Time magazine told us recently that the movie "Casablanca" had celebrated its 40th anniversary. It opened in New York in late 1942 and really never closed. At almost any time, any place, you can find "Casablanca" playing somewhere_if not in a theater or on television, then certainly over and over again in our heads.
Time, of course, recognized this and saluted the movie for becoming the American icon it is. Any movie that has stayed so incredibly popular (not just respected, like "Citizen Kane") for decades must say something about America itself. Just what that is, though, eludes Time. Allow me my crack.
In the first place, as Time points out, "Casablanca" is a triumph of casting. It is hard to see how a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains could fail. When you add to that a supporting cast of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson (Sam), the movie almost automatically becomes wonderful. And then, as Time also points out, the movie is largely about ideals. Everyone in "Casablanca" has enough to choke on. Rick, although outwardly committed to no person or no cause, is really a softie at heart. Not only does he rig the roulette wheel so that a young woman can buy her way out of the clutches of the prefect of police, but he turns out to be an American leftie--ran guns in the Spanish Civil War. His ultimate contribution to cinematic idealism, in fact, borders on the masochistic--giving up Ingrid Bergman, not to another man, but to the cause of anti-Fascism. A better man than me, that Rick.
In the idealism department, Rick is just slightly ahead of the others. Victor Lazlo, the only man to escape from a concentration camp in a Palm Beach suit, is a hero of the Resistance. All the waiters in Rick's attend secret meetings of the Underground. Even the loathsome and totally unscrupulous prefect of police finally decides to join Rick in the fight against the Axis. If there is anyone who comes up a trifle short in the idealism department, it is Ilsa, Rick's and Victor's love. She vacillates between Rick and her husband-cum-cause, choosing the latter only at Rick's insistence. It is, of course, interesting that a movie with all this political idealism should remain so popular even in times when political idealism was not. Wartime is one thing, but "Casablanca" kept its hold on audiences even during the turn-on-drop-out era when narcissism was elevated to a political movement.
The explanation for that probably lies in the movie's other attribute and the core of its appeal. It is really about a certain kind of love--the myth that there is for each and every one of us just one other person. This is different from love that comes and goes. It is different from a crush or a sexual attraction. This is the stuff of poems--true love.
In "Casablanca," Rick and Ilsa meet in Paris and fall in love. As all the world knows, Ilsa stands Rick up at the train station after she finds out her husband is not dead. But it would have been easier to bury her husband than her love for Rick. Not only does she stay in love with him, but he reciprocates. There is not the slightest hint that since Ilsa another woman ever made it to Rick's upstairs room. And when "of all the gin joints in . . . all the world" Ilsa happens to walk into Rick's, he's there not because he's just the proprietor, but because he has been waiting for her.
This is not love subject to analysis--Freudian or intellectual. It's the real McCoy. There is not the slightest reason to believe either Rick or Ilsa could ever replace the other, and what makes Rick's idealism so painful and yet so wonderful is our realization that neither one of them will ever love anyone else.
That explains the appeal of "Casablanca." The politics of it might come and go, but the one thing that endures is our basic belief in the myth that there is such a thing as true love and that it only happens once. It's silly, intellectually indefensible but, like the movie itself, oh so wonderful. Rick and Ilsa will "always have Paris." That's why we will always have "Casablanca."