Casablanca | The Story Pt. 1 — Exposition

by Glenn on August 31, 2018

Among other innovations, the Twentieth Century introduced the idea of visual storytelling with film. The medium has evolved over the years, but as in other art forms, there are films that are relevant beyond their time. Casablanca, one of my favorite films, is one of them. It is now more than 75 years old, but I have yet to get tired of watching it and want to spend some time considering it.

I thought I would begin by telling the story portrayed in Casablanca.

The story is located, as you either know or might expect, in Casablanca, French Morocco, at the outset of World War Two. Without specifically mentioning the Nazis, who are the cause, a narrator tells us how many in “imprisoned Europe” desire “the freedom of the Americas.” The escape point is Lisbon, which for most people is accessible only via a “tortuous, roundabout refugee trail,” from France across the Mediterranean to Northern Africa and over to Casablanca. Unfortunately, the departure from Casablanca requires an exit visa. The “fortunate” have money, know people, or are lucky, acquiring exit visas that allow them to hop aboard a plane for Lisbon to, ultimately, head West and away from Europe. For the rest, Casablanca is a dead end where you “wait … and wait … and wait … and wait.”

The action opens with a French police officer making an urgent announcement into a radio microphone: Two German couriers with “important official documents” were killed on a train and the murderer is headed toward Casablanca. All “suspicious characters” are to be rounded up and searched. The official documents, it turns out, are a big deal. They are two “letters of transit signed by General de Gaulle,” which “cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.” There’s no mention why these documents exist or why they are so powerful. The fact is, they are “Get out of jail free” cards. A letter of transit allows you to leave Casablanca without question or interference.

The police begin their work of rounding up and questioning suspicious people. One unnamed person is found to have “expired” papers.

He tries to run and is shot and killed in front of a painting on a wall of Marshall Petain, the head of the “Vichy” government that has cooperated with the Nazi invaders of France to govern “unoccupied France.” The words on the painting read, “Je tiens mes promesses, meme celles des autre.” [“I keep my promises, just as I keep those of others.”] There is a kind of brutal irony here in that the dead man is found to be carrying papers connecting him to the French Resistance, meaning that the promises kept by the Vichy government are those made to Germany, not to its citizens and/or others with the nationalist instinct.

In Casablanca, not only is your life in danger, so is your property. An English couple is trying to understand the commotion in town and a pickpocket takes advantage of the moment to kindly explain the political situation while unkindly relieving the man of his wallet.

The action is interrupted by the arrival of a plane to Casablanca.

Everyone, except the police it seems, are focused on the plane, which provokes an emotional reaction from the crowd.

The sense of longing to leave Casablanca, apparently felt by all, is expressed by one when the camera focuses in on a young couple and the girl says, “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on that plane.”

The plane has brought an important Nazi official, Major Strasser, to Casablanca. He is greeted with a hearty “Heil Hitler” by Herr Heinze, who introduces Strasser to Captain Renault, “appointed by Vichy as Prefect of Police in Casablanca.”

The dialogue between Strasser and Renault tells us a lot. Renault is in charge in Casablanca, but must be deferential to the wishes of the Nazis. Strasser has come to Casablanca to see what has been done about the murdered couriers. We’ll discover the reason for his urgency shortly. In the meantime, we learn that the rounding up of suspects earlier may have been a show. Heinz discloses, “We already know who the murderer is.” Strasser says, “Good,” and asks, “Is he in custody?” Renault replies, “Oh there is no hurry. Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.”

We’ve already had a glimpse of Rick’s Café Americain in the daylight as the Nazi plane landed.

Now it’s night, and the action moves inside Rick’s, a classy and popular nightclub.

Among the “American” features of Rick’s is a great jazz band, led by an African-American piano player and singer. Underneath the party atmosphere are darker things.

A man is in despair as he contemplates his end. He says, “I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca.” The man listening to him doesn’t appear all that sympathetic.

A woman sells some jewelry, one assumes to buy her way out of Casablanca. Her dilemma is that she can’t get a good price because everyone is selling diamonds. So she accepts what is offered.

At another table there is conspiratorial talk about trucks that “are waiting.” With a quick touch, the man who is listening silences the man who is speaking as a couple of Nazi officers walk by.

Finally, we see one man offering another an escape from Casablanca. A fishing boat, Santiago, will be leaving the next night. For fifteen thousand francs in cash he can get on it. It’s important that the payment is made in cash.

There’s a lot going on in this café.

Everybody, indeed, does come to Rick’s. Languages and nationalities abound. Sacha, the bartender, serves a drink and offers a greeting in Russian to a gentlemen who offers a thoroughly British, “Cheerio!” in response.

The employees of Rick’s appear to be from everywhere and, perhaps, have been everything. It is a time of displacement. Carl is an overweight and friendly German (later we’ll learn that his sympathies are with the French Resistance) who is addressed as “Herr Professor” by a door man, Abdul, a local you imagine. The door takes us into a separate gambling room where we meet the man for whom Rick’s Café is eponymously named.

We are introduced to Rick carefully. A couple of women ask Carl if Rick will have a drink with them. Carl says, “Madame, he never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen him.” From the dialogue we learn that many people in the bar—both employees and customers alike—had lives of status and significance. The war has required adjustments.

Before we see Rick’s face we see his hand. He is actively involved in the running of his casino as he okays a check for a thousand francs as a gambling payout. We also observe that he is a saloon keeper who drinks.

The first shot of Rick shows him playing chess by himself and smoking. But he is not merely keeping to himself.

As people come to the door of the casino, Abdul looks to Rick to see who may and may not come in. For one person, Rick nods his approval. For another, a German with ties to Deutsche Bank, Rick shakes his head no. The German becomes belligerent which brings Rick to the door. He seems to have no problem with confrontation. The German hands Rick a check and complains, “I’ve been in every gambling room between Honolulu and Berlin and if you think I’m going to be kept out of a saloon like this, you’re very much mistaken.” Rick tears up the man’s check and tells him, “Your cash is good at the bar.”

While Rick and the German have their confrontation, a man named Ugarte enters the room. As Rick returns to his seat, Ugarte engages him in conversation. Rick shows little interest. There appears to be a respect differential here. Clearly, Rick doesn’t have any for Ugarte, but it’s also very clear that Ugarte is determined to have a conversation with Rick. It’s rough at first. We find out that there is a business for getting refugees out of Casablanca. The Police Captain, Renault, has one price. Ugarte is cheaper. Rick is dismissive of Ugarte until Ugarte reveals his plan to make a fortune on one deal. Ugarte lays some papers down in front of Rick. They are the stolen letters of transit. He has a plan to sell them that evening but doesn’t want to be caught holding them himself. So he turns to Rick and says, “You know, Rick, I have many friends in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you’re the only one I trust.” Rick agrees to hold them, but makes it clear that he doesn’t want them overnight.

This whole scene is an important one for understanding Rick. It opened with Rick denying a German entrance to the casino. Now as the conversation breaks up and Ugarte goes to wait for the person who has agreed to buy the letters of transit, there is a key moment of dialogue:

UGARTE:
“Rick, I hope you are more impressed with me now, huh? If you’ll forgive me, I’ll share my good luck with your roulette wheel.”

RICK:
“Just a moment. Yeah, I heard a rumor those two German couriers were carrying letters of transit.”

UGARTE:
“Oh. Huh. I’ve heard that rumor, too. Poor devils.”

RICK:
“Yes, you’re right Ugarte. I am a little more impressed with you.”

I’ll write more about Rick another time, but for now, I think it’s important to note that both in word and deed Rick takes an oppositional approach to Nazis and their sympathizers, though not Germans necessarily (Carl, for example, in whom we learn later that Rick both trusts and confides.)

Rick leaves the casino and enters the main bar during a musical number. When the lights are low, Rick places the letters of transit into the piano for safe-keeping. It appears he doesn’t want to be caught with these letters of transit either.

Now Rick has a conversation with a local businessman named Ferrari who owns The Blue Parrot, another, and one imagines less successful, bar. Ferrari wants to buy Rick’s Café. Rick says it’s not for sale. When Ferrari complains that Rick has not heard his offer, Rick counters, “It’s not for sale at any price.” Then the conversation gets uncomfortable. Ferrari says, “What do you want for Sam (the piano player and singer)?” Rick, perhaps assuming the worst possible meaning of that question,  declares, “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” Rick appears to have understood Ferrari’s meaning all too clearly as Ferrari replies, “That’s too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

We learn that Ferrari is in the black market and would like to be working with Rick. When Ferrari suggests that they see if Sam is interested in making a change, Rick agrees to ask. They walk over to Sam and Rick tells him that Ferrari wants to work for him at The Blue Parrot. Sam declines. “I like it fine here,” Sam says. Rick counters, “He’ll double what I pay you,” and Sam replies, “Yeah, but I ain’t got time to spend the money I make here.” There appears to be a deep loyalty between Rick and Sam. We’ll never understand where that loyalty comes from, but we’ll find out soon that it’s fierce and that Rick and Sam go back a ways.

Rick’s Café Americain appears to be a highly successful business. But while Rick, the owner, pays careful attention to the running of that business he has some personal problems. If we can notice, without judgment, that he is smoking and drinking a lot, we now observe he shows a remarkable callousness toward women, or at least one woman. Yvonne, obviously unhappy, is sitting at the bar, and when Rick wanders over to take care of some business but takes no notice of her, there is this troubling dialogue:

YVONNE:
“Where were you last night?

RICK:
“That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”

YVONNE:
“Will I see you tonight?”

RICK:
“I never make plans that far ahead.”

It’s hard not to conclude this is no way to treat women. We have a sampling size of one, but apparently Rick will take what he wants from a woman, but is unwillingly to invest in an actual relationship with her. He’s not concerned about complaints. As a woman, you have to relate to Rick on his terms, which aren’t that good. When Yvonne expresses some anger, Rick drags her out of the bar and has Sacha take her home in a cab with the warning, “And come right back.”

Captain Renault watched the end of this unfolding melodrama from a table outside Rick’s. After the taxi leaves, he calls out to Rick who comes to sit with him. It’s clear Renault and Rick know each other. More importantly, there seems to be an understanding in each of what the other’s about. They don’t appear to be close friends, but they aren’t antagonists. As the story continues, we’ll see that there is a kind of practical arrangement between the two of them—Rick gets to run an illegal casino and Renault gets to win at cards. It’s a kind of win-win relationship. But there is some distance between the men, too. These are two predatory animals who respect each other’s hunting grounds.

When a plane takes and off and flies overhead, both men stare at it.

Rick doesn’t look happy. Renault tries to find out more about Rick who is something of a mystery to him.

RENAULT:
“I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

RICK:
“It’s a combination of all three.”

Rick offers no further explanation.

Rick has to go into the bar to take care of a financial matter and Renault goes with him. As they walk past Sam, Rick pats him on the shoulder.

As they head toward Rick’s office, Rick and Renault continue talking. Renault informs Rick that there is going to be an arrest in his café. Rick offers an annoyed, “What again?” But Renault responds, “This is no ordinary arrest. A murderer, no less.” Rick’s eyes glance over toward the door of the casino. It seems Rick is thinking of Ugarte and Renault understands all too clearly what’s going on. He tells Rick, “If you are thinking of warning him, don’t put yourself out. He cannot possibly escape. Rick replies, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Renault assures him, “A wise foreign policy.” This is for another post, but lines like that one that let you know this film is working on multiple levels. It’s a story about Rick the American. But, released in 1942, it’s also, analogously, about Rick’s America.

Inside Rick’s office, Renault tells Rick that Major Strasser will be coming to the café that evening to watch the arrest. He also gives Rick a warning. He knows that Rick has never sold an exit visa, which is one of the reasons he is allowed to operate his saloon and casino. But a man is coming to Casablanca who will pay a fortune for one. Rick wants to know who the man is. When Renault tells him it is Victor Laszlo, this greatly impresses Rick, who seems well aware of Laszlo, a Nazi antagonist who “has succeeded in impressing half the world.” Renault tells Rick that Laszlo must never leave Casablanca. Rick suggests Laszlo’s previous escape from a Nazi concentration camp implies he will get out of Casablanca much more easily. They decide to make a wager on whether or not Laszlo gets out of Casablanca. Renault tells Rick that Laszlo will need not just one, but two exit visas, because he is traveling with a woman. Renault is concerned that Rick may try to help Laszlo and points out that he knows Rick’s past history of fighting for certain causes. Their conversation is interrupted by the news that Major Strasser has arrived.

In a dramatic scene involving gunfire, Ugarte is arrested by Renault’s men with Strasser watching.

There is an awkward moment where Ugarte asks Rick for help and Rick, a pragmatist, tells Ugarte not to be a fool. There’s nothing to be done. With the letters of transit in his possession, this moment could be a little self-serving for Rick. When an observer points out to Rick that he didn’t do anything to help Ugarte, Rick, for the second time, says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Following the arrest, Rick is introduced to Strasser by Renault. Strasser questions Rick and we learn that Strasser also knows some things about Rick which concern him. As Renault had just done, Strasser makes it clear to Rick that “an enemy of the Reich has come to Casablanca” and that anyone who might be interested in helping him is under Nazi scrutiny. It appears Rick may at one time have been what Strasser would call “an enemy of the Reich,” but Rick states unequivocally that his only mission is running his saloon.

*  *  *

At this point, 25 minutes into the film, not a lot has actually happened, though some key pieces have been arranged on a chess board. Two exit visas have been stolen. The culprit has been captured without them. A Czech resistance leader has escaped from the Nazis and has come to Casablanca to make his way to America to continue his work. A Nazi officer has come to Casablanca to impress upon the local police that the resistance leader must not leave Casablanca. An American saloon operator with a history of helping out lost causes is told to leave this one alone.

If we follow a typical dramatic arc for a story, we have arrived at the end of the exposition.

 

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