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Casablanca is hailed as one of the most beloved romances of all time. So it`s a real shame, for me, apparently, that I never was able to view this film until my twenty-third year – I had missed out on this cultural milestone. But now I can say that I am finally in on what everybody else already knows about. This doesn`t mean that I`m suddenly enamoured of this picture, or that it has become my favourite movie. I`ve understood over time that I don`t warm up to these universal classics as well as others might. It took me a few views to truly appreciate Vertigo. I really did not love Gone with the Wind very much at all. And my experience with this movie is that it began slowly and rather confusingly for me, but picked up greatly once the full force of the central love story was utilized.
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Everybody surely knows at least a part or a slight outline of the story. In Casablanca, a city in France-occupied Morocco in World War II, many people use this port as a place of transit between the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe and the freedom of America, and hope to get the proper papers to achieve that goal. Yet, in a lot of cases, numbers of people are stuck in this corrupt town, corrupt because it is a town filled with opportunists. Many people seeking freedom are forced to buy their desired fate to others quite willing to profit from the misfortunes of others. And the officials, including Captain Louis (Claude Rains) are not exactly the most noble and ethical of people, especially since they willingly suck up to the Germans.

To pass the time, many of these unfortunate souls convene frequently at Rick`s Café American, run by a man (Humphrey Bogart) who, at first impression, seems to only care about running a money-making joint, and who does not seem to care about the fates of others, including that of a man (Peter Lorre) accused of murdering German officials and stealing letters of transit useful to those seeking freedom. Rick appears to be a loner, who won`t stick out his neck for anyone, and who does not reveal his politics, if he indeed has any. But there are a few cracks in Rick`s armour. Something happened in Africa in which he was heavily involved. And the re-appearance of a certain woman brings back a flood of memories Rick would rather not deal with.

That woman is Ilsa, played, of course, by Ingrid Bergman, and is here in Casablanca with her husband, a leader of an underground movement who has experienced a year in a concentration camp. The couple wants to escape to America, but, of course, difficulties abound, most surely because of the reputation of the husband, whom the Germans' don`t want out of their sight. It is at this point where the real love story is revealed, as we are shown flashbacks of Rick and Ilsa in Paris just before the Nazi occupation, and the moment which seems like a betrayal, when Ilsa suddenly breaks off the plan for her to escape with him to a safer place. Rick has always resented that, which makes him the apathetic, apolitical loner he is now. The two must now attempt to put aside their problems and atttempt to solve the bigger problem of how to escape this godforsaken town and find freedom, away from the Nazis.

Humphrey Bogart, as always, is very interesting. While he has a reputation as a tough guy, he shows here that he is capable of more dramatic emotions. This is the case on the night after he is reunited with Ilsa. He wallows in misery and self-pity, as well as in drink, demanding Sam to play "their" song he vowed he`d never hear again, and basically replaying those old memories in his head, wondering how Ilsa would do such a thing as to leave.

Ingrid Bergman appears to me in this movie to be a follower, not a leader. Ilsa seems stuck in her life, and unable to make choices for herself. She thought her husband was dead, so she had her affair with Rick, but, when the husband returns, she goes back to being the put-upon sidekick in the drama. She is conflicted by her different loves, and does not know the right choice to make. As usual, it is up to the romantic hero (Bogart) to make that choice for her.

And Claude Rains is by far the most amusing aspect of the picture. His Captain Louis allegedly controls the daily affairs of Casablanca, but in reality sucks up to whomever crosses his path, especially the German officers who come into town to find those who attempt to undermine Nazi rule. Louis does not seem to have any convictions at all. He only wants a comfortable life - whether it`s ensuring that he wins at Rick`s roulette table or appeasing Germans, he does not want any petty problems of conscience infesting his soul. Rains has always been an interesting actor (Notorious, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), mainly because he does not play his villains in the usual manner. He does not really play them as villains, but as people whose true feelings are in conflict with the need to act the "proper" role. In Notorious, he was a Nazi who truly cared for Ingrid Bergman, in Mr. Smith, he was a senator whose principles were long ago poisoned due to the overall corrupt political atmosphere of the Senate, and in this movie, he is seduced by the corruptible nature of his position, even though we get the sense that he is not really a bad guy.

As I watched this, I was struck with the odd feeling that this movie was meant to be something else entirely, and that time has transcended the original origins of the film into something more universal, more exclusively romantic. Casablanca was made during the middle of the war, and knowing this fact colours much of the movie`s content. In a sense, the film is expert wartime propaganda, meant to direct our emotions toward something larger, and more demanding, than silly love affairs. The story was a unique way to make the point that there is things larger than our petty personal concerns, and that is echoed in Bogart`s famous final speech to Bergman. His point is that the problems of three people don`t matter a hill of beans in this crazy world – and the message was as much for the audience as it was for Ingrid Bergman. By succumbing to love, these people will create damage upon that free world by ignoring the threat. And at the same time, we must push away our own petty concerns and think of the people who are trying to bring good to the horror that is the war against Germany. (I would see this as the happy opposition to that of Fassbinder`s The Marriage of Maria Braun, in which post-WWII Germans are asked to dump their own regret and shame over the loss of the war, and replace it with unfeeling, selfish, greedy opportunism.).

But like all well-made films, Casablanca is better than mere propaganda. The film has transcended time because of the romantic sacrifice, and that is where the main interest of this film remains today. Stripped of the political surroundings, the inevitable ending tells us that some things cannot be repeated, that we must make do with only our memories of what was good, as love cannot always last forever. Just because we may love a certain person does not always mean that we will be with that person for the rest of our lives. I, for one, can understand such a feeling. A few times, I have had to let go of more than one female companion, because they and I were not able to have each other in our lives, due to awkward circumstances. (Oddly enough, in both cases, I lost them both to late-night shifts at call-in centres, so maybe that`s a lesson for me to not make acquaintances with those sorts of people!) While it was very unfortanate that they slipped from my life, at least I can say that they were in my life at one time, and that those times were worthy. And that is the point of this movie. "We`ll always have Paris."

David Macdonald

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