THE MAGICAL PAIRING of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca is widely considered one of the great Hollywood romances. The Nazi-crossed lovers are shown on the movie poster, the film runs on cable every year around Valentine’s Day, and its principal love affair is lauded as the romance ne plus ultra by no less an authority than the eponymous couple in When Harry Met Sally. When I saw it for the first time—on the big screen at the now-defunct Key Theater in Georgetown—I took a female friend of mine for whom I had romantic intentions; it would never have occurred to me to ask one of my guy friends.
But here’s the thing: for all its rom-com elements—and there are plenty—Casablanca is not a romance, but a male revenge fantasy in disguise. This is why guys like the movie—it taps into our primal impulses: lust, self-pity, competition, drunkenness, the compulsion to be cool, nobility, pride, vengeance. We don’t identify with Rick as much as we want to be Rick. Running the hippest café/casino on the planet, drinking heavily, and hooking up with sexy expatriate women is a template for how we wished we’d gotten over our own broken hearts. When you break it down, the romantic elements in the film are nothing but noise.
Like Harry and Sally, we tend to glamorize the characters in the film, but as with The Great Gatsby, these are not nice people. Their portrayal by likable actors—is anyone in cinematic history more charming than Claude Reins’s Louis?—their soft-lit close-ups, their ability to deflect questions about their motives with a quip…all of this is masterful misdirection. When you actually look at the “full dossier” of any of the main players, they are all scumbags of varying degrees. Consider:
Ugarte (Peter Lorre)
Black market operative and war profiteer. It was Ugarte, after all, who shot the two German couriers on the train and stole the exit visas—“letters of transit signed by General DeGaulle”—that serve as the film’s “maguffin.” Rick doesn’t really care when Ugarte gets shot, and with good reason.
Louis Renault (Claude Reins)
Frenchman working for the Vichy (Nazi) government. Takes bribes. Uses his considerable authority to trade exit visas for sex. Openly lobbies for ménage à trois with Rick and Ilsa in front of Victor (not really, but close enough).
Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid)
Mad props for being the underground leader of the international resistance movement, but he’s a lousy husband, putting Ilsa in harm’s way, and allowing her to boink Rick to get those exit visas and save his sanctimonious ass.
Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)
Presents as the paragon of virtue, but her history suggests otherwise. Begins affair with Rick in Paris in the spring of 1940; abruptly ends it on June 14, 1940, when the Nazis take the capital, and she finds out her husband is alive, and sick, and needs her. Or so she says. The Czech lands—where, presumably, Victor Laszlo is from—were invaded by Germany in March of 1939. Laszlo had to have been active for some time before his capture to acquire his sterling reputation, and Ilsa is with him for some of his escapes. Do the math, and this means she took up with Rick less than a year after Victor’s capture. This suggests that her rationale for being with Rick—she thought Victor was dead—is not as pure as she’d like us to believe. There is no timetable for grief, certainly, but if she really loves Victor and wants to be faithful to him, it seems unlikely that she’d be careening around Paris in a sports car with an American guy nine months later. Could it be that she assumed Victor would die in a concentration camp, and made the conscious decision to move on, because she never loved him?
That brings us to “Richard Blaine, American,” the star of the show. We know a bit about Rick’s chequered past from his interview with Major Stasser of the Third Reich: He is from New York City, but he cannot return to his country. “The reason,” Strasser says, “is a little vague.” If this is true, Rick is guilty of some major crime—murder, perhaps; desertion; high treason. Something bad. Strasser says that Rick ran guns in Spain, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. This was a liberal cause célèbre in the 1930s—if it happened now, people like Sean Penn would be involved—but that does not take away from the fact that Rick is essentially a mercenary: a Blackwater type, basically. He also walked away from that conflict with enough money to a) hang out in Paris drinking Champagne all day, b) open a casino in Casablanca and not raise an eyebrow when the house loses big at the roulette wheel, and c) employ a black piano player to be his valet (the Rick/Sam relationship is troubling, no matter how you slice it). His “dossier,” as Strasser puts it, suggests a shady character. How could an American expat wind up with such a position of prominence in a corrupt city like Casablanca, if he were not comfortable in the muck? This is the man Ilsa falls for, the man she leaves in shambles at the train platform, the man she dearly loves.
When Ilsa bumps into him in Morocco (“All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and she walks into mine.”), Rick is right back at that rain-sloshed train station. The life he’s built for himself in his North African outpost, a life designed to assuage his heartache, vanishes with a few bars of “As Time Goes By.” He is angry with her. And his anger is a far greater force than his love—Rick’s tragic flaw. The Bulgarian refugee—looking about as Bulgarian as Charlton Heston looks Mexican in Touch of Evil, but never mind—asks Rick if Louis will make good on his promise of letters of transit if she has sex with him, and then, to cleanse her guilt, asks: “If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?” Rick responds: “No one ever loved me that much.” This is petulant, and not true, but he is too pissed off and immature to realize it.
Once it is clear that Rick can never recapture the magic of the Paris they’ll always have, he sets about destroying Ilsa’s marriage. If I can’t have her, Rick thinks, neither will Laszlo. He could have handed over he exit visas at any time, but he doesn’t give them to her until they have sex one last time—he has his way with Ilsa, just as the brazenly sleazy Louis would have with the Bulgarian woman, had Rick not intervened. Rick saves a stranger from this humiliation, but not the woman he loves. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he tells Victor that he did it. He pretends this is a noble gesture—he wants to make sure the truth is out there, he says, in case it comes up later—but his real motive is to make damned sure Victor knows he banged Ilsa. The subtext of this exchange is: You wife whored herself so you could escape. Just so you know.
As for Ilsa, she is operating under the impression that she will be on the Lisbon plane with Rick, and not with her ho-hum husband. This is what she wants—she respects Victor, but she is not, and never has been, in love with him. She goes so far as to protest, and Rick says that if she stays, she’ll regret it “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” This is pure bullshit—how could he really know what she’d regret ten years down the line?—and he knows it. Again, he is dressing his base intentions in noble clothes, but what he’s really saying is the opposite: “You will regret it, today, and tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.” This is a curse, in the purest sense of the word.
But the cherry on the sundae of Rick’s revenge is that what he does, at least on paper, is the right thing to do. His hill-of-beans relationship with Ilsa is not, in the grand scheme of things, as important as defeating the Nazis. Laszlo’s survival is more important than his hurt feelings. Victor does need Ilsa. Rick can walk away—with Louis, with whom he will spread VD across the African subcontinent—convinced that what he did was moral and good. In a sense, it is. But imagine if Casablanca ended not with Bogey and Rains strolling on the tarmac, but with Victor and Ilsa seated on the plane, as tortured and uncomfortable as if Rick was sitting there between them. Can you imagine how horrible that flight to Lisbon must have been? What dark thoughts are flashing through their minds as they make their escape? That Rick “does the right thing” at the end of the film does not change the fact that by doing so, he breaks Ilsa’s heart even more completely than she broke his—and forever tarnishes her marriage besides. This is not a romance! It is a film about a bitter man exacting revenge on the woman who broke his heart.
They might always have Paris. But Casablanca is all Rick’s.