“Go ahead and shoot, you’ll be doing me a favor.” A melodramatic line from a melodramatic movie….but what a movie!
I.Casablanca turns 70 this year. A one day release in theaters and then its onto a three disc blu-ray DVD for sale later in the month. Why the appeal? Its cliche, its melodramatic, and many of us can recount all the scenes and recite every other line anyway. If released today, film editors would cut out the sap and be left with ten minutes of movie. That being the case, why do so many of us watch it and watch it again and again. It is just what you do when you come across what may be the best film ever made.
Joseph Campbell once said that we are all heroes in our dreams. Rick and Ilse are certainly heroic. And what hopeless romantic has not dreamed of being Rick or Ilse with their doomed love set against the backdrop of intrigue and war. That may sound over the top, but that’s the point. It is very hard to describe Casablanca without its melodrama.
Rick and Ilse’s spring fling is told in flashback before they flee Paris in June 1940, but the bulk of the movie takes place during an unspecified three days in 1940 or 41 in the hot and foreboding urban landscape of Vichy occupied Morocco after the world has gone to hell. Everything that is not about survival and looking out for oneself is stripped bare. Rick often says, “I stick my neck out for no one.” It is the sentiment of the world at the time. Released in 1942, men have been torn away from their lovers, wives, and children. The Nazis are marching over the world and no one is certain if the world has a future worth having.
Like those who have marched off to war, Rick is separated from the woman he loves. And not just separated, but deserted. Bad enough to live in a world that will be given over to untold brutality, even worse when left without an
ally. We do not know at the outset of the film why Ilse leaves Rick and the flashback to Paris give us no clue, but its eventual revelation is set up by one of the most iconic scenes of cinema and gives us the now cliche “of all the gin joints” line.
Ilse’s desertion turns Rick into a man turned in on himself. (It is often overlooked, but Casablanca is packed with psychology.) Soon after Ilse’s arrival to Casablanca and after he gets the reason why she fled, Rick becomes a changed man or rather becomes the man that he was meant to be. In short the movie is really about this transformation, which proves easy for neither protagonist. At his lowest point, Rick is a man willing to die over the love of a woman; it is here he tells Ilse to pull the trigger and end his misery. He realizes that having lost her, he has no reason to live. That would be a story in and of itself, but it is through this same love that he also finds a reason to live even if at the end of the film we realize this too may cost him his life.
The conclusion of the film has that great scene on the tarmac when Rick tells Ilse to leave. Neither wants this, but both now fight for something much larger than their love and friendship. To make their love complete, they must be content not to resume their affair, but to make better the world. Besides they will, “always have Paris.”
Seventy years later and the movie still moves us. Many a rank sentimentalist has envied Rick and Ilse. Their love makes sense of great romances that cease to exist and their willingness to fight for a larger cause in the face of insurmountable odds makes our own causes seem worth their fights. It is a movie for everyone who has left another behind or who twenty years after the fact pulls out a box of letters to read words from the one who got away.
In short our lives may lack the melodrama of Casablanca, but it does not lack the drama itself. People do know love and cause. All people loose and all people hope against hope. All of us struggle to give meaning to such things. How dark are the nights we lay awake and think of these things and how sadly beautiful are those times of necessary goodbyes. For anyone who knows such things, Casablanca will not be only its melodrama, it will also be a story worth watching again and again.