"We'll Always Have Casablanca"

Morten Kyndrup


The question of precisely what made Michael Curtiz's Casablanca a genuine film classic has been discussed by film critics for decades. It is not self-evident that the audience should adore this movie - let alone continue to adore it generation after generation. As often pointed out, Casablanca is at several levels obviously mediocre, if not downright clumsy. The plot itself is at any level completely unconvincing; especially the decisive focal point about the very special letter of transit for two persons (no matter who) - obtained from two German couriers who were assassinated, which is well-known by everybody - is indeed almost comical. But also technically and compositionally this movie is uneven. It was shot very fast and for many years it was more or less a public secret that the main structure of the plot was not decided until the very shooting of the film. On the other hand, the degree and stability of its success is incontestable. Now, is this due to the consistent and unchangeable bad taste of the audience - or did this movie par hasard, so to speak, actually strike some qualities which, intended or not, make it a lasting artwork?

Quite a few have tended to hold the former opinion - referring in particular to the star casting of the movie. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman themselves have long ago become cult figures, and this along with the seductive, sentimental music of As Time Goes By and the romantic love story in themselves ensure interest. The Italian semiotician and cultural critic Umberto Eco makes a point along the same lines. Eco thinks that the fact that Casablanca deals with an abundance of clichés is what makes it so attractive to the audience. "Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us," as he puts it. Eco emphasizes that this effect is engendered in spite of aesthetic theories and theories about film creation - what we are dealing with here is "... Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it." [1]

Although it could by no means be rejected that an accumulation of clichés may be fascinating, nor of course that Bogart, Bergman and impossible love are attractive, I shall argue in the following that the power of fascination of Casablanca has a far more complex basis than that. I shall attempt to demonstrate that as a matter of fact the movie - intentionally or not - mounts a rather advanced construction of ambiguity that gives it certain unique qualities at the level of aesthetic function. The point is thus that it is not through the redundant accumulation of clichés that this movie achieves its potential effect; on the contrary, it is by means of its own construction that the movie establishes a certain interrelationship among the clichés at several distinct narrative and epistemic levels. And by doing this the movie gets away with having it both ways, as it were. In other words, in an aesthetic analysis it is the movie's own construction as an artwork that forms the basis of its effect - that is to say, its success is realised not in spite of but because of its aesthetic qualities.


The core point is that Casablanca contains two fundamentally different versions of its own construction of meaning. The first one is rooted in a classical paradigm of representation, is directed towards the fabula level of the narrative, and aims at being decoded within the framework of the so-called depth model. The second one is more pragmatic, that is, directed against the movie as an act of signification. It unfolds primarily at the syuzhet level of the presentation and it aims at a more reflexive perception.

First, let us take a look at the version rooted in classical representation. Here we are dealing with a totally traditional construction of conflict drawing on the depth model's paradigm of understanding, both in terms of its epistemological basis and as concerns the abductive approach to the level of appearance of the events. Rick is left with a broken heart, leading a cynical but rather profitable life of professional cheating, fast ladies and systematic corruption. He minds his own business and stays clear of the big questions of wartime concerning friend or enemy, true or false. Ilsa, his former beloved, turns up with her husband, Victor, who is a true hero in favour of the good. Ilsa and Victor desperately need the letter of transit that Rick happens to be in possession of. Rick, in turn, desperately needs Ilsa. Victor will be killed by the Germans if he does not get away. Ilsa is ready to kill Rick to get the travel documents from him.

The whole situation is deadlocked, driven into a genuine counterposition. There seems to be no possibility for exchange. If Rick gives Victor and Ilsa the letter of transit, he will lose every possibility of getting Ilsa back. The same thing will happen if he himself chooses to leave. And Ilsa does not want to leave without Victor, and Victor does not want to leave without Ilsa. Everybody seems to be losing.

But then, luckily, in the middle of the hopelessness it turns out that all this is only apparent. Because when it comes down to it Rick is actually by no means minding his own business. In fact, he is on the right side. He is a good guy. Helped by Ilsa, who finally chooses to put her fate in his hands, he suppresses his selfish wish to fulfil his own emotional needs. He thinks out a masterplot. He makes the authorities believe that he and Ilsa will leave Victor behind; Victor is made to believe that he and Ilsa may leave; Ilsa is made to believe that Victor will leave alone while she stays with Rick. It is only in the goodbye scene itself, when Rick has to shoot down the German major, that he finally and insistently presents his sovereign nobleness. He sends Victor and Ilsa off and stays behind himself. He gives away everything. Fortunately, however, it now turns out that the hitherto corrupt French commandant, Renault, is also a good guy, so he does not make Rick pay for the murder. In this huge movement of mediation everything seems to end up well. At the level of the world, the good and the true, of which Victor is an indispensable agent, are strengthened; at the personal level, Ilsa preserves her self-respect, which she - as Rick clearly sees - would have lost if she had tricked Victor to leave alone. It is true that she loses her real lover, Rick, and that he loses her. But as he expresses it, "We'll always have Paris." They have the memory of the euphoric phase of their love and no one can take that away from them.

All in all we get a statement or a moral on value, insisting that the great stable values should be given priority over short personal passions. It asserts that there is such a thing as a supreme rationality that should be supported also when in conflict with personal, emotional needs. But it also asserts a model for approaching conflicts that in the style of mainstream popular media has as its central message that such a thing as real, painful, tragic or impossible conflicts do not exist at all. That is, upon closer inspection they always turn out to be based on a misunderstanding. In the end everybody (apart from the bad Germans, of course) is essentially good enough and consequently ends up wanting to do the same things. Therefore, this is no real tragedy: Rick and Ilsa are united in their conviction of having done the right thing, and indeed they still have their memories. Realising their liaison would have caused thorough and lasting damage. As it turns out, all potential problems are actually avoided. And it becomes possible to resign oneself to longing nostalgically for lost love precisely because all the right choices have been made.

As concerns the narration technique, all this is mounted in a gradual uncovering process. The fact that, essentially, Rick is even better than good is pretty obvious long before he fully assumes his character. His immense pain explains and excuses his immediate rude reaction towards Ilsa; and in the final masterplot, where Rick's intention is not uncovered to the recipient until at the last decisive moment, he takes control not only of the presented universe but also of its presentation. All lines meet in this linear-perspective figure that makes him the moral master even of the hero, Victor, by giving him both the freedom and the princess without asking any other price than continuing to fight for the good. As the absolute giver Rick finally takes possession of the absolute symbolic power.

Indeed, at this level one can speak of an apotheosis of clichés. If this level had stood alone, this movie would probably have been unbearable to watch more than once, and it would never have stood out from other popular movies of that time.


This, however, is not the case. The depth version, the horizontal fabula of conflict mediation, does not stand alone. There is another version that throughout the movie leads its life at the syuzhet level, most of the time sheltered behind the major conflicts and their inevitable mediation until at last it fully assumes its character. This happens in the goodbye scene, where it becomes apparent as the question of whether it actually is evident who is in control of whom and motivated by what. Perhaps Rick is not actually driven by universal, noble motives? Perhaps Rick is just symbolically and in reality revenging himself on Ilsa for leaving him without a word in Paris? Symbolically this revenge consists in his installing himself in the position of giver and thus re-conquering the power. From being a walking decompression he becomes a man once again. And of course at the level of reality his revenge consists in actually condemning Ilsa to the life she leads with noble but utterly boring Victor. The point here is that it is Rick who makes the decision. Ilsa is thus no longer subject but is turned into object. Rick gets his tit for tat, and in such a way that Ilsa is even forced to thank him.

Conversely, Rick's supreme masterplot may be read as being staged by Ilsa. Firstly, she tries talking him into giving her the letter of transit, then she threatens him. As this does not work either, she realises that the only way to get what she wants from wounded Rick is by making him believe that he is giving it to her by his own choice - that is, by offering him symbolic satisfaction for the wound she gave him but in such a way that he does not realise that she is making this offer. He must necessarily become the giver in order to regain power. That is why she apparently surrenders. That is why she explicitly leaves it all up to him - knowing, of course, that the only way in which Rick can rehabilitate himself in his own eyes is by letting her and Victor go. So, finally Ilsa gets what she wants; she is clever enough to know that only by turning herself into an apparent object is she able to become the real subject.

Whether Rick is "actually" cheating Ilsa or Ilsa is staging Rick is by no means decisive. Both interpretations may for that matter be "true" within the presentational level of the film in the sense that both sides get what they want. However, contrary to the first version, they do not want the same thing and what they want is not part of a greater universal pie of morals. No way: Rick needs his symbolic satisfaction so that he can live on without his castration. And Ilsa simply needs a passport in order to get out. The core point is not from whose side this is being seen; the core point is that at the level of the film this is hinted at as a subtle, indeterminable and - concerning the presentational level of the film, the syuzhet level - reflexive register.

This focus on the game Casablanca plays with its characters only becomes obvious towards the end of the movie. As a matter of fact, it is exactly at the point when the serious and tragic consequences of Rick's noble self-sacrifice in the first version are about to make themselves felt that the movie changes its tone. Instead of having Rick arrested or shot, captain Renault sends his soldiers out to round up "the usual suspects." And the two men walk back to Casablanca together, arm in arm, ensuring one another that the basis for a beautiful friendship has now been formed. In the first-version reading this is of course due to the fact that captain Renault has reached his real character. But the situation is anything but unambiguous. It might as well be Rick who, having got rid of his problem, symbolically and physically, has resumed his good old pragmatic character. Anyway, in the final scene he does not exactly look like a man who has just lost the love of his life forever. On the contrary, the whole scene and the ending suddenly become characterised by relief and overall by lightness. The meta-message thus turns out to be that perhaps one should not take things too hard after all. One may of course give life to clichés and great feelings but that indeed is only fiction, only film. What matters is to go on living. And this is simply done at the syuzhet level of film. You can always break off, start a new story, and survive anyway. Within the framework of this interpretation the movie is anything but loaded with clichés, or, more precisely, the clichés are turned into means in a far more subtle game among the personas. It is indeed not clear whether Rick and Renault switch over to a heroic battle against Hitler's Third Reich or return to easy money and fast ladies. The point is that this is not very important since the fabula level is no longer primary; it has been taken over by the level of presentation of the movie itself.

The fact that this second counter-directed reading only becomes manifest late in the movie has certain consequences. The new level sends a shock backwards in the movie, thus reframing the harder basic conflict of the first version, putting it, in a manner of speaking, between quotation marks. If the second version's framing had been more manifest from the beginning, it would only have denied or obscured the immediate representational reading. Now the consequences work at both levels - but each in its own way. The decisive break, as mentioned above, takes place in connection with Renault's cue, "round up the usual suspects." It is of course anything but coincidental that Bryan Singer used exactly the title "The Usual Suspects" for his movie from 1995, which actually may be regarded as a radicalised version of the same type of construction. In Singer's movie the uncovering of the actual construction of enunciation at the diegetic level implies a totally reverse denial of the whole unfolding of the hardcore action film, performing a kind of epistemological breakdown. But nachträglich here, too.


A distinct epistemological breakdown is of course far from what happens in Casablanca. Still, here as well the shift or dispersion in focal length at the end of the film engenders a kind of reverse effect. It implies that certain formal and substantial obscurities of the movie suddenly become potential meaning at the reflexive level. This applies to the inconsistencies of narration, not least to the vacillating focalisation (that is, the question of "who sees"). And of course it applies to the completely incredible plot and the overwhelming weight of the repeated clichés. The light, musical spirit suggested at the end of the film is thus turned into a kind of counterpoint to the supreme message about mediating contradictions and doing the universally right thing.

The overall result is that in this movie both these versions or levels act at one and the same time. Not in the sense that they annihilate each other mutually, but in the sense that by framing and relativising each other they actually make each other work. By pointing out in an implicit way its own construction of fiction in terms of access to the tearful plot about noble sacrifice and everlasting love, it actually makes the two levels work differently. As "real" clichés they would have been unbearable, and Umberto Eco is of course not right in claiming that the more there are, the easier it is to bear them. No, what happens is that this construction makes the clichés appear as "clichés." The distance or space between the two modes or traces of narration in an odd way actually makes space for the recipient too. It creates an opening into an asymmetric and self-incongruent double universe that is maintainable exactly because the traces respectively relate to epistemologically distinct levels in the construction of fiction. Therefore, all in all Casablanca resembles far more self-reflexive films from our days more than it does many of its contemporaries. On the other hand, it is obvious that the fact that this film does function at both levels at the same time also makes it possible to read it more unambiguously into certain traditional registers, cf. the analysis of Umberto Eco. It seems beyond doubt, however, that the reason for the movie's temporal resistance is to be found exactly here. Because Casablanca establishes a distance or difference immanent to the movie itself, its "both ways" become understandable and functional also outside its own time. This immanent exposition is a distinction not between the movie and something else but inside itself, furnishing this film with a kind of intrinsic, chronic present tense that immunizes it from the threat of becoming obsolete.

Now, the question of whether this double construction was artistically intentional or not seems utterly uninteresting. Great artists from time to time produce bad artworks, just as minor artists from time to time produce masterpieces where intuition and mere chance suddenly meet in a happy alliance. The latter is probably the case here. So, who cares? What counts is that if we take the statement "we'll always have Casablanca," both the "we" and the "always" stand out as obvious internal properties of Casablanca, addressing real subjects and real time. That makes the difference, and this of course is not in any sense "beyond" the movie's quality as an artwork. It is a part of that quality.

1 S ee Umberto Eco, "Casablanca, or the clichés are having a ball" in Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Maasik and Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994).

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