Casablanca stands as some kind of apex of studio film-making in the classic Hollywood era. Made in 1942, post-Pearl Harbour, it is an uncompromising war film with surprisingly reflexive moral ambiguity, and an even more uncompromising love story that eschews what was, and is, typical of this material, favouring pragmatism to doe-eyed sentiment. It stands as a peak in the careers of director Michael Curtiz, and stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who had exceptional careers anyway. It has been canonised, exalted, elevated, venerated; and, hey, it’s pretty good too.
Of course, it has passed into the annals of popular culture, fated to be referenced and quoted forevermore, often by people who haven’t seen it, and dissected and examined forevermore also, hopefully by people who have. Of all the classic pieces of dialogue in this film, “here’s looking at you, kid” is perhaps the most pertinent, the most vague, and yet the most impactful.
A savvy piece of improv on Bogart’s part, it occurs at the end of a speech his character, Rick, is giving to his former lover Ilsa (Bergman), about why she should get on a plane with her husband, instead of staying to help Rick, whom she really loves. Rick, too, loves Ilsa, but he loves her so much that he cannot bear to see her come to harm, which he views as an inevitability if she sticks around him as he attempts to do good work in the war. In a sense, this scene represents Rick falling on his sword, contextualising the triviality of their love affair (“don’t amount to a hill of beans”) in the wider conflict around them.
The scene crystallises their characters effervescently. Rick is immediately seen as strong-willed, noble, selfless, and in love. Ilsa is seen also as strong-willed, compassionate, conflicted, and yet sure she must be with Rick. The scene plays largely as it would in theatre, with the two actors facing each other, half their heads obscured from the audience. As we observe their eyes boring into each other, in the few inches between their heads we can see the complete span of an entire doomed love affair. They do not touch each other, except at the end, when Rick sees her start to cry, and pushes her face up gently by the base of her chin, looks into her eyes, and delivers the line “here’s looking at you, kid”.
What does it mean? It means that Rick will forever be looking after Ilsa, even if they never see each other again. It means that he will never forget her; it is an acknowledgement, ultimately, of her, and thus of them. But above all, it sounds right, and it fits. Look at the arrangement of the scene; there is a third player there, Louis (Claude Rains), Rick’s closest friend, is right there looking at them, but we forget him in the intensity of their pairing, and the way the camera zooms in and ogles them, isolating them.
To further the isolation; fog has descended all around them; there is, in fact, only them in this moment, looking at each other. They stand, immemorial, together, perhaps for the last time. The symbolism of this final act is subtle but beautiful; as Ilsa begins to fall down, Rick picks her up and puts her in place. He does so gently, but assuredly. Rick knows what’s best for Ilsa, even if she doesn’t. The only other visual object in the frame is a car, on Ilsa’s side; a tragic totem, indicating that she is the one who has to leave, who will be leaving.
Sometimes, films pass into the halls of greatness, and it is often easy to forget how accessible they are on an everyday level. This is an accessible film, and this scene, with its subtlety and deep wells of emotion, encapsulates that. I’ve always had a particular soft-spot for this film, but isolating the line “here’s looking at you, kid” has allowed me to realise the qualities of this film that make it so good; its sincerity. Not once does the film succumb to cheap sentiment, or unearned emotional payoffs. It means everything it conveys. The line singlehandedly presents the neverending depths of Rick’s love, and the way the film is constructed, the way Rick delivers it, the way Ilsa receives it, all allow the viewer to buy into this.
This is a film we will, hopefully, never stop looking at.