Micheal Curtiz classic masterpiece Casablanca is one of the most beloved films ever made. What makes this picture so captivating? Why has it become so imbedded within our culture that many people quote it practically every day without even knowing it? There are many aspects of this film one could examine in order to discover the answer to these questions. I will examine the narrative of the film
An Astounding Cast of characters
The first narrative element that comes to mind when I think of Casablanca is the characters, those whom the narrative surrounds. The film focuses mainly on the character of Rick Blain, who is played to near perfection by Humphrey Bogart. He is a man of mystery, someone whom we frankly know nearly as little about at the end of the film as we do at the beginning of the film. Beyond his mysterious nature lies a shady moral center, but shockingly and almost contradictory he also shows profound moral strength. In a world where (to paraphrase a line from the film) human beings are the leading commodity, Rick refuses make his living buying and selling people’s futures. He is also a kind and benevolent businessman who treats his employee’s with respect and dignity. Rick is both an enigma and a paradox. We are captivated by Ricks intrigue and root for him because we see the good in him. We see this good slowly grow until it culminates in one final ultimately selfless act.
Next Ilsa Lund, nearly as mysterious as Rick himself, is the only person capable of remotely affecting him. Rick has looked both Nazi soldier and innocent, victimized refugee in the eye and remained painfully stoic, yet she shakes him to the core with her very presence. They’re dynamic is an interesting one. It is their relationship and history with one another that provides much of the drama and serves as the basis for one of the stories of the film. She arrives in Casablanca accompanying Victor Laszlo, a revolutionary who escaped a Nazi concentration camp and has evaded the Gestapo at every step on his way to America. What separates Laszlo from Rick and Ilsa is that unlike them he has little mystique. We know very well who he is and where he stands. He makes his motives very clear. Of all the characters heroic characters within the film Victor’s heroism the most classical in natrue. He is a man with indomitable courage driven to the very core of his being to stand against tyranny, fueled by an unshakable confidence that good will triumph over evil; an evil that is personified in this film by Major Stasser. Stasser is a high ranking officer of the Third Reich and the villain of the story. His goals are simple: prevent Victor Laszlo from attaining freedom thereby crushing the hope to win the fight against Nazism. He represents oppression and tyranny, which is why we hate him so much. Next we have Capt. Renault the prefect of police. In many ways Renault is a caricature of how some people see police. He is jovial, energetic and highly entertaining. As a good friend of Rick, he provides much of the comic relief throughout the film. He is perverse, often seducing many a beautiful young lady by offering legal help in return for physical pleasure. And he is perfectly willing to set aside his principles to please his superiors, even if his superiors are evil to their core. That is not to say that he has no character ark. On the contrary, we see a massive change in Renault at the end scene after Stausser is killed, where Renault decides to stand up and crusade against the Gestapo.
Lastly I wish to talk about the cultural relevance, the way the narrative relates to the climate of the times. Casablanca was released in1942, just after the US entered WWII subsequently following two years of neutrality. One of the essential journeys of the film is one of a man going from a state of apathy towards the war effort to a state of action. In many ways Rick’s journey from this state mirrors the United States journey from neutrality to action. Our nation was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty, but in the time when those very principles were threatened on a global scale more than any other era since our founding we stood by and did nothing. As a people, Americans like to refer to the United States as the land of the free and the home of the brave, but in that moment we behaved as cowards and servants of our own apathy. That all changed on the fateful day when it hit home, when our world was rocked on December 7, 1941, the day we were forced to take a stand. In the same way Rick, who had long stood up for his beliefs, running guns to Ethiopia and fighting against the fascists in Spain, remained neutral and apathetic until the war finally stuck him personally, when his world was invaded, when he was forced to take a stand