Let me be clear about one thing upfront – nowhere in this essay am I in any way, shape, or form declaring Casablanca a 102 minute long waste of your life. It’s a good movie – a damn good one, actually. I won’t bore you with its long list of impressive accomplishments dating back to its 1943 wide release that makes it seem like the Michael Jordan-era Bulls of the cinematic world. But put it this way – if the films of the American Film Institute were children, Casablanca would be the kid all the other kids despised and, while constantly living in its towering shadow, would always have to hear “Why can’t you be more like Casablanca? She follows her three act structure so well…” Seriously, this movie is the favorite tow-headed child that gets all the awards and perennial high rankings, including second originally on The AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list while The Godfather Part II (no. 32, really?!), Jaws (no. 56, ugh) and The Empire Strikes Back (not even on the damn list) get the ginger stepchild treatment. Although, it’s worth noting Casablanca did slip a notch from no. 2 to no. 3 on the updated 2007 list. It had no business outranking The Godfather in the first place!
What is it about this movie? Even Hollywood, with all of its eagerness to resurrect the most tired franchises, seems to treat any suggestion of remaking Casablanca with the same stone cold silence you’d find in the South Park writers’ room at the idea of making Muhammad a regularly-appearing character. In an institution that seems to hold nothing holy or above commoditizing, even Tinseltown has its sacred cow. Over seven decades later, Warner Brothers still uses notes from the movie’s theme song “As Time Goes By” in its company logo at the beginning of its films. Is it the film’s exotic locations? It was shot mostly at the studio. Is it the action scenes, which were rare for romantic dramas of the period? Well, there’s only five scenes that involve gunplay (two of which they’re never fired) and two of the other three are completely inconsequential to the plot. The film was also based originally on an unproduced play so most of the on-screen action is stagey and the actors often perform long dialogue exchanges while just sitting across from each other.
Let me guess then…is it the romance?
Ah…the romance…that’s it, eh? Well, that can be a Herculean task to argue with. This is a film so indoctrinated into our culture with romanticized visions that even people who have never seen it probably feel like they have seen it countless times, especially Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa’s (Ingrid Bergman) tortured farewell on the tarmac.
But is Casablanca, as a whole, really that romantic? Here are three things to seriously consider that might make us take a step back and possibly – gasp – make us rethink it as a romantic classic at all.
1. Ilsa had issues!
To be fair, we don’t know very much about Ilsa at all. She’s the least-developed character of the entire movie so we don’t get anything beyond a snapshot of her, but what we do see has some occasionally disturbing moments. First of all, where is she finding guys like Rick Blaine and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid)? I realize they didn’t have Coffee Meets Bagel back in those days, but did she subscribe to some dating service that matched you with the Allies’ most eligible (and high-risk) bachelors?! She also clearly had a touch of “daddy issues” as both of these men appeared to be significantly older than her (Bogart was fifteen years older, although Henreid and Bergman were closer in actual age; both men just looked so damn much older than her). It’s most disturbing in a scene when Rick asks what she was doing ten years before they met and she replies that she was having braces put on. That also gives a creepy tinge to the line “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
However, the most troubling issue of Ilsa’s is her indecisiveness about life-changing decisions. During her second midnight rendezvous with Rick at his club, she pulls out a pistol and threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t hand over the stolen transit papers for her and Laszlo to flee to Lisbon. One minute she’s threatening to kill Rick to ensure a prosperous future for her and Laszlo and the next….she’s entwined in the throes of passion, making off-screen love to Rick in the midst of a dissolve…what?! Then despite being married to Victor, she co-conspires to stay with Rick in Casablanca only then to have the plans change last-minute when, through Rick playing upon Ilsa’s madness by manipulation, he reveals that he intended on ensuring she boarded the plane with Laszlo all along…and Ilsa just goes along with it…happily ever after. Fuck it, right? If I was telling Ilsa’s story to someone at a bar they’d say “Whoooaaa…that chick sounds batshit nuts, bruh!” And they’d be right!
2. Rick and Victor were both equally poor prospects for long-term relationships!
Rick has a history of being a gunrunner and freedom fighter who is already on an Axis Powers watch list with a price on his head when we meet him. Victor is an outspoken Czech Resistance leader who had spent time in a concentration camp (and even managed to escape from one) and was believed to have been shot dead before Ilsa hooked up with Rick in Paris. It’s safe to say that both of these guys, who are also in their late 30s to early 40s, aren’t eager to change their ways and become low-key cobblers anytime soon. Laszlo doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who would view his and Ilsa’s experience in Casablanca as a time that brought them closer together. Most likely, for him it was nothing more than another perilous pit stop on the way to America. And once they actually got to America? Do you think they used it, even briefly, as an opportunity for a second honeymoon or try some new Tantric sex techniques? Hell no. He’d likely be too busy organizing rallies, putting together marches and drumming up Ally support. His first love would never be Ilsa – it was always going to be his love for the cause, fighting against the forces of tyranny. And while that’s sweet, Ilsa seemed like someone who pined for dangerous men and adventure so I find it hard to believe she was truly ever happy once she and Laszlo made it to their eventual destination.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Rick was the better choice, albeit if not the more exciting one. I have always thought, though, it would eventually come to light that he and Renault (the glorious Claude Rains who is quite the scene-stealer throughout the film) were the ones behind the death of Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). Whether or not they made it to the refuge of Brazzaville is another story. Remember, Casablanca takes place before the war’s end so the Germans had a tremendous amount of wealth and influence, especially to find the assailants of a prominent military leader. Ilsa could have stayed with Rick in Casablanca or gone on the run with him and Renault, but Rick would’ve had to shoot Strasser regardless if Ilsa had gotten on the plane or not leaving his future fate, with or without her beside him, looking murky, at best. Speaking of Rick and questionable decisions…
3. Rick took a casual thing and made it weird! Like…really weird!
“We said no questions,” Ilsa quickly reminds Rick after he asks her about her past during his first Paris flashback. Rick, for lack of elegance, was a rebound for a depressed Ilsa, still in mourning over Victor’s presumed death. She claims that what she felt for Rick was the real deal, but again, this echoes from what I had originally said – this (young) girl had issues! Although the exact duration of Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris is never actually stated, it comes across as a textbook whirlwind romance in every way, especially because of a rigidly-enforced “no questions” policy. But Rick, in the end, wound up violating the “playa code” and did something Drake would write songs warning against seven decades later: Rick caught feelings. And he caught them hard, suggesting that, on the verge of German Occupation, Ilsa flee with him to Marseilles. Oh, and he also casually mentions they should get married once they get there. No big deal. She’s down with any major life-changing decisions without much push anyhow, right?
I suppose I shouldn’t beat up on Ilsa too much when you factor in the emotional gamut she endures throughout the story. Rick should have also been keener on picking up signs, especially just before she stood him up at the Paris train station. His inability to read into her hints about not meeting him or when she wants him to “kiss [her] as if it were the last time” was downright oblivious. She might as well have had a fucking flashing, neon sign on her forehead. Rick, however, should’ve known to keep things casual and walk away without ever making things awkward – to move on to the next episode just as the party was ending and the Nazis were arriving, which is, even today, the quickest way to end a party.
Casablanca is not a bad movie at all, just overrated as what is constantly hailed as a romantic classic. There are undeniably concerning elements present that really make us question how romantic it all really is. Should romance in movies be about a distraught young woman with intense psychological trauma finding love with two rebels and being forced to choose between the two? Further complicating matters is that one of her suitors, who should have never let his feelings take control, begins torpedoing down a collision course that could only meet a devastating and heartbreaking end…
Then again, citing those same points, some might argue that it’s as classic of a depiction of on-screen romance as true and close to real life as there could ever be.