Love is big business; no one understands that better than Hollywood. Audiences have long flocked to movies in search of romance, dreaming that maybe their own life might mirror the charmed endings of countless screen fantasies. Yes, there’s power (and profit) in proliferating such hope, but oddly enough it seems to be as fleeting as the feeling itself can be. The great love stories of the ages, the ones that have survived for hundreds — or even thousands — of years, rarely actually end well. Disappointment, it seems, imprints deeper than delight, sticking in the minds of those who can relate to an existence with more downs than ups. And so, while fairy-tale film courtships selling a love-conquers-all narrative will always be popular, few of those have stood the test of time as well as one in which the problems brought on by passion don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. There is no happily ever after for the couple at the center of Casablanca, yet the film itself continues to enjoy a blissful existence as one of cinema’s classics.
For those unfamiliar, the story follows an ex-pat named Rick, who scowls and runs a nightclub in Morocco that caters to castaways during WWII (the film was shot in 1942, but to make Rick’s motivations seem more believable, is set before the attack on Pearl Harbor). He is cynical and pragmatic in his affairs — both during business hours and after — clearly a man scarred over by some sort of wound. It’s probably betrayal, and probably the kind that cuts so deep only a dame could’ve wielded the knife. We find out when of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa walks into his. An old flame who long ago jilted him for reasons unknown, she has arrived with her husband, a Czech Resistance leader named Victor Laszlo, who has previously escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. All three are stuck in Casablanca, but despite Nazi officers tightening their grip, there may be a way for two of them to escape. But which two?
There are many reasons to fall for this masterpiece, from the superb craftsmanship in its staging and visuals to the effortless performances from an international cast, and a confident script filled with blunt truth and delicious wit, but the endurance of Casablanca has always been in its emotion. The plot contains numerous nonsensical elements, such as the MacGuffin-like “letters of transit” (what authority would honor/enforce these?) and the idea that the Nazis somehow couldn’t just arrest Laszlo the very moment they saw him, but it’s easy to gloss over these leaps in narrative logic when you’re swept up in currents of the illogical.
What the story does exceptionally well is portray a series of triggers that elicit responses from its characters and audience alike. Casablanca understands love, heartache, relationship baggage, and how the weight from such can at times seem like too heavy a burden. When Rick hears the playing of a forbidden tune that reminds him of a former happiness now destroyed, he lashes out at anyone in range, furious at the reminder he considers a betrayal. (It’s also an uncomfortable allusion to what our own pals have surely put up with on occasion.) Upon seeing Ilsa for the first time since she stood him up at a Paris train station, the moment is as painful and awkward as any unexpected bar encounter with an ex could be — especially if you’re the piano player caught in the middle, like Sam. Defenses that once appeared intact are shattered, and we see these people for the fragile, sentimental creatures they are — just like us.
Bogart was brilliant at playing hard-boiled on the outside, damaged goods on the inside, and Ingrid Bergman instills Ilsa with the just the right amount of strength and resolve that teeters on the edge of an emotional cliff. However, Casablanca isn’t just about depressing spirits with soap-opera levels of melodrama. A great love story must be built around hope — either so that it may be fulfilled and give audiences the positive reinforcement they need to keep striving for good things in their own life, or so that it may be ultimately crushed, thus relegating events into something most humans in history can understand: tragedy. Love and disaster go together like Orpheus and Eurydice, Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Romeo and Juliet, but none of these stories work if their protagonists just mope around with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle in the other, bemoaning the one that got away. There’s a lot of initiative among those couples, a lot of scheming, a lot of hope, and after getting over fate’s speedbump, that’s exactly what viewers wish for Rick and Ilsa.
Fortunes change quickly in Casablanca, and the players must think on their feet if they want to stay in the game. The leads are up to the task, as both Rick and Ilsa have no fear of taking action, if for nothing else then to at least to procure some sort of outcome, even if it’s a less-than-desirable one. Whether it’s him concocting a plan that forces the self-proclaimed “drunkard” to finally take a side, or her pulling a gun on the man she truly loves to save the man she believes truly needs to live, the spark of life is still in these two, and we know (and hope) that eventually it will draw them back together. True to form, it does, and this is where the magic of Casablanca really begins to show.
It’s easy to ignore all the signs of imminent doom and become captivated by a fire reignited. The newly reconciled couple have figured out a way to have their cake and eat it too — they’ll put Laszlo on the plane out of town, and stay behind together to live happily ever after in Casablanca. It’s the feel-good ending the audience craves, but not the one the story truly deserves — and it could never happen anyway. Due to the Motion Picture Production Code in place during 1942, a married woman could not be shown to leave her husband for another man. The writers discussed killing Laszlo off somehow, but that didn’t feel right either. (The ending was in such flux that Ingrid Bergman asked which man she was supposed to be in love with, and was told to act evenly with each.) However, like lovers desperately afraid to let each other go, the filmmakers were just avoiding the inevitable conclusion — this romance, rekindled and burning just as bright as ever, could not last.
It had to be done, and the filmmakers’ sacrifice of the fairy tale for the greater good mirrors the choices the characters make in opting for the cause over themselves. Had Rick not convinced Ilsa to board that plane and leave him behind forever, had she never aimed a gun at him to help her husband, Casablanca would never have achieved neither the nobility nor the memorability it has enjoyed these many years. It would have been just another love story, and a rather bland one at that. The writers surely would have regretted the loss of such an opportunity to explore the depths of human decency in the midst of chaos — maybe not that day, maybe not the next, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.
Happily ever after runs rampant in the movies, but in real life it’s a little harder to come by. For audiences whose lives take on a more Sisyphean feel, that fate would intervene just at the right time to ruin everything seems more organic, more identifiable, and more powerful. That the people in Casablanca rise above the circumstances of their shattered lives to continue reaching for the stars is as inspirational as love stories get, and is at the heart of the film’s amazing longevity. In an era where entertainment grows more and more disposable by the day, clinging to a spot in the public consciousness seems a nearly impossible task, but the unrequited love at the heart of Casablanca was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that has lasted a lifetime.