casablanca pickpocket

Rarely has a story captured the audience’s imagination with the soul and elegance of 1942’s Casablanca. Rick & Ilsa have joined the cinematic pantheon of romanticized lovers. They are up there with Scarlet & Rhett, Deburau & Garance. But too often do movies get reduced to those glorious names at the top of the posters…

Casablanca has stood the test of time as the quintessential Hollywood’s Golden Age picture – deemed by theorists like Bordwell to be “an excessively obvious cinema” – but Michael Curtiz’s film has the depths of Shakespeare and the canvas of Tolstoy. The setting might be limited to a gin joint, Rick’s Café but it feels like the world is meeting in there. The more you watch Casablanca and the less it solely is about Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo, Renault or Sam. It is also about intertwined stories carried by secondary characters or uncredited day players. This is their story, the story beyond the stars. The story of strangers whose destinies prove that, as Oscar Wilde believed, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”

You may remember the pickpocket scene in the first five minutes. A strange fellow warns a couple to beware of Casablanca’s “vultures” while discreetly stealing the honest man’s wallet. The pickpocket is played by Curt Bois, a German Jew who fled his home country in 1937. It has been forgotten today but in 1909, at the age of 8, he starred in the German production The Little Detective, making him one of the world’s first child actors. In the fictional Casablanca, all paths lead to Rick’s Café. If you walk in and sit at the closest table, you are likely to be greeted by Carl, the chubby and playful head waiter. He is portrayed by character actor S.Z. Sakall. Him too is a Jewish refugee, a renowned film and stage actor in Hungary and Austria. He is the face of the Wiener film, having starred in many pictures of that genre (Austrian’s melodramatic comedies set in historical Vienna). Once you’ve had a drink, you might feel bold enough to hit the roulette table. The croupier is actually played by Marcel Dalio in an uncredited role. Dalio is a remarkable Renoirian actor (Robert in The Rules of the Game, Lt. Rosenthal in The Great Illusion). He was also Jewish (his birth name: Israel Moshe Blauschild) and he left Paris in 1940 with his wife Madeleine LeBeau, painfully making their way to the USA after their visas turned out to be forgeries. You might remember LeBeau as Yvonne, the young girl in love with Rick. During the actual shoot of Casablanca, Dalio and LeBeau divorced. If you look to your right at the roulette table, you will find Jan Brandel, the desperate and newlywed Bulgarian man hoping to take his wife Annina out of Casablanca. Jan is played by Vienna Jew: Helmut Dantine. At 21, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. His parents pulled all the strings they could pull and managed to get him out, sending him to California where he ironically became typecast as a Nazi officer. They later died in a concentration camp. Contrastingly, although Jewish as well, the actress portraying Annina Brandel was the stepdaughter of Jack Warner. Warner never supported her passion for acting and Brandel was cast on her own merits – without Warner’s approval. Ingrid Bergman was her idol and she got the chance to work on her best film. The stories could go on but the striking aspect is all those small characters have much more to do with their roles than your usual featured players.

In her wonderful book Round Up the Usual Suspects a.k.a. The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman and World War II, film historian Alijean Harmetz shares a moving piece of cinematic trivia. During the national anthems scene (in which La Marseillaise is sang), many extras and actors started crying. In that moment, they realized they were “all refugees” who had left their pasts behind. In that moment they shared a common destiny, the destiny of the Jewish people and the free world. Their closest friends or family were being exterminated in their home countries. And here they were, making a picture in which good triumphs over evil in 1942 – a time of uncertainty – where it seemed likely evil would triumph over good. Maybe, this interpretation is overly sentimental and ridiculously romantic but after all, isn’t it what Casablanca is all about?