and it seems that there were various versions of the song during the ’60s and ’70s, so no doubt I heard some version at some point. But it first appeared in 1959 by the Big Bopper (obviously early in the year, before “the day the music died”), so my mother could have heard it first and improvised (it doesn’t seem that any version had Lake Stupid in it).

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            LOL. A great and succinct story. I *love* it. Who isn’t a sucker for a good love story? In Casablanca, the definition of love is much broader than its often conceived of now.

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