Continuing December's look at scenes from "Casablanca," particularly those where players speculate on the character and motivations of saloon owner Richard Blaine, and right to his face...
Everybody De-Constructs Rick, Part 4: Victor Laszlo
The Story: I was going to end this series with what will now be next week's classic scene from "Casablanca," but I'd forgotten about one very important, even pivotal, player in the drama—freedom-fighter and husband of Ilsa Lund, Victor Laszlo. He, too, thinks he knows Richard Blaine, and gives him some un-asked for advice, semi-judgementally, talking about Mister Blaine's "destiny" like he was Obi-Wan Kenobi or something.
Fat lot he knows. For example, he doesn't know that his wife is sneaking out the back-way so she won't be seen by him. And he doesn't know that his wife was up there to threaten Rick into giving her the letters of transit and ended up in a clinch with him.*
But the more I watched it, I realized that this scene is crucial to get to the scene next week. It's essential in the decision-making of Richard Blaine. Like everybody else, Victor Laszlo comes to some conclusion about Rick,** and, as with everyone else, it's some reflection of their own character. Laszlo looks at the saloon-keeper and sees a potential ally in The Cause and a rival in love. He tries to plead his cause by its merits, and then by appealing to Rick's relationship to Ilsa, betting that Rick will at least protect her. I think it's Laszlo's unselfish offer of saving Ilsa at his own expense that throws Rick to take the course that he does. Rick admires Laszlo (see the scene with Louis Renault) and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his wife surprises and moves Rick.
On closer examination there are many subtleties: Bogart's way with props and timing is on display as he lights his cigarette just as Laszlo says "Each of us has a destiny." (just as he tossed a nut-shell with a sentence-ending *ding!* in his first conversation with Laszlo) He clenches his jaw when Ilsa is brought up. In deference to his co-star, he doesn't blow a lot of smoke obscuring Heinreid's face, but there is smoke--a kind of veil that surrounds Rick in an amoral haze and separates him from Laszlo. Paul Heinreid, when talking about "something between (him) and Ilsa" looks not into Rick's eyes, but at his fore-head, as if trying to read his mind. And when Rick churlishly throws a crack about "destiny," mocking Laszlo's appraisal of him, Laszlo is surprised at the cruelty of the remark, and we exit the scene with Rick smiling and blowing out his existential smoke.
Even at this late point in the movie, what actions Richard Blaine will take are still uncertain.
Last Thursday--Christmas--would have been Humphrey Bogart's 109th birthday.
The Set-Up: Well, here's an embarrassing situation: Your former lover comes to your room to threaten you to help her husband escape, and you end up in an emrace. Then, who shows up? The husband, seeking asylum and some first-aid after a Free-French meeting is raided. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sees to it that Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) is escorted home down the back-stairs. Then, Rick sees to Victor Laszlo's (Paul Henreid) medical needs. And what does he get in return? A lecture! From somebody else who "knows all about him."
Rick descends the stair-case from his office and goes to Laszlo, who is bandaging his arm with a tea-towel.
Laszlo: It's nothing—just a little cut. We had to get through a window.
Rick: Well, this might come in handy. (Rick grabs a bottle and pulls Laszlo a drink)
Laszlo: Thank you.
Rick: Had a close one, eh?
Laszlo: Yes. Rather.
Rick: Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.
Laszlo: We might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.
Rick: Well, what of it? Then it'll be out of its misery.
Laszlo: You know how you sound, M'sieur Blaine? Like a man who is trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.
Laszlo: Each of us has a destiny.
Laszlo: For good. Or for evil.
Rick: Yes, I get the point.
Laszlo: I wonder if you do.
Laszlo: I wonder if you know that you're trying to escape from yourself.
Laszlo: And that you'll never succeed.
Rick: You seem to know all about my destiny.
Laszlo: I know a good deal more about you than you suspect.
Laszlo: I know, for instance, that you're in love with a woman.
Laszlo: It's perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman.
Laszlo: The first evening I came here into this cafe, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa.
Laszlo: Since no one is to blame...I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing:
Laszlo: You won't give me the letters of transit.
Laszlo: All right. But I want my wife to be safe.
Laszlo: I ask you as a favor to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.
Rick: You love her that much?
Laszlo: Apparently, you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I'm also a human being.
Laszlo: Yes, I love her that much.
(The police break into the cafe in force, and storm up to Rick and Laszlo)
Adjutante: M'sieur Laszlo?
Adjutante: You will come with us. We have a warrant for your arrest.
Laszlo: On what charge?
Adjutante: Captain Renault will discuss that with you later.
Rick: It seems that destiny has taken a hand.
(Laszlo is escorted out, as Rick watches)
Words by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch
Pictures by Arthur Edeson and Michael Curtiz
"Casablanca" is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.
* There is a short story called "You Must Remember This" written by a guy called Robert Coover, which starts in that room and that scene, and covers all the details skipped over in the long discreet fade-out between Rick and Ilsa's kiss and his cigarette-by-searchlight. If you've missed it, it's probably better, as the story's your basic crass porn. Without it, you'll always have Paris.
** If you haven't noticed by now, its interesting to note that just about everybody calls him something different. To Ugarte, he's "Rick." To Ilsa, he's "Richard." To Louis, he's "Ricky." To both Laszlo and Strasser (tellingly), he's "M'sieur Blaine." To Sasha and Sam (and all the guys called "Emil"), he's "Boss." And they all call him something different because they all see him differently, which he never discourages. It's one more subtle way that Rick maintains an elusiveness of character, and keeps the audience guessing about him.