A Psychological Question about the Film Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest film trailerfrom the 1936 film Petrified Forest (photo in the public domain)

My question is: Why was Humphrey Bogart chosen to play Rick in the film, Casablanca? There must have been commercial reasons involved in the producer, Hal Wallis' choice of Bogart, but, as a psychologist, I can not help but search for deeper reasons he might have had. Why was Humphrey Bogart chosen, a man who was known for his gangster roles — such as Duke Mantee in the Petrified Forest (see above photo) and Roy "Mad Dog" Earl in High Sierra? When movie goers of the day thought of Bogart, they thought of a desperate, selfish killer, but in Casablanca his role was to inspire men to leave home and go to war. Bogart seems about the least likely choice for this kind of role.

Each reader will have his or her own answer to this question. My goal is to present the question, and, in what follows, to express a few psychological observations on the subject.

A little information about Casablanca

The casting and characters:

According to the Turner Classic Movie commentary, there was a false rumor that the part of Rick was offered to Ronald Reagan and then to George Raft before it was offered to Bogart. Without going into detail, the evidence is that this was only a rumor. It seems Hal Wallis had Bogart in mind from the beginning and had his writers write their script with Bogart in mind.

I am writing this current article to readers who have seen Casablanca, but I will remind them of a few points. In the film, Rick was an American with a mysterious and possibly shady past. Before arriving in Casablanca, he had left the U.S. and moved to Paris. On the day the Germans were about to enter Paris, he left France and wound up in Casablanca. Casablanca, in the film, was controlled by the French Vichy government which was, to a large degree, controlled by Germany. Still, it was a relatively open city with ex-patriots from all countries living there. The film takes place, in large part, in the popular Rick's Café Américain, a café owned and operated by Rick. To do business in this corrupt city, Rick has to pay off the police chief (played by Claude Rains).

The café as a world in miniature, because of its clientele. Patrons are French, Bulgarian, and, so on, and German soldiers were regular customers. Their commander is Major Henrich Strasser (Condrad Veidt) who plays a prominent role in the film.

There is a love story — a now famous love story — between Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). We are told (by flashback) that their romance went back to before the war when they were both in Paris. On the day of the German invasion, however, Ilsa disappeared, and this helps explain Rick's cynicism and why he now is, basically, a loner.

In the film, Ilsa turns up at Rick's Café, and we (and Rick) learn that she has loved Rick all along, but her sense of duty made her leave him. She had been married toan idealistic and heroic resistance fighter, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who she had thought had died at the hands of the Germans he was fighting. On the day the Germans were going to enter Paris, she had learned that he was still alive and needed her. She felt obliged to him for several reasons, one of which was that she felt he was fighting an important fight and that he was needed in the fight. She did not know how to explain this to Rick at the time, so she just left. She never loved Laszlo romantically, and, now seeing Rick again in Casablanca, she realizes she can never leave him a second time, no matter how much she values Laszlo and his cause.

The success of the film:

Casablanca was a big budget film made in 1942. It screened for the first time in November, 1942. From the point of view of the box office, this was a lucky coincidence, because the Americans had just landed in North Africa where they were achieving the first victories of the war. In November, 1942, the U.S. had been in the war for a little over eleven months, and the victories in North Africa represented a beginning of a turn around.

The film brought in about four times what it cost to make and received the Academy Award in 1943 for Best Picture and for Best Screenplay.Though it was a box office success, it was not until the 1960's that it developed a cult status, perhaps mostly among college students. Now it is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest movies made to date.

World War II war films:

According to Bright Lights Film Journal, during the war, the United States Department of War established a "War Films" division to encourage (and sometimes to hire) Hollywood film makers to support the war effort and to make films that would inspire and encourage men to fight. Film makers such as John Ford and Frank Capra were enrolled, and so were Julius and Philip Epstein, the writers (along with Howard Koch) of the film we are discussing, Casablanca.

Up until Pearl Harbor, the war was, for most Americans, a distant reality, and the majority of Americans were isolationists and did not want to fight. Even after Pearl Harbor many Americans did not see any really good reason for going to war, so it made sense for the U.S. government and military to try to affect public opinion, and what better way than through Hollywood? (Besides a natural resistance to war, many thought the Germans weren't doing anything wrong, and this idea is held today by people all over the world. We know that, even today, many people think there was no such thing as the German death camps.)

Different Hollywood figures contributed to the war effort in different ways. Some, like George Raft, who were too old to fight, devoted their time to entertaining the troops. Ronald Reagan was employed by the Army (the Army Air Force) to act in training films, and so on.

It is interesting to me that Ronald Reagan and Julius and Philip Epstein were, essentially, all working for the U.S. Army. They had the same boss. A boss has an overall goal and hires different people with different abilities to work together to achieve the overall goal. Reagan, with his personality and values, starred in Army training films; the Epsteins, with their background and talents, wrote a script for Humphrey Bogart. — All towards the same end.

Motives U.S. men had for going to fight in World War II

The U.S. is a long way from Europe and is separated from it by an ocean. Even though France (before its fall) and England were engaged in life and death struggles with German invaders, no one was invading America, and it was possible for life in the U.S. to go on more or less as usual. As mentioned, even after the direct Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans did not believe we should go to war.

But, especially after Pearl Harbor, there was more and more pro-war feeling, and I now want to discuss reasons individual Americans may have had for coming around and joining up. I stress that almost no American had the reason the Poles or the Greeks or the French or the English had for fighting. U.S. cities were not being bombed, there were no tanks rumbling over U.S. borders, and so on. So what did motivate the young American men?

The following motives come to mind:

1) Patriotic anger at our country being attacked: "The Japanese attacked me when they hit Pearl!"

2) Revenge for a friend or relative killed by the Germans: In the British T.V. series, Foyle's War, an American Colonel stationed in England explains to Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle that he joined the Army because his brother was on a ship sunk by a German U-boat.

3) A dislike of bullies: "I don't like seeing innocent people pushed around!" (in response to images from news clips of the day).

4) Some type of Idealism: Maybe political idealism such as a hatred of fascism or to make the world safe for Democracy (Victor Laszlo in Casablanca probably had some of this). And there is emotional idealism and religious idealism: The eyes of many people fill with tears when they hear the words "God and country."

5) Individual, idiosyncratic reasons: For example, in one World War II film, The Pride of the Marines, John Garfield's character likes to hunt and is preparing to go bear hunting when the war starts. He joins the Marines saying something like, "It might be just as much fun to kill Japs as bears."

6) The search for excitement and adventure and action and as a way socially acceptable way to express aggression.

7) A desire to find a home away from home or maybe to have an orderly life where you are given orders and all you have to do is follow them. Or a man might want to see in the Armed Forces the possibility of a good career with security and a chance for advancing.

8) A desire to make sure the U.S. stays safe for oneself and for ones family.

9) Social desires: To "join the team," the ever-growing team of fighting men, men in uniform. Or, maybe, because one's father was a soldier and his father before him and so on.

10) For reasons of Image or Self-Image: The desire not to look like or be a shirker or a coward (in the eyes of others or in one's own eyes). Or the desire to be a hero.

11) Finally, there were those who joined because they were drafted (and only because they were drafted).

All of these reasons have something in common, but it is hard to say it in words. I would say 1-11 are all external motives: A man goes to fight for others (for a loved one, a victim, or for the whole world) or for an inspiring ideal or image, and so on. If there came a time when one of these men found himself alone on the front lines, cut off from all support, what would there be deep inside that would drive him to continue? When Garfield's character finds himself in the jungle on Guadalcanal, at night, holding off the enemy by himself, his fantasy of bear hunting is long gone and is not there to help him. And, when he gets home and realizes the blindness from his wound may be permanent, his lack of a clear and deep inner motive for having gone to war, means that he doesn't have a base or center from which to make sense of his blindness, and he becomes bitter and filled with self-pity.

Humphrey Bogart's film image

The Maltese Falcon appeared in 1941. In this movie Bogart played a loner and a cynic who was was a good guy, but just barely. It seems that Hal Wallis, at least in part, chose Bogart to play Rick because of the success of the Maltese Falcon. However, Bogart's usual role had always been a gangster, and it must have been that Bogart = Gangster was fixed in the mind of movie going fans.

There are many different kinds of gangsters. I assume the reader of this article will be familiar with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney and George Raft and Paul Muni. Each of these actors played gangsters, but each of the gangsters they played had wildly different personalities. Thinking psychologically, gangsters are people, and so there are as many types of gangsters as there are gangsters. That is, gangsters are individuals.

However, for the purpose of this article, I divide gangsters into social and anti-social. All gangsters go up against society and the legal system, but, even so, many of the them are quite social. The Mafia, for example, apparently sees itself as family based. And there are gangs, and these gangs have members and leaders. It is hard to think of Edward G. Robinson's characters without a gang, and, though Bogart played gangsters who were in gangs and even led them, it is difficult for me to think of these characters as anything but loners.

My image of a typical Bogart character is of an outsider to the gang; as a gang were gangsters in relation to society, the typical Bogart character was a gangster in relation to the gangs. He was treacherous, tricky, and touchy. He was a double crosser of the double crossers. He didn't knock off other gangsters to take over their gang but because he couldn't get along with anyone. He would not have been a good actor for a role in a modern Mafia movie. He was not a family man. He didn't like social gatherings, even family gatherings. He was too awkward to fit in. He was a true introvert.

He did not fall away from society because of some slight or injustice (like Paul Muni in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang). He wasn't outside society because he was born outside, into a rough environment, growing up with rough family or friends. He didn't long to be in society or to be recognized by society. He wasn't trying to make enough money or a big enough name to be noticed or admired. The typical Bogart character didn't want to be in society and wouldn't join even if wanted and invited.

This character isn't crazy or sociopathic or sadistic. He's bad but not evil. He kills, often out of anger and often for paranoid reasons, but he isn't the type who really enjoys killing.

And he's not totally evil. In High Sierra he spends a lot of money and effort to help a crippled girl who has touched his heart. He helps from a personal feeling, not from some higher ideal. He even falls in love with her, and she has to tell him she never saw him in this light. This is a typical situation for Bogart's characters: If he is touched and feels love, it isn't returned. He winds up hurt and more alone than ever.

What drove the typical Bogart gangster character? He wanted money, but that's not the whole picture. He wanted respect and recognition, but that's only part of it. It's not a "dame" he's after. It's not to support a family. It seems as if some bitter hurt feeling, some deep, deep anger underlies any other motive he might have. He seems to me like caged animal anger, like a cornered and frightened rattlesnake.

But this doesn't catch it either. He is hurt and helpless and hopeless, even if he wins, but it's not any one person who let him done, and it's not society as a whole. It's almost as if society doesn't exist, and other people barely exist. He's scratching to get something, but it's very, very primitive; it's something everyone else has and that they got long ago; it's as if is trying to get some sort of self-esteem that everyone else is born with but that he never had and can't get and knows he can't get.

He has no real love, because you have to like yourself, at least a little, to love. He isn't evil, because you have to understand and think and compare your options to be good or evil. Animals aren't evil; they don't make choices that can be good or evil.

From another angle, Bogart's characters remind me of the Greek figure, Odysseus, as described to us by our high-school English teacher, Mr. Trett. In the Iliad, Achilles is an hero and looks like one. Homer describes him as "swift-footed," "lion-hearted," "like to the gods," shepherd of the people." In fact, everything in the Iliad appears just the way it is — except for, according to Mr. Trett, Odysseus who isn't what he looks like. His epithets are "resourceful, ..., man of twists and turns," tactician," "cunning", "man of pain," "hotheaded," "great teller of tales," among others (thanks to the Wikipedia article on Homeric epithets). According to Mr. Trett, we never know quite what Odysseus wants. He spends years trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, but, when he finally gets there at the end of the Odyssey, he leaves again. Odysseus is a little piece of individuality and freedom and disorder inserted into the Iliad.

So why Bogart in Casablanca?

If, somehow, we had both Achilles and Odysseus as patient in a psychology practice, we couldn't use the same tactics to help them both.

Similarly, if we were film directors needing actors to play Achilles and Odysseus, we wouldn't choose the same type of actor for both roles.

For Achilles we might choose a John Wayne or a Ronald Reagan.In this vein, it's not surprising that, in the movies he starred in during World War II, John Wayne played soldiers and that Ronald Reagan played a chaplain in For God and Country, one of the films he made for the Army. These films were aimed at a certain type of person.

But not all young men in 1942 America would have been inspired by the characters it was natural for John Wayne or Ronald Reagan to play. There would have been many men who did not feel they were part of society and who would not have been touched by the words "God" and "country." These men might have been intellectuals or artists, or they may just not have fit into society for one reason or another. And the question for the Department of War would be: How do we motivate these men to fight? And this is a psychological question.

Seen from this angle, it would make sense to hire an Odysseus type rather than an Achilles type — to attract Odysseus type men. "Casablanca" would have been an Odyssey type film with Rick being an Odysseus type hero or anti-hero, a "man of pain," a "cunning" man, an "resourceful" man, a man of "twists and turns."

Though Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney (and George Raft) were not types to play heroes of God and country, they might be right for the part of Rick. However, it seems to me, they aren't. The characters of each of these men strike me as social types with motives we can all understand. I can see Cagney enlisting in the Army because of social pressure or for his mother or "kid" brother or sister or out of a sense of patriotism. I have no trouble imagining Edward G. Robinson (if he were a little younger) joining because he is "a sap for some dame" or for the love of a son or maybe because some one appealed to his vanity by promising him the rank of Major if he would join. Maybe Raft would join and wind up making money in some Black Market deal.

To put all this in another way, I can see, in my imagination, the typical character of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and George Raft all joining the U.S. Army. Each might join for a different reason, but their motives for joining could be found on our list of eleven motives. But I can't see the typical character of Humphrey Bogart joining for any of the eleven reasons. He was not a patriot, not a political or religious idealistic, not a joiner, not interested in helping loved ones or the world, not interested in maintaining a good public (or self) image, not interested in finding a home in the Armed Services, not looking for adventure, and so on.

Casablanca, in the film, is, basically, an outlaw city. It is "Gangsterland." It is outside the law, outside the civilized world, outside society. A normal person living in the 1942 United States wouldn't be comfortable there. It would feel like a lawless jungle. But a gangster would fit and could thrive as does Rick with his café/saloon. He knows how to take care of himself and that's the only person he wants to take care of. He is a dark person thriving in a dark world, and he is thriving because he is dark, as dark as anyone. He doesn't need a legal system to protect him.

And it is in this imaginary world without law that we find what, to me, is the most compelling and telling scene in the film, the famous Marseillaise scene. As everyone who has seen the movie will remember, the German soldiers start singing a German song, Die Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), and they are beginning to get into it, and it seems to be lifting their spirits. Rick comes to the top of the stairs and stops and watches and listens. Victor Laszlo also comes to the top of the stairs and stands by Rick. He watches for a second and then marches stridently down the stairs and over to the café band and says, "Play the Marseillaise!" The hesitate. He says, "Play it!" The band leader looks up to Rick who nods, "Yes." The playing of the Marseillaise begins, and its sound grows louder and louder as the French ex-patriots join in and sing with the band. The German song is drowned out, and the Germans stop signing. In response, Major Strasser orders Rick's café closed.

And it is in this scene that, in my mind, we see the essence of why Rick will eventually fighting the Nazis (as we find out at the end of the film). It's not for love of country or for others or for an idea or because his buddies are joining to fight: It's because he doesn't want to be told what he can and can't sing! Singing is feeling and emotion, and, in this scene, Rick sees, and the young American men watching see and feel, what it is like for someone to stop you from feeling what you feel and from expressing it.

Rick doesn't fight for a reason (for people like him there are no reasons good enough to put you at risk of dying); his fighting is a reaction to the oppression of his soul. Let's say he did go to fight and wound up alone in some trench and considered surrendering. It is easy to imagine him saying to himself, "Never! I can't surrender! I'd rather die!" There is no life for him without his heart.

And there's more, because he has lost his livelihood also. Others might have given in and allowed the Germans to set the feeling tone for their café, but this was not an option for Rick, given the type of person he was.

And, if we add that it is the Germans who are keeping Rick from his love, Ilsa, the picture is complete. It is because of the Germans that Ilsa must stay with Victor. It is because of them that he must make her go with Victor even though, it turns out, she wants to stay with him. He is not the type to move on to another love. He has opened himself, and, in the film, the Germans have crushed him. To love is to allow oneself to become vulnerable and weak, which allows the possibility of heavenly experiences. In taking away his love, in stepping on his vulnerability, they have taken away any chance he has for Heaven on earth. Not every man is looking for or even hoping for Heaven on earth, but Rick seems to be. When the possibility is taken away, the goal of life will be squashed, and his nature will react. His nature is what is fighting.

Not everyone would have been interested in Rick's problems, but there probably was a certain type of man who, after seeing Casablanca, would suddenly "see something" they hadn't realized. And this realization might become one factor of many that could "make" a certain type of man go to war.

And once the Bogart type gangster starts fighting, he may very well be able to figure out some way to win, and he never will give up until he does.

3 short comments

1) I repeat something that probably doesn't need repeating: Everything I have written is my take, my understanding (as of the time of writing), and readers who think about the question of "Why Bogart to play Rick?" will find that they will each have their own answer.

2) Another reminder may not be necessary is that the characters in a movie are not people. Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft, Paul Muni, and Humphrey Bogart were real people. Humphrey Bogart was not Rick. Each of these men, like all people, contained many characters (moods, thoughts, values) in them. The men John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, like all of us, would have had a side of them that was like Rick. Who knows? — In real life John Wayne might have been more like Rick than Humphrey Bogart.

Finally, we all have a side of us that is like Rick. During World War II, every man watching Casablanca would have something inside touched by the film.

3) To do anything big and difficult and that requires work over time, such as fighting in a war, a deep commitment from the whole self is required. Maybe nothing is total, but the more of a person involved, the more chances the person will try hard and not give up. It is easy to say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" but what if a tough man doesn't care about getting going? So the more of a man that is committed, the more whatever toughness there is in him will line up in the line of the commitment. If all real men have a Rick inside, then, if the Rick part of them joins in a project, the chance of success is greater. So even for men who were not Rick types, who were more Reagan or Wayne or Cagney types, if the Rick part of them could be enlisted, this would have been good for the war effort.