I doubt very much that I need to give a plot summary of Casablanca.
The film marked me from very young; I remember watching it in my Dad's trailer*, so I must have been at some age between 11 and 15, and though that wasn't the first time I'd seen it, I remember that was the first time that I was struck by Rick's character, and the first time that I wondered at what point did he realize he wouldn't be on that plane?
I think he knew from the moment that Ilsa walked into the bar.
Like many plays and short stories, films with sensible running times (it clocks in at just over 100 minutes) have little room for character development. There's room for a little self-discovery, along with the usual light intrigue and overcoming of fairly understated odds, a few moments of humor, and a few moments of sentiment, but most of the character work is about revelation.
In Casablanca, the character revelation takes the usual two forms: characters discover things about themselves, and discover things about eachother. With one exception – and this is the paradox – Rick.
While he does make discoveries about other characters, of the five characters who turn out by the end to be anything more than cyphers, Rick is the only one who makes no discoveries about himself. Maybe, just maybe, he's changed since the Paris. Maybe he was changed by Paris, but I don't think so.
Even in Paris he was already an exile, an outsider. Ilsa says:
We said "no questions."
And Rick is happy to agree. Even in Paris he knows that she has some sad story in her past, and that what she needs from him is a man to love and a man to love her; it is a feature of Rick's battered honor that he is happy to oblige. You can imagine that for Ilsa he takes a break from casual womanizing, because he's capable of understanding what makes Ilsa different. As long as she needs him, she needs him to herself.
Inside a swank Paris cafe, Rick and Ilsa dance. They appear to be very much in love as the MUSIC plays.
I believe they are. Rick wouldn't think of spending time in the company of a woman like Ilsa without being in love with her.
And at the Gare de Lyon, Rick does get on the train. I can't really imagine that this is the first time he is unlucky in love.
Back in Casablanca, Annina's new husband is trying to win enough money at roulette to get passage to America, while Annina herself is agonizing over giving Capitaine Renault the only thing she can give him in order to get the documents they need, given that she is realistic about her husband's chances of winning it at Rick's tables.
He dryly observes:
Noone ever loved me that much.
After Rick intervenes to get them the money they need, Renault challenges him for 'interfering with his little romances' :
As I suspected, you're a rank sentimentalist
And Rick's retort is:
Put is down as a gesture to love.
Renault takes it with his habitual good nature. And he really is habitually good-natured with Rick. Renault is corrupt, despicable and duplicitous, but he seems to have a soft spot for Rick, and while Rick is touchy or angsty with anyone else, he doesn't seem to get annoyed with Renault no matter what he does.
Ilsa discovers, with Rick's help, that she loves Victor and Victor loves her, and that it is better for both of them to stay together. She never had any more than a small doubt about it in any case. At one point she thought she would have to stay with Rick so that Victor could escape. But Ilsa never really understood Rick's honor even when she discovered it.
Victor is a cypher most of the time; a symbol of intellectual resistance. He can afford to be indulgent towards his wife, since he is so utterly intolerant of Nazi oppression.
Ugarte has been a 'cut price parasite' for while, and Rick thinks little of him, but Ugarte discovers something about himself even as he reveals it to Rick: he is capable of more than either of them imagined. It's a good thing Lorre was available, otherwise Ugarte is just a plot-vector, unwittingly ensuring the means for Victor and Ilsa's escape. But Lorre is a bigger actor than anyone else on set, and turns a cameo into a supporting role by compelling the watcher's attention. This makes Ugarte's development seem bigger than it is, but in doing so provides yet more contrast with the ever stable Rick.
Sam has no need for development. He is comfortable in his skin, and shows it, whereas Rick, who in truth is just as comfortable, does not show it. The pivotal scene, "you played it for her and you can play it for me" can be looked at in different ways, but my feeling is that Rick is able to dredge up such a strong memory from the past because the wound has healed. Listening to the song is nostalgia, sentimental but not painful.
It is therefore inevitable that the movie ends with the only relationship that really mattered, and the only one that is really anything new. When the film starts, Rick's story with Ilsa is already over. But when it ends, Louis (Renault) makes a discovery about himself, that the whole film has been building up to: he is also happy in his own skin, and admires Rick because Rick is the same. The way that Rick and Louis talk about eachother is affectionate and mildly self deprecating.
Rick, on Louis:
Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so.
Louis, on Rick:
… he's the kind of man that, well, if I were a woman and I …
(taps his chest)
… were not around, I should be in love with Rick. But what a fool am I talking to a beautiful woman about another man.
The fact that Rick does not change; that he knows that his romance with Ilsa, far from being doomed, is already over: all this leads to the conclusion of the film. Louis realizes that it is 'the start of a beautiful friendship'.
As character work goes, this is all fairly unusual for the genre. Central characters who remain unchanged from beginning to end (while changing those around them) is not usually allowed in romantic drama (though it is common in action and crime dramas). The male lead especially is usually required to face his weaknesses, show his emotions and discover that he loves the female lead, so that by the end they are both better people.
Maybe what makes Casablanca a great romance is that it is not about romance, but about respect, honor and (most of all) friendship. Sam is a good friend to Rick. Rick is a good friend to Ilsa (both in Paris and in Casablanca) and Rick and Louis become good friends.
Friendship is something that can be worked into all genres of literature, it is intensely human, and in my opinion more compelling than love or heroism or justice. And as Casablanca shows, there are different kinds of friendship, different degrees, different consequences. All stories can benefit from good friends and good friendship.
* For British and American readers, my Dad's trailer was what in the UK is called a "static caravan" and is, in the UK, used as a sort of holiday home on camps where there are activities, in this case waterskiiing and windsurfing. The static caravan has none of the disadvantages of camping and non of the advantages either.