Casablanca & the fallacy of ‘true love is letting go’

Andres Echeverria Franco analyses the emotional discourse in Casablanca

Andres Echeverria Franco
20th August 2020
We understand that mighty famous phrase ‘true love is letting go’ not as an absolute, but as an advice for ‘entanglements’ most particular and, at times, controversial. Yet one can see why many would use such a phrase with Casablanca (1942) in mind; that heart-wrenching tale which has become almost archetypal. The forbidden love, Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet. A story told and retold. And it is the latter that many relate with this idea of ‘letting go.’ In different ways, of course, but the sacrificial manner stays the same. I contend that Casablanca is an anomaly among these many romances. A story not concerned with sacrifice but another archetypal tale of man; that of those who go from men to heroes.

We begin in Casablanca, Morocco in the early 1940s. Unoccupied French soil, yet newly filled with stern German soldiers searching for thieves. Thieves who might as well have stolen the crown jewels since the travel permits that they took would be an exit for any expat stuck in Casablanca. The stage is set, a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ as immortalised by Alec Guinness when describing those thresholds all men must endure. We immediately see that this is a land filled with lies, corruption and, worst of all, vanity. The town’s pickpocket is so well-known that when he accidentally bumps into a veteran of this land, he immediately checks his pockets. We are in limbo, and God save those who can’t leave.

These countless desperadoes commune at the local saloon, Rick’s Cafe Casablanca. The joint is run by an American expat, Richard Blaine, and we soon learn three main things about him: he never has a drink with customers, never pays a customer’s check, and, most important of all, he doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody. This ‘every man for himself’ attitude isn’t exclusive to Rick. We see that many of the other shadowy characters of Casablanca are loyal only to themselves, and money of course.

Rick seems to be a man in control. Despite his claims that he’s never been a good businessman, he runs the most popular spot in Casablanca and is trusted by many. Even the corrupt prefect of police. Yet for all that success, he is a man on his own. Wanted in many nations for his rebellious past which puts him at odds with the new local Germans. We see him playing chess, alone, wearing a sombre face and a pure white suit that fits well, but feels forced. A man runs to him and hands him two travelling visas to save for him, because he trusts him with this task. This mysterious man, jumpy and cheery, is thankful and walks away only to be arrested by the local police. Shots fired and the whole shebang, all in Rick’s Cafe. Now Rick has the papers.

Image: Flickr

When he walks across the room, he is light on his feet, his arms down and a cigarette in his mouth. He is slow, he almost floats across the room through an undisturbed path. One can tell many things from a man’s walk. But he says everything with his eyes. All good actors do. And Humphrey Bogart understood that better than anybody. His body was surplus, watch the eyes.

When he arrives at the bar, we see a beautiful young woman. But her beauty is one of those that strikes hard but not true. She is a past lover of Rick’s, but she doesn’t know it yet. She is quite drunk and Rick kicks her out. Here we learn another thing about Rick. His handsome looks are not for nothing. Or they may be since he appears to be completely unaffected throughout the whole ordeal. What must happen to a man that he’ll become immune to women?

The reason for the Germans’ arrival is then revealed. Not only were they there to catch thieves, they’re also concerned with keeping a man in Casablanca once he lands: Victor Lazlo. A Czech resistance leader who has escaped concentration camps and is wanted by every Nazi officer in the known world. A legend in his own right. So much so that he arouses Rick’s attention; that rock of a man we’ve grown to know. The prefect of police wants to make sure Rick won’t help him. He quickly assures him, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

The next day comes, and the Cafe is bustling as always. Amongst the usual mess of the cafe, a couple walks in. The man, chivalrous and strong. A scar on his right eye and a streak of white that goes through his dark hair. The wife, indescribable. A beauty that hurts. Not that type of beauty that makes savages out of men. A beauty that hurts because it is so subtle and unassuming that one can’t help but feel vulnerable at the sight. It might have not been such a shock to those who had seen Ingrid Bergman before, but I struggle to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be stunned at such a sight. We see that Sam, the trusty piano player, is also stunned, but for different reasons, almost as if he had seen a ghost. The couple is seated, and the wife explains that she would prefer to not stay long, she has a bad feeling about that place. Love is a master foreshadower.

The man goes over to speak to someone at the bar. It is then clear that this is Lazlo, and he is already planning his escape. The wife, still seated at the table, calls for the piano player, as someone would call for an old friend. He seems happy to see her, but it is the sort of happiness that precedes tragedy, and he knows it. She asks about Rick, with a smile on her face, and Sam lies. Then she speaks those needle-like words, that even to the viewer, who’s only known her for five minutes, hurt like a long-lost love: “Play it Sam.” Reluctantly, Sam plays and then sings the tune, ‘As Time Goes By.’

The triangle of love between Lazlo, Rick and Ilsa is much more complex than the obstacles of impossible love.

A catchy melody with lyrics that very clearly mirror what we are watching. A moment of self-awareness for those involved. Sam keeps playing until Rick catches on and runs to stop him since he had forbidden him from ever playing that song again. He stops mid-sentence because he sees her. And that man we knew, the unmoved, the unfeeling, is gone. We can almost hear his heart sink. In the space of a minute we see the always collected Richard Blaine go from hysteric to completely vulnerable. They say man is most vulnerable when they are eating or showering. I say a man is most vulnerable when he is heartbroken.

You may be wondering why we should go through all of this again. We’ve all seen the movie, or at least we all know the story. This first part of the film is crucial in understanding the journey all of the characters go through. Not only Rick. With such an introduction one can easily predict a story of two lost lovers who reunite. But Casablanca is far from that. The triangle of love between Lazlo, Rick and Ilsa is much more complex than the obstacles of impossible love.

Lazlo is a great man, an enemy of the Nazis, a patriot, and a husband. Rick knows this and admires him. He is everything he isn’t. He is jealous of him at first. Envious, in fact. Ilsa loves Rick. She met him in Paris where she was alone after believing her husband had died at a concentration camp. They quickly fell in love and had plans to leave together, but days before they would leave, she learnt of her husband’s escape. He was alive and she knew her duties as wife. Rick, of course, knew nothing of this, and resented her for leaving him in such a fashion. He also resents Lazlo for existing. Lazlo is a frustrating character for Rick. He admires him yet hates him. But why then, does Rick let her go with Lazlo in the end, when she had professed her love and desire to stay? Because Rick finally understands who he is.

What viewers often confuse is that Rick doesn't send them to America as a couple

The moment she came back into his life he abandoned all of those rules he used to live by. He started drinking with customers, paying customer’s checks, sticking his neck out for people. He realises that Ilsa makes him a better man. For what is love if not that courageous act of standing up to a man’s devils? That is the beauty of Ilsa. A hero whose life is so valuable that Rick values it over his own. And he also understands how valuable she is to Lazlo, that great man of his times. Yet this is no transaction. This is no sacrifice. He is not giving Ilsa over. He is taking the reins of his own destiny. His true love for Ilsa lies in the way he’ll strive to be better for her, not in her improvement of him. With regards to Lazlo, Rick knows that he can do much better for the world. What viewers often confuse is that Rick doesn’t send them to America as a couple. He sends them as separate entities, emotionally at least. Ilsa, her love, and Lazlo, his idol.

Image: Flickr

We see this heroic journey reflected on other characters as well. The prefect of police redeems himself in the end, when he finally takes a side, prompting Rick to say, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Ferrari, the local crime boss, tells Lazlo that Rick has the letters, despite wanting to cash in on the transaction. And curiously, one that people miss is the arc of Rick’s former lover, Yvonne. After her breakup with Rick, she goes over with the Germans, resulting in disgust from many at the cafe. However, at the Battle of the Anthems, that climactic scene where Lazlo leads the Marseillaise against the Germans, she breaks into song with tears in her eyes, finally accepting her French identity.

A world of heroes is not one absent of heartbreak and it’s hard to watch that final scene without feeling some sort of dissatisfaction. If there’s a man right for Ilsa, it’s Lazlo, but Rick is our protagonist, and his complex character makes him a much more interesting one. The Rick-Lazlo dichotomy is reminiscent of Hector and Achilles. Lazlo being Hector, the perfect husband, soldier, and hero of his country. Rick being the individual, the tortured, the untouched; a man who seems to be the most influential man in Casablanca, much like Achilles was the greatest soldier in the world. But mortality can change a man. For Achilles it was his heel, for Rick it was Ilsa. And despite all the heartbreak, the dissatisfaction, the bittersweet, they will always have Paris.

Featured Image: Flickr

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