The usual suspects:
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After Pearl Harbor ("Dec., 1941 in Casablanca") a diverse lot of refugees was trying to come to America, getting squeezed through French Morocco and bottled up in Casablanca, awaiting an exit visa. Two German couriers coming by train to Casablanca have been murdered and robbed of “two letters of transit signed by General DeGaulle” giving the bearers unlimited travel privileges. One Ugarte (Peter Lorre) has come upon them who in turn passes them to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) for safe keeping. He is the owner of Rick's Café Américain, a nightclub cum gambling den cum espionage hub (“Everybody comes to Rick's.”) Ugarte is killed without revealing their whereabouts.
Coming to Rick's in hopes of acquiring them is renowned Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his lovely wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) who has met Rick before (“I knew there was something between you and Ilsa.”) Coming from Germany to stop Laszlo from fleeing Casablanca is Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) aided by the local prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains.) We see in flashback how Rick became jaded from a disastrous love affair with Ilsa, so who knows how he'll react to her husband's request?
Play it again, Sam.
“Casablanca” conveys overtones of a musical for its lively big band playing at Rick's. “[T]hat boy playing the piano” could have been referred to, in the parlance of that time & place, as a blackamoor, or to use a PC term from our own time (going from here to there rather than coming from there to here) an American-African, or to translate that into French (with their reverse word order) Africain-Américain. His musical number describing himself was “Shine.” Before we get all bent out of shape over what to call him, I'd like to point out that what has passed into legend is the expression, “Play it again, Sam,” which is respectful enough. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
The rest of the characters don't have each his own defining musical number, but most get screen time to define who they are. Ilsa hums a tune “As Time Goes By” to persuade Sam to play it, being a defining song of her relationship with Rick. There is a musical duel between the “Horst-Wessel-Song” and The “Marseillaise,” the German patrons competing with the French & French sympathizers, with as much character participation as one will see in any musical.
At the heart of the plot of “Casablanca” is the interplay of three types of marriage: ancient, Christian, and romantic. In ancient times women were chattel, property of their husbands. Here in Casablanca some wives became a bargaining chip for their husbands' freedom, used to persuade Captain Renault (“I'm only a poor corrupt official”) to grant them exit visas in exchange for “doing a bad thing.”
According to Dr. Ide, “The Contemporary Christian standard was defined not by the bible but generated by Roman law as defined by the jurist Modestinus who argued that marriage was ‘consortium omnis vitae, divini et humani iuris communicatio: a life-long partnership, and a sharing of civil and religious rights’” (83-5). Ilsa and Laszlo have entered into a life-long partnership where civil rights have to do with carrying on the cause, and religious rights with the spiritual support needed of Ilsa after Laszlo endured torture from the Nazis. She'd married him from being overawed by his famous persona, but still, marriage is marriage.
The romantic marriage is everybody's dream, what Rick had for Ilsa, they being genuinely in love, according to the words of their song: “Woman needs man, and man must have his mate/ Which no-one can deny.”
For the plot of “Casablanca” to resolve itself, each of these three marriage endeavors must set aside its own self-interest for the greater good of everybody. It is as Elder Porphyrios described in his treatise “On Love For One's Neighbor”: “On the Holy Mountain I once saw something I liked very much. In a small boat out at sea there were monks who were carrying various sacred objects. Each of the monks came from a different place, but for all that they said, ‘this is ours’, and not ‘this is mine’” (181).
Knock on wood
The director originally slated for “Casablanca” was Howard Hawks who had trouble directing musical scenes like “La Marseillaise,” so he switched movies with Michael Curtiz a Hungarian Jew who was supposed to direct “Sergeant York” but didn't understand American hillbillies. Curtiz did a fine job with the opening number at Rick's, “Knock on Wood.” Verse after verse, line after line, he had the whole joint knocking on cue, and even the viewing audience knocked with them, it was so infectious.
The custom of knocking on wood likely stems from pagan times when spirits were supposed to inhabit or guard trees. Christians appropriated it with wood standing for the cross. The cross meaning is conveyed in the movie when a heraldic (botonée) cross set in a signet ring was used as a means of identification. The scriptural basis for knocking on wood would be, (Prov. 3:5-6) “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Knocking on wood to signify trust in the LORD removes interference from ones own understanding that would assert itself in a verbal prayer. This knocking on wood (trusting the LORD) sets the tone of the whole movie. A divine directing of paths is intimated by Rick's lament, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Leaning not to ones own understanding can take many forms in practice; here we get our pick:
There is the Leuchtags' practicing (barely comprehensible) English in anticipation of their going away (“You will get along beautiful in America.”)
There's a banker's gruff, “Do you know who I am?”
Ugarte puts his foot in his mouth: “Hm, what right do I have to think, huh?”
There are mistakes about Laszlo's death: “We read five times that you were killed, in five different places.” ¶“As you can see, it was true every single time.”
There are mixups in table seating and mixups about Rick's past political allegiances.
There are questions just why Captain Renault allows Rick's to remain open (“Your winnings, sir.”)
There are questions about the captain: “Monsieur Rick, what kind of a man is Captain Renault?”
Sam has trouble playing “As Time Goes By.” “Oh, I can't remember it, Miss Ilsa.”
Rick and Ilsa may have changed since last they met (“I wasn't sure you were the same.”)
Rick doesn't know whom he was left for.
Captain Renault is the charmer. “I was informed that you were the most beautiful woman ever to visit Casablanca. That was a gross understatement.”
Not understanding the war is nothing new, “Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.”
Is Rick overestimated? “You give him credit for too much cleverness.”
Ilsa doesn't know what Rick thinks, “A franc for your thoughts.”
Who knows how the war will end. “Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris? … How about New York?”
There's the bet between Renault and Rick whether Laszlo will escape.
Ugarte selling exit visas wonders about his reputation, “You despise me, don't you?”
Ilsa's logic for Rick is, “You have to think for both of us.”
Suspicion. “Where were you last night?”
Annina wonders if her new husband will forgive her if she takes up Renault's offer.
Why did Rick even come here: “What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?”
Major Strasser asks Rick, “What is your nationality?” ¶“I'm a drunkard.” ¶“We have a complete dossier on you.” … ¶“Are my eyes really brown?”
Victor Laszlo thinks he knows something: “I know a good deal more about you than you suspect.”
Rick and Ilsa knew little enough about each other (“Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think, huh?” ¶“We said no questions.” ¶“I'm sorry for asking. I forgot we said ‘no questions.’”)
Who is escaping, and with whom?
How unique is Nazi-ism? “You repeat Third Reich as though you expected there to be others!”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Are you sure this place is honest?”
“Did you abscond with the church funds?”
“I was misinformed.”
“Are you pro Vichy or pro French?”
“I don't know what's right any more.”
And that is just a sampling. “Casablanca” is such a black hole of fundamental ignorance that we need to be knocking on wood just for everybody to come out okay who should.
“Casablanca” (1942) was based on a Broadway play that was never produced. Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein wrote the screenplay Everybody Comes to Rick's, but it was comedic in nature until Howard Koch made it a serious patriotic Casablanca to reflect wartime values. In fact he was writing it as they were producing it, the actors being given their lines the same day, so nobody knew exactly how it would turn out, who's the hero and who's the villain. Fortuitously, that played right into the theme of having to trust Providence for an outcome that no-one could foresee.
Before the war, movies had a narrative arc of a quiet reserved male hero whose woman had to teach him normality. “Casablanca” changed that to one where: we love each other, but we must give up our relationship for the good of everybody.
“Casablanca” was a B+ movie shot on the sound stages in Burbank, except for the airpost scene. Because of the delays as actors learned their lines made on the run, Warner Bros. Pictures had low expectations for its success. It was borderline propaganda / entertainment that now holds the gloss of a classic.
Ronald Reagan was supposed to have the part that went to Humphrey Bogart. Thank God for small favors.
“Casablanca” is arguably the best motion picture ever made. It is beyond my purview in a single review to make such a judgment, but you get the picture.
My recommendation is that you bring or sit on something wooden in order to participate in the “Knock on Wood” number. I used my 80% sugarcane-based notebook whose cover is solid as a board and makes a nice “thonk” then I bonk it. The tune is infectious enough that you might find yourself hitting your portable electronic device it that's all you have, which might not be so good for the electronics. On second thought, remembering all the distractions coming from palm-held glows in theater seats in front of me, knock yourself out.
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Scripture taken from the King James Version, 1611, rev. 1769. Software.
Ide, Arthur Frederick. Noah & the Ark: The Influence of Sex, Homophobia and Heterosexism in the Flood Story and its Writing. Las Colinas: Monument Press, 1992. Print.
"La Marseillaise" (1792). Written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle.
Arranged by Max Steiner. Played during the opening credits. Sung by Madeleine Lebeau and others at Rick's. Variations played often in the score.
Modestinus. L. 1, Dig. 23:2. Extracted.
Porphyrios, Elder. Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey Pub., 2005. Print.