At first blush, the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center’s Valentine’s Day offering of “Casablanca” might appear a surprising choice, considering the number of more traditional love stories that Hollywood has produced over the years.
But it’s a bold choice, and the right one: The 1942 classic is the greatest love story of cinema.
Which is not its reputation. It’s known more as a war film, a Humphrey Bogart vehicle, a thriller, a film with a legendarily perfect script loaded with quotable lines: “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and “Play it again, Sam.” (Here is where the trap trips: That last one never appears in the film, as any movie buff knows.)
It might seem like an odd choice for Valentine’s Day, because (is a “spoiler alert” necessary for a 77-year-old film?) the “hero” doesn’t get the girl in the end. Well, he does, actually—but that’s the twist: There are two heroes.
Love is at the heart of “Casablanca,” or certainly its soul. It’s the counterpoint to all the action in the midst of World War II, on the “neutral ground” of Casablanca, where all sides gather at Rick’s Café Américain—“Everybody comes to Rick’s”—to drink, carouse and conspire.
There are bigger things afoot than the love triangle of impossibly dashing and courageous Victor Laszlo, the heroic Czech newspaperman (shout out!) and concentration camp escapee; poor, sad old Rick Blaine, the prototypical anti-hero who runs the tavern in the international city; and ethereal beauty Ilsa Lund, embodied by Ingrid Bergman at her iconic peak, who is married to Laszlo but has a past with Rick that feels more like a present.
But, even with all the action around them, there’s nothing more compelling than the story of Rick and Ilsa, and their perfect, doomed love.
Really, there’s no more perfect kind of love, at least for the big screen, than doomed love. Want a boring story? A couple who have been together happily for 25 years. It’s a source of great joy for them, perhaps, but it makes for lousy popcorn fodder. But take a love story like … well, “Love Story”?
Broken hearts are made for Valentine’s Day.
The love story of “Casablanca”—a love that’s elusive, tortured, full of pain and joy in equal measures—is the secret to this film’s enduring appeal. Rick isn’t a romantic figure at first. The first woman in his life doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, and it’s not Ilsa, it’s Yvonne: beautiful, dark and dumped. Rick acts like a cad.
When another cad, French police Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), labels Rick a “sentimentalist,” it’s hard at that point to view it as anything but sarcasm. Even Renault admits: “Rick is completely neutral in everything, and that takes in the field of women, too.”
Ilsa’s arrival, of course, changes everything—but only deepens Rick’s torment, and sours his disposition. The mystery of why is, of course, the plot of “Casablanca,” and the whole reason to see it on Valentine’s Day.
If you’ve never seen the film, be aware that it’s the rare cinema gem that transcends three-quarters of a century. Whether or not you like “old movies,” it’s something else. It’s true royalty, but with a story that is still compelling even without the currency of World War II raging around you. (It’s hard to imagine the impact of watching this film when it came out, in 1942, and the emotions stirred by then-current events—the shootouts and rousing songs and papers and pawned jewelry being actual life, not movie tropes.)
But even if you have seen “Casablanca,” and it’s been a little while, it’s worth seeing again, if only to enjoy the complications of the plot, and the subtleties of performance.
Ingrid Bergman is luminous as a woman who is truly in love with two men, two very different men. She embodies the struggle; when she pulls a gun—a startling moment, even when you know it’s coming—it feels genuinely like true desperation.
But Humphrey Bogart steals the show here. Anyone who believes Bogie was always just playing Bogie has never witnessed the transformation of Rick during the flashback scenes in Paris with Ilsa, their brief romance turning him positively giddy and lovestruck. It’s hard to even recognize Rick at first, because he’s … smiling. With Ilsa beside him in an open car, on a boat on the Seine, he’s a different person: dancing, grinning, gazing at her. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” goes the famous line—and how he looks at her!
The performance offers so much more: Bogie captures the way love illuminates even the darkest soul. And then he shows the inky black that comes with betrayal.
What makes this a truly great love story, however, is its exploration of just how complicated love can be. When she fell for Rick, she believed (again, spoiler alert?) her husband, Laszlo, had been killed when trying to escape a concentration camp. In the midst of her days-long whirlwind liaison with Rick, she learns he’s not only alive but in Paris, hiding, sick.
The twists and turns of the plot eventually come around to one question: Which love will win out? Who will get the girl: the scoundrel or the hero? That’s enough of a plot twist, but you throw in papers that will allow an escape to freedom (and a chance to continue the fight against the Nazis), mixed loyalties, and a plane leaving for Lisbon as the Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser races to the airport, and the final 20 minutes of “Casablanca” still has the ability to be dizzying.
But back to the love story at its heart.
In the end, Rick truly is the hero, and not just because he seems ready to join the resistance. His love for Ilsa was returned—and that’s all he really needed, confirmation that what he had felt was real. The greatest line in the entire movie isn’t the most well-known one: “We’ll always have Paris.”
Which is all you really are promised with love: memories of a moment in time, something you can hold on to tightly, “no matter what the future brings … as time goes by.”
Perfect for Valentine’s Day, a holiday with an arrow through its heart.
“Casablanca” screens at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Thursday, February 14, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.
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