Swans Commentary » swans.com January 15, 2007  



As Time Goes By


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - January 15, 2007)   The situation at the end of the film Casablanca is exquisitely complicated. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has had an affair with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Paris. When the Nazis invaded, Rick and Ilsa arranged to escape by train, but Ilsa never showed up at the station. Later, when she walks into Rick's Café, they meet again in Casablanca, a city filled with desperate refugees and slimy characters preying upon them. Ilsa has arrived with her husband, Laszlo, a leader of the resistance to Hitler. They are trapped in Casablanca and likely to be arrested by Strasser, a German Colonel who seems to control the city although it is nominally in the hands of Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt French officer. Rick is in possession of "letters of transit" which he could give to Ilsa and Laszlo to allow them to escape. But in his bitterness over her brush-off he hides them.

In a climactic scene Ilsa comes to Rick's room and begs him for the letters. She tells him that she was already married to Laszlo during their Paris affair, but that she thought he was dead. She claims she failed to meet Rick at the train because she had discovered Laszlo was still alive and that she now knows she admired Laszlo but loves Rick. She offers to stay with Rick if he would give Laszlo the letters. She pleads confusion and asks Rick to think for both of them.

At the end Rick puts both Ilsa and Laszlo on the plane for Lisbon. He seems to have decided that although he and Ilsa still love each other, they can't stay together. Their love would curdle if Ilsa left Laszlo. At the same time we cannot imagine that Ilsa is going with Laszlo and doesn't love him. That too would fail. And we have seen enough throughout the movie to know that she does. At one point, when the Germans break out into a rendition of Wacht aus Rhine in Rick's Café, Laszlo inspires an impromptu singing of The Marseillaise to drown them out. A shot of Ilsa during this scene clearly shows her love and admiration for Laszlo. She loves both Rick and Laszlo; the one passionately, the other with admiration. At the end the love affair between Rick and Ilsa can continue only if the lovers remain apart. But we also believe that it will sustain them under that condition. Everybody has behaved well, and the movie ends in a complicated romantic situation unmatched elsewhere.

Many American moviegoers admire Bogart's Rick, the suave café owner capable of negotiating the shifting situation in corrupt Casablanca. When the slimy Ugarte (Peter Lorre) tries to ingratiate himself with Rick by telling him that he helps the refugees at half price Rick counters, "I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one." Rick presents himself as selfish and disillusioned. There are many hints to reveal Rick's basic idealistic heart, but his disillusionment is also real. When Ilsa first arrives in the café he verbally abuses her and accuses her of sleeping with many men indifferently. In this scene he is expressing a true bitterness.

Few notice that Rick abandons the Rick character of Rick's Café at the end of the movie. Because of the Marseillaise incident, Strasser makes Renault close down Rick's Café. Instead of trying to reopen it Rick sells out. At the end Rick kills Strasser and holds Renault at gunpoint to allow Ilsa and Laszlo to escape. It seems he has sacrificed himself, but Laszlo has inspired even the supremely cynical Renault to heed his better self and he directs his men to "round up the usual suspects" in connection to Strasser's murder, deflecting suspicion from Rick. In the final scene Renault and Rick walk into the fog, away from Casablanca, and towards more noble lives. The disillusioned Casablanca Rick of Rick's Café is gone.

Ilsa can love Rick again because he again becomes the person he was in Paris. When Ilsa first arrives in Rick's and Rick abuses her, Ilsa announces that she no longer loves him. Her love revives because she sees in him the Parisian Rick again. But many see Ilsa as loving the disillusioned Casablanca Rick we see throughout the movie, and this romanticized Casablanca Rick has inspired many other characters in later films.

Rick is a romantic, embittered and disillusioned because Ilsa dumped him, who regains his better self when he discovers her love was real. But the Rick people take away from the film is more of an existential hero, and therefore more of an American persona. His disillusionment is a virtue: because of it he has entered the Casablanca underworld and is capable of obtaining the letters of transit and saving Ilsa and Laszlo. He is ready to sell anything -- for a high enough price, and he holds up this readiness as a moral precept. If Ilsa loves this Rick it is because he has what Laszlo lacks -- the ability to get them out of this tight fix. In this view, Ilsa loves the Casablanca Rick and we come away with a hero who is lovable precisely because he is disillusioned and through this disillusionment has acquired the power of effective action. Ilsa loves this Rick at Laszlo's expense. Rick has American virtues necessary to extricate Europe from its predicament. Casablanca Rick punctures Laszlo's high-minded balloon, and Ilsa loves Rick for this realism that can get things done. He gets them out of Casablanca because of his association with the slimy Ugarte. Laszlo is too moralistic, too refined, too European. His commitment to the resistance ends up seeming naive, not nearly as sexy as Rick's hard-headed selfishness. At the end we think that Rick and Ilsa's love is a secret from Laszlo.

Casablanca Rick, the existential hero, is an American guy who can find a place for himself in a world filled with more sophisticated but naive Europeans. Many subsequent movie characters have borrowed from the character of Casablanca Rick. They share his disillusionment arising, usually, from a broken love affair or marriage. The virtues of these characters come from their having lived among the bad guys. They are ready to do bad things themselves, but usually for some higher good. Our sympathy for them comes from their having loved and lost, and from our belief that under all the bad is something good.

The first of these is Johnny in Gilda, a movie universally recognized as a Casablanca knockoff and well known to film noir lovers. Glen Ford plays Johnny, the Rick-like character. He announces his disillusionment in a voiceover of the first scene. In this scene he is playing craps with the riffraff on a dockside in Buenos Aires. "A dollar is a dollar in any language," he says. When one of the players attacks Johnny for his winnings a man named Mundson rescues him. Mundson recognizes Johnny as one of his own unscrupulous kind and soon Johnny is managing Mundson's club. Mundson disappears then returns married to Gilda (Rita Hayworth). We quickly learn that Gilda and Johnny have been involved in the past. Johnny spends much of the rest of the movie keeping Gilda from cheating on Mundson, and this continues even after they both think Mundson is dead. Mundson is anything but a Laszlo character. He had been working with the Nazis, and now that they are out of the picture he is working behind the scenes to corner the tungsten market and thereby rule the world. There is a strong undercurrent of decadent, sadistic, misogynistic homosexuality between Johnny and Mundson, and Gilda and Johnny announce the extraordinary depth of their hatred for one another. Yet at the end, Obrigon, the Renault-like character, covers up the true story of Mundson's death to allow Gilda and Johnny to be together.

There is no sense in Gilda that Johnny was ever other than as we see him, disillusioned and cruel, and Gilda seems to like (or hate) him just that way. We can only assume that Gilda married Mundson for his money, for nothing is happening between them. Gilda lacks Ilsa's struggle between love and duty. Hatred is the content of her love affair with Johnny. We are supposed to think that Johnny is doing good because it is bad for a woman to cheat on her husband, even if he is a sadistic creep, but even within the movie Johnny's actions are recognized as coming more from a pure passion for cruelty. He says so himself in a voiceover. In the end they are together, but it has none of the romantic poignancy of Casablanca.

Just before Rick puts Ilsa on the plane he says, "We have Paris now, before we didn't have it." Johnny is the Casablanca Rick without Paris. He and Gilda have no happy memories, nor is there any explanation of why they separated. His disillusionment over the broken love affair has made him cunning and mean. We are to think he has a submerged spark of goodness that inspires him to control Gilda's sluttishness, but he is mostly just a bastard. Like Rick he is an American who can save the clueless Munson precisely because of his immersion in the underworld. He knows Gilda for what she is. As an independent operator his sense of good and bad is entirely independent of any code. He relies not on thought but on how he feels about the situation, and his feelings can be volcanic. This passion makes him sexy. In the end he and Gilda do not regain a better world, but go off into a shared semi-criminal existence.

Johnny illustrates the instability of this hero who does bad to do good. The evil he fights has to be big enough to counterbalance the bad he does. He is always in danger of becoming too bad. In his case the badness far outweighs the good. American movies are full of characters who make up their own code of behavior to end up doing the right thing in spite of breaking the rules. Bogart's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep rearranges a crime scene to protect his client; Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry in Dirty Harry tortures the zodiac killer to save his victim; and John McClane, Bruce Willis's character in the Die Hard series, detonates a bomb and nearly destroys a high rise building to defeat the terrorists. When Robinson, the chief of police objects, Powell, the ordinary cop McClane communicates with, applauds him.

Television also exhibits these figures. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) the hero-doctor in the show House violates medical ethics in nearly every show. Often he risks the patient's life. But since he almost always saves the patient, everything turns out all right. He too is suffering from an unresolved love affair that broke up over an operation his girl friend authorized as his health care proxy that has left him limping and dependent on Vicodin to control chronic pain. His disillusioned mantra that "everybody lies" helps him to diagnose mysterious deadly ailments patients inadvertently hide while lying.

None of these movies can capture the romance of Casablanca, but their heroes share with Casablanca Rick an existential morality in which they need to do bad in order to do good. It is perhaps for this reason that there are so many cop pictures in which the hero is always fighting, apparently pointlessly, with the chief of police or some other authority figure above him about his flouting of the rules. In many of these the hero is mourning or trying to repair a broken love affair that has often opened his eyes to the true bad state of the world. Sometimes the woman has broken up with the character, but often the bad guys or life itself have killed her. Her defection is his excuse. Such characters are obviously unstable. Bogart is said to have complained that Rick was too whiny ("So a dame dumped him. So what?"). This instability reaches a peak in the Lethal Weapon series with Martin Riggs, the Mel Gibson character who is always on the edge of homicidal insanity -- always in the cause of good. He too has a dead woman in his past.

Perhaps the strangest fruit on this tree is The Usual Suspects, a 1995 movie named for the line in Casablanca Renault said to direct attention away from Rick. It is the story of Keyser Söze, a nearly mythical super-humanly elusive drug lord who specializes in erasing every trace of anyone who has ever done him harm. Keyser Söze is the baddest of bad guys, the terror of the underworld itself. There is a line suggesting that he is the devil, yet he retains the audience's sympathy because his victims are also bad guys and the cops are abusive. The interest in the movie is, in part, guessing just who Keyser Söze is, so the audience, while sympathizing with him, does not even know which character to like. Keyser Söze starts out unknown and in the end disappears. "And like that -- he is gone." As usual, bad guys have caused the death of his wife and family. But Keyser Söze is so bad that he actually killed his family himself after a rival gang kidnapped and abused them. Also, he was already running a drug operation before this happened. The loss of his wife did not disillusion him. He never had any illusions. Keyser Söze has no vestige of decency, but might still be thought as doing good inadvertently because he kills all these bad guys and, apparently, only bad guys. In The Usual Suspects the hero is badder than the bad guys he kills and has no shred of principle. He leaves a wide swath of carnage behind him. We find that OK. We like him that way.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published January 15, 2007