“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By.'”
“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Everybody comes to Rick’s.”
These are just some of the amazing quotes from Casablanca. Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and for good reason–it is a fantastic movie. Almost every line of dialogue is quotable. The characters (especially Rick, Ilsa, and Louis) are iconic. The last scene between Rick and Ilsa at the airport and later, the ending scene with Rick and Louis walking off into the fog are forever symbolic of Classic Hollywood. Between the quotes, the scenes, the music, Rick and Ilsa’s romance, Louis’ corruption… there is so much to remember about Casablanca. However, does anyone remember the object that plays a central role in the film? 1
1 Obviously a rhetorical question, because duh, we’re all Classic Hollywood film fans, OF COURSE we know the answer to this question; but roll with it.
Answer? The letters of transit. The letters of transit are introduced in the film as a piece of crucial documentation that refugees must present to leave Casablanca, Morocco. These refugees are hoping to obtain a letter of transit so that they can travel through German-occupied Europe to Lisbon, Portugal (which is neutral), then board a ship/plane to head to their new life in the United States. These documents are the objects that motivate the main characters’ actions in the film. The audience is first introduced to Peter Lorre’s character in the film, Ugarte, as he races through town and into Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) club, Rick’s Cafe American. Ugarte boasts that he murdered two German couriers to obtain these precious letters of transit. He wants to sell them in Rick’s club. In the meantime however, Ugarte asks Rick to keep the letters of transit safe.
Later, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive in Casablanca and head over to Rick’s. Victor is the leader of the Czech Resistance movement. Because of his activity, Victor ranks high on the Germans’ list of persons to not allow to leave Casablanca. Thanks to Rick’s business rival, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Rick is suspected of having the letters of transit in his possession. This suspicion is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the corrupt prefect of police, also suspects Rick has the letters of transit. He is a subject of the German-controlled France and is supposed to be preventing Ilsa and Victor’s escape.
But does the audience care about the letters of transit? No. Not really. As the audience, we are immediately captivated by Rick’s sour reaction to Ilsa’s showing up at his club. What’s the story there? That’s what we want to know. Judging from Ilsa’s acquaintance with Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s pianist and friend, and her asking him to play “it,” we know that there’s a story there. Sam knows what “it” is and reluctantly agrees to play the song when Ilsa persists. When Sam acquiesces to Ilsa’s request and begins playing “As Time Goes By,” (i.e. “it”), Rick angrily emerges from his office, demanding to know why Sam is playing *that* song. He spots Ilsa and oof. If looks could kill. Rick’s reaction, combined with Sam quickly grabbing his piano bench and scurrying out of the way, is what we need to know about. What is the story behind Rick and Ilsa?
The story of Rick and Ilsa provides the main framework of the story and the main conflict. Add in the fact that Ilsa is married to Victor, and a love triangle develops. Rick and Ilsa’s romance is re-kindled and soon it’s up in the air as to whether Ilsa will want a letter of transit to leave Casablanca. A different side of Rick emerges. He was a cynical, world weary ex-pat living in Casablanca, seemingly impervious to everything. Then Ilsa shows up (unexpectedly) and the romantic side of him emerges. Louis is there, kind of playing both sides, both as an ally of Rick’s but also wanting to follow through on his “duty” and prevent Victor’s escape. He knows Rick knows where the letters of transit are, but he doesn’t really work too hard to look for them. Louis, a French police officer, is stuck in the middle between duty to his country and duty to the corrupt Nazi regime who had taken over Vichy France. At the end of the film, Louis tosses the full bottle of Vichy water into the trash, symbolically showing that he is severing his ties with the Nazis. Louis, like Rick, becomes a patriot.
At the end of the film, Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice and sends Ilsa off with Victor. He hands over the letters of transit very casually. There is no big fanfare, no big build up when Rick hands off the coveted documents. Instead, we are treated to Rick’s very self-sacrificing monologue, the monologue in which he finally severs ties with Ilsa and closes this chapter of his life. This is closure to the romance that we’ve been captivated by since the beginning of the film. We’re finally finding out the resolution of the love triangle. Which man will Ilsa end up with? The man she fell in love with after her husband was thought to be dead? Or her husband, whom she reunited with (and abandoned Rick in the process) after learning that he was still alive? Does she stay with the man who escaped the war to live in Casablanca? Or does she stay with the man who is conducting very important, but also dangerous work on behalf of the Resistance? The letters of transit are essentially irrelevant in the context of the real crux of the film.
RICK: “Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.”
ILSA: “But Richard, no… I… I…”
RICK: “Now you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten we’d both wind up in a Concentration Camp. Isn’t that true, Louis?”
LOUIS: “I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.”
ILSA: “You’re only saying this to make me go.”
RICK: “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
ILSA: “But what about us?”
RICK: “We’ll always have Paris. What we didn’t have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
ILSA: “When I said I would never leave you.”
RICK: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t have any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(ILSA lowers her head and begins to cry)
(RICK gently grabs Ilsa’s chin and raises it, so they can look into each other’s eyes.)
RICK: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), and Claude Rains (Louis) in one of the most iconic scenes in Classic Hollywood.
The final scene between Rick and Ilsa is one of my absolute favorite scenes in any film. Who knew that a scene where two people are breaking up could be so romantic and heartbreaking. It was beautifully written and acted. After taking in the emotional gravitas of this scene and the absolutely heart-wrenching ending to this romance, who is still thinking about the letters of transit?