From: Film & History 1989 19(4): 87-91

Romantic Propaganda:
A Note on Casablanca's Prefigured Ending

Robert F. Willson, Jr.

Andrew Sarris has characterized Casablanca (1943) as "the happiest of happy accidents." Much evidence exists to support Sarris' claim. Based on an unpublished play by Murray Bumett and Joan Alison called Everybody Comes to Rick's, the film somehow made it to the screen after numerous changes in the script by several screenwriters, maneuvering to acquire the services of Ingrid Bergman (recently the star of a smash hit called Algiers), and squabbling over whether to keep Burnett's favorite torch song—composed by Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway flop—"As Time Goes By." Of all these troubles the central dilemma for director Michael Curtiz and the film's main actors was how the film should end. Would Rick and Ilsa rekindle their old romance and let Victor carry on "his work" in America? Or, would husband and wife fly off to the New World and leave broken-hearted Rick behind in the airport fog? So frustrated about how to play her character was Ingrid Bergman that she finally went to Curtiz in the middle of shooting and demanded to know which of the men she would win.  Curtiz's unsatisfying reply, reminiscent of one of the film's oft-misquoted lines, was "Play it in between."

This uncertainty about the film's close is traceable in part to the screenwriters' misfortunes in transmuting the play to the screen. The Bumett-Alison drama ends with Rick shooting Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and holding Captain Renault (Claude Rains) at gunpoint until Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) are safely aboard the Lisbon plane. Then he gives himself up to face imprisonment or death. The cynical Rick tells an incredulous Renault that he did it "for the folding money."

But this ending wasn't upbeat or patriotic enough for producer Hal Wallis and director Curtiz.  Both were eager to exploit the project's propaganda value. They turned to screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, who had put together the original draft of the script, using the play's ending. (They were originally chosen to add wit to what Wallis felt was uninspired dialogue. Memorable lines like "Round up the usual suspects" were their contributions.) The Epsteins' draft had gone through many changes during shooting, which was done in sequence, much in the way that stage plays were rehearsed and performed.4 During the Epsteins' hiatus in Washington, where they were helping Frank Capra with his Why We Fight series, Howard Koch and others made changes required by Curtiz during shooting. One can fairly say that the film was by this time in such a state that almost any ending would have seemed tacked on. The Epsteins no doubt wondered what had become of their version.

Complicating matters even more was Curtiz's desire to end the film in a manner consistent with the patriotic mood of the times. Rick should survive the murder of Strasser, he believed, but he should not go to prison or be threatened with death. Indeed, to weave together the strands of romance and patriotism in the story, the writers should have Rick defeat the Nazis and win Ilsa.  Curtiz and Wallis at first contemplated an ending in which Strasser shoots Laszlo—thus giving martyr status to Victor—and Rick and Ilsa escape to fulfill their long-interrupted love affair.  Yet this finale lent too much power to Strasser and, interestingly, left the question of Captain Renault's loyalties unanswered.  (Would the prevailing winds always blow in the direction of Vichy?) So Curtiz asked the Epsteins to create another close in which Rick shoots Strasser, helps the Laszlos escape, and returns to the fight against fascism, leaving behind his essentially useless life as a saloon-keeper.

To give this ending greater meaning, the Epsteins hit upon an ingenious way to assign Rick a partner in his battle against the enemy. They would have the opportunistic but basically good Renault, who throughout the film shows more affection for Rick than for the boorish Strasser, deliver his tag line—"Round up the usual suspects"—when the gendarmes arrive to investigate the German major's death. Renault would punctuate his decision to join the Free French movement by dropping a just-opened bottle of Vichy water into a waste basket, then kicking it. The two men would walk off into the fog arm in arm, beginning their "beautiful friendship." This ending was shot first and seemed so right that Curtiz and Wallis decided to keep it

In all the accounts of how this "happiest of happy accidents" came about, no analysis pays attention to the characters and events that prefigured the ending. These elements were part of the Bumett-Alison play, a dramatic text that makes liberal use of the device of foreshadowing.  For example, Rick's background of anti-fascist activity in Spain is commented on at different times in the plot by Renault, Strasser, and Laszlo.  His political heart, one might say, is in the right place, despite his cavalier demurrals. Rick won't allow high-ranking Nazis to enter his gambling sanctum. Even though he refuses to "stick [his] neck out" for the desperate Ugarte (Peter Lorre), Rick elsewhere reveals his allegiance to freedom's cause in subtle ways. At a climactic point in the action, for instance, it is he who nods permission to the cafe's orchestra to play the "Marseillaise" as a way of drowning out the voices of Strasser's officers. They have taken control of Sam's piano and are bellowing a beery version of "Die Wacht am Rhein." Rick's gesture comes in support of Laszlo, who conducts the musicians unaware that they would not have played the anthem had their "neutral" boss not approved. The visual message here is that Rick and Victor are much more alike in their political sympathies than appearance might suggest. That Rick is disposed to take a chance (the gambling metaphor is central to the plot) to help "the cause"—and Victor—is prefigured in this incident.

More conclusive prefiguring evidence can be found in the subplot-like adventures of a young Bulgarian couple trying to escape to America. The young husband and wife appear early in Casablanca and at critical points in the subsequent action.  During the opening sequence, when refugees look skyward at the departing Lisbon plane, the girl speaks the desire of the multitude:  "Perhaps tomorrow we'll be on that plane."  Later, the same couple leaves Signer Ferrari's (Sydney Greenstreet) Blue Parrot club as he tells the disappointed lovers that he has no exit visas to sell them.  "Perhaps you can come to terms with Captain Renault" are Ferrari's parting words. We sense that the womanizing Renault will make of the young Bulgarian girl yet another of his conquests when we see the couple at police headquarters somewhat later. The important plot message is that they are following the same "escape route" as the Laszlos. Will both pairs of refugee lovers languish and die in Casablanca?

At Rick's cafe, meanwhile, he can be seen becoming his best customer. He drinks alone every night to assuage the pain of seeing Ilsa on the arm of another man. One night the Bulgarian girl approaches the surly Rick for advice. Her husband has been trying to win enough money at roulette to finance their escape. But he is losing and their prospects are bleak. The girl knows that she might prove successful in winning their exit from the city, the only requirement being that she sleep with Captain Renault. Can she trust Renault to keep his word? Should she do this "bad thing" for her loved one? Rick's response comes from the black hole of his despair:  "No one ever loved me that much!" He dismisses the girl with a cliche about things working out, yet Rick is clearly moved by the girl's appeal.

In the following sequence we see Rick in the gambling room watching the young Bulgarian play the roulette wheel. He is losing, so Rick asks "Have you tried 22 tonight?" Miraculously the magic number comes up twice in succession, after which Rick urges the young man to cash in his winnings and never come back. The happy couple is now eager to depart, even confronting Renault with the just-won francs.  Putting them off for the moment, the captain moves toward Rick to announce that the saloon-keeper is, as he suspected, "a rank sentimentalist."  Rick's flip rejoinder is "Put it down to love!", but we know that his act is something more than a romantic gesture.

This episode is predictive of Rick's future behavior with Ilsa. She will come to him to beg for the visas as the Bulgarian girl might have come to Renault. Like the girl, Ilsa will consider offering her body to win escape for her husband. This places Rick in a position uncomfortably like that of the womanizing and parasitic Frenchman. Rather than take advantage of Ilsa, thereby satisfying his lust or thirst for revenge, he decides instead to "gamble" to save both of them. The game he devises manipulates the rules as he had done in his own casino to help the young couple. (Indeed, the number 22 could itself be read as a sign that the two couples will be the recipients of good fortune.) We should be convinced of the hero's intentions when he makes the following announcement to Victor on the night of Laszio's arrest: "It seems that destiny has taken a hand."

Of course the details of the ending—Rick's deception to get Laszlo released, the shooting of Strasser, Renault's rejection of Vichy—are not directly foreshadowed by the subplot involving the Bulgarian couple. But one could argue that Renault's gesture represents a hero-like willingness to enter "the game" on the right side. He too is a romantic and avid gambler who in the end finds more reason to join Rick than remain in the "Third Reich," a phrase he repeats ironically early in the film. Indeed, the film's implied message seems to be that in 1943 many Frenchmen are, like Renault, seeking just the right moment to enter the Resistance movement. Victor could be speaking to the followers of Charles de Gaulle as well as Rick when he declares: "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win." As critical and popular reception of the film have demonstrated, any other ending would have violated both the romantic and propagandistic themes of Casablanca.