“Casablanca”: Love, Truth, and That Cosmic “Hill of Beans”

The 1943 classic offers a deep portrayal of love and the struggle to do what is right in the face of passion and temptation

This Valentine’s Day, there are movie theaters both sides of the Atlantic, in London and Washington DC, showing a film that for many is deemed to be amongst the most romantic ever made. (No, I’m not talking about that movie.) This famous film may be, however, a deeper exploration of the meaning of love than audiences at first imagine. And, as marriage is being attacked from all sides, Casablanca is worth revisiting.

Casablanca is more than just a movie. It is now a legend, almost a myth. Its world is as unreal to us today as, surprisingly, it was to audiences when it was released in 1943. Its background of espionage and world war was always more fantasy than it was historic. It is a hyperreality of sorts, with global conflict providing the backdrop for the deep emotions and the love triangle at the movie’s center.

Timely theme, timeless message

Watching it now, one is struck by how timely its themes remain, how modern its dilemmas, and above all how timeless its message: You cannot do right by doing wrong.

For all its legendary status, it is a movie that was “thrown together” rather than crafted with any foreknowledge—or even much of a plan, for that matter. Its genesis was the 1939 stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by the then-husband and wife team of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The play was a moderate success, enough for it to catch the eye of Hollywood, which was always hungry for properties to turn into movies. Warner Brothers bought it and then turned it loose to its contract scriptwriters, as happened with so many other literary properties. In this case it was first with the Epstein brothers, who added some much needed levity; then it was sent over to Howard Koch, who put in the various political messages (such as they were) before it was bounced back to the Epsteins for some more light relief—and then back to Koch, and so on.

Did they think they were making a classic that would still be viewed some 70 years later? No, probably not. The creation of a 1940s Hollywood production line, Casablanca was just another movie, with little (so it appeared) to set it apart from anything else then in development.

The same lack of any sense of import was true also of the casting of the film’s stars. George Raft, not Humphrey Bogart, was the first choice for the male lead. But Bogart was one of Warner’s’ contract stars and Warner had to find something for him to do, so he was eventually attached to the project. Unlike today, when some movie stars are barely willing to make one film a year, screen stars were then just another studio commodity and, like everyone else on contract, were expected to earn their money.

The other star, Ingrid Berman, was desperate to act in Casablanca, but not because of the movie; she was just desperate to escape into the fantasy world of film and away from an unhappy marriage in New York City. And, like Bogart, she was not a first choice; she wasn’t even really a “choice” as she was under contract elsewhere and only at the last minute was reluctantly loaned to Warners. In the end, both she and Bogart did what they had to do; they were distant with each other throughout, both distracted by unhappy home lives, with little by way of friendship between them when the cameras stopped rolling. Whatever chemistry did exist was confined to the screen, and was as fantastical as the movie’s sub-plot of the fabled exit papers needed to escape from Casablanca.

The other actors—Claude Raines, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henreid—turned up with varying degrees of interest, and did what they always did: gave first rate performances. All were essentially character actors, some of the best around, and they appeared in countless films. Thus, they had the advantage of steady and lucrative work but with none of the associated problems or projected fantasies that afflicted the leads. The film’s director, Michael Curtiz, was a Hungarian immigrant who churned out numerous films, some better than others, for Warners. A friend of the producers, Curtiz was an inevitable choice as director, if considered so on the basis of being a safe pair of hands. So, as the cameras rolled, it was just another movie on the slate, with a budget and a schedule to keep.

The central drama

The movie’s plot is simple enough. A man and woman had fallen in love some months previously in Paris. The man is Rick (Bogart), the American owner of a café in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; it is there that a woman, Ilsa (Berman), comes with her husband trying to transit to the United States from Occupied Europe. She just happens to be the woman that Rick had fallen for in the French capital. She and her husband, Laszlo, come to this remote part of Vichy-controlled French territory because it offers their only chance of escape as Laszlo is part of the European resistance to the Nazis.

But the politics are all incidental to what is the central drama of the romance. Will Rick and Ilsa resume their affair, or will she leave with Laszlo, and by so doing leave behind what Paris represented? And what of Rick—will he fight for her, or aid her and her husband’s flight? At this juncture, it is worth pointing out, and explained later in the film, that the aforementioned affair in Paris occurred while Ilsa thought that her husband was dead in a concentration camp. Now, however, there is no such confusion—only a choice to be made.

Moving around this trio are a group of Nazis and those fleeing the Third Reich, or subtly trying to undermine it. One thing is clear: Casablanca is full of desperate people, some of whom will do anything to escape from it and the war raging in the immediate background. Corruption at all levels, and in many forms, is rife. It is emblematic that the police commander, Captain Louis Renault, played by Claude Raines, is the most corrupt of the lot, selling transit visas for money or sexual favors, seemingly without a thought, never mind a conscience. The Nazis who had recently arrived are unconvinced by the loyalties on display, especially from the head of the city’s police, and, for once, they are right to be concerned. The place is as full of spies as it is profiteers. It is an easy place for us today to identify with for it is an immoral world—one where morality has left long ago on its own exit visa.

At the heart of this shadow world dwells Rick. Cynical and embittered, he is a loner who needs no one and wants nothing, becoming self-sufficient to the point of mystery. The first we see of him, he sits at a table in his nightclub playing chess—alone. It is a telling shot, as we soon discover. Here is a man playing a game of pure intellect, and playing it solo; he is a man whose “universe” needs to be controlled completely. It is almost as if he is playing while wearing a mask. However, this is the only time we see him so for, thereafter, Ilsa walks into his world and, for a second time, turns his upside down.

Rick is suffering from a broken heart, a heart he tries to heal with too much liquor and protect with lashings of cynicism, all to no avail. Try as he might, he is still in love with Ilsa, as she is with him, even though between them stands a husband and a marriage. Here the central drama narrows. It is a drama as old as the hills, and one that will continue until the hills dissolve into the seas, and, therefore, even a world war fades into the background as this, something more pressing and altogether more personal, comes to the fore.

This emotional triangle, and its resultant tension, is heightened by the fact that it presents Rick and Ilsa as far more attractive than Laszlo, who comes across as stiff, a distracted man more interested in his political goals than his wife. Thus, the audience’s sympathies are shaped towards two of the main characters; there would not be much of a film otherwise. Nevertheless, as a result, the moral dilemma is equally heightened, and thus asks questions of its audience as much as it does the central protagonists.

The curious quality

Interestingly, throughout the shoot there was no settled script for the ending, so from day to day Bogart and Bergman were unsure of how it was all going to conclude. In hindsight, and given all else that seemed to militate against the film, its result proves all the more miraculous. In fact, when interviewed years later, surviving members of the cast and crew were to comment on a curious quality that seemed to propel the film onwards, just as the plot propelled its protagonists to their final choice. Perhaps it was this “curious quality” that has entered into our collective, movie-viewing consciousness?

The conclusion of all of this takes place at an airfield, where someone is leaving and someone else is staying. Ilsa wants to stay, but Rick won’t allow her. Not because he doesn’t love her—that has been more than established throughout—but perhaps, in a strange way, because he does love her. This is real love, love that seeks what is best for the beloved. She doesn’t understand. He explains that if she stayed she would be doing something that wasn’t right and through that action both of them would never feel “right” about that decision. For a man whose emotional universe has been turned inside out, Rick’s moral vision is still absolutely spot on. Rick’s cynical mask slides away to reveal not just a mere romantic, but a man desperately trying to do the right thing.

The oft-quoted line about the concerns of the three involved not “mounting up to a hill of beans” needs to be served up with a healthy pinch or two of salt. If it was all so meaningless why not let the woman whom he loves and who seems to love him stay? What would be wrong in that? After all, they love each other. Because, in his heart, Rick knows that it does add up to “a hill of beans”, and one that is the framework for an ordered universe. This is a man who has suffered at the hands of Eros; he knows its power. Deep down, consciously or unconsciously, he also knows how force, when unbridled, is a totally destructive one, and that without the accompaniment of virtue such passions would ultimately drive him headlong into the abyss—perhaps not initially, but eventually.

Promises and perfect happiness

Abp. Fulton Sheen, in Three to Get Married, his classic work on marriage (published in 1951, not long after the movie was released), quoted a woman who, on contemplating divorce, realized that if she was to carry that through she would not only be leaving her husband but also driving yet another axe blow into the foundation of civilization itself. By so doing, she would be making the world even more disordered than it was already. She decided against. Sheen goes on to state something which few want to hear, but nonetheless everyone needs to hear, especially the newlywed and the not so newlywed:

In all human love it must be realized that every man promises a woman, and every woman promises a man that which only God alone can give, namely, perfect happiness.

Or, perfect misery if it goes wrong. Just ask Rick.

Rick, watching Ilsa heading to the plane with her husband, not only made the right choice for both of them (indeed, for all three), but when the war-torn world was falling apart he had made a moral choice that did not look much, on a global scale, like a “hill of beans”. But on a cosmic scale, he had helped set the moral compass pointing towards truth.

Later, as Rick walks away, joking with Renault, we glimpse the beginnings of a new Rick, the man who has freed himself from an obsession and, in so doing, not only regains his sense of humor—he smiles properly for the first time—but also his freedom. Because, as we all know (or should know), it is not human love that sets us free, but the Truth and its relation to human love, and its place in that much larger “hill of beans”.


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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.