Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Best Picture Oscar winner, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. Not only is Casablanca still regarded as one of the greatest American movies ever made, it features one of the most beloved romantic songs ever written ("As Time Goes By"), and one of the most-quoted, iconic movie lines of all-time ("Play it again, Sam").
To be named Best Picture of 1943, Casablanca had to overcome some formidable competition. The other nominees that year were: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, and Watch on the Rhine.
But despite the accolades, there are some gaps in this movie's pedigree. For one, "As Time Goes By" not only didn't win the Academy Award for Best Song, it wasn't even nominated. Instead, "You'll Never Know" (a song from the film, Hello, Frisco, Hello) won the award. For another, that oft-quoted line ("Play it again, Sam") was never spoken in the film. The actual line (according to IMDb) was, "Play it, Sam."
There's another gap as well, and this one comes in the form of an answer to the question: Has anyone really paid attention to this movie? Has anyone actually sat down and asked themselves what the hell this movie is about? Because if they had, they would see that the storyline is not only far-fetched, it is patently absurd. Although this film was released at the height of World War II, its wartime premise is utterly preposterous. And the central problem involves Victor Laszlo.
Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is the heroic Czech national, who happens to be both the charismatic leader of the European Resistance, and the Third Reich's most wanted man. The Germans hate him. They've been tracking him down with a vengeance, drooling at the prospect of getting their dirty Nazi hands on him. And as coincidence would have it, Laszlo, his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the world-weary American expatriate and Ilsa's former lover, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), along with a contingent of highly motivated Nazis all wind up together in Morocco, right smack in the middle of World War II.
There's an important scene in the film where the ranking German officer, the sinister Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), announces to the city's corrupt chief of police, the unctuous Captain Renault (Claude Rains), that, although Victor Laszlo has "slipped through our fingers three times," this time they intend to grab him. Strasser makes it chillingly clear that this manhunt is going to end right here, right now, in exotic Casablanca.
We're also informed that Laszlo is an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp, which means he's not just some political hack and propagandist, but an actual criminal, a German fugitive. While the Nazis despise him and everything he stands for, they also fear him because Laszlo, as the acknowledged leader of the European Resistance, is an influential voice with a huge and loyal following, capable, if things go his way, of bringing the Third Reich to its knees.
But here's the absurd part. Laszlo spends his days walking around the city, arm and arm with his wife, and his evenings leisurely drinking at Rick's chic Café Americain. And the Nazis make no effort to snatch him. Laszlo and wife casually stroll the city streets as if those pesky Nazis posed no threat whatever, indeed, as if there were no greater protector on earth than the Casablanca Municipal Police. Major Strasser himself shows up at Rick's club one evening, and does nothing more menacing than give Laszlo the stink-eye from across the room.
Mind you, these are Nazis. These are the same people whose armies invaded and occupied a good portion of Europe, the same people who engaged in the extermination of the Jews, the same people who plotted to assassinate Winston Churchill, and the same people who refuse to recognize any civil authority in the world except Germany. Clearly, international law means nothing to the Nazis. Treaties mean nothing. Geographical borders mean nothing.
Yet, preposterously, we're are asked to believe that if Victor Laszlo can somehow obtain two "letters of transit," which are floating mysteriously around the city (a very creepy Peter Lorre once had them), he and his wife can leave Casablanca unimpeded, with no fear whatsoever of being detained. Why? Because these "letters" are signed by Charles De Gaulle, Free France's president in exile! It's true. We're asked to believe that DeGaulle's spidery signature on those letters is enough to render the Third Reich powerless.
Even more laughable is the fact that these "letters" are not even made out to Laszlo personally, but are blank -- presumably with the name of the lucky traveler to be filled in later, when it's convenient. In other words, these are one-size-fits-all documents! And yet we're asked to accept the premise that anyone fortunate enough to gain possession of them (in this backwater town in North Africa) cannot be molested by anyone, including Adolf Hitler?
No one's suggesting that movies must be "realistic." James Bond and Spider-Man attest to that. Moreover, we all recognize when we're being asked to suspend our judgement for the sake of fiction, and we play along with it like good audience members. Still, there has to be some semblance of reality when a movie purports to depict actual historical events.
Unfortunately, this "letters of transit" gimmick is simply too bizarre to ignore. In real life, Nazi agents would have murdered Laszlo straightaway. They would have followed him out Rick's café, put a bullet in his head, and then gone out for Schnapps afterward. To paraphrase another classic movie, Victor Laszlo would be sleeping with the fishes.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com