Beyond the Usual Suspects

As everyone knows, Casablanca is an eminently quotable movie. Some of its lines—“Play it [again], Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris”—have permeated our cultural consciousness. I say “Round up,” you say “the usual suspects.” I say “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” and you know exactly which one she walks into. It is, if you’ll excuse the understatement, a well-written movie. So I figured, why not delve further into that rich screenplay and single out a few of its less oft-quoted lines? Below are five of my favorite moments from Casablanca.

I’m a drunkard.

This, in response to Major Strasser’s question “What is your nationality?” I’m a fan of this whole conversation, really. I love how Rick and Strasser lob quips back and forth over champagne and caviar, suggesting an atmosphere of bourgeois politeness belied by the contempt in both men’s voices. (Captain Renault steps between them, as always, with a dose of healthy good humor: “And that makes Rick a citizen of the world!”) This first answer, characteristic of the film’s dialogue, is double-edged: playful, a little expository, and a little melancholy too. Beneath this joke lies the painful truth that Rick’s a man without a country, a man who’s tried to blot out his every allegiance with alcohol. (By the way, I also love that spidery shadow on the wall behind Rick, courtesy of the huge lamps hanging throughout his café.)

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

The parallel structure gives this line a captivating rhythm. This is wistful storytelling with a dash of poetry—and humor too, given the incongruity of Ilsa’s dress next to the feldgrau Nazi uniforms. It’s so concise, distilling the agonies of wartime romance into a pair of opposed colors while priming us for Rick’s forthcoming flashback. Bogart delivers it all with a slouch, a restrained scowl, and as much bitterness as he can fit into his voice without being obvious about it. Whereas Ingrid Bergman is always lit for maximum glamour, the light on Bogart ensures that we see every scar and crease in his wounded face. He’s vulnerable in spite of himself. Rick keeps striking this pose of mild antagonism toward the rest of the world but you can tell here that his stoicism is breaking.

Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish: a guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out.

We’re getting toward the bottom of the bottle with this third flavor of boozy self-pity. Although Casablanca is most remembered for its snappiest lines, the film has its share of monologues, too. Here Bogart rattles off his side of the story, bouncing through the words while near-invisibly tilting his head from side to side, then punctuating the speech with a swig of bourbon. This delivery as well as the dialogue’s wealth of prepositions (on, in, with, on) lend it an almost musical quality, which contrasts with the low, sour rumble of his voice. Not to mention the phrase “wow finish,” the kind of thing a screenwriter would say during a pitch meeting. All of these tonal wrinkles work together with the shot’s visual flair—its moody chiaroscuro, the smoke drifting up from the cigarette between Bogart’s fingers—to make what could’ve been a rote “guy bitching about past heartbreak” scene into something sly and artful.

I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!

Although I’ve primarily been highlighting Rick’s best lines in Casablanca, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite something from Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, who seems to communicate entirely in hilarious bon mots. (Like “I’m only a poor corrupt official,” for example, or “That [my heart] is my least vulnerable spot.”) Here he’s at his most sublimely hypocritical, and Rains really sells it with his too-imperious delivery. A riotous punchline follows (“Your winnings, sir!” / “Oh, thank you, very much”) but the line’s still unforgettable on its own, and especially quotable thanks to the doth-protest-too-much quality of that second “shocked.” It’s Renault’s slimy yet endearing personal philosophy summed up in a single ridiculous sentence.

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.

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? That Rick’s making a sacrifice, that Ilsa’s facing a moral decision, and that the consequences of her decision will echo throughout the years to come. It’s just the two of them now, cloaked by fog, forced to finally resolve this love triangle. (A brilliantly crafted triangle, incidentally, that’s informed but never constrained by its wartime context.) Yet again, Bogart invests his dialogue with poetic meter, that bounce in his leathery voice. His every gift is bent toward persuading her to leave. Because while the act of letting go may be painful, it’s also cathartic, and by making the harder choice Rick’s gained a wisdom that lights up this line. This isn’t mere moralizing. It’s a rough-hewn love song in the form of a compromise.

4 Comments

Filed under Cinema

4 responses to “Beyond the Usual Suspects

  1. I was gonna say, how can you pick only FIVE? But this is a good selection (as if you could go wrong, but still). I remember one film prof rhapsodizing about “The Germans wore grey, you wore blue” in particular.

    • Yeah, I settled on five as a “can’t do more than this or I’ll never stop” number. And oh god, that line… I know I gave a stab at it up there, but how do you even try to explicate something so dense, so Hemingwayesque? They (screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson—I wonder which one wrote this line?) conjure up a whole set of images and circumstances with only those seven words, and don’t even call special attention to it! Pithy and self-effacing. Goddamn.

  2. “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you. It’s poor salesmanship.”

  3. Pingback: The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of March 5 - Parallax View | Parallax View

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