#3 — Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
I’d seen Casablanca many, many times before I took note of the moment in which Humphrey Bogart resets an upended little aperitif glass. It arrives in the film right after Ugarte–the shifty opportunist played by the era’s embodiment of shiftiness, the incomparable Peter Lorre–has been noisily arrested by the local authorities, disrupting the celebratory atmosphere within the club owned and operated by Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine. He’s addressing the gathered cavorters, startled and silenced by the scene that’s played out before them. He tells them everything’s fine, everything’s under control, to go on enjoying their evening. As he’s speaking, he looks down and spies the small glass. Casually, he reaches down and puts it right, the perfect visual accompaniment for the scene. He’s restoring order in his carefully constructed retreat from the geopolitical anguish of the outside world, right down to the glassware.
Whether or not this offhand detail is an invention of Bogart’s is immaterial. It’s representative of the thoroughness he brings to his work as Rick Blaine, the depth of understanding he demonstrates for this character who keeps his inner conflicts buried deep. Bogart sometimes gets dismissed as more icon than actor, an underestimation that’s the natural side effect of the era in which he worked. Developing a quickly identifiable, highly transferable persona was more valued than disappearing into roles. Watching the best actors of old Hollywood often amounts to watching master craftspeople explore variations on a well-established theme. Those who prospered didn’t find those starkly drawn parameters limiting. Quite the contrary, they had a foundation, a starting point. From there they could explore interesting angles and play upon expectations.
Bogart was the tough guy. The guy with with a gun and a necktie and a smart remark at the ready. There was probably a fedora and a cigarette too. Rick Blaine might have a white suit coat and a certain suave quality, but he also had the authority that Bogart automatically brought. He’s a disinterested spectator when the lawmen claim Ugarte, but there’s the promise that he has the capability to completely take charge if needed, or, more accurately, if he decides on it. There are vestiges of it in the way he orchestrates matters inside his club. He’ll even determine where the roulette ball lands when doing so suits him. He’s not much interested in the tumult outside of his club, though, as evidenced by the scene immediately following Ugarte’s arrest. He sits down with visiting Nazi officers and responds coolly and calmly to every provocation they toss his way. A dossier on his own history provokes nothing more than a perfectly timed joke, and the closest he comes to pushing back at their needling is noting that there are portions of New York City that may be tough enough to repel every the force of an invading army. In other performances, Bogart can sometimes seem like he’s reciting dialogue, the confident retorts clearly coming off the page of a script. In Casablanca, each remark seems like it was conjured up in the moment. Bogart cues this in the beginning of the scene with a little upward glance at the first question, as if he’s thinking about how he’ll handle this touchy moment before barreling forward with self-assured deflections of the japes being lobbed at him across his own table. He positions himself as an apolitical diplomat–truly, as the Casablanca police chief Louis Renault notes in slightly different context, a citizen of the world rather than someone who has chosen a side–but he’s not going to pushed around in his own gin joint, either.
Of course, there’s a tragic romance at the heart of Casablanca, and that’s what gives Bogart the chance to really stretch. A simple, accurate description is that he gets a chance to show vulnerability when the long lost love played by Ingrid Bergman walks back into his life. Her return sends him reeling, banging the table in sorrow as he famously demands to hear the song that once served as the shorthand illustration of their bond. More crucial to the dramatic success of the film and the richness of Bogart’s performance, her return also revives him, reconnects him to the grand rebel he once was. In the last portion of the film, Rick Blaine himself is acting, playing the lovelorn fool grasping for one more chance at happiness when, in actuality, he has no such intentions. Instead, he’s rediscovered something far more personal and vital: his own sense of purpose. In one of the most famous scenes in all of movie history, Bogart stares down Bergman on an airport tarmac and sends her away from him. He doesn’t do so with a hint of regret or forced nobility. After all, he is, as he explains, no good at being noble. Instead, the monologue is delivered with decisiveness. He wasn’t given back the romance he’d been pining for, some rejuvenation of past affections to fill a void. He was instead given back himself, a far more worthy prize. On the surface, according to the norms of Hollywood storytelling, the scene calls for a hint of the maudlin. Bogart plays it instead as a moment of triumph, of personal assurance. His character has changed dramatically from the man in the earliest scenes, yet he is fully recognizable as the same person by virtue of this resounding note. The whole closing sequence of Casablanca has an almost iconic status in American cinema. That obscures the craftiness of Bogart’s choices and the boldness of his acting in these moments, and yet those are the very things that led it to its exalted status in the first place.