Harmetz v. Robertson, a Critical Debate

        Scholarly knowledge, unlike the confidently alleged "truths" of "web wisdom" or "wikiality," is always the product of disagreement among competing interpretations of the facts, disagreement which the scholars usually openly acknowledge while arguing for their way of seeing the facts.  This does not mean that all scholarly knowledge is equally correct.  Some scholarly opinions are simply better supported than others, and when that is true, the winning scholar's opinion becomes the standard interpretation of the facts.  Philosophy sometimes describes this process as a chronological sequence of claims, from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis.  When scholarly authorities disagree, examine their purposes in writing, the number and quality of their sources, their  method of analysis, logic, and evidence.  Then, determine which authority to treat as more likely to have the best conclusion.

----Was the ending kept secret from Bergman and Bogart to improve their acting?----------

Robertson "Once filming at last got under way, the main concern of Bogart, Bergman, and Curtiz was a completed screenplay, although Curtiz turned the lack of a known ending into an advantage in [the scene in which Bogart asks Bergman if her story has "a wow finish" and she says "I don't know the finish yet."]. . . . At length Koch and Casey Robinson came up with the famous ending.  However, the prolonged debate over who contributed what to the final film is largely pointless, since the vast bulk of the plot was derived from the original play, and the dialogue and situations (excellent though they were) are less crucial than the inspired direction, Arthur Edeson's flawless low-key photography, and the perfection of the players in every case.  Curtiz relied upon sheer speed of direction to conceal the plot's numerous holes and an unknown ending, the importance of which has been exaggerated.  It caused anxiety to Bergman and Bogart in particular for the first two-thirds of the film before the ending was decided upon, but it also enhanced their performances"  (Robertson 78).

Harmetz "As Casablanca moved toward its climactic scene at the airport, the theme of duty became stronger, especially in the last rewrites by Howard Koch.  So did the theme that honor required early resistance to tyranny" (Harmetz 227)

       "[ . . . ] The second-most-popular myth about Casablanca is that nobody knew how the movie would end" (Harmetz 228).

        "[ . . . ] although having Ilsa stay with Rick was often discussed, everyone kept agreeing on the sacrifice ending.  And the Production Code would never have allowed Ilsa to desert her husband and stay in Casablanca with her lover.  The difficulty was in making the sacrifice ending work.  There were two major problems: how to make Ilsa's leaving the man she loved seem believable and what to do with Rick after she leaves.  In the play, Rick was arrested, but movie audiences wouldn't tolerate a Gestapo victory" (Harmetz 229).

        "Koch's nineteen pages of suggestions take a different tack.  Where the [Epstein] twins eliminated Lois [from the confrontation between Rick and Laszlo], Koch eliminated Strasser.  In Koch's version, Rick tricks Lois into leaving by pretending that he has really betrayed Laszlo.  [ . . . ]   All of these endings took place in the cafe" (Harmetz 231).

        "[On July 6, producer Hal] Wallis brought Koch back to write yet another ending.  [ . . . ]  Casablanca moved to the airport on Stage 1 on July 17, and the ending was completely shot by July 23.  So Ingrid Bergman knew exactly how Ilsa Lund felt about Rick and Laszlo before she played several earlier scenes, including the scene in the black market with Bogart, the scene in the Blue Parrot where Ilsa and Laszlo refuse Sydney Greenstreet's offer of a single exit visa, and some of the conversation between Ilsa and Laszlo in their hotel room before Laszlo goes to the Underground meeting.   Those scenes were shot during the last week in July.  [ . . . ] One of Koch's late additions that helped make the ending credible was Raines's comment to Bogart that Ilsa was only pretending to believe him.   [On July 17, 1942, the] new dialogue that day included Rick's "We'll always have Paris' speech.  As Koch fiddled with the language, both the romance and the need to do the right thing were heightened" (Harmetz 233-6).

----------------Is the film more about romance or political propaganda?-------------------------

Robertson:  "This [film's] tale represents the purest Hollywood nonsense.  No uniformed Germans ever set foot in Casablanca throughout the Second World War, while there was no such thing as letters of transit signed by Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle.  On Rick's own admission he is no businessman, yet he has somehow acquired sufficient capital after fleeing from France to establish his fashionable cafe, to pay its staff for two or three weeks after Renault closes it to placate Strasser, and to sustain a large casino gambling loss to enable Brandel to buy an exit visa.  When and how he teams up with Sam, an unlikely combination in real life, is never disclosed.  Neither American nor French troops 'blundered into Berlin' in 1918.  Lazlo [sic] is the Czech with the Hungarian-sounding name. . . . personal romance is skillfully woven into the basic propaganda theme, so that neither dominates but both linger in the memory . . ." (Robertson 79).

Harmetz:  "When Bogart shot Strasser, the actor had improvised a line, 'All right, Major, you asked for it,' which would have to be removed, Wallis said.  Otherwise it would appear that Conrad Veidt had reached for his gun in self-defense.  Wallis told the director to do it over, using the line in the script: 'I was willing to shoot Renault, and I am willing to shoot you.'  Conrad Veidt had finished his role in Casablanca two days earlier, but on June 22 he came back to die again.  This time the dirty Nazi drew his gun first.  When Howard Koch speaks of people today returning to Casablanca as to 'political church,' he calls it a hunger 'for political, social and human values that are missing today.'  It is also a hunger for simplicity, for an era when black and white rarely shaded into gray and for a war in which the good guys were firmly distinguishable from the bad guys"   (Harmetz 238).

To test your ability to discover the scholarly or non-scholarly methods of some Casablanca sources, click here.