• YEAR: 1942
  • DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
  • KEY ACTORS: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
  • CERTIFICATE: U
  • IMDB SCORE: 8.5
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 99%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5

✔️ This is definitely rewatchable. From any point in the film, at any time.
✔️ And I definitely want to fuck the cast. Doesn’t everyone?
❓ I’m giving it a half mark for inspiring fantasies because it didn’t inspire anything directly, but it could be the source of so many other doomed romance/love triangle/being fought over by two men fantasies…
❌ Sadly, it fails the Bechdel Test. There are only three named female characters and they never speak, let alone talk about something other than a man.
✔️ I had to think about it, but I think Casablanca is sex positive. Sex seems to be both ever present and never spoken about, but I don’t recall any particularly negative moments so I’m giving it the mark!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Casablanca poster showing Bogart and Bergman gazing lovingly at each other

As a rule, I don’t like love triangles. It’s always obvious who is going to win and who is going to lose in the fight for the protagonist’s affections, and I fear that they perpetuate the nice-guys-finish-last trope. The ‘losing’ party is rarely awful; in fact, they’re often kind of lovely. They’re just not the one that makes a better story.

To think of a few cis straight examples, as these films tend to perpetuate these stereotypes, Walter, in Sleepless in Seattle seems like a really lovely man. He’s good to Annie and his only flaw seems to be that he has allergies, which feels slightly ableist when I look at it like that, but no one wants Annie to stay with him. We all want her to pick the unknown stranger who she has literally never met over a good man that she knows loves her! In The Notebook, of course, Allie had to end up with Noah because of plot reasons, but did she really? Wasn’t Lon actually a pretty good catch? They shared a similar background and values, and James Marsden is arguably (almost) as hot as Ryan Gosling! And in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie gives up on a proper, grown up relationship with a gorgeous and kind man that she loved enough that she agreed to marry for someone who was, admittedly, her childhood sweetheart but who simply doesn’t know her as an adult. The nice, safe, good man loses out because new and exciting is apparently better.

All of these might make really good and heartwarming movies, but I don’t feel that they’re realistic lessons for life and I hate that they suggest that the safe and wonderful choice is less worthy. Also, it’s just SO obvious who the filmmakers want us to root for and it takes a lot of the suspense out of the story. They always feel like lazy storytelling to me and I often lose interest.

Rick at a table in his bar with Sam standing over him and talking to him

Casablanca, however, is different. I simply don’t know which of Rick and Laszlo is the ‘safe’ choice and which is the loser. Laszlo is a war hero and a resistance leader; Rick is also a resistance fighter in his own way but, more importantly and to steal a line from When Harry Met Sally, was clearly the best sex Ilsa has ever had! I don’t know that I could choose and Ingrid Bergman certainly didn’t know when playing Isla, acting the whole movie without knowing how it would end. Made in 1942, Casablanca screws with the traditional romcom laws that hadn’t really been formulated yet, which now makes it feel fresh and modern even though it couldn’t be more rooted in a life and place that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Casablanca is set in wartime, well, Casablanca. The city was controlled by Vichy France and had become a haven for refugees who wanted to escape Europe and the war and the Nazis to neutral countries, such as Portugal and, eventually, the United States. Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs a bar where all of the low-lives of Casablanca go to drown their sorrows and gamble away their money. He claims to be neutral and allows patrons from all sides to drink in his bar, but he fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War so we are led to believe that he’s really on the morally good side. But he seems bitter and broken, and unwilling to support or really help anyone but himself – ‘I stick my neck out for nobody,’ he repeatedly claims. We soon discover why he is so damaged when a Czech Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Henreid), appears in his bar with his wife, Ilsa (Bergman), looking for letters of transit that will allow them to escape. Rick initially refused to give them these letters as Ilsa was the one who had broken his heart. They had had a passionate love affair in Paris and had been due to run away together when the Nazis invaded, but Ilsa never showed up, leaving him waiting for her in the rain. We learn that she was already married to Laszlo at that time but had thought that he had been killed when escaping from a concentration camp. Discovering he was alive on the day she was supposed to be leaving with Rick, Ilsa chose to go to Victor and aid his recovery. Now, each of Ilsa and Laszlo try separately to persuade Rick to use the letters to save the other, but in the end, Rick sacrifices his love for Ilsa for the greater good and let’s them both use the letters to escape.

Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo, from Casablanca

I love how successful Casablanca has become. It almost feels like a cliche to have this in my top six movie list (Casablanca, Die Hard, Terminator 2, The Rock, Cinema Paradiso, Secretary. I can’t cut it down to five. Which would I lose?!) but I don’t think I will ever get tired of it. Like Secretary, it feels like an unconventional love story and I still watch it whenever it’s on TV and I love it each time. I love that it was actually made during WW2 and I love that many of the actors were only in Hollywood because they had fled Nazi Germany, adding a realism to their roles that makes it all so authentic.

Despite this, it’s not perfect. Especially from a feminist perspective as it exemplifies the male gaze in such an extraordinary fashion that it could be used as a teaching aid. Not only does it focus mainly on ‘stereotypically masculine concerns: war, duty to country, and freedom’ but women are only defined by their relationships to men. Yvonne, Rick’s ex-lover is dismissed and mocked; the newlywed Annina sees no choice to save herself and her husband but to use her body as payment for exit visas, and there’s Ilsa, a character whose role is ‘basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man.’ It obviously fails the Bechdel Test and, while it’s not true that the events of the movie would be unchanged if the female characters weren’t there, their involvement is hardly spreading a good feminist message – as Ebert wrote, ‘the main question of the movie is ‘which great man should [Ilsa] be sleeping with?’ 

An image from Casablanca, showing Ilsa in soft focus

The cinematography further emphasises the objectification and isolation of the female characters: ‘from the moment Ilsa enters the room, she is objectified: by the eye of the camera that with choice shots tracks her every movement, by every man in the saloon, and by every individual watching the movie.’ As the audience, we have no choice but to watch her as a man would; to see her through the male gaze. We are also encouraged to see her, and all of the women, differently because they are literally filmed in a different light. The use of soft-focus on Ilsa and the other women is so obvious that it has almost become a parody of itself. They’re softer, dreamier, brighter with less shadow. The visuals suggest that they don’t have as much depth as the male characters, don’t have secrets or any ability to hide. They’re beautiful but powerless. They are there to be looked at but not to participate in the action.

As the clip above shows, the women are incapable of making decisions. ‘Every decision-maker depicted, regardless of his political affiliation, is a man’ and Ilsa even tells Rick that he needs to make decisions for her. She goes to him with a plan, with an intention to take the letters of transit anyway she can, but she capitulates to his masculine charms almost instantly. (As an aside, my research has suggested that the idea of these letters of transit as a guaranteed safe passage was a writer’s trick and didn’t actually exist. They needed something physical to barter and a believable way to reach a happy ending so…they made one up. And still won a screenwriting Oscar! So don’t ever believe that a well placed deux ex machina will ruin the value of a story!) And it’s a shame that Ilsa doesn’t make a decision, or even really verbalise her conflict, because her choices are exactly the crux of the movie! Does she want Rick or Laszlo?!

For me, the answer is clearly Rick but I don’t know why I find him so appealing and I can’t help but interrogate it. He’s certainly a handsome man but I don’t think I’d describe Bogart as hot, and his reputation as a hard-drinking womaniser is legendary and frankly quite off-putting, even on screen. I may be cruelly misrepresenting him, but I also don’t see him as a feminist man. I get the feeling that he’d expect dinner on the table when he walked through the door and would affectionately spank his secretary’s arse as he passed her – as so many men of his generation would. I think it’s pretty telling that there are claims that Bogart slept with over 1000 woman because he was ‘tormented with a fear that he was becoming both impotent and homosexual.’ Talk about toxic masculinity! 

Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca

But there is something about his raw sexuality, and I think that comes through in his characterisation of Rick. In fact, Roger Ebert felt that the movie feels so real and so believable exactly because all the characters were ‘so close to the screen personas of the actors’ that it was difficult to go far wrong, and this feels especially true for Bogart. Born in 1899, Bogart was in his twenties when the zip became widely used in clothes, and actress Joan Blondel is quoted as saying that ‘Bogie demanded one be sewed into all of his pants — sex was a lot faster that way.’ Bogart fucks. He fucks. There is no doubt about it. And I hate to say it but, just like Don Draper in Mad Men, the combination of classic tailoring, misogynistic disregard of women as anything but a prize to be won, and that sexual energy is kind of intoxicating. I can completely see why Ilsa fell for him and why she didn’t want to make the decision to leave him to save her husband.

Compared to Rick, Laszlo didn’t really have a chance, but still Ilsa does leave with him rather than stay with Rick. A lot of this is for propaganda reasons – while it may look like a romance, Casablanca is also a war movie and Laszlo is the hero who was actually fighting Nazis. He has to be free to go off and fight some more so he was definitely going to get one of the letters of transit. And as the producers would have wanted everyone to choose our side, the side that they (and history) considered the morally right side, so Ilsa had to choose him, or at least go with him. Rick wasn’t a hero but his sacrifice does make him heroic: ‘There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility…And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism.’

In reality, the ending could never have been any other way. The Hays Code was in full swing in 1942 so adultery couldn’t even be shown, let alone encouraged. Ilsa couldn’t have stayed with Rick unless her legal husband was dead or they were divorced. It’s also notable that she thought she was a widow when having her affair in Paris with Rick so they couldn’t be accused of promoting sex outside of marriage either – for the women anyway. As in real life, men could fuck whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted without obvious consequence. But it so nearly could have been Rick. Perhaps that’s why their love is so enduring and so powerful. They’re both allowed to express the strength of their love and lust because it is doomed as soon as Lazslo is revealed to be alive. As viewers, whether in 1942 or 2021, we don’t doubt their love and so instead curse the circumstances that prevent them being together, remembering every unrequited and lost love of our own and sharing their emotion.

Ilsa and Rick gazing at each other at the end of Casablanca

Because I do love Casablanca because of and despite its flaws. It’s a story of flawed people who make the right choices in the end. As Roger Ebert wrote ‘some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed.’ And it doesn’t have a happy ending – the curse of too many romantic stories when I’m left fearing what happens next, after they’ve walked into the sunset together and realise that they have no shared ground to make a life together. Rick doesn’t get his girl and the war isn’t over, but this does feel like the ending that 1942 needed and one that still resonates today. Sometimes life doesn’t work out as we hope but there is nobility in doing the ‘right’ thing, which in 1942 was making a sacrifice for your country.

I started writing that I don’t think we need to make sacrifices for our country anymore as it’s going to shit without any help from us but, actually, that’s exactly what we have done for the last 18 months – made sacrifices that have often caused us pain and hurt, for the greater good. (The greater good.) Despite the best efforts of our government, our actions and choices and sacrifices during lockdown have saved lives, and I was grateful to be reminded that we have made noble choices.

And after all, even if life isn’t now the same as it was or the same as we’d hoped, we will always have Paris…

NEXT TIME… In The Cut

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.