A checkmate in Casablanca

Tuesday, 12 February 2008 — 3:36am | Board games, Casablanca, Film

With the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on the horizon, it seems highly appropriate to invoke Blaine’s Theorem and in doing so, say a few words about love, chess, and the greatest motion picture of all time and all time yet to come.

Casablanca is one of those films that nobody really falls in love with the first time through, even if they think otherwise. Most of its enduring power emanates from multiple viewings, when the film truly demonstrates its uncanny ability to resonate with almost every conceivable romantic trauma, especially those of a triangular geometry (which is to say, practically all of them). You go through life-as-such and every time, there’s always a handful of scenes that you’ll never look at in the same way again.

I haven’t watched the film in months—I only pull it out once a year as a routine, emergencies notwithstanding—but I already expect to encounter these transformative moments with respect to two scenes in particular: a) when Victor Laszlo leads Rick’s Café in a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise” (for reasons I’m not even going to bother explaining), and b) the first time we see Rick, brooding over a chessboard by himself.

So here’s the mystery du jour: why is Rick playing chess?

The simple trivia-page answer: Humphrey Bogart was an excellent player by amateur standards, and made a living hustling chess in the Depression before he broke into gangster pictures. That Rick would be a drunken chess player was Bogie’s own suggestion.

But we don’t do trivia-page answers here at Nick’s. That’s why everybody comes to Nick’s. The question I posed is a literary one—and I’m not talking about that strangely allegorical continuity error where a knight appears in one shot and not in the next.

What makes Casablanca click, after all, is layer after layer of ambiguity and misunderstanding, most of it a result of people lying to one another this way and that without an especial intent to do any harm. For instance, we never do find out why Rick can’t return to his country:

RENAULT: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

RICK: It was a combination of all three.

Along the same lines, I’ll always wonder why he’s fiddling with the pieces in his game of solitaire.

Like everything else about Rick, maybe it’s a manifestation of something he regrets. Let’s back up a few steps, shall I, and see if I would have stood a chance if it weren’t for that colossal oversight. Let’s play a hypothetical endgame where I didn’t have to be the guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out. Let’s convince myself that she would have stayed with me from Paris to Marseilles if it weren’t for that goddamned bishop.

Because the way I like to tell it, you haven’t lived and died until you’ve duelled for the love of a woman over a chessboard in a faraway land.

But here’s the thing about duels: it doesn’t matter a lick if you win or lose. It’s all rigged. The dice are loaded, and it isn’t even a game of chance. You can play your rival to an improbable stalemate or two and it won’t make a smidgen of a difference. The lady made up her mind before you put the pieces on the board, and it isn’t of any consequence if you castle queenside or kingside when she’s married to the nearest underground revolutionary and no gambit you make is going to stop him from skewering his way out of that concentration camp. Knight takes queen, and leaves.

So why drown in your champagne and your checkmate puzzle, my dear Ricky? For the same reason anybody duels his way to a pre-ordained catastrophe and relives it over and over as if he had a choice: to claim a sense of responsibility. To fool yourself into believing that somewhere, there was a wrong move that could have been right. To pretend that her honour was ever yours to defend.

And that’s being optimistic, because, well, mercy be upon you if you never even had Paris.

It’s pleasant to shuffle your pawns around and imagine you ever had a say, though you’ll often find there was no way to win. It wouldn’t be Casablanca if Ilsa didn’t get on that plane with Victor, and it sucks to be Rick, but that’s how it’s going to be and everybody else seems to like it that way. So you tell her that you’re no good at being noble, but that it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

We have a name for that sort of behaviour: lying through your teeth.

And that, mes amis, is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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