There has never been a better movie about doing the right thing (not even the movie titled Do the Right Thing, masterful as it is) than Casablanca. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) says time and again, “I stick my neck out for no one.” He intentionally gives the impression to everybody he encounters, and the audience (although only for a very short time before we start to catch on) that he is self-absorbed, unwilling to do or give anything for or to anyone else that doesn’t serve himself.
“In Casablanca, human life is cheap.” So Rick is told in the bar he runs when offered a business proposal of sorts. Yet Rick refuses to sell his piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), a black man, when he could get a lot of money for him. Instead he treats Sam not only as an employee but as a friend, something the couldn’t have been too likely among Americans in Morocco at the onset of World War II, especially when involving a person who “sticks his neck out for no one.”
Rick’s language, especially his statement that I’ve already quoted twice, tells us that he is cynical and worldweary. Of course his lot in Casablanca in the midst of political unrest makes this understandable. But even if he sees himself as being cold, heartless, and self-centered, he certainly is not. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Of course it is the romance with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) that most fully reveals his character. His loss of Ilsa led to a lot of the rough exterior we see in him. We find that they both have experienced a lot of trauma because of the war. They experienced much of that trauma together. But they also hid much from each other during their previous relationship. When they meet again at his bar in Casablanca, the secrets don’t stay in the past and how Rick handles seeing her and learning of all the secrets cement for us that this is a man of great empathy, even a willingness to sacrifice for others despite what he likes to say about himself.
Rick Blaine is a movie hero like no other. It takes most of the movie to realize that he has been a hero the whole time in everything he’s done, not just for Sam and Ilsa but for everyone we get know at Casablanca. The movie takes the audience on an adventure of discovering his character. There is plenty of action, romance, suspense, and humor that everybody talks about. It’s all there and easy to see why it remains one of the most beloved movies of all time. It’s as entertaining as they come. But what’s unique about it is how all of that action, romance, suspense, and humor is built around showing us how this character is so different from how he views himself. “I’m no good at being noble Ilsa,” he says as he’s doing what anybody else would view as about the noblest thing a person could do.
In both the good things, like Rick, and the bad, we often see ourselves very different than how we really are. As we see the truth of what a heroic character Rick is simply because he is willing to do the right thing at expense to himself and his denial of this truth, we are challenged to look into ourselves to see what’s there that we can’t see but others surely can.
Watch Casablanca: The film airs on Turner Classic Movies Tuesday December 27, at 4:30PM EST and on Sunday February 8, at 8:00PM EST.