By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – The actress Lauren Bacall once affectionately called her husband Humphrey Bogart “the ugliest handsome man you’ve ever seen.”
As I sit in a movie theater watching a special 75th anniversary screening of the Bogart classic “Casablanca,” I realize how apt Bacall’s description was.
In many ways, Bogart was the most unlikely of screen idols.
A slight man with an oversized head who spoke with a slight lisp and had a face almost skeletal in structure, by all common reckoning he shouldn’t have been able to radiate the force he did.
But he did.
In this, the most star-making of his many complex and powerful performances, he did more than own the screen. He created a character that set a code for masculine conduct that lasted for at least two generations.
The movie’s plot is familiar, a tale of two pining lovers – Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa – separated by fate and circumstance in a world “gone crazy,” one plunged into the maelstrom of a global war. The tension in their story is as old as life itself, the conflict between desire and duty.
Bogart’s Rick is a reluctant hero. At the beginning of the film, he is a wounded man. To the outward world, he is cool and confident, a graceful, self-assured figure in an immaculate white dinner jacket. In private, he nurses his wounds, bathing them in bourbon to the tune of a tinkling piano.
Rick’s narrative arc is the movie’s point. As the plot propels itself forward, Rick rediscovers his best self, remembering his responsibilities to others and to the world around him as he sacrifices the thing he wants most – a life with Ilsa – so he and she can serve the greater good.
There are, to be sure, moments that now seem absurd.
As I watch the scene in which the lovers have reconciled, temporarily, and Bergman’s Ilsa says to Bogart’s Rick that she feels so overwhelmed that he will have “think for both of us,” I try to imagine a circumstance in which my wife, my daughter or any other woman I respect would say such a thing to a man.
I cannot conjure up a single plane of reality in which that might occur.
Nor would I want it to.
Other parts of the Bogart/Rick code, though, still resonate.
Part of that code is the implied assertion that a man’s character should be defined and revealed through his conduct. That what he feels should be made clear by what he does, how he cares for those around him, what he defends, what he resists and where he stands when things that matter are at stake.
And some of that code also can be found in what a man holds back, the taciturn refusal to display one’s wounds, which is an act of faith that there can be and is dignity in owning one’s vulnerabilities and disappointments without reveling in them.
We all hurt at times, but we all have to find ways to keep going.
We owe that much not just to those around us, but to our best selves.
The film’s final scene is justly famous. In it, Bogart’s Rick and the superb Claude Rains’ Capt. Renault, having resolved to return to the world of conflict, stride into the fog, two small figures who seem to grow in stature even as they disappear into the mists, two men ennobled by their determination to try to make moral sense of a world enshrouded by chaos and malice.
The movie’s message – that we should focus not just on what we are owed but also on what we owe others and the world around us – is as pertinent today as it was in 1942.
As the song “Casablanca” made famous makes clear, it’s still “a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.”
Because we still live in a world where “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.