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‘Casablanca’ Is the Best Cocktail Movie of All Time

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Though written, filmed, and released as the fate of the free world was still an open question, there are clear winners and losers in Casablanca, without a doubt the best film about a bar ever made. Among the victors are gin-joints, shawl-collar tuxedo jackets like the one Humphrey Bogart wore, and love. On the losing side, Nazis, hills of beans, and the perpetually hassled "usual suspects" rounded up after every crime. With the good guys victorious and a dead Nazi, Casablanca provided a happy ending many hoped for but none yet knew. The film debuted the same month in 1942 that the United States and Great Britain launched Operation Torch, opening a second front in North Africa to fight, incidentally, in Casablanca itself. Rick's Café Americain, had it been real, would have likely been destroyed by Eisenhower's bombs.

There could be no cocktails ordered at all and it would still be the best cocktail movie of all time... the source of its excellence isn’t alcoholic but human in nature.

It might seem like a stretch to call this a movie about a bar and a barman. But consider that the original title of both the movie and play on which it was based was Everybody Comes to Rick's and that, as befits an adaptation of a stage play, the vast majority of the action happens within the four walls of the elegant nightclub, casino and, as Rick (Bogart) famously notes, "gin-joint." One never feels constrained, however, since there's plenty to do on the premises. After all, everybody comes there for a reason. There are roulette tables, a house band led by a Mexican singer (Corinna Mura, who IRL was artist Edward Gorey's stepmother), a piano player named Sam (Dooley Wilson), and of course, a gleaming high-class bar designed by George James Hopkins. Despite Rick's bordering the tarmac of the airport, there seems to be minimal flight path engine roar. There was no food, as far as I could see, and no dancing. Rick is the patron, or as he calls himself, self-deprecatingly but tellingly, a saloon-keeper. The point is, he isn't the man behind the bar; he's the man behind the man behind the bar.

The guy on the front lines in a spotless white jacket and black bow tie was a Russian named Sascha (played by Bogart's real-life drinking buddy, Leonid Kinskey). And yes, you're not alone if thinking about a bartender named Sascha makes you choke up a little bit. (The late Sasha Petraske could have stepped behind the bar at Rick's and not miss a beat.) This Sascha, a flirt when he needs or wants to be, keeps a spotless bar. The glasses are neatly arranged. There is no mess, no clutter. Even as Rick's hops, there is no line.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Since Casablanca was set in a bar in French-controlled North Africa, a region which had not had to undergo the ravages of Prohibition, cocktails formed only a small part of the libational offerings. Because most of the customers were European refugees, Rick's Cafe Americain does brisk business in classic Old World liquors like brandy, cognac, and triple sec. It is up to the Americans like Rick to order bourbon (he keeps a bottle of the stuff for his private use). But, because Rick's Cafe is also a nightclub and there were ballers even then, champagne is a standby. It is served as it should be in coupes, not flutes.

Less noted is Rick’s smooth adeptness as an operations man. He’s like the Danny Meyer of Casablanca.

There are only two true cocktails explicitly ordered in the film. When Rick's spurned flame, a broad named Yvonne, shows up with her new Nazi squeeze, he orders a French 75, a champagne-based cocktail made with gin. Ironically, from a political point of view, the drink was popularized )if not invented) by Harry MacElhone, a Scotsman in Paris, and named after the French Army's 75mm field gun used in the Great War. The other cocktail order belongs to Victor Laszlo, the Czech freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, who asks for a champagne cocktail at the bar. (He also orders Cointreau when he and his wife, Ilsa, first sit down.) "Champagne cocktail" being a rather broad order, it is a mark of a good bartender that Sascha doesn't hesitate. He proffers Laszlo a coupe of champers with a dash of bitters, sugar, and cognac.

There could be no cocktails ordered at all in Casablanca and it would still be the best cocktail movie of all time. The source of its excellence isn't alcoholic but human in nature. Rick and his relationship to the people — read: everybody — that end up at his café exalts the film. He is, as Claude Rains's Captain Renault calls him and as we all know, a "rank sentimentalist." Less noted is his smooth adeptness as an operations man. He's like the Danny Meyer of Casablanca. He runs a tight ship in a stormy sea. He is a model of business propriety, although he explicitly denies it, saying, "I've never been much of a businessman."

But until love undoes him, Rick never treats customers unless he is forced to by the political exigencies of his situation. He does not drink with his customers and maintains a healthy distance from their troubles. He is fair boss who looks out for his employees. When Captain Renault shuts down his joint, saying "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on here!," Rick makes sure his employees are paid their salaries during the closure. When he's about to hightail it out of there, he likewise negotiates an advantageous position for Sam, his piano player.

The great turn, of course, is Rick's revelation as a softy. Though his façade is pouty and nihilist, as time goes by, it becomes clear Rick cares deeply about the community on the other side of his bar. He is devoted to both the Cause, being the resistance, and the cause, being humanity at large. In one famous scene, he helps a young Bulgarian refugee obtain an exit visa for her and her husband without compromising her virtue by allowing the young man to win a crooked game of roulette. Though Rick welcomes all into his bar, his thumb is subtly but firmly on the scale for good. Perhaps the best scene of the entire film is a simple gesture he makes, giving the band the go-ahead to play "La Marseillaise" to rebut the loud garish nationalist singing of a German marshal.

It isn’t just the cocktails one serves that makes a saloon-keeper; it’s his concern for those he serves them to.

That mild muscular movement, more than the self-sacrificial grand gestures that follow it, are really what makes him one for the ages. It's not Rick's evocative midcentury decor or even his winning catch-phrases. Both have been repeated endlessly, in slavish tourist-trap recreations, on geegaws and mugs. It's not the volume of drinks served or their complexity. There have been scores of films that devoid more inches of celluloid to mixology than Casablanca. Cocktail, for instance, Heywood Gould's Tom Cruise vehicle filmed almost exactly 40 years after Casablanca, comes to mind. But whatever the flairtending merits of young Brian Flanagan (Cruise) might be as he twirls his bottles behind his bar, concern for mankind was not one of them. As Rick showed nobly, it isn't just the cocktails one serves that makes a saloon-keeper, it's his concern for those he serves them to.

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