Since we have covered La La Land, it was just a matter of time for Casablanca to come up. Seventy-Eight years since its release in 1942, the movie has been able to maintain its impact on Hollywood and on the world of cinema. Considered to be the top most quoted film of all time, Casablanca not just outdid itself in the screenplay, but also the cinematography, theme and character depth in its duration of 102 minutes.
The movie revolves around three central characters – Rick, Ilsa and Victor with both the gentlemen being in love with Ilsa and a triangle that ensues. The basic plot of the film, while being exceptionally ordinary and, at the risk of going too far, maybe even too been-there-done-that type, never feels unnecessary or boring or mundane. Stakes are heightened by giving the characters an excellent aura of likability and setting the movie in the time of the World-War II (which by the way, would still go on for 3 years after the release of the film) and in Rick’s case, giving him a punch of charisma in every scene that he is in. I mean seriously, think Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes and Harvey Specter kind of charisma. Rick owns the room every time he enters and you can see that pretty much everyone either worships him or wants to be him. This character arc is very purposefully drawn and enacted to support the plot as we would consistently discover throughout the film.
Amid the World-War II, Casablanca is a neutral place, where the French, the German, the Italian and the American alike, can all stay. It is the place most people flock to, hoping to escape to the free world by getting their hands on the exit visas (legally or illegally). While they wait on the visas, the people are often seen hanging out at Rick’s Café Américain, which is “the” place in town, often with ulterior motives in mind, as they continue to maintain a facade of being happy.
Rick’s motto is simple. In order to keep himself and his bar alive, he has to remain completely isolated from the war. He chooses no sides and allows his café to be open to all types of people. He remains as politically indifferent as anyone can be while watching the war from so up-close. In his own words, “he sticks his neck out for nobody.” But with a history of having previously supported the revolutionaries, Rick too, like every other person stuck in Casablanca, keeps a facade. Because of his undeniable popularity, or maybe by sheer luck, Rick happens to be the one to get handed over two visas signed by a German General, which cannot be challenged or rescinded. The most priceless of all things one could hope for in Casablanca. More valuable than life. They are the price of freedom.
As Victor & Ilsa walk in to Rick’s Café, hoping to get their hands on the visas, the movie folds out to show us a completely different version of Rick, who once loved someone and never got over the heartache or over her. The plot thickens and the audience embarks on a roller-coaster of emotions as Ilsa stops by to plead to Rick to let Victor have the visas so he can escape. And we ought to admire Ilsa here for having the strength to come to Rick and ask for his help in getting her husband to a safe place, even though she is still in love with Rick, because she knows to keep her duty first. Her loyalty in refusing to escape alone without her husband, even though the alternative could be death. Her respect in her husband being constantly by her side and her determination in doing the same for him. Her duty as a wife, and her duty towards the millions who are counting on Victor getting them to victory and freedom. She does not expect Rick to understand any of it or be benevolent towards her or even forgive her, but she needs to do her duty and she has the strength to brave the consequences. She has the dignity to be dutiful and also in being able to call Rick out on being a lesser man she who she knew previously.
Meanwhile, Rick is left with the moral dilemma of either helping the revolution by giving the visas to Victor and Ilsa or using them for his own personal benefit by having Ilsa escape with him to the US where they can resume their love story together. The dialogues, cinematography, direction and acting all work together for the singular purpose of connecting the emotions of the characters and having them resonate with the audience to make us join in their heartbreaking journey.
For instance, the first scene when Rick and Ilsa meet in his café, is the first time we are hinted at a past relationship between Rick and Ilsa as the two meet after years of no contact. It is heartbreaking as the two meet one another after so many years and are still unable to have a proper conversation. That the first time they talk in years, they have to keep a show in front of the others, including Ilsa’s husband – Victor. Neither one of them is who they used to be anymore. And neither one of them is given the opportunity to express this to the other. They both have to act like meeting one another like this isn’t absolutely soul crushing for them. The acting is phenomenal in this scene as the actors use subtle eye movements to convey their remorse and nostalgia. Excellent dialogues used throughout the movie perfectly summarise the feelings of the characters as the audience is never left feeling confused about what the characters are going through. With my favourite quote from the movie, this encounter is summarised with Rick’s “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…”
A recurring theme in the movie is how Rick gets in the center of attention, unwillingly, most times, purely out of how highly people regard him. It is almost like they seek his approval. That is what gets him possession of the visas in the first place, and it is also why Louis, the French cop helps him walk away free after he has helped Victor and Ilsa escape. By maintaining a little mystery and exclusivity, it is like people cannot help but try to impress him and in their attempts to do so, they even go over and beyond.
The movie ends with Rick finally joining the cause of the rebellion openly and consciously pursing it, which also encourages Louis to do the same as they embark on their journey of a “beautiful friendship”.
It was Casablanca which first made me realise the magnitude of efforts and thought that goes into film-making and how as a cinematically illiterate audience, we are so oblivious to these inclusions. It made me want to try to consciously pay attention to details when watching a movie, to try to understand the things that our sub-conscious picks up on. Actually, scratch that, it was a video essay (provided below) on Casablanca that I was watching after the film that made me realise how much important stuff filters out for us when we watch movies passively. How we let our illiteracy compromise on our cinematic experience. How much disservice we do ourselves by not opening our minds up more.
https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1003707_casablanca/quotes? – Follow the link for some of the best quotes in the movie. Trust me, it will be worth it.