The awkward off-camera moment at the end of ‘Casablanca’

casablanca

The scene is so famous, a ninja turtle quotes it. It is the scene at the end of Casablanca, that scene everyone knows, even if they haven’t seen Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film about a Norwegian woman guillotining hearts in North Africa during World War II.

Rick, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo are standing on a foggy, Moroccan tarmac. Laszlo has two letters of transit, which allow him and a date to move unmolested about Nazi-controlled Europe. Ilsa loves Rick and Rick loves Ilsa, but Ilsa is married to Laszlo, who, despite being a major figure in an underground resistance and a concentration camp escapee, isn’t all that dashing. Rick tells Ilsa to get on the plane with that hard-boiled speech about regret — “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…” —  and Ilsa gets on the plane, which will take her and her freedom-fighting Czech husband to Lisbon and away from German occupation.

This is the scene everyone knows, including Michelangelo, an anthropomorphic teenage reptile that wears an orange bandanna, fights crime and dances with Vanilla Ice. It is an iconic scene with atmosphere, heartbreak and fedoras. But there is a scene after that scene. It is not in the movie and it shouldn’t be in the movie because it would ruin the movie. But it is a scene I’ve always thought about: Ilsa and Laszlo are sitting on that plane to Lisbon. They sit in silence, each questioning the viability of a marriage intact only because a bolder man said, “Get on the plane.” At some point, this needs to be addressed.

Laszlo knows Rick loves Ilsa. He is aware that something, probably adulterous, happened in Paris. But Laszlo, making what is always a good decision for men, opts not to ask Ilsa about her past sexual achievement. In her defense, she thought Laszlo was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. And Ilsa, being young, pretty, and in France, exercises what appears to be a fetish for revolutionaries and moves on to Rick, a man who “once ran guns to Ethiopia.”

You want Rick to win. He drinks heavily, plays chess and says clever things. When someone asks him, “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick replies, “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” Rick is that special, homogeneous mix of gruffly strong and softy-sweetheart vulnerable. Comparatively, Victor Laszlo is as charismatic as burlap underpants.

It’s unclear what exactly Laszlo does as a member of the underground resistance but his most notable on-screen act of sedition is leading a bar in the French national anthem to defeat a detachment of Nazi officers in a sing-off. Laszlo also cuts his arm running from the cops at a secret meeting of the underground resistance, Casablanca chapter. This is attended by at least one other person: a 60-something-year-old portly waiter who is more likely to lose a limb to diabetes than a combat wound. Most of the time, Laszlo just stands up real straight and has great hair. You want Rick to win — and Rick does win. Kind of.

Poaching, as it applies to relationships, is the act of taking, in a familiar way, an affiliated male or female. Rick is hunting on the king’s land. But Rick’s kill isn’t just physical; it’s an emotional poach. Ilsa loves him. She tells him that and that she will never be able to leave him again, and, eventually, after pointing the mean end of a pistol at him in a dramatic attempt to save Laszlo and probably convince herself that she loves the feckless Czech, she decides not to. Ilsa is staying with Rick. The letters of transit — which Rick acquires serendipitously after some Frenchmen arrest Peter Lorre — are to go to Laszlo, much-coveted by the Nazis, and facilitate his escape from purgatorial Casablanca.

Ilsa is going with Rick, still a bit unstable (and drunk) from the first breakup. Laszlo, perhaps heartbroken (he doesn’t seem too bothered by Ilsa’s prolonged emotional dalliance), is going to Portugal to save the world from Major Strasser and the Third Reich.

Ilsa Lund then slaughters the hearts of two men.

First, there is Rick, whom she leaves standing at a rainy train station after he proposes marriage. Her excuse isn’t terrible: Her husband isn’t really dead. But she owes Rick more than a note. She never tells him she’s married and she never tells him her husband is (to her knowledge) no longer living. It’s explained that she can’t because of Laszlo’s freedom-fighting hobby, but she doesn’t have to say who he is or what he does. For example: “Rick, I’m a widow. My husband died [insert fictional cause of death here]. His name was Victor; he worked in sales [or another fictional profession that did not involve subverting fascism].”

Then there’s Laszlo. He knows something is askew between Rick and Ilsa. He knows Rick loves her. It is unclear if he knows Ilsa loves Rick but there are enough hints that he should — like that she cries her way to the airplane, an airplane she has no intention of boarding. She was staying with Rick. And even though Rick tells Laszlo that Ilsa’s feelings are fake — part of an emotional ruse to get the transit letters from Rick — Laszlo has to know it’s a lie.

There is a scene after Laszlo goes to Rick to ask for the letters of transit. Laszlo offers 200,000 francs but Rick says no. “Ask your wife,” he says. Laszlo later asks Ilsa what happened between her and Rick: “Is there anything you wish to tell me?” She says, “No, there isn’t.”

Laszlo and Ilsa are staying together to win World War II and only one of them knows it. I like to think that after several minutes of awkward, awkward quiet, Laszlo, lighting a cigarette and furiously tired of being manipulated, turns to a red-eyed and wet-cheeked Ilsa and just says, “So, about this Rick…”

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