Casablanca: Romance as Metaphor for Propaganda
Anyone who fails to enjoy the 1942 Warners Brothers classic Casablanca on the level of a love story may likely also fail to apprehend why the movie consistently ranks at or near the top of critical assessments of the best Hollywood movies of all time. The truth is that Casablanca is actually deserving of far more respect than it already receives precisely because the love triangle at its center holds the central political metaphor at work in the plot so tightly together that no amount of melodramatic intrusion can cause it to unwind. If one can’t enjoy Casablanca on the level great cinematic romance, perhaps one should learn to view the film through the prism of historical allegory. First, a quick history lesson. The time: the late 1930s. The location: Europe. The issue: the unrestrained spread of fascist ideology by force. The Nazi party that has taken power in Germany is making Europeans very nervous. They don’t yet know exactly what Hitler wants, but it’s beginning to look like a sure bet that most of the continent’s population is not going to like it if he gets it. The invasion of Poland sets off the most catastrophic era of the 20th Century. Hitler and his jackbooted thugs gobble up less militarily potent countries one by one and with a shocking ease. Like a stack of dominoes set up on end, the other powers of Europe fall under the brutal onslaught of fascism. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, America’s confidence that what is taking place on the other side of the globe is an internal dispute that has nothing to do with them is beginning to fall apart like a house of cards facing a tornado. The situation is becoming increasingly clearer to increasingly more Americans. That whole Hitler thing is no longer just the problem of the Europeans that has nothing to do with a country struggling desperately to put the Great Depression behind them. There is a word to describe the collective perspective blanketing the American consciousness in the years leading up to the commencement of principal photography on Casablanca barely more than six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Isolationist. America did not want to be drawn into the conflagration that Europe was experiencing for the second time in less than three decades. What is now referred to as World War I was still being referred to as the War to End All Wars when the official and unofficial American take on Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Europe that of not getting drawn into another bloody brawl between old world powers. Or, to put it another way: America stuck our neck out for nobody. Worth mentioning is that Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) says that very same thing to Capt. Renault (Claude Rains). Also work mentioning is that Rick’s Café is actually called Rick’s Café Americain. Everybody comes to Rick’s. This is the sentiment Capt. Renault expresses, but what he really means is that everybody comes to Rick’s Café Americain. That café is meant to represent America; a place where everybody is free to wallow in the enjoyment of capitalist free enterprise and the more positive expressions of democracy. (Unless, of course, American happens to be in the midst of one of those periods in American history that pop up every thirty or forty years in which racist immigration laws prohibit certain “everybodys” from coming to America.) Rick’s Café Americain is a microcosmic expression of the larger metaphorical concept at play in Casablanca. Rick may be a beneficent despot as owner of his café, but even more so than the real country back home, the cafe truly does represent those words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The café is the melting pot free from judgment that American propaganda claims it to be. The official line inside that café is that Nazi, French, British, Moroccan and every other type of currency is welcome. The only color that matters is the color of money. But then so is Rick and this is where the metaphorical enjoyment of Casablanca gets most interesting. The trivia has always been that the screenwriters of Casablanca didn’t decide until the last minute that Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) would fly off to Lisbon with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried.) If that were true, the greatest romantic triangle in the history of film would not have the whirling power of a tornado capable of keeping the sum of its parts from flying out of control even once. What truly makes Casablanca the greatest love story ever filmed is that the entire premise would fly out of control and fall apart were it to end any other way. Casablanca was a propaganda film meant to build up support for the American war efforts against the march of fascism and, somewhat amazingly, the love story that propels the narrative is absolutely essential to forwarding that propaganda. Hard as it may be to believe, even in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack, by which time it had become even to the sternest isolationists that Hitler was a psychopath on track to become a monomaniacal threat of historic dimensions and in the year between the Japanese attack and the premiere of Casablanca, there remained a substantial contingent of Americans waving the flag of isolationism led by a small coterie of highly influential and powerful people. Less than three months before the Pearl Harbor bombing, living legend Charles Lindbergh delivered a speech in Des Moines that could be confused with a speech delivered by Hitler in Germany at the same time in which he declared that “Jews in this country should be opposing [war with Germany] in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” Lindbergh was hardly alone in desiring that America stay out of the war tearing Europe apart. Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy, William Randolph Hearst, the DuPont family as well as the heads of GM and Standard Oil all clung tightly to isolationism right up until it was considered so unpatriotic as to verge on treasonous not to do so. It is near the beginning of Casablanca that Rick Blaine says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” By the end of Casablanca, Rick Blaine has transformed his necessary business association with Capt. Renault into a beautiful friendship based precisely on the common interest of sticking out their necks for anybody under the brutal thumb of fascist imperialism. Rick is an isolationist no more. Capt. Renault has become the metaphorical embodiment of those Americans who either actively collaborated with the Nazis or looked the other way whenever they committed their atrocities. Like Lindbergh and Ford and Kennedy and Hearst and so many others whose isolationist stance was constructed upon a solid foundation of good business sense, Renault ultimately is forced into acknowledging that coerced compliance is the same as active support and either option is nothing less than a railway path to their own obliteration. Casablanca can ultimately be viewed not as a great romantic story about whether Ilsa chooses Victor or Rick but a great romantic story about whether Rick will choose isolationism or activism.
Characterizing Rick in Casablanca
Rick, a kindhearted man with a strong moral compass, is far from the most detestable of the characters in Casablanca. While he demonstrates some qualities and actions that could lead to the assumption that he is loathsome, he is not to be confused with his cowardly counterparts. His tireless charade at the beginning of Casablanca may give the wrong impression as he appears cynical and aloof, detached not just from other people but from the traumatising events happening around him. This quickly changes as the film progresses and his strong moral compass shines through, proving he is undoubtedly “at heart a sentimentalist”. This is not the case for some of the other characters, as their weak, unscrupulous ways become apparent and they make Rick seem almost angelic in comparison. When Rick sees a poor Bulgarian couple desperate to escape the uncertainty permeating Casablanca, he is reluctant at first to assist them. His idealistic side soon wins out and he allows the husband to win roulette, saving him from the fearful grasp of the city. A horrible person would surely not have rolled over as quickly and easily as Rick did; this act disproved his earlier statement that he “(stuck his) neck out for nobody”. It is inarguable that his jaded, sardonic outer shell could lead to feelings of dislike toward Rick but his compassionate core emerges so frequently throughout the film it would be impossible to call him contemptible. In the flashback to Paris we see his gentle, loving side as he and Ilsa fall for each other. The man in Paris had kind, sparkling eyes and was relaxed and happy. His broken heart and the horrific events of the war have stripped this from the surface of his being, but Paris implies he has the capacity to love and be loved. At the conclusion of the film he commits a selfless and noble act, putting his feelings for Ilsa aside and helping Laszlo escape to continue his heroic fight for freedom. Louis is perhaps the most complex character in Casablanca and constantly blurs the lines between good and evil. His expedient ways make it clear he is not a man of high moral standing; however, clues in the film and his part in the final scene show there is more to Louis than meets the eye. His actions make it clear from the start that he is observant and inquisitive, as his eyes miss nothing and he leans in to hear Rick’s opinions. The way he sits back in his chair almost casually and gives a limp salute to fellow Vichy France soldiers displays his flippancy and deceiving insouciance in the goings on. He happily follows the prevailing wind and arrests Ugarte on order, but clearly sees this as an opportunity to impress and raise his status amongst the officers. He shuts down Rick’s Café under the pretence that gambling was no longer allowed but happily collected his winnings on the way out. So it can certainly be said Louis is self centred and indulgent in his every urge. By contrast, Rick clearly sees the good in this character from the beginning, and when he didn’t join in to the German national anthem, a pivotal point in the film, it became clear that Louis was not fully committed to the Nazis. His closing act of assisting Rick in his plight to help Laszlo escape despite the ramifications on Louis himself is evidence that can be just as admirable as he can be corrupt. Overall his noble actions overcome his selfish misdemeanours. Ilsa may not be an obviously detestable character but perhaps her fence sitting and frustrating complacency make her even more unlikeable than Louis and Rick combined. She may do the right thing in Paris when she leaves to reunite with Laszlo, who was clearly more in need of assistance than Rick, but in Casablanca she is nothing more than an inconvenience to all involved. “You must think for the both of us” she cries to Rick as they ponder their fate, displaying a lack of decisiveness and inability to form a coherent thought herself. She is prepared to leave her heroic husband alone and without support so she can satisfy her own selfish desires, but even this she refuses to decide for sure, allowing the men in her life to mould her in any way they want. To an extent she is also cold and detached throughout Casablanca, with her aloof expressions and haughty posture. Ilsa’s arrogance, helplessness and emotional instability make her a most unpleasant character.While Louis and Ilsa are inferior to Rick, a clear antagonist in the film comes in the form of a pathetic, sweaty Italian shyster. Our instant impression of Ugarte is that he is shady and corrupt, his outfit a bit too groomed and his hair a bit too oily. He has distinct “parasitic” qualities as he rips off civilians for letters of transit, and he is responsible for the murder of “two German couriers”. These vile actions are not helped in any way by the way he simpers around, sniffing out the weak and disgusting Rick in every way possible. His smile dances smugly around the corners of his mouth, a metaphor for the way in which he questions Rick – navigating around his real question in a most deceitful manner. Ugarte is very easy to “despise” and is perhaps the only character in Casablanca without a single redeeming quality.Ultimately, the fitful tension in Casablanca brought out the worst in all involved, and the fact that Rick maintained his good heart set him a far above the supporting cast. Whether they showed a weakness in character or were corrupted by the war, the “crazy world” around them broke them down into a despicable mess making Ilsa, Louis and Ugarte far more contemptible than Rick.
Formalism in Casablanca
Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz and released in 1942, exhibits qualities of both the Classical Hollywood Narrative and Art Cinema. These two film structures are the equivalent to formalism in literature, but also point to other frameworks including feminism, postmodernism and new historicism. Art cinema and Classical Hollywood Narrative marry in Casablanca in a way which informs the character development and narrative trajectory of the film. The fact that the Classical Hollywood Narrative is so identifiable in this film goes to show its historical time and place; the use of experimentation which would become a staple of Art Cinema is indicative of the fact that Casablanca uses unconventional textual devices to convey meaning, character and story, and also that Casablanca is a film which demonstrates the slowly changing standard of filmmaking at that time. The Classical Hollywood Narrative was and arguably still is the standard model for Hollywood made films and movies. It consists of a few basic components according to which Casablanca is largely constructed. Eshowsky.com has narrowed them down to a few basic categories. Specifically, some these components are elision, cause and effect, motivation, hero/protagonist and narrative closure. The hero/protagonist is the central figure of the film, is often the hero, and is surrounded by a host of secondary characters. The film is constructed with a moral, and we are usually supposed to support the hero/protagonist in his quest. Elision refers to the economical editing which demands that each scene connects unambiguously with the next and each action is immediately clarified for the audience. Cause and effect, narrative closure and motivation are the elements for which elision exists. Cause and effect and motivation refer to the fact that in Classical Hollywood Narrative, every piece of dialogue, every action and every scene is contrived to lead to an ultimate ending. Nothing happens without a reason. The ultimate ending is governed by narrative closure, which states that the ending is clear and keeps no one guessing. Movies using this model usually contain a happy ending. Art cinema had its heyday in the late fifties and sixties, and some of its early influence can be seen in Casablanca. Filmreference.com carries a reliable and succinct article on the narrative system. In brief, art cinema is essentially the opposite of Classical Hollywood Narrative, and basically consists of authorial expression, oblique or non-linear narrative structure and an inclination toward character psychology and realism. Often the ending is unclear and lacks any kind of closure. The intent is to show a truer representation of human relationships, psyches and events and usually contains multiple themes and no clear moral. Casablanca is mainly built upon a Classical Hollywood Narrative framework, and so any experimentation done in the components of the film’s language are subtle and done in service to the larger framework. Despite the fact that they require being pointed out unless the viewer has the background information to be able to detect them, they are significant in that they show not only the slowly changing tide of filmmaking styles, but also some of the thematic elements of the work, and how they apply to multiple literary frameworks. For example, the moral wavering of Rick, in particular with his relationship to Captain Renaud, shows both the experimentation and the mild streak of postmodernism detectable in the film. Rick is seemingly cold, and as we learn, tormented character throughout the film. He has a strained friendship with the chief of police, a sneaky man who cooperates with the Nazis for the sake of not being hassled. However, when Rick proves successful against a Nazi threat, Renaud switches his allegiances like a weather vane. Interestingly, instead of rebuffing him, Rick accepts his friendship. This character ambiguity and fluctuating sense of morality for the sake of pragmatism is typical of postmodernism. The fact that the American is the reluctant hero, the Frenchman the weasel, and someone more pure-hearted like Victor Lazlo is only a secondary character can be read in a new historical framework. We are supposed to root for Victor Lazlo, the legendary hero of the story. In a perfectly Classical film, it is likely that Lazlo would be the hero/protagonist. However, the imperfect Rick is the main character; this can be attributed to the fact that Rick is the American, (whereas Lazlo is Czech) which is arguably why he has been made into the more dynamic and relevant character. Lazlo even questions Rick about his true sense of morality and sympathy for the underdog. Here we see how art cinema is in service the Classical Hollywood Narrative: ultimately it must be the hero/protagonist who saves the day, but he is ambiguous and tormented; Rick is given advice from someone who is everything he should be. This is not uncommon to CHN, but normally the hero/protagonist would surely exhibit those qualities from the beginning. Rick could possibly represent the United States in its attitude toward the Nazis. Rick tries to stay neutral for as long as he can until the war comes to him; the United States tried to remain out of the theater of war until Japan coaxed them to enter. Lazlo, being from an occupied nation, could easily represent the plight of the occupied nations and the American mentality that it is their job to rescue them. Rick could therefore be a metaphor for the American involvement in the war. It is possible even that this film is a call to arms for Americans, seeing as the film was made in 1942, when America would have already entered World War Two. In this framework, it would seem that film experimentation is being used manipulatively for the purposes of propaganda. Equally significant is the use of character psychology in the film. Again, this is done in service to the overall Classical narrative structure. Generally speaking, the characters in this film aren’t given much of a representation of their psyche. However, an exception is made for Rick, whose psychological state is given attention because it helps in developing the narrative. For example, when Rick is drinking at his empty Café Americain, he begins to reminisce about his lost relationship with Elsa, and how it fell apart. This is done in montage, which was a non-American way of using footage to evoke meaning or emotion. This demonstrates some of the hands-on experimentation taking place in this film. Rick is shown as being lovesick and emotionally and morally conflicted. However, his psychology gives us enough information to understand where the film is going, and his desire of Elsa comes into play heavily throughout the movie. The fact that the decision was made to introduce this part of the story through character psychology denotes a slight change in film-making styles, but also reinforces the ingrained Classical Hollywood Narrative so present in this movie. An example of unadulterated Classical Hollywood Narrative is the lighting and framing used on Elsa. In the scene where Sam is playing “As Time Goes By”, we are shown a close-up of Elsa’s face. In a subtle yet unmistakably Classical way, Elsa is given a soft filter to highlight her feminine features and sparkling eyes. Her beauty is generally praised as being her best feature throughout the movie. If read through a feminist framework, one could say that the lighting and cinematography of this scene is symbolic of Elsa’s role throughout the film. She even gives Rick the power to decide whether or not to help Lazlo and her escape by claiming that she’s far too confused, and that he must think for her. She is little more than a pretty face, and when confronted with a challenge, buckles and chooses to rely on men. Given that her most attractive quality is her appearance, it is no wonder why special attention was given to a close-up of her face. This could appear to be a lapse in the film’s elision, when it is in fact a standard technique for representing beauty. It is however easy at times to confuse one film framework for another in a given scene. For example, the scene in which Victor Lazlo and Elsa take off on a plane could be construed as following Art Cinema, because they leave the scene without a clear ending to their mission, and because the ending seems to come as a surprise. However, everything in the film leads to this moment, using motivation and cause and effect typical of Classical Hollywood Narrative. Even if it is not precisely what each character wanted, it what was determined to happen right from the very beginning of the film; furthermore, if Rick is to fulfill his role as the hero, it must happen because it is the right thing to do. The element of the ending which does, in fact, resemble the Art Cinema form is in the fact that it is bittersweet. One the one hand, the chain of events throughout the movie all intertwine into a clear ending for the episode. However, it is the fact that we are left partially saddened at the rupture of Elsa and Rick, that we are left feeling hopeful over Lazlo’s cause, and that we are left hanging with the uneasy alliance of Rick and Captain Renaud, that this film represents a slight move toward a different style of cinematic story-telling. Casablanca was made during the start of a transition in film frameworks. It was also based on a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, which itself came at a transition point between modernism and postmodernism, and thus contains traces of the two. Casablanca uses experimentation in service to the standard Classical Hollywood Narrative format. In its use of these two styles of film-making, Casablanca speaks volumes about its time period, its meaning and all the different literary theories to which this film may be applied. 1. Curtiz, Michael, dir. Casablanca. Prod. Hall B. Wallis. 1942. MGM, 1997. DVD- ROM.2. “The Classical Hollywood Narrative System.” Eshowsky. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2010. <: http://www.eshowsky.com/basic-introduction/classic-hollywood- narrative-systemchns2.html.>.3. “Art Cinema: Textual Characteristics.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2010.
Self-Interest and Self-Discovery in the Characters of ‘Casablanca’
Self interest is a prominent ideal in Casablanca, manifesting itself in characters such as Louis Renault, and his manipulative tendencies. Conversely, kindness and altruism prevail in characters such as Rick Blaine and Victor Lazlo, most saliently through their respective relationships with Ilsa Lund, as well as their prioritisation of politics. All of these characters do indeed “look out for themselves,” to an extent, but they ultimately choose the Allied cause as their primary focus at the conclusion of the film – all of them sacrificing love for duty – demonstrating that the characters in Casablanca all make the journey from self interested to selfless.
The bitter and jaded Rick Blaine typifies the masculine and cynical man of the time, with his indifferent veneer and drinking habit, yet, he is perhaps one of the most selfless and kind characters of the film. The audience is initially introduced to Rick as an elusive and enigmatic figure, always hearing about him, but never actually meeting him. In fact, in our first encounter with Rick, he attempts to demonstrate that he indeed “sticks his neck out for nobody,” by turning his back on Ugarte, and then subsequently rudely rejecting his lover, Yvonne’s, earnest question; “will I see you tonight?” to retreat back to his solitude. However, this cold-hearted version of Rick is merely a façade; one that cracks throughout the film with the introduction of the “beautiful,” Ilsa Lund. Although he attempts time and time again to portray himself as cynical and ill-tempered (such as the scene where Ilsa attempts to explain why she abandoned him at the train station so long ago and his hurtful quips leave her in tears), Rick is truly “a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.” Rather, Rick is a “sentimentalist,” suffering from heart break, not cold-heartedness. Towards the end of the film we see him “stick his neck out,” for countless characters; Annina, Jan and finally, Ilsa, making the ultimate sacrifice so that she can “keep [Lazlo] going,” and secure the future of the cause. This sacrifice shows the true nobility which inevitably defines him, that he’s willing to give up a familiar, albeit uncomfortable, life in Casablanca and a potential union with the love of his life solely so that the war effort will benefit. Another character whose politics precede his personal problems is Victor Lazlo.
Lazlo displays the qualities of a conventional hero: passionate, political and selfless – dedicating his whole existence to the Allied cause; demonstrating that he is one of the characters in Casablanca who “sticks his head out” for somebody, or rather, everybody. A useful example of the hardship Lazlo endures so that the world will benefit is his elusive, yet harrowing time spent in concentration camps; exemplified in the long and jagged scar that reaches across his face. Building on this, Victor’s honesty and suffering is illuminated through lighting director Eddison’s choice to shoot him in full light, accentuating all of his features – even his scar, illustrating his honesty and the fact that he is unable to hide himself and the values that define him. Lazlo is truly willing to put himself in danger so that others would benefit; another example being the scene with the singing of “La Marseillaise.” He impassions the people at the expense of exposing himself to the authorities, and as a result is told that he is no longer “safe to stay in Casablanca,” leaving him desperate and flailing for a way out. He compromised his own safety for his morals, and so that the people in the bar would feel a sense of hope again after spending so much time wallowing in the bleak nature of war.
In stark contrast to these characters is the sardonic and witty Captain Louis Renault, whose womanising ways demonstrate his egotistical nature and apparent need to satisfy his qualms. Renault exploits young and vulnerable women; even bribing them to sleep with him, such as Annina, who contemplates compromising her morals for his own gain. He offers her letters of transit in exchange for sexual favours – knowing full well that this “terrible thing” would destroy Annina’s conscience, an act that shows his self interested nature as well as his poor morals. Moreover, Renault’s loyalty is sold to the highest bidder, he never advocates for the right thing, rather just the cause that benefits him the most. He sways with the wind, and the “prevailing wind [in the film] just so happens to be from Vichy.” As a result of his flimsy morals, he is hardly dedicated to his chosen cause – able to drop it at a moment once another one catches his eye.
Louis doesn’t “stick his neck out” for a cause, rather, rides on its coat tails until it has been exhausted of favours. However, at the end of the film, Renault’s morals are tested, and the more honourable ones prevail with him joining Rick’s fight with the resistance; the beginning of not only a “beautiful friendship,” but the beginning of Renault turning over a new leaf, so to speak.