Warford 2020

When I graded the first film class assignment of the new school year, I was most pleased with how much the students enjoyed, and how well they wrote about, “Casablanca.”

It was new to them, and they loved this 1943 black-and-white film with no profanity, nudity or explicit violence.

One young man wrote, “My favorite number is now 22,” a reference to the scene where Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) first shows he sentimental, altruistic side. More about that in a moment.

Most of my 32 Literature and Film students are seniors who were in my English classes last year. We know each other well, and we missed each other when their junior year ended abruptly on March 13.

I’m getting to know the juniors in my English classes now as we wrap up week three of Distance Learning, but it is much harder than in face-to-face classes.

“Casablanca” is one of those films that gets better each time you watch it. For instance, the first time you see it, you don’t know the powerful story behind Rick’s reaction to Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano:

“Sam, I thought I told you never to play —” And then he spots Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). The second time through, you know their back story of their time together in Paris and you see how he hides his shock and pain when, seconds later Renault (Claude Rains) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) approach and his conversation with Ilsa must be delayed.

We analyzed the scene in class, talking about the camera angles and close-ups that add to the power of what is unfolding in the story.

Students mentioned several different scenes as favorites. The “22” scene was mentioned more than once. That comes early in the film when Rick, as owner of the nightclub with a gambling room, is approached by a young, newlywed immigrant from Bulgaria.

She asks Rick if Inspector Renault, the Vichy representative in Casablanca, can be trusted to keep his word.

Everyone in Casablanca — in Free French Morocco — has fled the Nazis and is desperate to get to America. Renault, who somehow manages to remain likeable despite his shifting loyalties and appalling behavior toward desperate young women, has arranged with the wife to give the newlyweds an exit visa in exchange for certain favors.

The young woman is torn. They have little money, her husband is at the roulette table trying to win enough to buy a visa, but “of course he is losing.”

She wants to know that if she does do this horrible thing and sleep with Renault, will he keep his end of the deal and provide the visa?

“He always has,” Rick says.

She wonders if her husband ever found, would he ever understand that she did it out of love for him? Would Rick understand if someone loved him enough to do that?

“I don’t know; no one’s ever loved me that much,” Rick replies, clearly thinking of Ilsa.

Rick — who tries to present himself as looking out only for himself — rebuffs her and reminds her everybody in Casablanca has problems: “Maybe yours will work out.”

But then, after she leaves, he goes into the gambling room and his makes his rounds, stopping where the young husband is losing what’s left of the couple’s money. He leans over. “Have you tried 22 tonight?”

The young man, Jan, looks confused. The croupier looks at Rick, who repeats, “I said, try 22.”

The croupier looks knowingly at Rick, Jan puts his chips on 22, and the wheel miraculously stops at 22. “Leave ‘em there,” Rick says.

Again the wheel stops at 22. “Cash in your chips and don’t come back,” Rick tells him, and walks away.

This scene, this beautiful gesture for the young couple in need, represents the beginning of the transformation from the hardened, cold Rick who says, “I stick my neck out for no one” to the Rick who earns hero status with his selfless act at the end of the film.

Watching that scene with young people, and having one of them declare 22 has become his favorite number, is just one reason why “Casablanca” is such a wonderful film.

William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

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