This movie has been named as the second greatest film ever made by Hollywood. Must be some mistake, because I cannot imagine what the first one is.
However, my wife could not understand or follow the movie. She could not understand what was going on. I have decided to explain it to her, and to you.
To understand this movie, you have to understand the historical context in which it was made. I cannot think of any other war movie which was made about the war while the war was still going on. This movie was made in 1942, while the real-life events which were the subject of the movie were still occurring. By coincidence, it happened that the German Army attacked and occupied the real City of Casablanca in the same week that this movie was released.
It is December, 1941. The Germans have taken Paris and have overrun and occupied France. However, there is one part of France which the Germans have not yet taken. That is French North Africa, including the present day countries of Algeria and Morocco. The French officials there are still in charge, but their masters or bosses in Paris are dead or deposed. Nobody knows who is going to win the war. The residents of Casablanca must remain friendly with both sides, in order to survive.
The French official in charge is Capt. Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains. A pragmatic man, he takes no sides in the war. The biggest night club and bar in town is owned by Rick, an American, played by Humphrey Bogart. He fled Paris on the last train out, just before the invading German Army arrived. Now, he is in Casablanca to stay. He apparently cannot go back to America, but we never learn the reason. "Perhaps you killed a man there", suggests Claude Rains.
Into the bar walks the beautiful Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. Bogart laments, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine?"
Strange complaint, we wonder. A normal man is happy to be approached by a beautiful woman who wants him. Why does Bogart reject her, at first?
The answer to this question is the answer to the question of what makes this a great movie. It is an incredibly complex movie, packed into a short space. Every scene, every word and every frame is carefully crafted. Like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, every piece has to fit perfectly. If one part is misaligned or mal-adjusted, the entire puzzle falls apart.
This is also the reason why this movie has defied attempts to remake it. It is not merely the fact that Bogart is a great actor and Bergman is a great actress. It is not merely the actors but the entire world situation that was unfolding at the time, which makes this film impossible to replicate.
All the actors fit their parts so perfectly that it is hard to believe that other actors were considered for these roles. Unbelievably, Ronald Reagan was offered the part of Rick. Just think: If Ronald Reagan had accepted that role, the Iran-Contra Affair might never have occurred!
Even the song was almost changed. After the film was completed and almost in the can, the producer decided that he wanted a different lead song. However, Ingrid Bergman would have had to be brought back to remake those scenes, and in the meantime she had cut her hair, so the song stayed. Today, we cannot even think of this movie without remembering the words of that song made so famous: "You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by."
This is a great song, and is sung by Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. But twice Sam pretends that he cannot remember the song. Of course, he does remember it. He knows it very well. Why he says that he cannot remember it, when we know that he does, is one of the mysteries of the movie. This mystery is later solved. The song brings back memories of their times together in Paris, and the unpleasant way in which their relationship ended. That is the reason why the nostalgic theme of "As time goes by" is so important to the movie.
The movie flashes back to Paris, where Bogart and Bergman had a brief affair. Bergman never told Bogart that she was married, and in fact she thought that her husband was dead. When Bogart asks her who she is and what she did before she met him, she reminds him that they promised not to ask each other questions about their past.
With the German Army fast approaching, they plan to leave Paris together and to take the train to Marseilles. But Bergman fails to show at the train station and instead sends a note, saying that Rick must never see her again. Bogart is upset because he does not know the reason. The reason, we later learn, is that suddenly her husband has appeared, having escaped from a German concentration camp.
Prior to the arrival of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Bogart is approached by another woman, younger and just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Bergman. She is Yvonne, played by Madeleine LeBeau. She is desperate to sleep with Bogart, but Bogart rejects her, throws her out and puts her in a taxi to take her home. This tells us that Bogart is a hard man, not swayed by even the most beautiful woman. So, when Bergman approaches, we already know that she will not have an easy time getting Bogart into bed.
But why does Bergman approach? What does she want? This brings us to the plot of the movie, a plot which is difficult for modern audiences to understand because it concerns a nearly forgotten part of history. This is a part of history which the French people rarely talk about and which they would prefer to forgive and forget.
After the Germans invaded France, they set up a puppet government, known as the Vichy Government. Some Frenchmen resisted and fought. Some joined the underground or the resistance movement. Some escaped and fled, like those in the movie Casablanca. But, most stayed and cooperated with the Germans.
The only way out of France in those final moments was through the port city of Marseilles in the South of France. There, Rick and others took a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco, arriving at Casablanca. However, there they were trapped. The only way out was to take a flight to Lisbon, Portugal, and from there to fly to America.
To do that required transit papers. Almost nobody had transit papers. Unscrupulous dealers were selling real or forged transit papers, at a very high price, which only the rich could afford. In real life, the actress Madeleine LeBeau, who plays Yvonne, arrived in America exactly that way, flying out of Lisbon on forged transit papers.
We learn at the beginning of the movie that two German couriers were murdered, and they were carrying letters of transit. The murderers are being sought.
Just about this time, Bogart is approached by Peter Lorre, an evil man who deals in transit papers. Lorre tells Bogart that he would like for Bogart to hold some papers, but only for one hour. These papers are very important, Lorrie explains, and are as valuable as life itself, because these papers have been signed by General Charles De Gaulle himself and can never be questioned and with these papers and only these papers any two persons can get out of Casablanca and fly to America.
Lorre explains: "You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust."
But Lorre has been traced. Moments after leaving the papers with Rick, Lorre is arrested. He escapes, runs to Bogart for help, but Bogart refuses to help him. Lorre is captured and led off. We learn that the next day he has been killed. Captain Louis Renault explains: "I'm just writing the report now. We haven't quite decided whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape."
This happenstance leaves Bogart with the papers. Many suspect that he has them, but nobody can be sure. Ingrid Bergman later offers him one hundred thousand francs for the papers. Bogart replies that he has them but, even for three million, he will not give her the papers.
The reason Bergman must have these particular papers to get out, and none other, is that her husband Laszlo is a wanted man, a fugitive leader of the resistance, not as a fighter but as a writer. The Germans have traced him to Casablanca. They know that he is here. However, they do not kill him or take him prisoner, although they could easily do so, because that would violate the neutrality of Casablanca. Therefore, they will allow him to live, but he will not be allowed to leave Casablanca. Thus, his only way out is through those papers, papers which Rick alone has. But Rick cannot be bought. Neither money, nor beautiful women not fear of death will convince Rick to give up those papers. But Bergman has the key, the key to Rick's heart, and only she can persuade him to give up the papers, and free of charge.
An important side plot takes place. Bogart is approached by a young Bulgarian woman. We know that she is young because Bogart complains that she is too young to be in the bar. She is desperate for her husband and herself to get transit papers to get out of Casablanca. She does not need the papers which Rick has. Any papers will do, but she needs money to buy them. They are poor and her husband has been gambling at the roulette wheel in a desperate effort to win enough money to buy the papers. His effort has failed, as he has lost his money.
The Bulgarian girl, Annina Brandel, played by Joy Page, who in real life was the step-daughter of Jack Warner, now comes to Rick and offers herself sexually. She will sleep with Rick, if he will give her husband enough money to get them out of Casablanca, and her husband will never know.
This scene caused a lot of problem with the censors, who demanded that nothing in the movie depict actual sex or even imply that they had slept together. So, in the next scene, we are surprised to see Rick lead her to the roulette table, and tell her husband to bet all of his remaining money on the number 22. Number 22 wins, and now Rick tells him to bet his entire winnings on 22 again. Number 22 wins again, and now the Bulgarian couple have enough money to buy transit papers.
We can see that the roulette wheel is rigged. Rick owns the casino and somehow he knew that the number 22 was going to come up twice. The real question now is why did Rick help the Bulgarian couple. Many people are trying to leave Casablanca. Why does Rick allow them to leave, and not the others?
More importantly, why is that scene important to the movie? It is important because Ingrid Bergman does the same thing. She makes love to Rick, but what is the reason? Does she really love him, or does she do it only to get the transit papers?
We supposedly find out in the final scenes to the movie. The airplane is ready to fly. Only two people can leave. Bergman is assured of her seat on the plane. She is going and one of the two men are going with her. Who will it be? Will it be her husband, Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid? Or, will it be Bogart?
Of course, I cannot tell you the answer, because that would spoil the movie. However, what is interesting is that the actors and screenwriters did not know the answer either. This movie was made during Hollywood's golden era. This one studio made 50 movies per year. The script was being written while the filming was taking place. As the movie progressed, screenwriters came and left. A page was written and that scene was shot, while the writers were still working on the next page. Finally, at the end, after the film was complete, the producer, Hal B. Wallis, brought Bogart back to film a new conclusion to the movie.
Nobody then knew or even imagined that the result of this haphazard production would be, not merely the Movie of the Year, but the Movie of the Century.
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