People have talked about the ending of "Casablanca" since the movie's release 80 years ago. Mostly about whether characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman should have skipped town together.
Seen through clearer ties today, the question is this: When it was made, could it have ended any other way?
If sensibilities were affected when Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" (and at the end of "Gone With the Wind," he didn't), America might have ruptured had Bergman gotten on that plane to Lisbon with Bogart, her past lover but then married to another.
Instead, Bogart had crooked (but charitable) Inspector Renault (Claude Rains) sign the two letters of intent, stolen at the outset by Peter Lorre's ill-fated Ugarte, in the names of Mr. and Victor Laszlo. For a second male lead, the third wheel in a relationship, Paul Henreid knocks it out of the park as Bergman's husband, thought lost in Paris when Bogart's Rick Blaine fell in love with demure Ilsa Lund.
Though knowing that he is the other man in a lover's triangle, Henreid shows insight into the Bogart character, a former soldier of fortune resigned to live his final years as a saloonkeeper in Casablanca. That is, until Laszlo and wife arrive at Rick's watering hole-casino one night on the run from the Third Reich.
Henreid makes repeated pleas for the letters of transit, the film's MacGuffin, a plot device Hitchcock might have used. One night in Rick's bar, getting stitched up after a brush with the law, Henreid hears Bogart say "I stick my neck out for no man" once too often.
"You sound like a man trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart," said Henreid, famous for lighting cigarettes for himself and Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager," but never cast better than in this film. About to board that plane for Lisbon, he tells Bogart, "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."
That line may sound corny now, but at the film's release, the outcome of World War II was not known. Casablanca was in the news as host to a summit between world leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, aligned against Hitler and the Axis powers. D-Day was in the discussion stages, not a foregone conclusion.
By the time "Casablanca" was named Best Picture of 1943, the Allies had driven back Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and Hitler's own followers were plotting his demise.
Though neither Bogart, Bergman nor Henreid was honored, the film won richly deserved Oscars for Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz and its three screenwriters -- Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard W. Koch. Max Steiner, the genius musically behind "Gone With the Wind," did not win for the movie's soundtrack, but music is central to the success of this Hal B. Wallis production, released in late 1942.
Perhaps the most beloved picture to come out of Hollywood, "Casablanca" is a staple of late-night TV and discovered each year by new viewers. Be it the 50th time seen, your heart is sure to break when Sam the piano player grimaces as the Bergman character enters Rick's bar one night. And again when Bogart asks restaurant maitre'd S.Z. Sakall to "make sure Miss Lund gets home safely" one night after a late-night rendezvous one flight up from the bar.
Legend has it that the ending was in doubt until someone suggested that Rick shoot Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) at the airport, whereupon Renault advises his men to "round up the usual suspects." Rick and Renault then walk off into the foggy north African night, drafting their own exit visas from Casalabaca, with Rick Blaine commenting, "You know, Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
It has been ever thus between the film's characters and its devoted viewers for 80 years. Like the song says, the fundamental things apply when time goes by.