I recently learned that Ronald Reagan and I had something in common: Our all-time favorite film was "Casablanca" (1943). By conservative estimate, I've probably seen it 10 times (and wept on every occasion), and Reagan, according to reports, not only loved this movie, he was once considered for the part of Rick Blaine, which ultimately went to Humphrey Bogart.
With a screenplay written by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein (from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison), "Casablanca" not only walked away with the Best Picture Oscar in 1943, but its romantic song, "As Time Goes By" became an instant American classic, and the wonderful quote, "Play again, Sam," went on to be part of our cultural vernacular.
Alas, a couple of misconceptions need to be clarified. People think that besides winning Best Picture, "As Time Goes By," won for Best Song. Wrong. Not only didn't it win, it wasn't even nominated, which, frankly, was an outrageous snub, one that still pisses me off. As for that iconic line, "Play it again, Sam," wrong again. Those precise words were never uttered in the movie. Oops.
But the biggest misconception concerns the validity of the premise itself. As much as I love this magnificently sappy movie (I'm fighting back tears thinking about it), I can't deny that its thematic basis is about as illogical and absurd as it gets. In fact, the more one analyzes its premise, the more ridiculous it appears, which is why I try not to think about it.
In a word, the storyline is preposterous. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is the heroic Czech national who happens to be both the charismatic leader of the European Resistance, and the Third Reich's most wanted man. The Germans hate him, and have been hunting this son of a bitch with a vengeance, drooling over the prospect of getting their dirty Nazi hands on him.
As coincidence would have it, Laszlo, his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and the world-weary American expatriate and Ilsa's former lover, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), along with a contingent of highly motivated Nazis, all wind up together in Morocco, right smack in the middle of World War II.
There's a scene in the film where a German officer, the sinister Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), tells the corrupt chief of police, the unctuous Captain Renault (Claude Rains), that, although Laszlo has "slipped through our fingers three times," this time they intend to grab him. Strasser makes it chillingly clear that this manhunt is going to end right here, right now, in exotic Casablanca.
But here's the absurd part. Laszlo spends his days walking arm-in-arm with Ilsa, and spends his evenings drinking at Rick's chic Café Americain, with the Nazis making no effort to snatch him. The couple casually strolls the city as if those pesky Nazis pose no threat whatever. Indeed, Major Strasser shows up at Rick's club one evening, and does nothing more menacing than give Laszlo the stink-eye from across the room.
Mind you, these are Nazis. The same Nazis who invaded and occupied a good portion of Europe, the same Nazis who engaged in the extermination of the Jews, the same Nazis who plotted to assassinate Winston Churchill. Clearly, international law means nothing to them. Treaties mean nothing. Geographical borders mean nothing.
Yet, we are asked to believe that if Laszlo can somehow obtain two "letters of transit," which are mysteriously floating around the city, he and Ilsa can leave Casablanca unimpeded, with no fear of being detained.
And how could they be guaranteed to leave with no hassle? Because these "letters of transit" are signed by Charles De Gaulle, Free France's president in exile. No joke. We're asked to believe that a document bearing Charles DeGaulle's signature is enough to render the Third Reich helpless, to bring it to its knees.
Even more preposterous is the fact that these "letters" aren't even made out to Laszlo himself, but are blank--with the name of some lucky traveler to be filled in later. Again, we're asked to believe that anyone who gains possession of them (in this backwater town in North Africa) cannot be hindered, even by Adolf Hitler himself.
While no one is suggesting that movies need be "realistic," there should be some semblance of reality when purporting to depict historical events. Every movie has the right to be far-fetched in some fashion, but this "letters of transit" gimmick clearly abuses the privilege.
It's no stretch to say that, in real life, Nazi agents would have followed Laszlo from Rick's café, snatched him, tortured him to give the names of other Resistance leaders, and then put a bullet in his head. To paraphrase another Best Picture winner, Victor Laszlo would be sleeping with the fishes.