Analysis of Major Characters
Rick Blaine, the cynical owner of Rick's Café Americain, often appears too jaded to be impressed or moved by anyone. He refuses to accept drinks from customers, treats his lover Yvonne without affection or respect, and seems not to care that a war is being waged around him or that desperate refugees have flocked to Casablanca. He makes a point of broadcasting his aloofness, stating on several occasions, "I stick my neck out for nobody." However, another Rick lurks behind his façade of cynicism. Near the beginning of the film, he refuses entry to the bar's private back room to a member of the Deutsche Bank, even though other, less prominent people are allowed in—a clue that despite his proclaimed apathy, his political sympathies lie with the Allies. He also criticizes the criminal Ugarte for charging refugees too much for exit visas. Shortly thereafter, Louis calls him a sentimentalist, and we learn that before coming to Casablanca, Rick was involved in political causes, supporting losing sides against fascist aggressors in Spain and Ethiopia. From the opening scene, Rick shows himself to be a mysterious and complicated man—terse, solitary, and self-involved, but also generous, discriminating, and perhaps a political partisan.
When Ilsa arrives in Casablanca, we start to understand some of Rick's mysterious past. In a flashback to his time in Paris, we see a younger, happier, lighter Rick in love with Ilsa. As though to emphasize how different he is in Paris, he is called Richard, not Rick, in all the flashback scenes. Though Rick and Ilsa plan to leave Paris together after the Nazis' arrival, Ilsa stands Rick up at the train station, and this painful separation helps explain how the optimistic Richard became the aloof, cynical Rick we see at the beginning of the film. Rick is not coldhearted, but he suffers from heartbreak. When Ilsa appears at the bar, Rick initially reacts angrily and refuses to give her and Laszlo the letters of transit. By the end of the film, he acts heroically, sacrificing both a possible future with Ilsa and his comfortable life in Casablanca so that Laszlo can escape with Ilsa and continue his important political work. In effect, three Ricks appear in the movie. In Paris, he is a romantic innocent; in Casablanca, a jaded, hard-hearted capitalist; and by the end of the film, a committed, self-sacrificing idealist. Ultimately, Rick's story remains incomplete. A dark mystery from Rick's past prevents him from returning to his native America, and though we learn much about him, we never learn why he can't go home.
Ilsa is fiercely loyal to her husband, Laszlo, and the political cause—resistance to the Nazis—he represents, but the truth of her sentiments is constantly suspect. She claims to love Laszlo, but she also claims to be in love with Rick, both in Paris and in Casablanca. We might suspect that Rick is her great passion and that only circumstance and political necessity prevent their union, but Ilsa never makes the distinction clear. She has good reason to tell Rick she loves him in Casablanca, since she needs the letters of transit he holds. Her motives are always shadowy because she always has possible, logical ulterior motives, and she maintains a cold detachment that prevents her from being understood. The letter she sent to Rick in Paris so many years ago, saying she could never see him again, is evidence of her ability to shield her true feelings from those who love her the most.
Ilsa clearly has suffered from the whims of fortune more than any other character in Casablanca. First, her husband is arrested and rumored to be dead. When he reappears, she must run with him throughout Europe with the Nazis always on their heels. She meets Rick and falls in love, only to have to leave him, then meets him and perhaps falls in love with him again, only to leave him once more. No matter whom she truly loves, she has not had an easy life, and her fate is the most tragic in the film. At the airport we can see that for Ilsa, the possibility of a happy ending does not exist. Ilsa herself may not even know what her own happiness would entail.
Of the major characters in Casablanca, Laszlo is the least complex. He is the pure embodiment of the noble hero, as a good as any man can be. Laszlo is handsome, confident, idealistic, outspoken, unwavering, and impassioned. He is married to the beautiful Ilsa, and he loves his wife so much that when he learns about Ilsa and Rick, he claims to understand. He is willing to sacrifice himself so that Ilsa can escape Casablanca safely. Yet Laszlo's true love is politics. The desire to defeat the Nazis is the prime motivation for all his actions. Despite the difficulties of his political struggle, he considers himself privileged to struggle through it. Laszlo is a symbol of the resistance. He represents unwavering commitment, a quality that makes him as valuable to the Allies as he is dangerous to the Nazis.
Captain Louis Renault
Like Rick, Louis undergoes a transformation from cynicism to idealism, though in his case this change is less dramatic and more humorous. Casablanca is an intense film, and Louis supplies some levity, including most of the comic lines. Like the Vichy government he represents, which courted the Nazis for favors and better treatment, Louis is not a man of strong conviction, but a friend to whoever is in power at the time. He works with Strasser, but never with Strasser's sense of urgency or conviction. What he does for Strasser is meant to convey a veneer of loyalty. He arrests Ugarte, closes Rick's bar, and arrests Laszlo simply to impress his German superior. Louis himself seems not to care one way or the other. Louis demonstrates his sporting ambivalence about Laszlo's fate when he bets with Rick about whether or not Laszlo will escape Casablanca.
For a while, Louis seems to care about nothing and no one but himself. A hedonist, he takes advantage of pretty female refugees and regularly receives fixed winnings from Rick's casino. The gambling is illegal, but until Strasser pressures him to close the casino, Louis looks the other way. But Louis's obvious affection for Rick belies his seeming self-involvement. Although he tells Rick not to count on his friendship, he can't hide his feelings for his friend. He expresses this fondness early in the film when he says that if he were a woman, he would be in love with Rick. Later he commends Rick for being the only one in Casablanca with "less scruples than I." At the end of the film, the men cement their friendship when both commit themselves to the Allied cause. Rick commits by allowing Ilsa and Laszlo to escape Casablanca and by killing Strasser, while Louis does it by disavowing his relationship with the collaborationist Vichy government and deciding to escape Casablanca with Rick. Ever the follower, Louis copies Rick when he, too, has become a self-sacrificing idealist.
by asighisjust, September 30, 2012
Recently I learned there are three verses to "As Time Goes By," omitted from the film music to Casablanca, sung by Dooley Wilson, and now accepted as standard. Rather than retype them here, readers can go to Wikipedia articles, (i) "As Time Goes By" and (ii) read also about the composer, Herman Hupfeld, NOT Max Steiner, who, purportedly did not like the song/verses in the first place. The complete lyrics make more sense for me now than previously, as lovely as they were/now are.