ONE would have to be glib indeed to draw conclusions about society at large from isolated samples of popular culture, especially when dealing with something as coy and defiant, as fond of and agile with masks, as tantalizingly close and wickedly elusive, as commonly and crazily pursued, as love. Yet given the role the movies play these days, not only in satisfying our appetite for entertainment but also in forming tastes and in supplying cultural reference points from lowbrow to highbrow, one would have to be a fool to ignore the propositions about love that emanate from the silver screen.
It is a matter of some wonder that few films have captured the American public's imagination as forcefully and lastingly as Casablanca -- for it is a peculiar sort of love story. It is not exactly a tragedy: neither Rick nor Ilsa dies, nor do fate and character flaws conspire to bring them low or destroy their love. And yet the film is certainly not a comedy either, because no storybook ending awaits the heroes, no happily-ever-after redeems their loss. Wishing to remain worthy, in each other's eyes and in their own, of the love they share, Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa give each other up -- he to stay in Casablanca aiding the French Resistance, she to accompany and support her husband, a dedicated and courageous man, in his work as a leader of the underground. This is hardly a Hollywood ending, yet Bogart's last words to Bergman on the runway, which seal both their love and their separation, are enshrined in the memories of generations of moviegoers. Unforgettable, too, is the concluding shot: after he has gunned down the Nazi commander, enabling the plane carrying Ilsa and her husband to depart Casablanca, Rick, with Louis the French police captain, his new friend and co-conspirator, ambles off into the night fog, no trace of a broken heart discernible in his easy stride or wry words. Indeed, these moments belong among the most beloved final scenes in the annals of American movies.
Apparently we are romantics, for Casablanca would not retain the power to make grown men and women weep and then watch it again and weep some more unless we shared a deep conviction that love and nobility are linked, that great love may summon from us monumental sacrifices -- including, when fate is especially cruel, giving up the beloved for the sake of love. Indeed, to be moved by such renunciation we must be romantics of a peculiarly enthusiastic breed.