Dir. Michael Curtiz. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Sometimes, when I feel just aggressively masochistic, I try to narrow down the best scene I’ve ever seen in a movie. This is a fool’s errand, and only fools rush in. On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca maybe a dozen times in my life, and I still get goose pimples like I’ve never had from any other experience in my life when we get to this scene:
Casablanca takes place in three days the week before Pearl Harbor; Rick (Bogart) and Louis (Rains) begin their trek to Brazzaville on the evening of December 5th. This scene takes place on the second day of the three, by far the longest of the bunch. Either it begins when Victor (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa (Bergman) come to the prefect’s office at 10 a.m., or, depending on just when Sam’s watch stopped, it might have begun when Ilsa walked into Rick’s bar, backlit by moonlight and seen from behind a scrim of self-pity; I rather like to think it begins at the latter time, because it ends when Carl (S.Z. Sakall) takes Ilsa home from Rick’s as Rick chats up Victor after a Resistance meeting, mirroring the location and characters of twenty-four hours previous. In any event, this extraordinarily full second day culminates here, and fascinatingly, it culminates almost entirely without Rick. Stirred out of a heated conversation by the resident Nazis singing “Watch on the Rhine,” Victor marches downstairs while Rick looks on, for one of the only times in the movie appearing a little helpless. There’s a gorgeous moment at 0:34 as Victor appears at speed from behind a screen, striding through the bar en route to the band like a cruise missile fixated on a target. He walks right past Ilsa, who is looking back at him and who does not even have time to say his name before he’s out of earshot; the camera in on her, her lips set and eyes observant. This is their relationship in a nutshell, the reason why the Sally Harry met called her the future first lady of Czechoslovakia. What she has on her face is the look of a woman a row back from her husband as he does something Great: the fearfulness inherent in knowing he has something dangerous to the point of rashness planned, and the resentment in not being important enough to merit his concern in that moment of danger. What he does is all of these things: he enlists the band to play “La Marseillaise.” They look to Rick; Rick, in a profoundly sentimental mood which is his own rashness and his own best self, nods. (For a movie that hinges so often on Rick’s words, plans, resentments, it is enormous that he is nowhere to be found during this sequence.) Then the room explodes. Strasser makes a tactical retreat, but the anthem goes on. Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau) shakes through half a verse. There’s a cut back to Ilsa, who looks like someone has knocked the breath out of her; tellingly, the next shot is of Henreid, practically shouting “Aux armes, citoyens!” His political glory is her personal collapse; a cut back to Bergman, this time in close-up, a little to the left of her face as the camera was a little to the right of LeBeau. She is glass, maybe as beautiful as she’s ever been, but she is not Marianne. There’s a determination in her face that was not here before, and it is possible to understand what her eyebrows tell us: in this moment she is choosing Rick, who is invisible in this moment of religious experience, over Victor, who is its cantor. Her idealism has yielded to her practicality, and in the next shot Victor seems surprisingly far away, as distant in his crowd as the goose at the point of the V. The song ends. A new sound aborning, the sound of hope.
There have been decades’ worth of backhanded compliments paid to Michael Curtiz’s direction on this picture, most of them along the lines of “This is such a gripping story that the direction is an afterthought,” or “Curtiz never overshadows the screenplay.” Here’s my own backhanded compliment: his work is as unappreciated here as Tom McCarthy’s work was unappreciated for Spotlight, as both are primarily functional as opposed to showoffish. On the other hand, Curtiz is enamored of camera movement in this movie, and with the help of DP Arthur Edeson (who helped create the grammar of noir in The Maltese Falcon) gives his still camera inky shadows. Lengthy tracking shots are perhaps the single reason we love Rick’s. It’s just a restaurant, after all, but we skate through that place with such fluidity that we come to recognize its nooks and crannies as well as Rick does. We are invited through Rick’s over and over again, moving seamlessly through tables and crowds, spying on Rick from a distance as he scans his domain, tiptoeing backwards as Victor and Ilsa arrive and Rick tries to figure out the “geography” of putting the couple near Sam but far away from the Nazis. Before Victor and Rick come down from the saloonkeeper’s office, the camera moves left, taking in the Nazis pumping out their song and then an increasingly unimpressed group of people as the camera runs along the bar, pausing curiously but meaningfully, with Renault. Curtiz is not Ford for blocking, but his frames are never more crowded than they need to be, and the movement and action within them makes Rick’s teem more than anything else. Victor meets Berger (John Qualen) at the bar, where there is empty space on the left of the frame. The bartender fills it from the near side, a quick conversation, and then Renault fills it from the far side, at which point Berger vacates his spot. It’s a movie where the movement is frenetic and the stillness its equal in anxious energy. Turn off the lights, and there’s Bogie, slow-moving and besotted, head on his hand. There’s Rick and Ilsa on his couch together, close and almost frightened to move. Curtiz’s Casablanca is tremendous, and if the screenplay is magnificent or the performers are exactly what we’d hoped for, then there is certainly enough talent presented in quiet ways that we can stop slandering the man with faint praise.
The movie’s characters travel between two poles: they are passionate to the point of inefficacy, or rational to the point of frigidity. Just about everyone who matters manages to smack up against one of those two over the course of the picture, at least for a moment. The one who manages to touch both the most quickly, and who reaps the whirlwind in so doing, is Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The film’s favorite cut-rate parasite edges his way into the cafe, finds Rick, and shows that he would freeze butter in his mouth. He has the all-important letters of transit, has won them the old-fashioned way, and gloats self-deprecatingly to Rick; it is rational to take this risk for more money than he’s ever seen. Yet when Renault’s police come to Rick’s and trap him, his fear of being caught by the Nazis (or the Casablanca cops, I guess, but the Nazis are the scary ones) sends him, foolishly, to Rick’s literal arms. “Hide me!” he cries, and Rick is so unmoved by this frantic request that it gets the notice of a guy with one line: “When they come to get me, Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.” “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick says for the second time in a few minutes, and this is such a good policy in Casablanca—cue Renault’s cheerful description of Rick as “completely neutral about everything”—that it has kept him alive and his gin joint open even though he is as red-blooded as the next guy. Rick and Ilsa explain themselves, really, on this set of grounds (“Here’s looking at you, kid”), which means that it’s the movie’s most stoic performance that’s an attractive case study here.
Victor Laszlo is the movie’s greatest enigma. On one hand: in love with his wife, and despite his protestations that he would leave her if only one exit visa could be obtained, has proven with his actions in other places that he would do no such thing. On the other: rightly subsumed by his belief in his cause. Every time I watch the movie I find myself leaning in a slightly different direction about him, and it is because he is the only one major character in the movie who fails to strike either pole with adequate force to make it resonate. He is intensely rational about doing the right thing, and about how important it is to fight Nazism on whatever shores he happens to find himself, but those speeches to Ilsa are so honest, and those cuckold’s horns he wears so prominent, that it is difficult to believe in him as unemotional. Phlegmatic, perhaps, and perhaps that phlegmatic nature of his is part of the reason he could escape from a concentration camp, or persevere so greatly that there are multiple reports of his death. But the passion is there, and the passion is what makes him most effective. Where Rick’s passion puts him into a state of melancholy, or Ilsa’s makes her stamp her feet before she’s put on that plane to Lisbon, Victor’s gets him to lead a drained, sad, dejected group of refugees to join him immediately in the strains of “La Marseillaise.”