Casablanca (1943) Revisited

Posted: July 15, 2009 in David Macaray
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DVD: Casablanca
Blu-ray: Casablanca

Casablanca Revisited

By David Macaray

With the Motion Picture Academy having recently announced a change in next year’s format (i.e., going from five Best Picture nominees to a whopping ten), it might be useful to revisit the classic 1943 Best Picture winner, “Casablanca,” one of the most celebrated films in Hollywood history.

Not only is it still ranked as one of the greatest movies ever made, not only does it feature one of the greatest movie songs (“As Time Goes By”) ever written, and one of the most-quoted movie lines of all-time (“Play it again, Sam”), but it managed to beat out an astonishing nine other nominees to win Best Picture.

Although the Academy’s recent announcement was treated as an historical milestone, the five-picture format hasn’t been around forever. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1964 that the five-nominee configuration really took hold and stuck.

Prior to that, the number of nominees varied from as few as two, to as many as thirteen. In 1943, there were ten. The other nine nominees were: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Human Comedy,” “In Which We Serve,” “Madame Curie,” “The More the Merrier,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and “Watch on the Rhine.”

Oddly, “Casablanca’s” celebrated song not only didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Song, it wasn’t even nominated. Instead, “You’ll Never Know” (the song from the film, Hello, Frisco, Hello) won the award. And in yet another blow to conventional wisdom, that oft-quoted line (“Play it again, Sam”) was a paraphrase. It was never uttered in the film. The actual line was, “Sam, play it again.”

But for all the adoration and praise this movie has gotten, has anyone actually considered the feasibility of its premise? Has anyone asked himself what this movie is about? Because, if he had, he’d see that the premise is patently absurd. While it was released during the peak of World War II and is still one of the most respected movies of all-time (and one of my personal favorites), its storyline is preposterous.

Here’s the problem. Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid) is portrayed as this heroic Czech national, the leader of the European Resistance, an arch-enemy of Nazism, and the Third Reich’s most wanted man. The Germans have been hunting for this guy with a vengeance. As luck would have it, Laszlo, his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and a contingent of Nazis all wind up in Casablanca, Morocco, right in the middle of World War II.

There’s a scene where the ranking German officer, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), announces to the city’s corrupt chief of police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), that, while Lazlo has “slipped through our fingers three times,” this time they intend to grab him.

These Nazis are serious. Moreover, the script makes it clear that Laszlo is an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp. He’s a criminal, a fugitive, a wanted man. The Nazis not only despise him and everything he stands for, they also fear him because he’s the charismatic leader of the Underground, with a huge following, and is, therefore, a clear and present danger to the stability of the Reich.

And yet, with Victor Laszlo walking around the city of Casablanca, arm and arm with his wife, spending his evenings leisurely at the chic Rick’s Café Americain (Rick, of course, is played by Humphrey Bogart), the Nazis make no effort to snatch him. Major Strasser himself is even present at Rick’s club, glaring across the floor at Laszlo, gnashing his teeth but making no attempt to nab him.

Mind you, these are the same Nazis whose armies invaded and occupied a good part of Europe, the same Nazis who are engaged in the extermination of the Jews, who plotted to assassinate Winston Churchill, and who defiantly recognize no greater civil authority than Germany. They see themselves as Masters of the World.

And while international law obviously means nothing to the Nazis, we’re supposed to believe that if Victor Laszlo can obtain two “letters of transit,” which are floating mysteriously around the city, he and his wife will be able to leave Casablanca unimpeded.

Despite being a coveted fugitive, no one on earth, including the Nazis, have the power to stop him. Why? Because these “letters of transit” are signed by Charles De Gaulle, Free France’s president in exile. We are supposed to believe that the Nazis see themselves as helpless. I’m sorry, but that’s not believable.

Even more far-fetched is the fact that these “letters” are not even made out to Laszlo, personally. They’re blank. They’re a one-size-fits-all document. We’re supposed to believe that whoever possesses these magical letters cannot be touched, and that if Laszlo gets hold of them, these same brutal, monomaniacal Nazis can’t lay a finger on him.

No one’s suggesting that, for movies to work, they need to be “realistic.” James Bond and Batman prove that. We all know what it means to suspend our judgment for the sake of fiction. Still, there has to be some semblance of reality for a narrative to proceed, particularly one that purports to be steeped in actual history.

Unfortunately, that whole “letters” bit is simply too ridiculous to believe. In real life, the Nazis would have murdered him. They would have followed him out Ricks’ café and quietly ambushed him on the street. To quote another movie classic, Victor Laszlo would be sleeping with the fishes.

For those who think this appraisal is too petty or negative, there is this quote from Julius J. Epstein, the co-writer (along with his brother, Philip) of the screenplay for “Casablanca.” It was uttered shortly before his death.

“Just a routine assignment,” Epstein said. “Frankly, I can’t understand its staying power. If it were made today, line for line, each performance as good, it’d be laughed off the screen. It’s such a phony picture. Not a word of truth in it. It’s camp, it’s kitsch. It’s . . . shit!”

This is the writer himself talking about the movie he wrote. Ouch.

[David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and writer, with bylines in the LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Press, CounterPunch, and the Beckett Monthly]

  1. Let me just say that Casablanca is a fantasy, more than a straight drama, and that’s its charm. It’s supposed to be a place removed from WW2, not a war story.

    I wouldn’t fault Lord of the Rings for not getting the swordplay technically accurate, either.

  2. Joan Shelton says:

    I agree. It’s entertaining, engrossing hokum. We’re not in war-torn Casablanca but in Hollywoodland,
    But then, Shakespeare wasn’t all that hooked on accuracy, either. Writing “Henry VIII” during the lifetime of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth, caused a few facts to slip away. If he can do it, Mike Curtiz can do it.

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