Casablanca (the 1942 movie, not the place) is one of my all-time favorite flicks. Since I was a kid I have idolized Humphrey Bogart. Strike that… I have idolized the characters who Humphrey Bogart brought to life. I suppose the credit is probably more deserving to the screenwriters than the actor, but he was a focal point, and focal points have tremendous value.
Casablanca is unique though, specifically the transformational process that takes place not only with Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, but also, and maybe more importantly, with the character of Captain Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains.
For the three of you who read this blog that have not seen Casablanca, it is now on your mandatory viewing list this weekend. (Hell, everyone reading this should probably watch it too.)
The named “hero” in the movie is, of course, the massively charismatic and massively virtuous and understanding Victor Laszlo. Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid) is a leader of the Czech resistance, yet his fight against fascism is transcendent and not confined to a specific national identity. When he takes command and has Rick’s band play La Marseillaise to drown out the Nazis singing at the other end of Rick’s bar, he cements his status as a demigod.
(Incidentally, this is one of the most emotional scenes in cinematic history. The multiple extras cast by the producers at the bar, who join Laszlo in singing the French national anthem, were exiles from occupied France in real life. This was filmed in 1942 when there was no guarantee these people would ever return to France, or if Hitler would ultimately be defeated. The tears they shed during that song are real… and it is powerful to watch.)
But it is Claude Rains’ character, Renault, who I have always found the most interesting in his story arc. Putatively a functionary of Vichy France, he enjoys a power status in Casablanca and works (as much as a French functionary actually works) with the Nazis. He is a deeply flawed individual, using his power and status to elicit sexual favors from the most vulnerable of women, usually married, who simply want to protect themselves and their husbands. He is charming to be sure, but beneath that charm lies a narcissism and hedonistic attitude that borders on sociopathy.
It is at the end of the movie that Captain Renault has his “change”. Redemption comes in the form of a homicide. Realizing that Lazlo, his wife Ilsa (Bogart’s former lover played by Ingrid Bergman), and Rick himself are about to be arrested by a Gestapo officer, Renault puts a bullet into the Nazi and orders his arriving subordinate law enforcement officers to “round up the usual suspects”. As Lazlo and Ilsa’s plane heads off to Lisbon, where they will continue their fight against the Nazis, Rick and Renault walk into the fog where Renault suggests that the two of them head off together to fight Nazis themselves. This is where Bogart utters the famous line, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Renault is an important character to be sure, but a secondary one as far as the storyline goes. The deeper meaning of his character, and its implications today, cannot be overstated.
As I mentioned above, Renault is “part of the system”. He has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Both from an economic standpoint (he wants that continual paycheck), to his sexual needs (he wants access to vulnerable women), Renault should have little motivation to bring down the system.
Yet he does.
In that flash of moment, Renault is forced to make a decision that will destroy his established station, and there is absolutely no guarantee it will “work out in the end” for him. In a morally ambiguous environment he commits a selfless act because at some internal level he simply knew it was the right thing to do.
Totalitarian governments, tyrants, and autocrats have a way of bringing this out in people. Yes, people, generally speaking, like decisions to be made for them by others, but, paradoxically, they don’t like being told what to do.
This alone is an interesting dynamic. People are incredibly complex. At one moment we are completely thrilled to accept almost dictatorial control over our lives by “others” because of the social utility it provides. (Think of driving laws, and the ability to pilot a vehicle knowing that other drivers have a predictability due to their also following the motor vehicle code.) Yet, at the same moment, we have a desire to revolt in extreme anger and frustration. (Think of those same driving laws where someone is ticketed because their prized four-wheel drive lifted vehicle is considered in “violation” because it is 1/4 inch “too high”.)
We accept some control when it negligibly impacts us. We seethe in rage when it prevents us from doing what we want, especially when there is no discernible reason for the regulation.
Yet, most do nothing to change it. This is the “bet” the tyrants make. People are more elastic than they are willing to admit. Impose tyranny on them and they will adapt, they may even adopt. (Think of the modern-day Judenrats who turned in their fellow Americans during the Toilet Paper Wars, or the January 6th “Insurrection”… self-important, self-selected agents of the state, these people are cut from the same cloth as the functionaries in Vichy France.)
But then there is a “point”, a “singularity” when decisions must be made. When in our complex, maelstrom of ethics, where morality exists on a sliding scale of utilitarianism, someone decides enough is enough.
It is fitting that Renault is such a flawed character. This, interestingly enough, mimics story arcs in the Bible. Those whom God chose to act as prophets were themselves deeply flawed. That is kinda the point isn’t it? In spite of those flaws, maybe even because of those flaws, Renault is able make the ultimate moral decision… as we are all tested at some point to make that “ultimate moral decision”.