Contrary to the majority of 21st century adolescents, when presented with the prospect of watching a black and white film I was filled with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. I have come to discover that very often it is the films of the early to mid 20th century that, for want of advanced technological equipment, focus upon relatable societal or existential matters, such as the ephemerality of life, for the viewers to subsequently consider. Casablanca was no exception to this rule.
Based on Murray Bernett and Joan Alison’s stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, Casablanca came out in cinemas in 1942 directed by Michael Curtiz. As somewhat already revealed in the title, the film is set in Casablanca which was under Vichy-French control for a notable chunk of the 1900’s. Casablanca emblematized High Society of the time. Due to its geo-political predicament in the early days of the Second World War, Casablanca served as a last chance saloon of sorts for the wealthy to then eventually travel onto Lisbon and America. However, it was often very difficult to obtain all the necessary visas to travel. This meant that the city became a gathering hub of aristocracy to comfortably enjoy their resting period before continuing their journey.
The film centres on the protagonist Rick Blaine [Humphrey Bogart] who owns his own club in Casablanca. He is a highly aloof man until the coincidental return of his only love, Ilsa Lund [Ingrid Bergman], along with her husband, Victor Laszlo [Paul Henreid], which leads to Blaine directly assisting the two of them to gain visas for leaving the country in the end.
A variety of themes run through Casablanca; some of the most notable are the themes of love, the fragility of life, and time.
The film commences in the lively atmosphere of Rick’s joint. Jazz music is played by Sam [Dooley Wilson] whilst the bourgeois men and women enjoy drinks or gambling. Several of the members sat at tables ask if Rick would care to join them, to which a resounding no comes via Carl the Headwaiter [S.Z Sakall]. Immediately we are introduced to Rick’s policy of isolationism. He maintains separation from any meaningful engagement with others around him. The protagonist’s own words, “I’ll stick my neck out for nobody” exemplify clearly the way in which he focuses only really upon himself. Rick’s sullen and sombre disposition is accentuated as it is utterly juxtaposed to the highly animated establishment he presides over and is therefore somewhat ironic. Ultimately, we discover that the reason for this is as a result of his heart being broken by Ilsa as she left him in Paris. Rick had placed the entirety of his affection upon her, and so when she left, there could only be an unignorable void left behind. When Ilsa returns and Rick remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” we are able to see this sensitivity present. The protagonist is easily unsettled by the arrival of Lund which signifies how an individual can become damaged and weakened by the pains of the past. Rick’s cynical and depressed attitude is a testament to the way in which one’s heart, the very core of their essence, is intrinsically fragile. On top of this, life, or rather the loss of it, is spoken of in a nonchalant manner. Rick says that the two Germans killed were lucky to have gained the fame from their deaths, and Major Heinrich Strasser [Conrad Veidt] threateningly warns Ilsa by reminding her of how one’s predicament of survival is far from secured where they are. Tying into this is the notion that an individual’s life and matters mean, in essence, nothing when pitted against the grand scheme of things. Rick says, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” These collectively contribute to the idea of life being a minute and brittle experience.
Moreover, love runs all the way through the film. It is the lack of love (lack of Ilsa) which causes the protagonist to feel as he does for the first part of the play, and equally it is the return of love (return of Ilsa) that restores Rick to peace. Notwithstanding the complex nature of the relationship between Ilsa and Rick, it is undeniable that the fundamental underpinning of it all is love. It could only be love that weathered such extensively testing tribulations and emerged as victor overall. Facing the terrors of war ravaging their nations, as well as the trouble with the authorities, only love could stand tall against these. It could only be love that allowed for Ilsa to cross paths with Rick again. Love determining the fate of the characters meant they had to meet once more after all the elapsed time. It could only be love that brought about the change to the protagonist’s character. Transitioning from a withdrawn and pessimistic man to an outgoing and optimistic man -, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” Love permeates this entire film and it is desired that the spectators will equally come to view love as the indispensable, supreme ethic that it is.
Finally, the aspect of time is also explored widely within the film. One scene displays the past events of the relationship between Rick and Ilsa in Paris and shows how the protagonist is looking backwards to better times. Not only this, but the constant choice of song by the two is ‘As Time Goes By.’ It is used as a triggering mechanism to allow them to reminisce on the past and enjoy their good memories. In fact, Rick consoles Ilsa as he bids farewell to her by assuring her, “we’ll always have Paris.” The film promulgates the idea that one can be impervious to the affects of time’s progression by simply clinging onto one moment of infinite beauty and basking in its glory forevermore. The most famous and poignant phrase of Casablanca encapsulates this notion exactly, “Here’s looking at you kid.” This phrase is repeated throughout the film to exhibit the way in which Rick is attached to the moments shared with Ilsa in Paris. Withal, the term “kid” can be seen as denoting the vibrancy of life that comes with youth. Hence it is understandable why Rick would give toasts to commemorating this wonderful time in both of their lives and why he would gaze upon this site in perpetuity.
It is because Casablanca explores such fundamental areas of human existence that it shall never lose its poignancy nor will it ever lose its effect of inspiring people regardless of class, colour or creed; all can share collectively in the joy of backhanding life’s end whilst lingering in a moment of blissful love.