Why Rick from Casablanca Is a Jerk
Last night, I watched Casablanca for the first time. While I greatly enjoyed the movie, with its snappy pacing and period costumes, which had men who were men and women who were women and Frenchmen who were French, something about it irked me greatly.
The movie protagonist, Rick Blaine, is a jerk.
When we are first introduced to Rick, the movie goes to great depths to paint him as a well-liked public figure in Casablanca. We see countless patrons offer him drinks, all of which he rejects, and a beautiful woman in tears because he doesn’t return her affections. Everybody likes Rick. Everybody goes to Rick’s. Rick is the center around which the society of Casablanca revolves. As Police Captain Louis Renault describes, Rick is precisely the kind of man that, if the captain were a woman, he would be in love with.
Yet despite his popularity, Rick is also shown as selfish. In Rick’s words, however, he is simply neutral, one of the many rules he’s set up for himself—including no drinking with the customers. When a crook is arrested in his clubhouse for selling illegal transit papers, Rick ignores the man’s pleas and says that he sticks his neck out for no one. The displeasure of the clientele is only fleeting, and within minutes he is once again.
Eventually we meet Ilsa, the woman he believed loved him back and abandoned him in Paris. When she later returns in an attempt to give Rick closure, he verbally abuses her and derails the conversation with a pointless anecdote as she tries to explain why she left him. Then, he strips her of any agency by demanding if she left him for another man.
Although we find out that in a sense, she did leave him for another man, the other man was her husband, to whom she was already married before meeting Rick. However, Rick’s accusation is belittling and highly misogynistic. It suggests that Ilsa can only exist as the companion of a man and that her actions are influenced by the presence of men. He does not accept the possibility that she left him for reasons unrelated to other men, despite her parting message that she loved him. While his accusation seems proven by her marriage to Laszlo, the assumption that Ilsa simply drifts from man to man is still sexist and offensive.
Rick: Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or - aren’t you the kind that tells?
Although another man was involved, Ilsa left Rick because that’s what she believed a good person should do. She chose to honor the vows she’d made before she met the love of her life, knowing that she would be miserable as a result. She sacrificed their love, and she tried to spare Rick the pain of knowledge.
Even worse is that Ilsa is not given a chance until later on to communicate her story, and she is forced to pull a gun on Rick to do so. Other viewers may agree that Ilsa is not very good at communication throughout the film, but that does not excuse Rick from shutting down her attempts.
I’ve heard people claim that Ilsa should have been honest about her marital status to Rick in her goodbye note. I can’t run away with you because my presumed-dead husband is actually still alive. Perhaps she should have, but judging from Rick’s behavior, he would not have reacted well to the news. I strongly suspect his reaction would have been “Fuck your ‘no questions’ rule!”
I get it though. Rick had had his heart broken by a girl who’d left without explanation and a flimsy goodbye. He doesn’t owe Ilsa anything. He’s not obligated to be considerate of her feelings. Does it really matter why she left him, when reality is that she did?
But hurt feelings does not exonerate his willingness to let Victor Laszlo die in Casablanca. While there are plenty of refugees waiting to escape to the United States, Victor Laszlo is the only one whose life is under immediate threat. The Nazis have vowed to never let him leave Casablanca and to throw him back into a concentration camp. Knowing that a man’s life is in danger, and with it the resistance against the Nazis, Rick still refuses to give Laszlo the transit papers, and while he originally argues neutrality, he later tells Laszlo to ask his wife for the reason.
Rick is so embittered by his relationship with Ilsa that he wants her husband and her to die in Casablanca. Try as he may to hide it under the guise of “neutrality”, Ilsa sees through his bullshit and calls him out on it.
You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you? With so much at stake, all you can think of is your own feelings. One woman has hurt you, and you take revenge on the rest of the world. You’re a, you’re a coward, and a weakling.
I bet no one has ever called Rick out on his martyr act before. Only Sam knows what transpired in Paris, but although he is very fond of Rick, he is clearly not on equal with the man who employs him and forbade him from playing a song ever again. But Ilsa lays out the ridiculous self-centered delusion that Rick has built up since Paris. He has allowed the heartache caused by one woman to mutate into a general distaste with the world. He is willing to let the world burn because he is personally unhappy. He is unwilling to fight for anything. He is inferior to Victor Laszlo.
But the real turning point comes later, when Ilsa is unable to shoot Rick. Even with her husband’s life and the resistance at stake, her love for the man she knew in Paris triumphs, and she confesses. This is when Rick truly changes his mind.
Even with the gun aimed at him, Rick refused to give her the transit papers. Rick would rather push Ilsa to murder, either knowing she could never pull the trigger or to use his death to haunt her for the rest of her life. But his attitude changes when Ilsa admits that she never stopped loving him and that she still loves him.
Because he’s won.
He’s won the battle for Ilsa’s affections. No matter what happens, regardless of what has happened, he’s the one that Ilsa loves. The world may dismiss him in comparison to Victor Laszlo, the famous resistance leader who’s willing to lay down his life to fight the Nazis, but Ilsa loves him and not Victor. Even if Ilsa will spend the rest of her life with another man, she will spend that life pining for Rick, and Victor will only receive a secondhand love from her.
Victor Laszlo: I know a good deal more about you than you suspect. I know, for instance, that you’re in love with a woman. It is perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman. The first evening I came to this café, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame, I - I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won’t give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor, to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.
Rick: You love her that much?
Victor Laszlo: Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.
This is Rick’s opportunity to prove that he loves Ilsa more than Victor. Victor loves Ilsa so much, he will never leave her behind. But Rick loves Ilsa so much, he’ll give her up. He now makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his chance of happiness and the woman he loves so that she’ll be safe in the America, supporting the man who will save the world. This is Rick’s choice, not Ilsa’s.
Even his final “confession” to Laszlo, that Ilsa pretended to still be in love with Rick in order to secure the transit papers for her husband, is part of his final sacrifice. Captain Renault assumes it was a fairy tale to convince Ilsa he didn’t love her—which she knew was a lie—but Rick knew that Ilsa would not believe his fake confession. It was a declaration of his sacrifice. Their roles have been switched since he received her note on the train platform in Paris. Back then, she sacrificed their romance to protect him from the emotional pain, and now he’s making the same sacrifice. He is sending her away with the pretense that they do not love each other. Whether Victor believed the confession is irrelevant—if he does, it cements Rick’s sacrifice; if not, his relationship with Ilsa will never be the same.
In the end, Rick did the right thing—he gave up the transit papers and helped Victor Laszlo out of Casablanca, at great personal risk. But he didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do. Rick did the right thing because it meant that he’d won in some one-sided competition against Victor Laszlo in his head. It satisfied his damaged male ego to know that in this one thing, he was better than the husband of the woman he loved. Victor Laszlo can only continue to be a great man because Rick allowed him to continue onwards with Ilsa at his side, making the sacrifice that Victor never will make. Rick’s wounded pride is stroked knowing that in Ilsa’s eyes, he’s more important than an internationally lauded hero.
Rick tells Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we’d lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” No. Ilsa always had Paris, until she came to Casablanca. Despite their unfortunate parting, Ilsa had carried warm memories of their romance with her and hoped that he the same, until she saw the man that Rick had become. “Last night I saw what has happened to you. The Rick I knew in Paris, I could tell him. He would understand. But the one who looked at me with such hatred….” But that doesn’t matter to Rick. The memory of Paris is only valid now that he knows Ilsa never stopped loving him, and that’s all that matters. It means that all those years ago, even when Ilsa left him, he’d already won.