It should be clear to anyone who’s looked at the title or logo of this blog that I think Casablanca is a pretty great movie, but for whatever reason I’ve never written about it before. There’s a lot to say, so instead of trying to look at it holistically, let’s get extremely specific, and look at Rick Blaine’s establishing character moment.
Establishing character moments, for those unfamiliar with the term, are exactly what they sound like: they’re moments that establish a character. There are great ones (Paul Newman reusing a coffee filter in Harper), shitty ones (Superman whining about his media portrayal and tub-jumping Lois in Batman v Superman), and ones that are somewhere in between (most of them). They can come at any point in a story, though in general the sooner the better. Casablanca is such a densely written film that almost any scene in the first act could be taken in a vacuum as an establishing character moment, and every major character in the film gets a great one, but for now let’s just look at Rick’s first appearance and how much it tells us.
Just in those first thirty seconds- before he even speaks- how much do we learn about Rick? We know instantly he’s in charge and respected from the way the croupier and the doorman interact with him. We also know that he’s not a stuffy business-type; he endorses his checks with “OK – Rick” not “valid” or “verified” or anything like that. We see an empty glass- and we know it’s relatively early- so we know he’s a drinker. He’s sitting alone, working hard on a chess problem, so we know he’s thinker, too. He’s smoking, too, but all that really tells us is that he’s in a movie from the 1940s.
Even in those early seconds, though, there’s more. Watch Bogart’s body language; he couldn’t care less about the check he just endorsed, but he’s completely engrossed in the chess game- this will be a through-line for his character for the rest of the movie, willingly pissing away money at every turn but obsessed with outthinking whatever bad situation he’s put into. It's also telling that Rick is playing himself; not only is that the fundamental base of his character conflict for most of the movie, it also tells us, right off, that only Rick is really a match for Rick.
Next we get his interaction with the German banker. Rick gets involved almost immediately, not leaving his doorman to deal with him, even though Abdul clearly could; Rick is a man who can’t help but get involved. He’s also a man of principle, no matter how much he protests to the contrary, banning the German banker. We also get a window into what Rick values: he knows Ugarte, even if he might not respect him, and lets him in without blinking, but he’s completely unimpressed by the German’s high standing or fortune. “You’re lucky the bar’s open to you,” he says with veiled menace, sending the banker packing, and showing us both that Rick’s a little bit of a tough guy, and that he is not an active idealist- he may not like the banker, and certainly won’t give him a chance to get any richer, but he’ll still take his money. This is the first of several times in this short scene Rick will pay lip service to the myth of his own neutrality, but we can already tell he’s full of it.
In the next thirty seconds, we get his first exchange with Ugarte, where we find out that just because he knows/tolerates someone doesn’t mean he respects them. He’s also an intensely private person, shooting down Ugarte’s innocent smalltalk not because he hates smalltalk- we know from some of his later interactions in the movie he rather enjoys trading quips- but because of the personal nature of Ugarte’s jokes. Again, watch Bogart’s body language as Ugarte continues speaking to him; he slowly shifts from indifferent to outright bullying, leaning into Ugarte’s space and staring him down. He then shows him his back and heads back to his table to resume his chess game; mark Ugarte’s hurt, desperate face when he does. We don’t know that Ugarte’s a criminal yet, but when we do this scene has added heft; even the crooks of Casablanca look up to Rick, and depend on him. This is an important man of power with allegiance neither to Germany nor traditional morality; this is a man, we already know, who claims allegiance only to himself... although we also already know he’s lying.
Ugarte follows him, and we get even more great character work. Rick doesn’t get rid of Ugarte, but he doesn’t engage, either. He tolerates him. We also have Rick’s cynicism explicitly spelled out for us by Ugarte, and it’s followed immediately by a reminder of Rick’s sense of self-defined morality: “I don’t mind a parasite, I object to a cut rate one.” Rick doesn't mind if you're a criminal, but he sure hates phonies. This whole exchange is full of more great non-verbal work from Bogart, as he starts off indifferent to the morbid current event of the dead couriers and Ugarte’s attempts to make the conversation about himself, but comes to life when he gets a chance to expose Ugarte’s hypocrisy (“For a price, Ugarte, for a price.”). Rick hates hypocrisy, and especially pretensions of righteousness, and he’s not going to let Ugarte claim nobility without comment. After the moment passes, he resumes his weary indifference but he’s already shown us a flash of the chivalric code he’s got buried deep inside, and once again he’s shown us a clear difference between what he’s involved in by chance- Ugarte’s life, the business of running a casino- and what really matters to him- problems of the mind, and his own personal ethics.
As the scene goes on, we get a feel for Rick’s biting sense of humor, and Ugarte tells us something important about him without meaning to. “Just because you despise me, you’re the only one I trust.” As much as he may be deluding himself about his own idealism, Rick is no phony; he wears his opinions on his sleeve- and much of the drama of the second and third act is when he has to try and do otherwise- and it makes him trustworthy, to both hero and villain alike. Victor Lazlo will eventually conclude the same thing about him. Even Strasser trusts him more than he should.
Finally, Rick agrees, reluctantly, to help Ugarte, because deep down Rick wants to help people, and especially people who want to escape- and once again, this is a behavior that will recur throughout the movie. He puts conditions on his help, and hems and haws, but he still takes the letters. Then, in the final moments of the scene, Rick realizes that Ugarte killed the couriers for the letters and can’t help but once again point out Ugarte’s hypocrisy; the look of utter contempt on Bogart’s face in that moment tells us exactly who the hero of the movie is, in case we’d missed the first fifty clues. Ugarte sees himself as the hero of this story because he’s ignoring his own villainous actions; Rick recognizes this in an instant, but the irony is that what Rick doesn’t see- and what we do- is that he’s the exact opposite; Rick sees himself as a coward and a failure because he’s blind to his own heroism. He won’t know that until the end of the movie, but after just over three minutes with him, we completely understand.