Casablanca has quite an imagination: Not only is the “Casablanca” it inhabits imaginary, but it’s very existence as a movie depends on a re-imagining of The Maltese Falcon, right down to the cast--with one significant substitution: Mary Astor’s tear-stained sharpie is replaced by Ingrid Bergman’s golden apparition, part memory, part avatar. There’s even a Falcon--the letters of transit or Paul Henreid’s freedom-fighter, take your pick--with Sidney Greenstreet still amused and jaundiced, and Peter Lorre--briefly but essentially--the desperate chump.
Casablanca adds the War; but it appears like a ghost--more like a menacing spirit, threatening to take everyone into the Other World--or better yet: threatening mostly Bogart’s Rick, who thinks he’s had enough, but has barely begun. And the movie packs all of them into a little space, with Serbians and a Russian, a French roué and some sneering Nazis. There’s even Sam, Rick’s best friend and piano player, who keeps reminding them that some hearts are currently broken, but can mend. Is he supposed to be Africa in this little gambling-house Globe, or simply another of the movie’s many recurring instances of fallibility tempered by hope, like the constantly spilled glasses, Rick’s insistence he sticks his neck out for nobody, and the fond wish to look at you, kid? In any case, by the end we know that the fundamental things apply as time goes by, no matter how great the losses.
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Hollywood contraption so much. Casablanca is deeply manipulative, but makes me feel so good for letting it have its way that I’m willing to give in and, like that crazy Russian bartender, give Rick a kiss just for being Rick--and to pass along more to all the rest of them--Claude Rains in particular, his grin the most constant reminder that, while we may be watching a mere movie, it’s one we’re going to follow all the way, past the departing plane and the fog, to whatever other side we can manage.