February 11, 2014

Queer Review: Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson. Based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson

Casablanca is an extraordinary film. Not only is it Hollywood's greatest tale of romantic love set against the stormy backdrop of the World War II but it has the most memorable happy ending ever shown on the silver screen.

Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the owner of Rick's Café Américain, which caters to a wide clientele. When Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) show up at Rick's cafe, the two not only are in desperate need of transit papers, but Ilsa forces Rick to remember his brief experimentation with heterosexuality. Coincidentally, Rick has recently managed to obtain a set of valuable transit papers, thereby forcing Rick to choose between his current lover, Police Chief Louie Renault (Claude Rains) and aiding Ilsa and her husband escape the Nazis.

The Queering
Had Casablanca been released in a more recent times, perhaps in the form of a serialized novel aimed at the teenage crowd, it would not be difficult to see it's fandom quickly dividing itself into Team Ilsa and Team Renault. I say that as it's hard not to empathize with the difficult decision Rick is forced to make. On one hand he clearly loves Ilsa and deeply cherishes the brief period of time they shared in Paris in spite of the abrupt way she dumped him at the end. On the other, making her happy by giving Laszlo and her the transit papers would damage the political standing of Chief Renault once the escape of Victor and Ilsa was discovered by Nazis. What more difficult decision could there be than to have to choose between the two people you love the most?

Chief Renault, for his part, attempts to dissuade Ilsa when she shows up from attempting to rekindle the romance she once had with Rick by stating "Well, Rick is the kind of man that... well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick." When that fails, Renault tries to make Rick jealous, by tricking Rick into thinking that he is planning on accepting sexual favors from a woman who is in need of transit papers for her and her husband. The ruse works and Rick makes sure that the husband is able to win at the roulette tables in order to prevent Renault from straying.

While the racist standards of the time prevented him from presenting as a sexual creature, Sam (Dooley Wilson) too also demonstrates affections for Rick. Like Renault, Sam displays extreme jealousy towards Ilsa when he tries to dissuade her from making contact from Rick. He apparently did not want to have to comfort Rick again, as he obviously once did after Ilsas' brutal breakup with Rick in Paris. Note the way Sam gently caresses Ricks' shoulder on the train during their escape from Paris. Rick, for his part, returns Sams' affections by attempting to negotiate a higher salary for Sam from Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), when Rick goes to Ferrari to sell the Café Américain. Apparently when Rick said, "I stick my neck out for nobody" he was only referring to individuals he didn't deeply care for.

Of course there is the ending, where Rick selflessly decides to risk his relationship with Renault and give Ilsa the exit papers so she and Laszlo can escape to continue fighting against the Germans. It is a no win situation for him. While it means that Laszlo will be able to continue to his resistance work against the Axis powers, the unenviable consequences mean that Rick not only ending his relationship with Renault, but sacrificing the possibility of companionship with Ilsa at the same time. It's a noble risk but one that Rick is ultimately rewarded for when Renault, clearly happy that Ilsa is out of the picture, forgives Rick for his decision. Note that he does this in spite of the fact that Rick had just taken him hostage in order to allow Ilsa and Laszlo to escape. The two then walk off into the mists, happy to begin a new and more beautiful relationship. Has Hollywood ever created a romance as deeply affecting as this? I am sure many have wept gallons of tears at this moment, so overwhelmed with joy they must have been.

Ultimately, Casablanca is pure Hollywood cornball. But it's beautiful cornball. While the romantic elements are the films strongest, this is ultimately a World War II propaganda film. As such, I cannot help but wonder if the reason for the films' initial success had to do with a brief line few people remember today. After Rick gives him the transit papers, Laszlo says, "Thanks. I appreciate it. Welcome back to the fight. This time I *know* our side will win." It's a small moment but one that I cannot help but think would have resonated with audiences during the dark days of the time. It's a moment of subtle hope, one whose message is soon underscored by the breathtaking ending.

Yes, this time our side won.

Casablanca would be worth walking in (and out) of all the gin joints in the world while searching for one that happens to be showing this movie.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.