Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence: The greatest moments in film: Part I
Today we begin a series of occasional articles recounting the greatest moments in film: the most heroic, noble, moving, coolest and just plain fun scenes.
Unlike annoying online lists that count down from No. 25 to No. 1, we’ll start with: The. Best. Film. Ever.
Casablanca, Best Picture of 1942, features the best lifetime performances by nearly everyone in it, plus the most memorable lines and hauntingly romantic love-song theme, “As Time Goes By” sung by Dooley Wilson.
Humphrey Bogart is Richard Blaine, American, age 35, proprietor of “Rick’s Café Americain,” an elegant nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca, Morocco in 1941. Casablanca is part of the Vichy government that’s collaborating with the Nazis who have conquered France. The Prefect of Police, the stylish roue Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), allows illegal gambling because Rick lets him win.
Major Strasser of the Third Reich shows up with security forces because the Nazis believe the charismatic fugitive leader of the Czech underground, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), is coming there on his way to America and they intend to catch him. Strasser has a complete dossier on Rick as a suspicious character who might help Laszlo because Rick in past years fought for liberation causes in Spain and Ethiopia. Strasser notes Rick “cannot return to his own country for reasons that are a bit unclear.”
Louis assures Strasser Rick is completely neutral about everything, including women and drink — traits Louis definitely doesn’t share. As Strasser presses on, Rick stands and says: “You gentlemen will excuse me. Your business is politics; mine is running a saloon.” Rick already made a point at a critical moment of saying in his New York accent: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
Laszlo arrives soon, accompanied by, Louis says, the most beautiful woman in the world, Ilsa Lund, played radiantly by Ingrid Bergman. It turns out Ilsa was the love of Rick’s life, and vice-versa, in Paris before the Nazis captured the city. Before that, she had already been secretly married to Victor, whom the Nazis had put in a concentration camp. They also spread rumors Victor had died in order to demoralize the Resistance underground throughout Europe.
As Rick and Ilsa were planning to flee just before Nazis captured Paris because there was a Nazi bounty on Rick’s head, Ilsa learned Victor was still alive and had escaped. She had to go to him and had no chance to tell Rick what happened, leaving him standing in the rain at the train station waiting for her “with a look like his insides had been kicked out.”
Having lost the love of a lifetime and found politics and fighting for noble causes to be expensive hobbies, Rick escapes to Casablanca and swears off everything — women, alcohol, causes — except running his business. Until Ilsa shows up to throw everything into chaos.
Victor and Ilsa need help to escape that only Rick can provide. Trying to secure Rick’s help, Ilsa even threatens to shoot him, but he knows she would never do it, and they spend a whole evening sorting out all that happened and falling completely in love again.
Ilsa recommits to Rick but gets him to promise to help Victor escape. Rick arranges for the three of them and Louis to drive to the airport in the night fog for the last plane out.
With Victor briefly occupied, the magic moment comes when Rick tells a stunned Ilsa: “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon and for the rest of your life.” Rick is thereby kicking away his peace and prosperity and consigning himself to becoming a fugitive, and sacrificing his greatest treasure, Ilsa. For the cause.
She finally agrees, delivering the sweetest line ever: “Goodbye, Rick, and God bless you.”
Victor returns and also rises to the moment, saying to Rick: “Welcome back to the fight, Monsieur Blaine. And this time I know our side will win.”
All deliver perfect lines perfectly, conveying sacrifice and the noblest character. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Ron Knecht is Nevada state controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is assistant controller.