Play it again, Sigmund.

Psychoanalysis and the Classical Hollywood Text

Film writers often express bewilderment when faced with Casablanca' s enduring appeal or, more specifically, with their ownslightly embarrassed affection for the old Warner Brothers relic. "Some undefinable quality in Casablanca seems to make itbetter with each viewing," write Don Whitemore and Philip Alan Cecchettini in their essay on Michael Curtiz, the prolificdirector of Casablanca,[1] while Harvey Greenberg calls his essay on the film "If It's So Schmaltzy, Why Am I Weeping?"[2]In his famous gloss on the film, Andrew Sarris throws up his hands and calls it an "accident," singling out the work of "lightlylikable" Curtiz as "the most decisive exception" to his auteur theory.[3] Richard Schickel is probably not alone in declaringCasablanca to be his favorite film, even though acknowledging its limitations as "a somewhat better-than-average example ofwhat the American studio system could do when it was at its most stable and powerful."[4]

Even the film's cult status is problematic. Casablanca reached the full flowering of its culthood only in the 1960s whenHarvard students regularly attended Humphrey Bogart film festivals during finals week. [5] More than a decade before TheRocky Horror Picture Show, Casablanca initiates would shout "The Germans wore gray; you wore blue" and " Is that cannonfire, or is it my heart pounding?" along with the projected images of Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Casablancaneeded twenty years to become a cult item, perhaps because it did not take the usual route to that status. The film's successwithin the industry- -it won the 1943 Academy Award for best picture--was helped in no small part by the Allied invasion ofNorth Africa, which preceded the film's initial release by a few days, and the meeting of Roosevelt and Churchill inCasablanca, which took place during the film's national release. Later, more "conventional" cult films like Rocky Horror, PinkFlamingos, and Eraserhead had much less auspicious beginnings. How can a popular wartime melodrama, promoted initiallyas home-front propaganda, continue to find such devoted audiences?

For Umberto Eco, the key to Casablanca is its "glorious incoherence, " producing enough contradictory material to supportnew meanings for each new audience.[6] Not only does Casablanca contain several archetypal situations, writes Eco:

When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh, but a hundred clichesmove us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves and celebrating a reunion.[7]

If Eco had watched more products of the American studio system, he might have observed that, from the beginning,Hollywood films have constituted a never-ending reunion of archetypes. We suspect that the film's appeal has more to dowith its ability to tap into the unconscious concerns that regularly drive audiences to the movies. Psychoanalytic theoryprovides the royal road to understanding the American cinema, especially the films of the "classical" period that began withthe acceptance of sound films around 1930 and culminated at about the time that Casablanca was made in 1942. But sincepsychoanalysis has in the last two decades ceased to be a monolithic method for film scholars,[8] we have adopted a pluralistapproach, deploying a range of psychoanalytically based methodologies around Casablanca. We share the view that "apsychoanalytic reflection on any phenomenon is incisive to the extent that it employs more than one dimension."[9] The"star" performances of Bogart and Bergman, the music of Max Steiner, the romantic tensions of the narrative, even the film'shandling of American politics can be approached through psychoanalytic thought. We are as interested in illustrating theheterogeneity of psychoanalytic film theory as we are in offering a thorough reading of Casablanca.

Oedipus in North Africa

A wealth of Oedipal material awaits anyone wishing to interpret the film along classical Freudian lines. Like Sophocles'Oedipus, Rick Blaine is an outcast from his home country. At least in the fantasies of Capt. Renault, Rick may have fledbecause he killed a man. In fact, as Greenberg has observed, Renault's speculations have a great deal of Oedipal resonance.Because Rick will not divulge the real reasons that brought him to Casablanca, Renault wonders if Rick absconded with thesacred money of the church or if he ran off with a senator' s wife. Renault says that the romantic in him would like to believethat Rick took a man's life. Rick's response that he left America because of a combination of all three can be read as more thana glib piece of verbal sparring. Greenberg suggests that

the sacrosanct stolen treasure [is] the wife of a preeminent older man; her husband is the one murdered--and by the love thief.Thus, the essence of the "combination" of offenses is the child's original desire to kill his father and possess his mother.[10]