Our Sensitive Man in Casablanca

I love Casablanca. The movie always stops me in my tracks, as it did again the other day when I happened upon it on cable. I came in at the scene where Rick is consoling himself with a bottle after long-lost love Ilsa turns up unexpectedly at his Café Americain, the one where he barks at Sam to play As Times Goes By: “If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”

As my mother liked to say, “No one can torch it like Bogie.”

There’s a lot of reasons that everyone goes to Rick’s repeatedly and that Casablanca turns up at the top of best films of all time (No. 2 on the AFI Top 100 list, sandwiched between Citizen Kane and The Godfather). The script is remarkably witty and cynical, questioning everyone’s motivations and distributing zinger lines among characters. The cast of Nazis, freedom fighters, refugees, exiles and desperados takes advantage of experienced contract players from the Warner Brothers lot; secondary and minor supporting roles are complete characters in themselves. The score plays on variations of As Times Goes By; the cinematography is moody; and the obvious studio set creates an exotic feel with little more than a few arched doorways, slowly twirling ceiling fans, fog and fezes. Sure, there’s a share of hokum: the soft-focus camera loves to linger on Ingrid Bergman’s teary eyes. But like certain other films from the era, the dialogue feels almost contemporary. In truth, Casablanca is pretty snarky.

But there’s one other way in which it’s utterly modern: Humphrey Bogart’s Rick may very well be the first Sensitive Guy in Hollywood history, the first portrayal of how deeply a man can be wounded by love. Yeah, everyone thinks he’s a tough guy, and he’s lived the life of a man of mystery. He’s always dressed to perfection, runs a stylish club and never breaks a sweat. Yet the pain shows on his face, and just like a chick, he’s allowed to have a drinking and crying scene as he remembers better days (“We’ll always have Paris.”) Even in the flashback, Rick is allowed a show of heartbreak when  Sam brings Ilsa’s note saying that she cannot leave Paris with him as the Nazi occupation takes place. He’s a stumbling mess, barely able to stand, as Sam leads him to the train, where he leans in the doorway in a quiet sob, crumbling up and shucking away the note with an expression of utter pain, disbelief and disgust. (Of course, it’s raining.)

Men, especially tough guys, didn’t show that kind of emotion in films of the era. They were expected to swallow their pride, buck up, and soldier on; leave the tears to the women and the women’s pictures. Not Rick, or Richard, as only Ilsa calls him in another sort of metrosexual gesture. Later, as Ilsa threatens to shoot him if he won’t hand over the letters of transit that are the only means of escape for her Resistance-leader husband, Rick takes a step toward the gun and says, “Go ahead. You’ll be doing me a favor.” Who hasn’t felt that kind of shot through the heart? But what man in a 1940s film said it out loud?

Casablanca is an odd combination of wartime movie and romance, and one that, in a departure from standard Hollywood practice to this day, does not end in happily-ever-after. Rick famously sacrifices his love for a bigger goal, putting Ilsa on the last plane out with her husband. The ending is more like that of a buddy movie, as Rick and the über-cynical Frenchman Louis hit the road to join the fight for freedom. As Times Goes By is swapped for swelling strains of Le Marseillaise for the fade-out; love is given over to duty and honor. But we know Rick is still hurting. Nobody holds a torch like this Sensitive Guy.