Copy-edited and slightly modified version of text in printed paper
Casablanca, which came out in November 1942, in the first year of US participation in the Second World War, may be the most popular Hollywood movie ever made. It is at the centre of a big cult, and part of another big cult, that of its star, Humphrey Bogart.
It is a highly-burnished fable, or set of fables, about how good (though at first politically disoriented), not so good, and thoroughly bad people finally rally to "the fight against fascism" as embodied in the Allied, specifically the American, cause in World War Two.
Casablanca is about sexual love. It is saturated with it, from the lighting, presence and playing of the actors to the theme song, which counterpoints what we are allowed by the censors to see on screen. "You must remember this/ A kiss is still a kiss/ A sigh is just a sigh/ The fundamental things apply/ As time goes by".
That is set out visually at the beginning, when we are shown a tower. Shots of the tower and its urgently flashing lights will be repeated at key points in the story: Casablanca unfolds under the sign and symbol of the phallic tower. It is about sex. Casablanca is, in its fashion, almost modern.
Perhaps its popularity is in part because Casablanca is a feel-good, even a cosy, film. The film is as cosy as a well-run nightclub in the desert. The worst villain in it comes over from the dark side at the end. It is tremendously well-made and the actors in it are terrific.
It glamorises. "The Resistance" meet each other in a high society nightclub. In one scene a member of the resistance identifies himself to Laszlo by opening a signet ring with the Gaullist Free French emblem, the Cross of Lorraine, inside. It is a boy's comic, a naive adult's and an old fashioned Hollywood idea of "The Resistance".
Casablanca touches on serious concerns, without pain-bearing seriousness, and in a sense without truthful real concern. It has no definition of fascism. It softens, sweetens, romanticises, misrepresents and tries to hide or smother in moonshine the reality of every issue it touches upon. The Nazi Germans in it aren't Nazis as that term would have meaning by 1945 and has meaning now. What the term "Nazi" conjures up for us today hadn't emerged yet.
There was no great horror yet. Charlie Chaplin once said that his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which poked fun at Hitler, would not have been possible to conceive of later in the war after the "Nazi" aspects of German fascism had emerged.
Casablanca is a film rooted in that age of comparative innocence about the realities of Nazism, a "pre-Nazi" film, without knowledge of the horror-Fascism that would all too soon reveal itself. Invaded Poland and Russia, whose peoples were in varying degree classified by the Nazi race-warriors as sub-human and treated accordingly, knew; but the world at large did not yet know fully what Nazism was. In Casablanca the Nazis are still comfortable villains, not yet monsters.
It is perhaps appropriate that in the great scene in the night club, where German soldiers are drowned out by the singing of the Marseillaise, the Germans are not singing the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied, but a 19th-century German nationalist song, "Watch on the Rhine".
On refugees, the film doesn't soften the reality - it turns it on its head, as we will see.
For heroes or villain(s), what they are is ascribed, not demonstrated. The heroes are designated, though for the first half of the film the behaviour of the central character is not heroic and is at times reprehensible.
A lot has been written about the exigencies in the making of Casablanca - no full script at the start, the constraints of the censorship, etc. - in effect deconstructing it. It exists as a finished and coherent and politically functional film. I will deal with that, and its politics.
You can take it as only hokum, or seriously, on its own terms and by the role it played as war propaganda, and, now, as romantic master work. Take it as hokum and the question is still there: is it benign hokum?
It played a role as war propaganda. It offered an account of the world to its audiences. It does that still. In how it dealt with one of the great questions in the 1930s and 1940s world, the refugee question, it contributed to how people then saw and dealt with it.
It is an ideological relic of its time and place and of the way that world saw and dealt with the questions which Casablanca in its own way dealt with. In that, Casablanca opens for us an unexpected window into the world in which the Holocaust could happen, in large part because America and other countries refused to let in Jews threatened with death and eventually killed.
It is not possible to prove any particular reading or interpretation of Casablanca. To try to would be as silly as trying to define it as a complete and coherent parody of the parallel realities it sometimes parodies. You can only offer an account, an interpretation, of it.
Casablanca and Mission to Moscow
Casablanca was one of the first of a series of American war propaganda films, some of which would glorify Stalin's Russia. Howard Koch, one of the three credited writers on Casablanca, and a Stalinist, is said to have put the politics into the film.
The film's director, Michael Curtiz would go on, in his next assignment for the same studio, Warner Brothers, to make one of the greatest political atrocities in Hollywood's atrocity-rich history: Mission to Moscow. Koch was its sole writer.
Made at the suggestion of President F D Roosevelt, it was an out-and-out endorsement of the Stalin regime in Russia and of Stalin's Moscow show-trials (1936, 1937, 1938). The former US ambassador to Moscow, Joseph E Davies, on whose memoirs the film was loosely based, appeared on screen at the start of the film to vouch for its truthfulness. The film thus had something like the stamp of the Roosevelt administration's endorsement.
Casablanca and Mission to Moscow are twins - not identical twins, but twins nonetheless. They tell the same general story. Both give the Stalinist account of world politics in the lead-up to the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the outbreak of war in August-September 1939. For the most part Casablanca does it subtly; Mission to Moscow, brutally.
The easiest way to show the reader what Mission to Moscow was is to cite what the friendly New York Times critic said of it:
"Mission to Moscow as a film - or should we say as a screen manifesto, which is actually what it is… is clearly the most outspoken picture on a political subject that an American studio has ever made. With a boldness unique in film ventures, which usually evade all issues, it comes out sharply and frankly for an understanding of Russia's point of view.
"It says… that Russia's leaders saw, when the leaders of other nations dawdled, that the Nazis were a menace to the world... Particularly will it anger the so-called Trotskyites with its visual re-enactment of the famous ‘Moscow trials'. For it puts into the record for millions of movie-goers to grasp an admission that the many ‘purged' generals and other leaders were conspirators in a plot - a plot engineered by Trotsky with the Nazis and the Japs to drain the strength of Russia and make it an easy victim for conquest.
"[It says that] Russia, far from earlier suspicion, is a true and most reliable ally" - Bosley Crowther, 30 April 1943.
Casablanca is a product of the interplay during World War Two of bourgeois-democratic capitalism and Russian Stalinism and its world wide support network: bourgeois democrat meets Stalinists pretending to be bourgeois democrats.
In Mission to Moscow we see on the screen things that are only referred to as great events in Casablanca. For instance, in Casablanca we are told that Rick Blaine ran guns to an Ethiopia fighting Italian fascist invaders. In Mission to Moscow we see the Emperor of Ethiopia (an obvious white actor in bad black make-up), whose country has been overrun by Italy, appeal in vain to the League of Nations.
Casablanca justifies US involvement in the war to hitherto isolationist Americans. Mission to Moscow helped make the alliance with yesterday's, and tomorrow's, "godless communist tyrant", Stalin, acceptable to politically naive, patriotic and unknowing Americans.
Political events, and possible political responses to political events, are translated into personal and biographical terms.
America's leading philosopher, John Dewey, who had headed an independent inquiry into the Moscow Trials, denounced Mission to Moscow as totalitarian propaganda. It was, straight, blunt and brutal.
In a more subtle way, Casablanca was that too. One of its most-quoted lines - "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" - expresses, when put like that in a world of totalitarian and militarised states and widespread state-worship, a fascistic and a Stalinist idea of the relationship of people to the state.
Up front, Casablanca is a polemical dialogue with those Americans - 70% in one late 1941 poll - who opposed US involvement in the World War. President Roosevelt won his third term in November 1940 on a pledge that he would keep America out of war. (Like Woodrow Wilson in the1916 Presidential election, who once re-elected took America into the war in 1917). Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is their stand-in. Like the isolationists he says: "I stick my neck out for no one" But Casablanca is more than that.
It filters the case against American isolationism through the Stalinist account, as of late 1941, of the political history of the 1930s. It retells it in and as the biographies of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and, indirectly, of Sam, the pianist (Sam has no second name: Dooley Wilson).
Blaine's is the central biography. His story before he got to Casablanca is the biography of a typical Stalinist, or CP fellow-traveller, of the second half of the 1930s.. So are those of the "anti-fascist" hero, Victor Laszlo, and of Ilsa, his wife. Blaine is the Stalinist Everyman of the late 1930s
The Stalinist movement was an immense cultural and intellectual power in the world in which Casablanca was made. Often they could set the terms of debates and the framework of discussions. Especially in the labour movements.
In Britain (and in other leading countries they were often stronger), the Stalinists had a daily paper (after 1930), journals, a publishing house, a (folk) record-publishing company, and many other outlets. For instance, the civil rights organisation Liberty, which for decades was called the National Council for Civil Liberties, was started by the CP in the mid 1930s, when the CPs abolished the working-class international Labour Defence organisations and turned to the liberal alliances of the Popular Front.
The CP greatly influenced the Labour Party left. Nye Bevan, who as minister of health would found the NHS, was expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 as a CP fellow-traveller. Until the defection of John Strachey and Victor Gollancz over the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, the CP controlled the Left Book Club, which, in association with the publishing house of Victor Gollancz, poured out a monthly series of books putting the CP point of view, more or less, on anything and everything.
As it is impossible to understand Western art and literature without knowing the Old and New Testaments at least on the level of stories, so too it is difficult to understand mid-20th century art and literature without knowing something of the history of the Communist International, its parties, its political "lines" and its zigzags.
It is well known that nursery rhymes and children's songs), understood now as little nonsense stories, once had serious meaning and resonances that were forgotten over the years and fell out of awareness. For instance:
"Ring-a-ring o' roses" was about the plague that once came annually to the towns and cities of Europe, killing many people.
The dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town
Some in rags and some in jags
And one in a velvet gown".
That was a mocking comment on those who, when the English monarchy was restored in 1660, came out of silence or hiding to claim reward for what they had suffered under Cromwell for their loyalty - they said - to the deposed Stuart kings.
Similar processes fill language with piled-up dead metaphors - taking words which initially were living references, comparisons, evocations and parallels, and which gained meaning and force by evoking those things, and over time turning them into words which now have meaning but no easily-intelligible references to other things - dead metaphors. So, too, with Casablanca (and see the section on "Dirty Old Town" in this Workers Liberty Xmas pull-out).
Casablanca is riddled with half-buried political ideas and references that were once intelligible to a large number of those who saw the film - with scrambled, half-hidden, misnamed, disguised political analogies, subtexts and parallels.
It is a history of a section of the ostensible left. And it is itself part of that history. To make proper sense of it, its original sense, it has to be put back inside that time and that political framework.
We are in Casablanca, capital city of Morocco, a French colony in North Africa where an armed revolt against the French had been fought in the 1920s. France has been defeated by Germany, one third of it occupied. The government of unoccupied France, "Vichy France" (its capital is in the spa town of Vichy), still runs the French colonial empire.
This France is controlled by the French Right - royalists; political Catholics; patriotic, anti-German, French fascists; people who think the Revolution (1789-94) was a mistake and a crime; anti-Semites, who round up French Jews and deliver them to the Gestapo, and the death camps.Vichy France is a quasi-fascist, Catholic-authoritarian State.
This Casablanca is a place of refugees. A voice-over at the start sets the scene:
"With the coming of the Second World War many eyes in Europe turned, hopefully and desperately, to the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point, but not everyone could get to Lisbon directly.
"Tortuous roundabout refugee trails sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran. Then by train, auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca, in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait and wait and wait." We see newsreel shots of refugees hordes on "the refugee trail". After those newsreel shots we see no hardship-case refugees, only prosperous refugees, habitués of night-clubs and casinos.
"The freedom of the Americas"? In reality this is a world with a murdering dearth of entry visas. Since 1924 immigration to the USA has been limited to a small and tight quota system - 2% of the number of people of the given background who were in the USA in 1890. All the doors are bolted shut to refugees, double and triple bolted against Jews (the quota system was avowedly designed to keep Jews out: large-scale Jewish immigration had come only after 1890).
But the film's refugees are strange refugees, inverted refugees. Their problem is not the common problem of refugees everywhere, getting somewhere, the USA for instance, to let them in. It is exit visas from Casablanca they can't get.
This Casablanca is directly controlled by the Vichy Prefect of Police, Louis Renault (Claude Raines). Here, people are killed for their "papers", visas, "letters of transit". The police murder people in custody, either deliberately or while attempting to beat information out of them. The cynical, candid Prefect gloats of one such death that he has not yet decided whether the prisoner "committed suicide" or "died trying to escape".
An expatriate American, Rick Blaine, runs "Rick's Café Américain", a nightclub and a crooked casino, the centre of upper-crust social life in Casablanca; of upper-crust refugee life too. Everybody comes to Rick's, you might say (and the never-produced stage play on which it was based did say in its title).
People of all nationalities can be found at Rick's. Here people mix who in the wider world are killing each other on sight. Louis Renault, German officers, like Major Strasser, a "crazy Russian" bartender, as Mr Rick affectionately refers to his bar worker. A couple of black people are among the patrons, and one or two may be Chinese.
In this in-gathering Casablanca, there is even an English couple, posh in speech, manner, voice and clothes, the man wearing a monocle. (What are they doing there in December 1941?) Stranded in Casablanca are French, Central European and other refugees from the Nazis, all seeking exit visas to travel to Portugal, and, beyond that, to the USA. There is one who may be a fugitive from American justice, and another who, we will understand, is a refugee from the USA.
Casablanca's last scene is set on 7 December 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbour.
Yet this Casablanca is in a different time zone from the rest of the world. The USA is still letting in everybody who wants to come. It is still what it ceased to be in 1924. In Casablanca US entry visas are available to all who want them.
Rick's Café Américain is the world writ small. But not all the world. There are surprising absences. The great "refugee problem" is that of the Jews of Europe, who have nowhere else to go, and millions of whom will be slaughtered who would have lived if other countries had let them in. There are no Jews in Casablanca. Jews are not shown or mentioned directly at all.
And though Casablanca is in Morocco, and Moroccans appear in crowd scenes, there are no Moroccan characters in the film either. Blaine's club owner rival seems to be Moroccan - he wears a fez in one scene - but he speaks like an educated Englishman and is called Mr Ferrari.
Rick Blaine possesses great power in Casablanca. He is the social lion. He sits alone in his club playing chess with himself, nodding this one in and the other one out of his domain, a parody of an immigration official. Himself a refugee who had to flee France, somehow he has become a king among the refugees.
In fact, this Casablanca is a place already well known in Hollywood westerns, a staple of American cowboy films (and of western novels and boys' comics of that time) - the town "West of the Pecos", or wherever, in which "the law does not run" and outlaws gather. In this film there is no extradition between Vichy France and Germany. (In fact there was.)
Here, West of the Pecos, the outlaw is safe from the law. It is almost a surprise that we don't see Wanted posters on the walls offering rewards. Then we hear that Rick, who has travelled "the refugee trail", is "wanted", that he "has a price on his head". He is an "outlaw", running from the police (exactly why is never made plain).
Everything in the early part of the film goes to build up "Mr Rick". All hold him in respect, and some in awe. All want his approval and good opinion. When policeman Louis meets the German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) off a plane, it is Rick they talk about as they walk to the aerodrome. (Strasser: yes, I've heard of this Rick). Strasser carries a dossier on him.
Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the world renowned anti-fascist leader, has also heard of Mr Rick in Casablanca. Rick's friend Louis, the top cop in Casablanca, tells new-comers Laszlo and Ilsa: "He is the kind of man who - if I were a woman, and if I weren't around - I should be in love with Rick".
Mr Rick is a one-time "anti-fascist", now dormant. He says he fought against clerical-fascism in Spain and their German and Italian helpers there. But now his best friend is the local colonial top cop for the clerical near-fascist rulers of France.
In 1935 Rick Blaine had run guns to an Ethiopia fighting fascist Italian invaders, and was positively for Abyssinia's right to freedom from conquest. He is now indifferent to Morocco, whose cause had been championed by anti-imperialists in the 1920s, especially in France.
Blaine is, we hear, a "man of mystery". He is, he himself says, on a "Nazi blacklist". "Their roll of honour".
We will learn that Mr Rick is a bit of a bullshit artist. The old Rick Blaine, if he is telling truth about himself, is long gone when the film starts. Now he is just another self-worshiping, self-serving small bourgeois. He calls himself a "saloon keeper".
Blaine needs this build-up. He is a battered, troubled, damaged human being, who, from what we see of him in the first half of the film, is not at all admirable. Psychologically, Mr Rick is a mess, both an "idealist" who will be reignited, and someone who yet lies to Louis the cop that he got "well paid" for his activities in Ethiopia and Spain… He didn't.
Russia did well out of Spain. All the government gold in Madrid was shipped to Moscow. The volunteer soldiers of the International Brigade, however, were not especially well paid, and they were not mercenaries. Mr Rick is lying to impress his friend, Louis the cop. This anti-fascist film casually demeans those who fought and died confronting fascism in Spain.
The magic carpet
A people trafficker, Mr Ugarte - Peter Lorre - steals "letters of transit", killing the two German couriers carrying them. The Letters of Transit are signed by General De Gaulle, leader of the anti-German and anti-Vichy "Free French". Louis tells Rick that the letters "cannot be rescinded". Ugarte acted for Laszlo and his friends, or with Laszlo in mind. Laszlo expects to find him in Casablanca.
Ugarte boasts to Mr Rick about the killing of Germans and the robbery and entrusts the Letters to him, as much to impress him as for safe-keeping. He is then caught and killed by the Vichy police. The Letters. are now Rick's, to do with as he likes.
The idea of all-empowering Letters of Transit is a power fantasy for a bureaucracy-clogged world. A dream of super-bureaucratic power - of a document that trumps all other documents.
But nothing like that ever existed. It is in the same order of things as a flying carpet - a magic flying document for the age of bureaucracy: a fantasy of extraordinary power, which no one and no country, either in peace or war, possesses, least of all the Charles De Gaulle in 1941. He was a fugitive, under a Vichy sentence of death in London.
Having the magic letters gives Rick the power of life and death. Over whom?
Into Casablanca flies "Victor Laszlo", a Czech famous as "an anti-fascist" all over the world. Today he would be called "a celebrity anti-fascist". What has he done? Why is he so well known?
He was imprisoned by the Nazis when they took Czechoslovakia in March 1939. When someone speaks of Laszlo, Blaine shows a rare respect. He agrees with Victor Laszlo's politics? It seems he used to. At any rate, he greatly admires the man and his activities.
To Rick, Laszlo is, maybe, his old ideal of an old, seemingly dead, abandoned, self. Louis: "It's the first time I've seen you impressed". Rick: "He's impressed half the world". When Blaine and Laszlo meet, Laszlo knows about him: "One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca".
"And of Victor Laszlo everywhere?" Laszlo: "I try". " Rick: "We all try: you succeed".
When Laszlo at the police station throws rhetoric at Renault and Strasser - "Kill all the resisters in Europe and hundreds, thousands, will rise to take their place" - Strasser replies: "But no one could replace you"!
When Laszlo arrives we see no half-starved revolutionary fugitive on the run but a prosperous bourgeois gentleman, who travels by air with his elegant wife, Ilsa, and books a table at Casablanca's leading nightclub. He is said by Louis to be able to "offer a fortune" for exit visas. He offers Rick 200,000 francs.
The Nazis want Laszlo, we learn, because he knows and could tell them the names of the "heads of all the resistance movements" and their whereabouts, in all the capitals of Europe, "including Berlin".
But this too is a fantasy. No one would possess such information, not even, for instance, British Intelligence, whose business it would have been to keep contact with them and gather such information. There was no one "resistance" movement. There were different resistance movements, defined by their politics, in conflict with each other, often murderously. Between different parts of national resistance movements there was civil war, latent or open: in France, the Gaullist and the Stalinist-led resistances, in Yugoslavia, the royalist Chetniks and the Stalinist Partisans...
Laszlo is an "anti-fascist resistance leader". Politics? Unspecified. All we learn is that before the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia (March 1939) he had published a paper that, according to Major Strasser, spread "foul lies about the Reich". He has escaped after a year in a German concentration camp.
He is a mere Czech nationalist, roused to revolutionary fury by the German occupation of his country? The details and circumstances of the film and some of the dialogue in it strongly suggest that Laszlo, with his status and wide fame for not much, is either a Stalinist or a Stalinist ally built up by the Comintern's world-wide propaganda and publicity network.
Rick: "Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for".
Laszlo: "You might as well discuss why we breathe. Stop breathing and you die. Stop fighting our enemies and the world will die".
This is all coded and abstract, but it is not the philosophy of a mere Czech nationalist roused by the Nazi takeover of this country. This is a person in for the duration, for whom there is "no home but the struggle" appealing to a former comrade or an ally able to fill out the meanings of his sparse words.
Or take Isla, trying to persuade Rick to give her the letters of transit. "I know how you feel, but put your feelings aside for something more important".
Rick: "Do I have to hear again what a great man your husband is, and what an important cause he is fighting for?"
Ilsa: "It was your cause too. In your own way you were fighting for the same thing". This is a member, or hanger on, of an inner circle appealing to someone once in the outer layers.
Laszlo is a Dimitrov figure. Georgi Dimitrov, a veteran Bulgarian Communist, stood trial in Germany in 1933 charged with burning down the Reichstag. His co-defendant, Marinus Van Der Lubbe, a young council communist, was found guilty and beheaded. Dimitrov behaved with bravery and defiance, defending himself and his politics. confronting Nazi Germany, and directly Herman Goering, in the courtroom. Communists of his generation routinely behaved like that in the courts of their enemy.
Acquitted and released, Dimitrov was elevated in the Stalinist pantheon to the role of world anti-fascist hero of heroes, a leader-figurehead. He was Secretary of the Communist International in the anti-fascist Popular Front period, formally inaugurated by the 7th World Congress in July-August 1935.
Power and revenge: Mr Rick and Ilsa
The letters of transit would magic Laszlo and Ilsa out of the reach of Vichy and the Nazis, and on to America. Without them they are trapped in Casablanca, stranded. Ilsa, plausibly, will remind Rick that without the letters Laszlo will die there. He is a sitting duck.
On to the bureaucratic power fantasy of the Letters of Transit is now grafted a revenge fantasy. Rick had had an affair with Ilsa in Paris. It ended abruptly on the day in 1940 when the Nazis conquerors marched into Paris.
Rick has "a Nazi price on his head". He must flee. He had arranged to meet Ilsa at the station. Waiting in drenching rain, like the fascist deluge engulfing Europe, he gets a note telling him she is not going with him, that they will never meet again. She has abandoned him. Without a word of explanation. (As Rick is a bullshitter, Ilsa, we will see, is a great liar.)
Knowing Rick has "a price on his head", she writes as she does, so she will explain to him later, so that he will leave (though she and Laszlo, the very well known fugitive, will stay).
For much of the film, Rick is psychically one of the walking-wounded, a casualty in the sex war. He lets it redefine him as man and politician.
A transformation of this sort of is what happened in politics to a vast number of Ricks when Russia, the great anti-fascist power and inspiration, suddenly made a pact with Germany in August 1939, freeing Hitler to start World War Two and joining with Germany to take part of Poland, and then took part of Romania and, after a five-month Russo-Finnish war, of Finland. With the prior agreement of Germany Russia annexed the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940. Many of them revived, with or without their old fond delusions, when Russia fought the German invaders, after June 1941.
Rick leaves Paris, his "insides kicked out", as he says, by the brutal sudden rupture. We see him standing at the door as the train moves out, looking shell-shocked.
He wallows masochistically in the painful memories: he nurses his wounds, bathes in them, scratches them to keep them raw. He has re-elaborated and, reconstructed himself around them. The wound has come to be his identity, his conception of himself and of the world.
A young Bulgarian woman is willing to sacrifice her sexual virtue to the blackmailing cop Louis as the price of visas for herself and her husband. She asks Rick if it would be right to do that for the husband she loves, and herself. If it was for Mr Rick, he'd understand, wouldn't he? Rick replies, close to tears: "No-one ever loved me enough". Rick Blaine is a self-pitying mess. The old Rick drowned in self-pity.
And now, in Casablanca, this man possesses the letters of transit, the bureaucratic flying-visa on which Laszlo and Ilsa could escape; he has the power of life and death over them.
While Rick is almost in tears of self-pity, talking to the Bulgarian woman, his staff is agog with his favour to her husband, letting him win money on the crooked roulette wheel to bribe the police with. Rick has released the woman from having to make a painful choice, as he must now… And Ilsa did in Paris.
"Boss, you did a beautiful thing", his "crazy Russian" barman tells him. We are directed to admire him and not give too much mind to his exhibition of self-destroying self-pity. Rick is asked not alone to abet Ilsa's continuing "betrayal", but to help Ilsa and her husband go to the film's paradise, America, from which Rick himself has been expelled or escaped. Where he himself can no longer go.
The film is concerned with the interplay of different sorts of power, of dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. Ilsa still has power over Rick, even when he hates her. And Rick now, having the letters of transit, has the power of life and death over Ilsa and Laszlo. Power will shift yet again.
Ilsa comes late at night to the club to explain what had happened in Paris. Prowling, strafing searchlights emanating from the symbolic tower flash through the windows of the darkened club, roughly probing, poking, intruding, menacing. Rick's sexual imagination and his turmoil.
He expects that Ilsa will come, wants her to, wills her to. Waiting, he gets drunk, beating himself up, pining for America as well as for Ilsa. The inner Rick. By the time she does arrive, he is very drunk. He greets her with spurting drunken prurience about her recent sexual history, baiting her about her sexual proclivities. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between?" Voice campy: "Or aren't you the kind that tells?" Prurient, and fascinated.
It is very nasty. She goes at that point. He collapses into drunken sleep, head on his arms on the table, still- burning cigarette between his fingers.
And it's not only when he is drunk. Sober, he contrives a meeting with her next day in the market place. Here the soured lust is open and raw, unfiltered unfiltered by abuse or restraint.
He is chatty. She is cold and hostile. This is the grown up version of Ilsa. Did she come last night, he asks her, to explain "why you ran out on me in Paris?" He is sorry he wasn't in "a fit state to receive you." Her story confused him. "Tell me now".
"I don't think I will, Rick. The Rick I knew in Paris, I could tell him." She could. But she didn't. "He'd understand". "Last night I saw what had happened to you". She had no part in it.
Then, Rick, propositions her, crudely and, in the circumstances, insultingly. First he offers a seriously stupid cop-out interpretation of her behaviour. He asks the companion of the fugitive Laszlo if she left him because she knew theirs would be forever a life of hiding from the police, on the run all the time. For Rick a political dimension of Ilsa doesn't exist. He wasn't aware of it in Paris and he isn't now.
"I'm settled now" he assures her, "above a saloon, it is true". He tells her how to get there: "Up the outside stairs. I'll be expecting you".
With a hard distancing flicker of her eyes, the camera focused on her face, she declines. Rick's next words leave no doubt what sort of invitation it is: "All the same, some day you'll lie to Laszlo". If not me…
She has once kicked over the traces, broken the taboos and the rules. And, therefore, she will do it again. It is her nature. This is anti-climactic: randy Othello propositioning Ophelia years after she's run out on him.
She is frozen against him. She tells him: "I'll be leaving Casablanca soon and we'll never see each other again." A clear break, heavily sprinkled with self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The break is cold, hard, final. Ilsa, the grown-up.
Immediately, we switch to a scene in which Laszlo bargains with Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) for visas. As they discuss, Ilsa listens intently, like an intelligent child, eyes back and forth between the two men as one speaks, then back again. Being instructed. Taking it all in. Learning from the men of business. Understanding.
This is not the Ilsa we have just seen with Blaine. This is the little girl version of Ilsa. Ferrari tells them that Rick has the letters of transit, and he is now their only hope.
Ilsa isn't, as she had thought when she dismissed him, finished with Blaine, yet. She needs to win his good will.
Ilsa and Mr Rick
When Laszlo asks Mr Rick why he won't give or sell them the documents, Rick snitches on Ilsa: " ask your wife", the one he has just propositioned.
There is a terrible political shamelessness here, and a measure of how low Blaine has sunk. His co-thinker asks for help against the common fascist enemy, on which his life may depend, and all Mr Rick can think or say is: I have an old grievance against your wife. Ask her about it.
The need for the letters of transit and a threat from Strasser to have Laszlo killed in Casablanca spur Ilsa to tackle Blaine again. She perhaps blames herself for his refusal to sell the letters of transit and Laszlo's plight now.
Desperate, she comes to Rick Blaine a second time, to his flat above the club, again late at night. This time she has a gun. Rick is sober but still unrelenting and spiteful. The powerless wounded underdog, so recently spurned again, has the power here, and relishes it.
They know each other. Like the imperialist rivals in the war, each spits bits of truth at the other. She tells him that he is a coward and a weakling; he tells her that she is an incorrigible liar.
Indeed. This is the only time the truth is spoken about Casablanca's social lion, Mr Rick, who abandons his cause because of a personal wound. Politically serious people hold themselves to their politics, however they contrive to get there psychologically.
He says to Ilsa that he "won't listen to a word you say". She has proved to be a liar in the past. Her word is not to be trusted. "You'd say anything now to get what you want".
She pulls out the gun, to threaten the letters of transit out of him. He tells her to shoot him. "Go ahead. You'd be doing me a favour."
At this abject revelation of his dependence and despair, Ilsa breaks down too. Everything, including the frantic flashing light on the tower, suggests that at this point, they fuck. She regresses, instantly surrendering to the values and self-centred concerns of the man she has just called coward, weakling, and deserter.
She abandons herself, Laszlo and their cause. She tells "Richard" that she will leave Laszlo, her politics and her cause, as Rick has done, and stay with him. She abdicates all responsibility. She tells him that from now on he must "do the thinking" for both of them. To this Ilsa nothing counts now but her reconnection with Rick?
Ilsa is simply fickle? There is more than one way of fighting for Laszlo, and of handling the demoralised Rick. (And of reading what we see on the screen.) The reignited personal relationship promises to get her more than pleading, reminding Rick of his once-upon-a-time politics, or the gun got her. Rick issues one sort of invitation: she comes for another purpose, and stays to serve her own by accommodating his? There is a shift of power back to Ilsa.
She assumed that Rick will now let Laszlo go.
Is she straight, or is she "playing" him, to get the letters of transit? So extreme and sudden a shift would arouse the suspicion of anyone who wanted it less than Mr Rick, who has just characterised her as an untrustworthy liar. Isla's absolute flipping over is too complete, too sudden. The actors play it well, but it is less than convincing.
As the film unfolds, on the surface anyway, from this point on Ilsa is passive, inert, dead matter. A mere plot prop, like the letters of transit.
Or is she? She is according to what we see and hear; but nothing that happens after that contradicts the idea that she might not be, and that she is "playing" Blaine. There is more than surface here.
One thing seems clear from what we see and hear in the film: Ilsa loves and admires her husband. When we see love and admiration on Ilsa's face, it is directed at Laszlo, not Rick. Apart from the scene in Rick's flat the manifestations of Ilsa's love are all for Laszlo.She and Laszlo have an intensely loving relationship. She goes from her coldness to blundering Rick in the market scene to the verbal, smiling, love-in with Laszlo.
When Laszlo suggests that Ilsa should go on alone, there is a fond remembrance of when Laszlo could have gone on without her and wouldn't. Laszlo tries to get Ilsa out, without him.
In the Marseillaise scene we see love and awe on her face as she watches Laszlo go through a mimic of conducting it.
At the start of Casablanca, Mr Rick is a political dropout. Possession of the magic visa that Laszlo desperately needs (and may have expected to collect from Mr Ugarte) puts him back, involuntarily, into the political game, and with a very strong hand to play.
At first he counterposes himself and his grudge to the people and the politics he has openly admired in Laszlo. He must now choose either to go back ("come back", as Laszlo almost puts it) to his old politics or become its active enemy. The Marseillaise scene in the club will be his decisive turning point.
Rick's nod to the band to play the Marseillaise, evoked by Laszlo, shows that Rick is not quite dead to his old causes. He takes sides. The scene neatly parodies the relationship between political "front" organisations and their real controllers.
We see Rick Blaine rallying to the war, but he is also rallying again to his old "anti-Fascist" politics. The subtext is an appeal to those revolted by Stalin's affaire with Hitler to come back. Laszlo says it to Rick: "welcome back".
The reactionary elements in Casablanca are strong and they are numerous. The portrait of Ilsa is one of them.
In a world in which there were a lot of liberated women activists, Laszlo goes out to the meeting of the resistance group. Ilsa stays home. They make politics, she makes coffee. Her political role is to look adoringly at Laszlo as he leads the night club in singing the Marseillaise.
Ilsa is the most complex personality in Casablanca. She is its sexual centre. But in her character Ilsa is more the sneaky child than a grown-up self-respecting woman. The beautiful, honest-seeming, open, actor's face of Ingrid Bergman masks what Ilsa is.
The woman with Rick in the market, hard and cold and adroitly dosing herself with hypocrisy, we have seen, is in the next scene like a little girl with the grown-ups.
Younger than Rick and Laszlo, in her relations with them she is sometimes more child to "the adults" than one of them. She is a female-child guerrilla in a male-occupied world. She manipulates, like a powerless child, or a warped adult.
Her weapon of defence and attack is the lie. Ilsa is a devout, dedicated, multi-skilled, prolific liar. She tells truth to no one. Not to Rick in Paris, about Laszlo; not, as far as we see, to Laszlo in Casablanca about Rick. She lies by omission and by direct denial when asked a direct question; she feigns not knowing what she knows; always she operates behind misdirection about what she wants and intends.
Her character is plain from her first scene, in the night club. She innocently asks who is "‘the boy' playing the piano", as if she didn't know Sam, and then asks about Rick, "who's he"? As if she hadn't pieced it together from the club's name in neon above the door, Rick's Café Américain, and the presence of Sam.
She then, all innocence, insists that Sam play "their", her's and Rick's, special song, and Rick comes running as to a bugle-call. Having arranged their encounter at the club, right down to insisting, "play it, Sam...", the song that brings Rick running, she tells Rick that she wouldn't have come to Casablanca if she'd known he was there. Laszlo and Ilsa had a choice about where to go?
She admits to Laszlo (who has guessed) that she knew Rick in Paris, and lies that she scarcely knew him. As she prepares to desert Rick in Paris, she doesn't tell him about what she intends to do. She plays a sadistic game with him: "Kiss me as if it were the last time", relishing the power of knowing, when Rick doesn't, that it really is the last time.
She enjoys and seeks this sort of control, power over those who deal with her. Manipulation, not candour, relish in the power of knowing what others don't.
She seeks, finagles, appropriates that power by lying and misdirection. She hoards information as a miser hoards money.
At the end of the film, she is with Laszlo and they are on their way to the airport, but she doesn't tell him that she is staying with Rick (if she is….). Ilsa is setting up Laszlo for the kind of blow-on-the-head surprise at the airport which she gave Rick at the Paris railway station.
She wants him to walk slap into the big surprise, and to be powerless to do anything about it? Or is it Blaine she intends to surprise again?
She says she expected Rick to tell Laszlo. In the taxi to the airport it was plain that Laszlo did not know what was happening. Did she ask him to kiss her as if it were the last time?
Judged by grown-up standards, all this is seriously nasty. All through, Ilsa is a wayward, wilful, sneaky child, lying by deed and omission, and finagling. From choice, and relish in it.
She is perhaps moved by Rick's abject woundedness, his dependence and his despair. But if she is, how is she moved?
Rick has already, in the market, revealed himself. Ilsa knows that though Rick "looked at me with such hatred" in the club when he is drunk, he lusts after her. "A kiss is still a kiss"...
When the gun fails to get her what she wants from him, his prostration and his lust suggests other possibilities. She has another weapon.
It is perfectly possible to interpret Ilsa after she appears to surrenders to Rick as manipulating him to get the letters of transit. And that she intends what does happen: she goes with Laszlo.
Rick is the active agent in organising that outcome, it seems, but how do we interpret Ilsa's confusion when Rick tells her she is going with Laszlo? She did not expect Rick to cut free? She thought she was in control?
We have already seen her expertly feign ignorance at her first scene in the club. She is good at it.
At the end Rick tells Laszlo a story to make things right between Laszlo and Ilsa: Ilsa had tried to get the letters of transit from him by pretending to be in love with him, but all that was over long ago. What he says is not what we have seen between Rick and Ilsa.
It is nevertheless an entirely plausible - perhaps the most plausible - account of what have seen in the whole film. It is almost the pattern of a story in which someone wakes up after dreaming, and his real situation is revealed.
America in Casablanca
America is one of the characters in Casablanca. Uncle Sam is always present in people's minds, on the tip of their tongues, at the top of their hopes, at the front of their aspirations.
People look up longingly at planes flying overhead, if not to America, then to the staging post for America, Lisbon.
Everybody approves of America. Loves it. Accepts it as earthly perfection. Longs to go there. A Mitteleuropean old couple speaking cutely inexact English for practice ("What Vatch is it? Ten Vatch") discuss America with the wistful old waiter Carl (S. Z. Sakall) relishing in anticipation the precious gift they are receiving: tomorrow they fly off to America.
America is the promised land. Everyone wants to go to paradise across the Atlantic. America is without fault in their dilemma as stranded refugees: the only problem is in getting out so that they can go there. Never once is it hinted that America might not let them in.
Rick who can't go home, has been cast out of paradise. He is fatalistic and masochistically resigned. In the end Ilsa and Laszlo flying off to America realise the goal that is everyone's goal. They do what everyone wants to do.
The film is awash with crude, unthinking American chauvinism. It is almost a surprise that no one recites John of Gaunt's paean to England, suitably adapted:
"That other Eden, demi-paradise, that happy breed of men, that precious stone set in the silver sea against the envy of less happier lands, that earth, that realm, that… Yankland".
Perhaps the single most shocking thing about Casablanca, even 75 years later, is the picture it paints of its collective audience. It stakes its cost of production on the assumption that its audience has no knowledge of politics, of world affairs, of who is who in international politics, of the plight of millions of refugees, and specifically of Jewish refugees, as the Holocaust gathers momentum in the lands controlled by the Nazis. Here, Casablanca is an almost malicious mockery of the reality.
The target audience has no knowledge of the world outside the USA. It will believe in magical letters of transit. It will believe that the outlawed, émigré French die-hard, Charles De Gaulle, a fugitive in London, can sign papers that are carried by German couriers and are binding on the rest of the world and cannot be rescinded.
The audience will not know that refugees lack entry visas above all. It will believe that the Americans occupied Berlin in 1918. (Louis tells us that, in a mock-triumphal riposte to Strasser's contempt for "Blundering Americans": in fact, Berlin was not occupied in 1918).
They are willing to believe that political commitment will be "well paid" (as Rick is in Spain and Ethiopia); are willing to accept Louis as a good guy when he turns against Vichy and Germany. They do not notice, or, noticing, will not be put off by, the fact that the political and historical language, and the subtext, of Casablanca is gibberish, and the details of the film often preposterous.
Sam the Boy, Refugee
Why does Rick live in a colony run by French quasi-fascists where revolt was drowned in blood in the not so distant past? The answer seems to be that he has little choice.
But why is Sam in exile? It is never explained why Sam can't or doesn't go home. Black people who saw Casablanca would know. If Rick "can't" go home; Sam might not want to.
Sam too is a refugee, fleeing in the opposite direction to the others. The common Nirvana of everyone else in Casablanca is to the American black man a racist hell-place. Like some famous black American expatriates he had found France to be comparatively a refuge. But Sam and Rick, in their relationship, bring some of America with them. Sam can't fully escape.
Most American films of the time showed Negroes as scarcely-human simpletons. Casablanca shows Sam as a man with dignity and sense and a mind and feelings as developed, at least, as those around him.
That was good for an American film then. But it was not unique, or much of a break-through either. Some other films did that, and some did it better. (Babyface, for instance, a decade earlier.)
Sam is a musician. He is Rick's partner, his "sidekick", as American cowboy films had it then. They have been together for years. He gets 10% of the profits of the club.
When a rival club-owner offers to buy Sam the musician from him, Rick makes high-minded: he doesn't "buy or sell human beings". Sam is a person. Sam is not his servant. Yet Sam, unlike everyone else in the film, for instance, the policeman Louis or the bar-worker Carl, addresses him as "Mr Richard". Sam also addresses Ilsa as "Miss Ilsa".
It was sometimes polite American usage, coupling title with first name: but no one else in the film uses it. The cop and Rick are friends, equals. Sam, his friend and partner, evidently is not quite an equal.
Sam is not designated as a servant, but some of the time he acts like one. In the deluge as the Nazis enter Paris, Sam carries two bags to the train, evidently one of them Rick's, to Rick's one, to the train.
They simply fall into the role of master and servant. This is the natural role for a white man and a mere black man to fall into. The fine talk about not selling Sam serves to underlines it.
Sam is not sold any more, but he knows his place. The others know his place too. Ilsa refers to Sam, who will not see 40 again, as the "boy" - "the boy who's playing the piano". Rick is the man and Sam the boy.
In a world in which white boys in time grow naturally to be men, the Negro was forever a "boy". If he lived to be an old man he would still be a boy at 70.
And there is a surprising absence from the great scene in which the club - the world against the Nazis - sings the Marseillaise: Sam. There are no shots of him joining in the fervent singing of the great hymn to liberty and defiance of tyrants. He is the club singer, but he is not in this scene.
In the way they depict Sam, Casablanca's makers show that they are enemies of American racism. The confrontation of the songs and the singers is the world against Germany. But Sam, like the colonies, like Morocco, is not part of this free world.
One of the great symbolic moments in the struggle for human liberty occurred when the people of Saint-Domingue, who had freed themselves from slavery as part of the French revolution (1789-94), confronted the French army of the Emperor Bonaparte that had come to restore slavery.
To taunt and shame the turncoats against liberty, the ex-slaves sang the Marseillaise, throwing the charge of apostasy at them.
Not in Casablanca. Just as the film wouldn't risk offending its target audience by showing Sam as too uppity, or Rick encouraging him in it, it was thought, evidently, that an American black man fervently singing a song about freedom as the whole club sings would have had a message about the US itself that would have alarmed and alienated too many Americans. The same is true with the films treatment of Jewish refugees.
Casablanca: refugees and Jews
Quite a few people with Jewish background or affiliation were involved in making Casablanca. The three named and Oscar-winning writers - the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch - the director, Michael Curtiz, and the Warner brothers, for whom the studio that made it was named, all were Jewish in origin and background.
But there are no Jews in Casablanca. There is no mention of Jews, or of Jewish refugees. That's remarkable for a film about refugees, in a world where the especially murderous refugee problem is the plight of Jewish refugees, and the hunting of Jews out of where they were settled all over Europe
It is a world in which the unwillingness of countries, in the first place the USA, but also Britain, Ireland, Sweden and others, to let in Jewish fugitives, or enough of them, was already turning into the Holocaust. The Nazis' systematic slaughter of two out of every three Jews who were alive in Europe in mid-1941 had begun. That mass murder was being done was already known, though not yet the scale and thoroughness of it.
After the Germany wide pogroms on Kristallnacht in 1938, the Nazis had accelerated the drive to force Jews to emigrate. But where could they go? Which country would let them in? Not the USA!
As the truth that the Nazis were slaughtering millions of Jews trickled out, the U S and British governments were afraid that it would suggest to some that the war was a war for "the Jews". Evidence that the war was what loud voices said it was, "A Jewish War". Casablanca silently expressed that fear.
It was no idle fear. As U S cinemas in 1945 were showing newsreels of the Nazi murder camps there was an eruption of attacks on Jews in American cities. Anti was still a powerful force in the U S A. Evidently the makers of Casablanca were afraid of feeding an anti-Jewish backlash if they focused on Jewish refugees, or even so much as mentioned them. Casablanca's silence on Jewish refugees was craven and shameful.
The much-quoted last line, "Louis, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship", is radically false.
Rick's and Louis's friendship has shaped the story. Their real relationship is summed up in Rick lying about his profits from the Spanish war to impress Louis, and Louis referring his blackmail target, the young Bulgarian woman, to Rick for reassurance that Louis would keep his bargain.
Louis Renault, the cop, is the character who ties the film most clearly to the real political world around it. He personifies the political ambivalences of the film. Renault is Vichy France in Casablanca. He is the man in control of the police, of the French state power there.
By his deeds "Louis", not Major Strasser, is the fascist in the film,. Defined by what he does and directs others in doing, he is far more of an active villain than the German, Major Strasser, whose villainy is largely ascribed, read off from his uniform and nationality (and is now read backwards from what Nazism came to mean later).
Louis is a high official in the colony of a quasi-fascist state. He is the Procurator, the Gauleiter, of the colonial city.
The policemen we see shoot down an unarmed man fleeing because he has no identity papers are Renault's police. The Peter Lorre character, who gave Rick the letters of transit, dies in police custody, either from ill-treatment or by deliberate murder - this too is Louis's work, directly or indirectly. The menacing roving searchlights ripping through the night sky, intruding into the shut-down café, are Louis's. Louis is at the airport for the final scene because he expects to take Laszlo in possession of the Letters of Transit and be able to charge him with murder, and kill him.
When the German decides he wants the club closed, it is Louis who does what they want done. (In fact the Germans did not have direct control in unoccupied France and its colonies). We see Louis blackmailing a young woman, offering cheap-rate exit visas for sex. It is something he has done many times before. Rick, matter-of-fact, tells the young Bulgarian woman that Louis has always kept to such bargains before. Louis and Rick hunt in a pack. (One interpretation of their relationship has it that they are lovers.)
Everything nasty, authoritarian, fascistic, dictatorial in Casablanca is the work of Louis or of Louis's men acting under his direction. He is the thoroughgoing, all-controlling, villain until he changes sides at the very end of the film.
Louis, like the anti-fascist leader Laszlo, is recognisably a citizen in the Stalinist political theme-park. The French Stalinist leader Maurice Thorez in 1938 appealed to "patriotic" - that is French nationalist and therefore anti-German - French fascists to join in the Popular Front.
At the end Renault will be an anti-German French fascist, a good fascist, his sins and crimes forgiven, hidden and forgotten. The Stalinist-run anti-fascist political front is broad enough to include such people. It was even big enough to include Mussolini himself, if he came out against Germany.
This was an anti-fascism so broad, or so nonsensical, as to make room for the founder of fascism.
Max Shachtman recorded in 1936: "The Italian Stalinists have just made a shameless appeal to the Black-Shirts for unity, in the interests of Stalin's diplomatic manoeuvres in Europe... the "Communist" Party of Italy, which supported the Stalinist policy in Germany against a united front with the socialists to smash Fascism, has now issued an official appeal to Mussolini's cohorts.
"The official organ of the Comintern informs us that the Italian party secretary, Nicolleti, ‘turning to the Fascists of the Old Guard as well as to the Fascist Youth', declares: ‘We proclaim that we are ready to fight together with you and with the entire people of Italy, for carrying out the Fascist program of 1919, and for every demand which represents a special or general direct interest of the toilers and the people of Italy'."
In Italy, in 1943 and after fascists, who turned against Mussolini and Germany were made honorary democrats. Marshal Badoglio, who deserved to be hanged for war crimes in Ethiopia, no less than some of those who were hanged at the end of the war, became Prime Minister of Italy under Allied Patronage.
The idea here of instrumentally "good" though bad people would govern US foreign policy for the cold-war epoch of its struggle against Stalinist Russia - the philosophy expressed by one US president: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch".
In Casablanca, colonialism is seen as natural, nothing to do with fascism, or the "democracy" and anti-fascism with which the film is concerned. At one point Laszlo, who opposed German conquest in Czechoslovakia, will proclaim approvingly, even proudly, that they are on "French soil". Colonialism is good, so long as it is on the patented "democratic" side.
The purely negative politics of anti-fascism allow all sorts of things to remain undisturbed or attached to it, without discomfort.
There wasn't much in the way of democracy for the Moroccans, or for the people in France's neighbouring Algerian colony. 100,000 people would be massacred there by the French in 1945.
The most affecting scene in Casablanca, and the turning point of the film, is the fervent singing of the Marseillaise, in the night club. The Marseillaise is surely the best political song ever made. Before the Russian Revolution, it used to be sung at working-class movement meetings all over Europe, including Britain.
The feelings burst out. The singing German officers are oversung and silenced - seven of them against the rest of the world in the club.
Many of those in the scene were refugees themselves. Here they were not acting. The episode brings all the strands in the story together.
Rick's nod to the band to do as Laszlo wants and play the Marseillaise is the point of his political reawakening. The point where he goes over to the anti-German side. And yet…
They sing this wonderful, evocative song of the French Revolution in a colony which Imperial France, even in defeat, holds by force, by as much coercion and murder of its indigenous peoples as necessary. Force against which the French Communist Party of the 1920s - a different Communist Party then, an honest revolutionary workers' party - had mounted a tremendous anti-war campaign.
From 1954 to 1962 France will fight, and lose, a terrible colonial war in Algeria. Resuming control in Indochina in 1946 - when the Stalinists both in Indochina and Paris, where they were in the government, backed French resumption of power- France will fight, and lose, a long colonial war there too.
The singing contest in the club involves two imperialisms, one ascendant, the other, for now, defeated.
A dormant anti-fascist awakes
In the film we see Rick is back with the self-same woman who had caused him to change from a selfless "anti-fascist" into a predatory cynic, masochistically obsessed with his own wound, and become, self-spitingly, even a close friend of the city's Vichy police chief, the man in charge of the repression in Casablanca.
He relives the drama of "Love versus duty". But now he has the power of decision for everyone. He holds Laszlo's life in his hands.
In effect he endorses the choice Ilsa made in Paris, where she "loved" Rick - or did she? - but chose politics and duty with Laszlo. Her values are vindicated, but he chooses, and she herself is mow a passive piece of baggage for someone else - Rick - to dispose of.
If what we see on the screen is for real, and Isla is not playing Rick, she has become a walking affront to every self-respecting woman in the audience!
The active and the passive roles in this relationship have now been swapped around. Rick surrenders to the Ilsa of 1940 and to the maybe-scheming Ilsa of 1941.
Why is Casablanca so popular?
Despite all this, the film still "works". Why?
Because as a film it is a tremendously good piece of work. Michael Curtiz was a great director. Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid give wonderful performances. So do all the actors. The players carry conviction and fervour.
There was one genuine anti-Nazi hero in the film: the actor who played the German officer Strasser, Conrad Veidt, had a serious record of fighting the Nazis. He had been a major star in the pre-Hitler German cinema. With his Jewish wife, he chose to leave Germany just after Hitler became Chancellor. On a visit to Germany, he was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis, who knew him as a serious enemy. He became a British citizen.
In Britain, in 1934, Veidt made one of the rare movies of the period which explored antisemitism, Jew Süss. It was based on the historical novel of the same name by Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jew and a man of the left. In 1940 the Nazis would make a notorious anti-semitic film of the same name.
Perhaps part of the explanation of why Casablanca still works is to repeat: within its romantic conventions it is a cosily committed feel-good film.
In retrospect we see the film's villains as more villainous than the film-makers could possibly have. We project. The Nazi enemy is unquestionably villainous: that enhances their opponents in the film. The good guy is reluctant, but all the more convincing when he gets going.
And there is in it an invocation of a possible better world to be had by the fighting for. A world of unknown possibilities into which you could write those you wanted.
In short, the film shows the world of official "Allied" World War Two propaganda. It is the same "official" anti-fascist world which the British people took seriously enough in 1945 to pursue, by dismissing the respected Tory war leader Winston Churchill and electing, by a landslide, a Labour government pledged to radical change.
Maybe it is the film's power still to evoke that mood and take its audience into it for a while, away from our own commercial capitalist civilisation, grubby and soulless but unashamed, that explains Casablanca's continuing appeal.
The collection of clichés in Casablanca transmuted by talent, as heat transmutes carbon into synthetic diamonds, into a prism for the better ideas and ideals of an age, still conveys to us some glimmer of the as yet unrealised hopes of that age. And our own lack of it and hunger for something like it.