80 Years Ago, Casablanca Redefined Masculinity In American Movies, Forever
It’s a classic for a reason. But, this 1942 film is also very relevant right now.
When a movie is bandied about as a strong contender for the greatest film ever made, there is a natural, if moderately annoying human inclination to ask whether it could actually be that good or if it’s over-hyped on a historic level. Contrarianism runs deep within our veins as a people, particularly online. Thankfully, the question of whether or not Casablanca, which celebrates its eightieth anniversary on November 26th, 2022, deserves its place high atop the pantheon of great American films can be answered, confidently and definitively in the affirmative.
As a movie about World War II and the righteous struggle of the Allied Forces against the Axis Powers made and released during the war, Casablanca is the product of a very specific cultural moment. Yet Michael Curtiz’s masterpiece is also timeless in its elegant retro aesthetic. It’s a cinephile black and white art deco wet dream of beauty and sophistication, glamour, and romance. From the vantage point of 2022, it’s also almost suspiciously timely. At its core, Casablanca is about patriotism and masculinity. Those are two subjects that have been twisted and corrupted by the worst of us to such an extreme that they have given both a bad name.
Masculinity is too often co-opted and distorted by the forces of toxic masculinity, fragile masculinity, and insecure masculinity. Patriotism has similarly been stolen by white nationalists, xenophobes, and other hate-mongers who wrap themselves in the flag while committing deeply unAmerican acts. Needless to say, that is not the aspirational American masculinity of Casablanca. It is, after all, a movie where the hero climactically pursues a course of action that ensures that his soulmate will continue to have a romantic and sexual relationship with another man.
In his greatest, signature role, Humphrey Bogart radiates craggy charisma and boozy glamour as Rick Blaine. He’s an expatriate who once fought for truth, justice, and the American way abroad before he was abandoned by Ilsa Lund,(Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life. The broken-hearted entrepreneur opens Rick’s American Cafe in the titular Moroccan city, a glamorous watering spot for desperate characters populated by a rogue’s gallery of con men, scoundrels, opportunists, informants, Nazis, collaborators and all-around ne’er do wells.
It’s a beautiful place for desperate people looking to escape the long arms of Fascism and escape to the freedom and opportunity of the United States. But it’s also a nowhere’s land where life is cheap and existence is a mad dash for survival and advantage in the most elegant of evening wear. Rick presides over all of this drama with studied aloofness. He wears cynicism as a mask to keep from getting hurt and to hide his true self. Love and idealism are liabilities for a canny operator like Rick in Casablanca. So he affects a pose of uncomplicated self-interest.
Our perfectly rumpled hero is able to get away with impersonating a selfish cynic because seemingly everyone else in his world is motivated by selfishness and self-regard. This is particularly true of his friend and enemy Captain Louis Renault, who Claude Rains plays as a calculating player so at peace with his complete lack of morals that his unscrupulousness becomes almost admirable. He may be a scoundrel but he’s an honest one. He’s joined by Bogart’s Maltese Falcon cast mates Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet as a lowlife career criminal and the pragmatic owner of a rival club respectively.
Then one day someone strides through the doors of Rick American’s Cafe who represents something greater than grubby self-interest. He’s Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), an icon of the resistance who doesn’t just stand for the righteous war to keep Adolf Hitler from taking over Europe: he stands for everything noble and good. Victor Laszlo is a Martyr and a concentration camp escapee. Unfortunately for Rick, he’s also Ilsa’s husband.
Like its unforgettable protagonist, Casablanca is deeply cynical about human nature but ultimately deeply idealistic and patriotic. The film endures in part because it is sincere in its cynicism. Rick wields sarcasm like a switchblade. He is one of our greatest cinematic smartasses, a sharp-witted wisenheimer who is always the funniest and smartest man in the room.
Director Michael Curtiz, a Jewish refugee from Hungary who thrived under the studio system, gives Casablanca the shadows, deep focus compositions, pitch-black comedy, rampant criminality, sketchy characters, and cynicism of classic Film Noir. What separates Casablanca from Film Noir, ultimately, is its embrace of swooning romantic melodrama and tough-minded patriotism and idealism.
The sentimental favorite of multiple generations of Americans is stubbornly non-sentimental for much of its runtime. Rick Blaine’s patriotism is a matter of action rather than words. Unlike today’s self-styled patriots, Rick proves his love of country and humanity through self-sacrifice and selflessness rather than empty rhetoric. He’s willing to give up his own needs and desires for the sake of the many. This is the story of Rick and Victor, two real men of substance and character , who are willing to let the woman they love go the sake of a greater political cause, namely, defeating Hitler and the Nazis.
Casablanca was written and directed by Jews. It’s a very Jewish story of a man without a country but a strong moral code who finds a sense of purpose and meaning in fighting Fascism. The film’s conception of manliness and patriotism prize sacrifice, selflessness, actions above words, and standing up to Nazis at any cost whereas toxic masculinity is all about selfishness, self-interest, putting words above actions, and standing up for Nazis.
Casablanca is about as entertaining as movies get but it also has a lot to teach us about what it means to be a man and a genuine patriot rather than a flag-waving blowhard.