Casablanca It’s one of my favourite movies. Tobacco Control must really hate it, because there’s barely a single scene in it in which someone isn’t smoking, and the air isn’t filled with smoke.
In fact it’s Humphrey Bogart’s hand, holding a cigarette over an ashtray, that immediately precedes his first appearance in the movie as Rick Blaine. And thereafter he’s hardly in any scene without a cigarette that he’s isn’t lighting, or stubbing out, or has dangling between his lips as he talks. He’s Mr Cigarette.
And almost all the other principal actors smoke too. Even Major Strasser smokes. For a while I thought that Sidney Greenstreet’s Ferrari was never going to light up, until he finally came good with a cigar in his final scene.
But, oddly enough, none of the principal actresses smoke. Ingrid Bergman never touches a cigarette. I wondered whether that how it was back in 1942, or whether it helped make them seem pure and virginal, or whether the Hays Code disallowed women smokers for being “unwholesome.”
Nevertheless, Rick’s Café remains a haven of freedom. Everyone smokes and drinks and gambles and romances as if there might be no tomorrow. And for many of them, there isn’t going to be one.
And that’s what freedom is. It’s the freedom to smoke and drink and dance and gamble and party, in the face of death. That’s what freedom is, and what it always will be. And maybe that’s what makes the movie timeless: it’s telling an eternal truth. Nobody’s ever going to be able to ‘de-normalise’ it. Not even the Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq..
Rick’s Café gets closed down, of course. But it gets closed down for allowing gambling. If the movie was being made today, Captain Renault would have to say, “I’m shocked, shocked, to find out that smoking is going on in here!” Because it would be the smoking rather than the gambling that would be most shocking to our smoke-free eyes.
For somehow or other, puritan killjoys keep shifting the target of their disapproval, as if traversing a machine gun across an advancing wall of enemies. In one era it’s alcohol or gambling that is their target. In ours it just happens to be the turn of smoking. It could just as easily have been creamcakes. And soon it may well be.
And it never works. They never manage to stop any of it. They never manage to halt or drive back the advancing enemies. The best they ever manage is to slow them momentarily. But it never deters them from trying, like desperate defenders of some besieged city, firing over their shoulders as they retreat through its ruins.
Because freedom is always winning. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.