Casablanca is such a significant part of Hollywood history, so often lampooned or parodied, so frequently quoted, and so naturally brought to mind when you think of the very definition of a classic Hollywood movie that it becomes all too easy to forget the plot. This is an unfortunate side-effect because the plot, along with the characters, is the steak beneath the seductive sizzle that comes in the form of Humphrey Bogart’s white tuxedo or Claude Rains’ dry humor.
As the movie turned 75-years-old last year and once again graced our screens, the glamor and the unrivalled quotability was a refreshing change of pace from the loudness of modern film. Today’s movies quite simply lack the subtlety (here’s looking at you, Expendables) of Casablanca. Where the movie really shines, however, is in the arc of the protagonist (Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine). The moody anti-hero, who whiles away his life in the bar that he so successfully owns, and the man that all of the single women feel weak-kneed around, makes the movie essential viewing, no matter which time period it’s viewed in. Let’s look in-depth at Rick’s arc and how such a character would behave in the 21t century.
Rick’s the man
Bogart, with his wounded looks, nasal lisp, and mean mug, gave us one of the smoothest anti-heroes in the history of motion pictures. Everybody has experienced a time in their life when they have dreamed of escaping to an exotic location and leaving their troubles behind to become a person who looks out for themselves, and only themselves. Of course, deep down, that’s not what Rick is about.
Bogart’s Rick Blaine is the kind of man that women would never admit to being in love with. The reason, of course, is that he’s the man who comes across as willing to break a woman’s heart. He is masculine, calculating, and resourceful, and doesn’t tolerate being taken for a fool. While he may come across as an atypical male, however, with his smirk suggesting that he would like far more than a simple conversation, he just may have a heart underneath it all. That’s what makes women care for him. They know there’s something more inside, and women like a challenge – the challenge to break a man free from his ego just long enough to open his heart to them. Rick’s indifference towards those around him can be linked to his approach of neither planning for tonight nor remembering the night before. In such a time of uncertainty and unrest, Rick’s approach could be considered quite practical for someone looking out for their own interests. If he has no recollection of the night before, he couldn’t possibly become close to anyone, so, therefore, is unable to be hurt. Rick’s experiences with his old-flame, Lisa (Ingrid Bergman), caused him to believe that he couldn’t rely on love and friendship. So, his demeanor, then, is simply a defense mechanism.
A heart after all
One of the most famous scenes in the movie is the roulette scene. Leading up to the action, Rick is aware that a young refugee by the name of Jan needs to raise money for her and her husband to go to America. At first, Rick shows no sympathy but, in a rare moment of generosity, we see him prove that he does, in fact, have a human side. Rick walks up to the roulette table and sees Jan attempting to win the money she needs. Rick sees the young man, approaches him, and suggests that he should place his chips on No. 22. With a look of determination, the young man tells the croupier to do exactly what Rick had suggested. Jan plays the number and the roulette stops just there. Rick tells him to stay with the same number. The wheel lands again on No. 22, and Rick tells her to cash out the couple’s very sizeable winnings. Could a scene like that exist today? There’s no reason why not. After all, the game hasn’t changed, and it’s just as possible to pull off such a win as it was back then. In fact, one reason why that scene still resonates today is that roulette is one symbol of the film that remains a familiar feature. The game is easily the most popular table game in modern casinos and, apparently, a place for anti-heroes to show that they do have a heart, after all.
Undoubtedly, Casablanca still stands up as a great film today but how relevant are the storyline and the dilemmas faced by Rick? Many Americans at the time were in favor of isolation, believing that they should simply shut themselves off from the world. Franklin D. Roosevelt disagreed, however, while also avoiding open animosity with Congress, due to political gamesmanship (their support was needed for his New Deal policies). Hitler’s stockpiling of arms was a worry and the Japanese goings-on in China were shocking. Many politicians were advocating that the US stay out of it, however. We’re facing these very same ethical dilemmas today. Evil is everywhere but, at which point, if any, should we become involved in another country’s problems? This is a continual debate for foreign policy makers; how do we respond to saber rattling in the 21st century?
Who would Rick be today?
So, should we choose to side with our own personal interests or take the plunge and help our fellow man? Not only do the politics of today echo the politics of Casablanca, the human condition remains unchanged. While the world may seem less romantic on the surface, we still crave love and the feelings that often come with it, such as jealousy, which can cause us to react irrationally. The reality is that Rick Blaine may well be Rick Blaine today. He may not wear a white tux and he may not be humming As Time Goes By but dilemmas never manage to elude any of us. The reality is that Rick would very well likely still be the brooding, broken-hearted presence that we saw in Casablanca. After all, it’s a familiar sight in modern movies. Hasn’t Liam Neeson played the moody anti-hero in seemingly every one of his movies from Taken onwards? Whether it’s Brian Mills in Taken, or Bill Marks in Non-Stop, where he openly tells the passengers he’s trying to protect, “I’m not a good man”, Neeson is a dark character who is always ready to save the day.
Maybe we would be more likely to see Rick on the small screen. The trope has been used very successfully in recent years in what is considered to be the second Golden Age of Television, with such characters as Walter White in Breaking Bad and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. We’ve even seen a serial killer and Satan himself both helping the police, in Dexter and Lucifer, respectively (the latter is still on the air). Maybe Rick Blaine wouldn’t go quite that far but outward cynicism coupled with an inward sense of what’s right would fit right in with the expectations of today’s audiences.
Sing for freedom
Casablanca is a story of letting go of one’s bruised ego and pride, and confronting evil. And if those who oppose brotherhood, equality, and liberty, sing Nazi songs in your bar, stand up loud and proud and sing your song of freedom right back at them.