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One Great Movie, Three Great Scenes: Casablanca (1942)

What makes a great movie great?

The talented director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) provided an excellent answer when he declared that a great movie had “three great scenes, no bad ones.”

In light of Hawks’s definition, today we’re looking at three great scenes from what many consider the greatest movie of all time:  Casablanca, the 1994 Best Picture winner directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

I love Casablanca for many reasons, all of which can be summed up with one statement: it’s the perfect movie.  It has an incredible screenplay that deftly combines drama, comedy, suspense and romance. The cast is incredible on all levels, with Bogart and Bergman providing their most famous roles and every member of the supporting cast doing an excellent job.

Michael Curtiz did a phenomenal job of direction, using light and shadows to give Casablanca a moody, claustrophobic feel when needed.

Because Casablanca is a perfect movie, picking just three great scenes was difficult. The three scenes below though are possibly the most famous and give a good sense of the movie’s overall story and quality.

Before we look at the scenes, we need a reminder of the plot. The movie is set in December 1941 in Casablanca, Morocco which, in the movie, was a point for European refugees to attempt to escape to Lisbon and then America.

At the time, Morocco was a colony of France, which was occupied by Nazi Germany. Therefore, while the French are in charge of Casablanca, the Germans are in charge of the French.

We find out a criminal named Ugate killed two German couriers and took two letters of transit, documents which granted the unfettered ability to depart Casablanca and travel to Lisbon. The German and French authorities are after Ugate and the letters.

Much of the film takes place in Rick’s Cafe Americain, a bar and casino owned by an American named Rick Blaine (Bogart). Rick is a cynic and a loner who doesn’t “stick [his] neck out for nobody.” For instance, he refuses to protect Ugate from the French authorities, who don’t know that Ugate gave the letters to Rick for safe-keeping.

We learn that Rick didn’t always have such an attitude. He ran guns for rebels in Ethiopia and fought against the Fascists in Spain. Somewhere, somehow Rick became disenchanted.

We later find out that Rick’s disenchantment was due to a woman, Ilsa Lund (Bergman). The same night Ugate is captured, Ilsa walks into Rick’s with her husband, Victor Lazlo, a famous Czech resistance fighter. Ilsa sees Sam, Rick’s friend and the cafe’s pianist, and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” Rick and Ilsa’s song. Rick has forbidden Sam from playing the song, but Ilsa convinces Sam to play it anyway.

Rick is devastated when he sees Ilsa there. He is polite to her and Victor. Later that night, it is a different story.

1.  She Walks Into Mine

Copyright Warner Bros. 1942

This scene is great for a number of reasons. First, it provides several quotes that have become firmly entrenched in the American lexicon, including “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” and “here’s looking at you, kid.”

The scene also shows the romance in Paris between Rick and Ilsa. The flashback is jarring, purposefully so, because of how different Rick is in the flashback. He’s happy and in love. The Germans will soon invade Paris, putting his life in danger, but he barely notices it. His focus is on Ilsa.

This unrecognizable difference in Rick is what makes Ilsa’s leaving him all the more painful.

2.   La Marseillaise

Copyright Warner Bros. 1942

This scene may be Casablanca’s greatest, although probably not its most famous.

Throughout the movie, we saw the tensions present in Casablanca. Refugees in fear.  Criminals and others keeping secrets from the authorities. Everyone hates the Germans.

In this scene, those tensions powerfully explode. The authenticity of the emotion is due, in large part, to the fact that many of the supporting cast (including Conrad Viedt, who played Major Strasser) were actual refugees who fled Europe and the Nazis. These actors lived similar lives to their characters and, in this scene, let the emotions they had spill out.

As we watch these emotions, we also see Rick’s conscience appear. Although, minutes earlier, he refused to give Lazlo the letters of transit, he nods to the band to play La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, at Lazlo’s command. Without Rick’s approval, the band would not have played and the French and other cafe patrons would not have drowned out the Germans’ rendition of “Die Wacht am Rein.” With this nod, we see Rick start his journey to rejoin the fight against Fascism.

The last thing to mention about this scene is this exchange between Inspector Renault and Rick, where Renault makes up a reason to close down Rick’s:

Captain Renault: “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”
Croupier (handing Renault a pile of money):  “Your winnings, sir.”
Captain Renault: “Oh, thank you very much.”

It’s the funniest part of the movie and, one of my favorite cinema exchanges.

3.  Here’s Looking at You Kid

Copyright 1942

If the last scene showed Rick start the process of rejoining the good fight, this scene shows his full commitment.

This scene is probably the most famous scene in Casablanca. Rick’s speech to Ilsa has been referenced in articles and other movies many times, including usage in When Harry Met Sally and in The Naked Gun.

There have been some discussions (including a comment\ by Ingrid Bergmann) that the Casablanca writers did not decide how to end the film until just before this scene was filmed. The discussions don’t seem credible, though, because, no other ending would have made sense.

If Rick would have boarded the plane with Ilsa or let Lazlo leave but kept Ilsa in Casablanca, his actions would have undercut his story arc. As seen above, Rick went from a self-centered person who, as the movie progressed, regained his idealism and conscience.

Doing anything other than staying in Casablanca alone would have betrayed who he was, who he became again earlier in the movie.

It also would have defeated the movie’s underlying allegory. There’s a reason why the movie is set in December 1941. In this movie, Rick represents America in the 1930’s-and 1940’s:  isolationist and not sticking its neck out for anyone. Yet, with reminders of its core values and when pressed, both Rick and the U.S. regained their conscience and joined the fight against Fascism.

Although the movie doesn’t give specific dates, it’s easy money that the day Rick put Lazlo and Ilsa on the plane was December 7th, the day the U.S. was pulled into WWII by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the scenes above show Casablanca is a phenomenal movie, yet they only give a taste of what made it a perfect movie. If you haven’t experienced this movie, check it out and let me know below what you think.

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