One of my cat nips is when characters in a book or film debate the meaning of another work of art. Think 500 Days of Summer (2009), in which the narrator tells us that Tom misunderstands the ending of The Graduate (1967), while his love interest, Summer, does not. Or Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren in which Nora and Zach tussle over whether O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is romantic or terrifying. Or KJ Charles’s A Seditious Affair in which Dominic wrestles with the meaning of several William Blake poems, demonstrating that he’s compatible with Silas and that he’s finally gotten over his first love, Richard.
And any conversation about this kind of intertextuality would likely include When Harry Met Sally (1989). In director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron’s friends to lovers romantic comedy, the titular Harry and Sally constantly jaw about pop culture. From board games to journalists, museums to music, the film’s script bursts with the characters’ opinions about other texts. But the reference that comes up multiple times, and reveals the most about the characters, is Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942).
Seven years ago–how is that possible?–I wrote a brief post about Casablanca, one of the primo romantic dramas of the Hollywood studio era. The love triangle between Rick, the cynical saloon owner; Victor, the idealistic resistance organizer; and Ilsa, the woman torn between them, has been endlessly parsed in our living rooms and our pop culture. But–spoiler alert!–while Ilsa might end up with Victor, when Casablanca pops up in other works, it seems like most people are on Rick’s side.
What does the cultural preference for Rick say about us? While there are some structural reasons why people might find Rick more sympathetic, I think the real issue is that American culture has tended to celebrate the kind of hard, cynical, and even cruel masculinity Rick embodies rather than Victor’s restrained, gentle, and more idealistic mode. So I’d like to suggest, as I did on Twitter yesterday, that Ilsa made the right choice and that Victor would be a better and more supportive partner than Rick.
To take just two examples of the general pro-Rick tenor of the discourse, When Harry Met Sally uses Casablanca to show the initial conflict between Harry and Sally and then, over time, to illustrate that their world views have changed and thus they now belong together. Specifically, Sally shifts from believing Ilsa should have left with Victor to the into the de facto pro-Rick position, and Harry…is nice enough not to point out that she’s changed positions.
Here’s their first conversation about Casablanca:
HARRY: He wants her to leave. That’s why he puts her on the plane.
SALLY: I don’t think she wants to stay.
HARRY: Of course she wants to stay. Wouldn’t you rather be with Humphrey Bogart than the other guy?
SALLY: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who runs a bar. That probably sounds very snobbish to you, but I don’t.
HARRY: You’d rather be in a passionless marriage –
SALLY: – and be the First Lady of Czechoslovakia –
HARRY: – than live with the man… you’ve had the greatest sex of your life with, just because he owns a bar and that is all he does.
SALLY: Yes, and so would any woman in her right mind. Women are very practical. Even Ingrid Bergman, which is why she gets on the plane at the end of the movie.When Harry Met Sally
You may recall that Harry then suggests that Sally only holds the pro-Victor position because she hasn’t yet had great sex–because that’s the only possible explanation for thinking that Ilsa made the correct choice. /rolls eyes/
Note that Harry believes Rick, and not Ilsa, has the agency in Casablanca. Harry doesn’t think Ilsa chooses to go with Victor as much Rick makes the decision for everyone. Harry doesn’t seem to credit Victor with any power, and he assumes that Victor and Ilsa’s marriage is “passionless.”
For her part, Sally doesn’t stake out an affirmative pro-Victor position but instead offers a class-based rejection of Rick. She thinks “practical” Ilsa would rather be “First Lady of Czechoslovakia” than a mere saloonkeeper’s wife. Which merits another eye roll.
It’s interesting that both Harry and Sally refer to Victor by his character’s name and to Rick and Ilsa by the names of the actors who portray them. It’s as if Rick/Humphrey and Ilsa/Ingrid are more real to them than Victor/Paul is, and it’s another way that Victor is seen as less than Rick and Ilsa.
Later in WHMS, Harry and Sally watch Casablanca in their respective apartments while talking on the phone.
HARRY: Now you’re telling me you would be happier with Victor Laszlo than Humphrey Bogart?
SALLY: When did I say that?
HARRY: When we drove to New York.
SALLY: I never said that. I would never have said that.
HARRY: All right, fine. Have it your way.When Harry Met Sally
While Sally doesn’t outright say, “I think Ilsa should have remained in Casablanca with Rick,” she’s clearly not pro-Victor any longer. She is no longer “practical” and now prizes whatever it is that Rick, not Victor, offers to Ilsa. (Great sex? Good quips? Free booze?)
It’s worth pointing out that only Sally has really changed in the years between conversations one and two. As I suggested above, the only “growth” this conversation demonstrates in Harry is that he doesn’t keep hounding Sally about her new position, while early in the film, he probably would have made a big stink about her flip flopping. So Sally had to grow more than Harry for them to be as perfect for each other as they (apparently) think Rick and Ilsa are.
The question that Harry and Sally see Casablanca posing has also shifted a tiny bit. It’s not about what the characters “want” any longer, it’s instead about who would make “you…happier.” (NB that Harry conflates Ilsa and Sally with that “you.”) It’s a small change, but it may represent how older Harry and Sally are still searching for happiness and not merely acting on desires any longer. In their conversations, though, there is still slippage between Rick/Humphrey while Victor has remained just Victor.
(BTW, immediately after the section I’ve quoted, Harry uses Casablanca to criticize Sally again, saying that Ilsa is “low maintenance,” and, in contrast, Sally is the “worst kind” of woman: a “high maintenance” one who thinks she’s low. I do like WHMS, I do, but there are definitely aspects that make me grind my teeth.)
Anyhow, to return to the matter at hand, the arguments made in WHMS broadly reflect the consensus about Casablanca: that Ilsa should be with Rick and that Victor is a non-factor.
To present just one more example that overlaps a bit, in the episode “Natural Born Kissers,” The Simpsons offered an alternate ending to Casablanca. Bart discovers an old film reel that has a different ending. After the plane carrying Victor and Ilsa departs, Sam saves Rick from an armed and dangerous Captain Renault, then Ilsa (who now bears a resemblance to Lauren Bacall) parachutes back to Casablanca and saves Rick from Hitler (who has popped up from inside Sam’s piano). Ilsa and Rick then marry. Victor pretty much never appears, and no one ever wonders what happens to him in this new ending. (Is Ilsa a bigamist here? Has Ilsa become Lauren?)
Bart and Grandpa Simpson exclaim in joy over this new, happier ending, but another patient at Grandpa’s nursing home admonishes Bart and Lisa to bury the reel because the extant, bittersweet ending is better and this tacked on HEA only reflects the bad taste of film studio executives–and perhaps the audience as well.
What interests me here is that The Simpsons acknowledges that most people might prefer Rick and Ilsa to be together, but posits that the film is better for having Ilsa go with Victor. The Simpsons seems to be saying, “Sure, most people want the happy ending–which is to say, with Rick and Ilsa together–but the film is a classic because it doesn’t give us that.”
However, as it is, Casablanca does offer an HEA, it’s just one for Victor and Ilsa. The film’s ending is only bittersweet if we imagine it as Rick’s narrative.
I definitely understand why we read Casablanca this way. We meet Rick first and he’s on-screen more than Ilsa or Victor. Plus we’re (generally) in his limited POV, and we (mostly) only have the information that he has (e.g., we don’t know that Ilsa was married during in Paris before the war until she explains that to Rick). All of that makes us more sympathetic to Rick’s desires and more sensitive to his hurts. Since we’re identifying with him, we read the conclusion as a rejection of Rick/us, and we feel sad about it.
But the simple truth is that there are affirmative reasons for Ilsa to go with Victor, and she could be happier long-term with Victor than she would have been with Rick.
For starters, while Rick in the Paris flashback montage is certainly cynical, Ilsa’s rejection apparently totally embittered him. The Rick we meet in Casablanca not only claims to have no loyalty, he can be outright cruel. He’s cutting to his recent lover, Yvonne, and also to Ilsa.
When Ilsa tries to explain what happened in Paris, he snaps at her, “Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or – aren’t you the kind that tells?” I mean, ouch. He’s drunk and extremely hurt, but I don’t think that justifies this attack. It’s pretty hard to recover after you call your ex-lover a whore. For me, it’s hard to see Rick as a romantic hero after this moment.
And Rick’s petty cruelty, while bad on its own terms, suffers further when you compare it to Victor’s behavior. Victor was married to Ilsa and would have good reason to feel betrayed, but instead, he broaches Ilsa’s history with Rick in this way:
VICTOR: Ilsa, when I was in the concentration camp, were you lonely in Paris?
ILSA: Yes, Victor, I was.
VICTOR: I know how it is to be lonely. I love you very much, my dear.
ILSA: Yes. Yes, I know. Victor, whatever I do, will you believe that I–
VICTOR: You don’t even have to say it. I’ll believe.Casablanca
Victor doesn’t demand that she explain herself. He doesn’t yell or name call. He simply offers her his faith and love. And this is one of the rare scenes in the film for which Rick isn’t present. Rick doesn’t see how Victor and Ilsa are together, which might allow him to pretend that Ilsa doesn’t love her husband the way she loved him.
Another argument we saw Harry make in support of Rick being a better match for Ilsa is that Ilsa and Victor’s marriage is “passionless.” In fairness, I can see why Harry might think this. Ilsa describes her courtship with Victor in this way: “a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life. A very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him and worshiped him… with a feeling she supposed was love.”
(Immediately after she finishes her story, Rick again compares her to a whore and suggests she’s inventing this story. He’s so charming.)
She’s speaking here in the third person, which definitely gives the story an oddly emotionally distanced quality. Her word choices aren’t exactly blistering with heat: “she supposed was love” and “she looked up to him,” for example. Also, she’s speaking to her ex-lover, so her tale is performative and rhetorical. It tells us at least as much about Rick and Ilsa as it does about Victor and Ilsa.
But two key points: first, Ilsa is trying to ease Rick’s pain. She’s not going to rub her marriage in his face by saying, “I deeply love my husband, and, PS, he’s better in bed than you.” And second, even if Ilsa and Victor’s marriage started out with some emotional distance, that doesn’t mean that it stayed that way. While Rick and Ilsa only had a few weeks together in Paris, Ilsa and Victor have been married for several years. Even though there have been periods of separation–the whole “the Nazis put him in a concentration camp” thing–they have a substantial history that she and Rick lack.
(Another aside: the film might play very differently if there were a second montage of years of interactions and intimacy between Victor and Ilsa. But it is, in so many ways, Rick’s movie.)
To wit, in another scene without Rick, Victor and Ilsa visit a different Casablanca cafe, The Blue Parrot, to try to obtain exit visas. The proprietor says he might be able to get Ilsa out of town but not Victor. She refuses, and Victor argues, though with characteristic gentleness. He insists that if there were only one visa, he would take it and leave her. She replies,
ILSA: Yes, I see. When I had trouble getting out of Lille, why didn’t you leave me there? And when I was sick in Marseilles and held you up for two weeks, and you were in danger every minute of the time, why didn’t you leave me then?
VICTOR: I meant to, but something always held me up. I love you very much, Ilsa.
ILSA: Your secret will be safe with me.Casablanca
It was this scene that got me thinking about Casablanca, and why I find the romanticization of Rick and the clear cultural preference for him so problematic. Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman’s performances in this moment leave me in no doubt that Victor and Ilsa are, by this point in their marriage, very much in love. While I don’t doubt that Ilsa also cares for Rick, I just don’t see any lack of passion with Victor.
(A final aside: you really do need to watch this moment, but, interesting, I can’t find this scene on YouTube. I would posit it’s because we’re too fixated on Rick when Victor is right there being awesome.)
And, further, Victor himself makes his intense–nay, passionate!–love for Ilsa clear while he’s trying to convince Rick to take his wife to safety. Victor says to him, “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.” Victor is insisting that he’s not an abstraction, but he is a flesh and blood person. In other words, that he has a libido.
So while Rick literally and repeatedly suggests that Ilsa is a whore for leaving him, Victor’s like, “I’m so deeply in love with Ilsa that I’d rather she live with another man than remain close to Nazis.”
I freely admit that Victor might not be everyone’s cup of tea. In the Twitter thread I linked to above, someone suggested that Victor seemed like a mansplainer–and I can totally see that. And being married to him means being married to his cause. Though…it’s a good cause.
But I guess what I’m really objecting to is the narrative that Rick is obviously the better choice and/or that in leaving Rick, Ilsa acts selflessly and only for Victor’s sake not her own. In his final big speech, Rick says to her, “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it,” implying that she’s settling or sacrificing herself for Victor’s sake. I get why Rick needs to believe this, but I don’t think that means she agrees with his assessment. It feels like we’re falling for the POV character and missing Victor and Ilsa’s Great and Epic Love (TM).
So what I’m saying is that in a future book, my characters are going to fight about the meaning of Casablanca, but this time, Victor will win.