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Casablanca: When Melodrama Trumped History

Not only is “Casablanca” regarded as one of the greatest American movies ever made—throbbing romance, exotic setting, superb cast, memorable song (“As Time Goes By”), signature dialogue (“Play it again, Sam”)—it managed to beat out an astonishing nine other nominees to win the 1943 Oscar for Best Picture.

Although the Academy’s recent announcement that it planned to go from a five-Best Picture ballot to a ten-picture ballot was greeted as an historical milestone, the five-nominee format hasn’t been around forever.  In fact, not until 1964 did five nominees become the norm.  Prior to that, the number varied from as few as two to as many as thirteen.  In 1943, there were ten.

Oddly, “Casablanca’s” celebrated song not only didn’t win the Oscar for Best Song, it wasn’t even nominated.  And in another blow to conventional wisdom, that oft-quoted line was a paraphrase never uttered in the film.  The actual line, word for word, was, “Sam, play it again.”

But for all the adoration and praise this movie has received, has anyone actually examined its plot?  Has anyone asked themselves what this movie is really about?  Because, if they had, they’d realize the movie’s central premise is patently absurd.

Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid) is portrayed as the Nazi’s uber-nemesis.  He’s the Czech leader of the European Resistance, an escapee from a concentration camp, a man the Third Reich has been chasing all over the world.  As fate would have it, Laszlo, his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Ilsa’s former lover (Humphrey Bogart), and a contingent of Nazis all wind up in Casablanca, Morocco.

In an early scene, the ranking German officer, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), confesses to the city’s corrupt chief of police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), that Lazlo has already “slipped through our fingers three times.”  The Nazis fear Laszlo because, as the charismatic leader of the Underground with a huge and loyal following, he represents a clear threat to the Reich.

And yet, confoundingly—with the stakes high and the stage immaculately set—we see Laszlo walking leisurely around the city of Casablanca, arm and arm with his wife, spending his evenings at Rick’s Café Americain (Rick, of course, is Bogart), with the Nazis fully cognizant of his whereabouts, yet making no effort to grab him.

Mind you, these are the same Nazis who invaded and occupied a good part of Europe, the same Nazis who engaged in the extermination of the Jews and plotted to assassinate Winston Churchill, the same “rogue” regime that sees itself as Masters of the World and recognizes no greater civil authority than Adolf Hitler.  International law means nothing to them.

Yet, we’re supposed to believe that if Laszlo can somehow obtain two “letters of transit” which are floating mysteriously around the city, he and his wife will be able to leave Casablanca unmolested, with the Nazis powerless to stop them.  Why?  Because these documents bear the signature of Charles De Gaulle, Free France’s president-in-exile.

More preposterously, these “letters” aren’t even made out in Laszlo’s name.  They’re blank.  They’re a one-size-fits-all document with the power of a diplomatic “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Even accepting the notion of a “talismanic” letter, why wouldn’t the Nazis simply scoop up Laszlo before he obtained it?  Who are they afraid of—Claude Rains?  No one’s suggesting that all movies have to be “realistic,” but there must be some semblance of reality for a narrative to gain traction, particularly a story steeped in actual history, as this one is.

In real life, the Nazis would have murdered Laszlo.  They would have followed him out of Rick’s café, ambushed him on the street, then goose-stepped back to the bar to celebrate with a bottle of schnapps.  Victor Laszlo—to borrow from another cinema classic—would be sleeping with the fishes.

And for those who think this appraisal is too petty or negative, let us go to the source.  Let us quote Julius J. Epstein, the co-writer (along with his brother, Philip) of the screenplay for “Casablanca.”

These are Epstein’s words:  “It was just a routine assignment.  Frankly, I can’t understand its staying power.  If it were made today, line for line, each performance as good, it’d be laughed off the screen.  It’s such a phony picture.  Not a word of truth in it.  It’s camp, it’s kitsch.  It’s shit!”

Ouch.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net