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Casablanca’s Moral Compass

D. B. Grady writes about Casablanca:

One reason for the film’s enduring resonance is its absence of a moral compass. Rick is a fallen idealist. He fought fascism on two continents, and lost each time. He knew love once in Paris, but lost at that, too. At some point, Rick surveyed the sorry world around him and finally did the math. This grim assessment is shared by Louis Renault, the local police captain, who spends the entirety of the film on the winning side – regardless of whom the winner might be. (“I’m shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here.”)

Apparently Grady has never watched the film to its end. Really, he should: that concluding scene is kinda famous. And justly so.

Casablanca: final scene

The whole point, of course, is the unexpected and unlooked-for recovery of a moral compass. Rick’s witty cynicism is finally overcome by the sheer plodding integrity of Victor Laszlo — and no virtue of Casablanca is more overlooked than Paul Henreid’s fantastic portrayal of Laszlo’s earnestness, which turns out to be compatible with shrewd observation:

Laszlo: I know a good deal more about you than you suspect. I know, for instance, that you’re in love with a woman. It is perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman. The first evening I came to this café, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame, I – I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won’t give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. 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. Yes, I love her that much.

Eventually, Rick discovers that he wants to be as good a man as Laszlo. And if Rick — who claims that his nationality is “drunkard” — can rediscover his long-lost moral compass, then perhaps even Renault can find one for the first time in his life. When he throws that bottle of Vichy water in the trash bin, it’s a great, great moment.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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