Perfection is impossible.
There are no perfect movies, only those who have come closest to it. And this movie has got closer than most, if I was doing these posts in order I’d have kicked off with this one.
Along with Citizen Kane and The Godfather, this is one that regularly crops up on those “Best ever…” lists and it definitely deserves it’s acclaim. If you ain’t seen it, stop reading, go and stream it, or buy a copy, you won’t be disappointed it’s easily one of the best films ever made and a complete treat.
The film is an utter joy, with a brilliant cast, a captivating and moving plot and a script filled with glorious dialogue and great characters.
Set during the Second World War before America got involved, it’s set in the eponymous Moroccan city, which has become a key stop on the route to America that many are taking to flee the Nazis. As such the city has become an overcrowded hotbed of corruption and dodgy characters preying on the influx of desperate refugees, all hoping and waiting for a way out.
The major night spot in the town is Rick’s a bar and illegal gambling establishment ran by cynical American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Rick is aware of the situation and some of the things going on between his patrons, but has opted to stay out of it, explaining his philosophy by stating “I stick my neck out for nobody”. Evidenced by the way he lets the police capture an acquaintance of his, Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who earlier had entrusted him with stolen letters of transit which were taken from killed German officers. Ugarte later dies and the location of the passes remains secret.
Rick has few friends outside of his piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) and the unashamedly corrupt Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who seems to have some affection for Rick, and who believes that Rick is not as cold hearted and ruthless as he makes out.
Into the picture comes a famous Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who Rick respects and whom the Nazis don’t want to escape again. Laszlo arrives with his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who it turns out Rick was previously involved with in Paris when the Germans seized France. Rick’s previous record saw him on the German’s blacklist and he must flee, asking Ilsa to join him, only for her to stand him up at the train station. Heartbroken, Rick leaves with Sam.
Rick’s bitterness and anger horrifies Ilsa and she believes the man she loved in Paris is gone. The Nazis position on Laszlo changes as they fear he will inspire the underground, and it becomes more vital for him to leave. Suspicion falls on Rick, but the letters remain hidden.
Ilsa attempts to convince Rick to give her the letters, then draws a gun but can’t go through with it, they talk with her reasons for leaving him being explained ( and Ilsa reveals she doesn’t believe she can leave Rick again and still loves him. Lazlo arrives at the bar, hiding after fleeing a resistance meeting with one of Rick’s staff and speaks to Rick, and tells Rick that all men have a destiny and that he doesn’t believe Rick’s protestations of not caring about politics or what the Nazis are doing.
Rick visits Renault and tells him he plans to flee with Ilsa, and sells the bar to his friendly rival. Renault is surprised but goes ahead with it, planning to arrest Laszlo as it will enhance his career. But Rick pulls a gun and takes them to the airport, where he gets Renault to fill in the forms for Laszlo and Ilsa.
Rick explains to Ilsa that while he still loves her and in spite of his personal feelings the right thing to do is to get her away with Laszlo as she helps him with his work. Rick also tells her that any ill feeling is gone and that they’ll always have the memory of their time together (“We’ll always have Paris“). Rick then tells Laszlo that Ilsa pretended to still love him, but clearly had no feelings for him, before the couple fly off.
The chief Nazi arrives, and attempts to cancel the plane, only for Rick to shoot him. As the authorities arrive Louis tells them to gather the usual suspects and he then leaves with Rick to join the Resistance movement.
The film is utterly captivating, with an engaging and moving story, but what elevates it into classic territory are the performances and the script, which is a belter.
As Rick Bogart oozes cool and world weary cynicism, he’s a sarcastic, deadpan presence who’s clearly carrying the scars of previous events and now chooses to stay out of it. However, it’s apparent early on that this may be just a front, and his distaste for the Nazis is clear throughout. Some of his backstory remains shrouded in mystery throughout (it’s never revealed why he can’t return to the US). Bogart captures the character’s toughness, but once Ilsa arrives he ups his game- we see the walls Rick has put up start to crack and in the flashback to Paris, Bogie does a terrific job of playing Rick completely differently. The humour and world weary view is still there, but the younger Rick is happier, more optimistic and clearly infatuated with Ilsa.
Ilsa’s reappearance leads Rick to the bottom, but then it inspires him to make a stand and not stay on the sidelines anymore. It also realigns his moral compass and he comes to the aid of a young couple who are in need of visas, ending up out of pocket himself in the process.
Rick is, in a way, and allegorical representation of America, who had sat on the sidelines up until now, and at the time the film is set, December 1941 had yet to enter the conflict. At one point, Rick wanders what time it is in the States, and says “I bet they’re asleep all over America”.
Due to the time the film was made it’s a work of propaganda in some respects, to galvanize the American people into backing the war in Europe, a trickier proposition than the war with Japanese where vengeance was already a strong motivation. But the film is more than that, and while it creeps in at places, it doesn’t date the film or mar the enjoyment.
The film is full of nice touches, many of which have become cinematic touchstones, it’s a film which is endlessly referenced and alluded to in later works.
Bogart’s performance is not alone in being impressive, there’s a wealth of minor comic performances in the supporting cast. Henreid captures Laszlo’s quiet dignity and integrity well enough. He’s also part of one of the film’s most moving scenes where Laszlo gets the bar’s band to launch into “La Marseilles” to drown out the singing of the German soldiers. It’s an uplifting, powerful moment that never fails to hit home with me, giving the French refugees a chance to show pride and defiance to their occupiers.
Ingrid Bergman is superbly cast as Ilsa. Bergman has a kind of radiant beauty which is utterly captivating and you understand why they all fall for her. Her scenes with Bogart in the flashbacks are wonderful and they convince as a couple very much in love. She does a good job of conveying the conflict her character experiences, torn between two men she loves, and her sense of duty against her desire to be with Rick. When Bergman breaks down it’s utterly affecting and your heart goes out to her.
Best of all though is Claude Rains as the unscrupulous Renault, and steals much of the film thanks to his swaggering, roguish charm and the character’s gleefully immoral actions.
Renault is never seen as evil, but he’s definitely no hero, exploiting the situation and his power to indulge his baser instincts and desire, yet despite this he remains likable throughout, keeping just the right size of sleazy. His introduction to the film is brilliant, delivering one of the best lines of the film as he sees Rick reject the advances of a female patron- “How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that….Some day they may be scarce.”
The script is full of brilliant lines and exchanges, too many to count here, but some have slipped into cinematic lore, some even misquoted. And it has one of the all time best endings to a movie. There’s a real sense of humour throughout the flick, and it’s utterly charming.
It can still pull on the heartstrings though, and Rick’s speech to Ilsa at the airport is one of the most moving and well written speeches in cinematic history.
Sure it’s been quoted and ripped off countless times since (it’s plot is even lifted for Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire), but regardless of this, I love it every time I rewatch it.
They don’t make them like this anymore. Sadly.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.