Movies

Our favorite ‘Casablanca’ characters

Claude Rains (right, with Humphrey Bogart) is one of many top character actors in the film.
Warner Bros./Getty Images
Claude Rains (right, with Humphrey Bogart) is one of many top character actors in the film.

You know the line. I know the line. Keyser Soze definitely knows the line. “Round up the usual suspects,’’ Claude Rains orders his policemen in “Casablanca.’’ The line’s glorious, winking cynicism helps make it as famous as any five consecutively uttered words in movie history. Rains’s delivery helps, too.

However unintentionally, that line gets at the heart of the enduring appeal of “Casablanca.’’ How enduring? To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the film’s release, Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video will be screening “Casablanca’’ in more than 400 theaters this Wednesday, at 7 p.m. Local venues include Fenway, Legacy Place, Patriot Place, and Showcase Cinemas in Randolph, Revere, and Lowell.

“Casablanca’’ is many things: a love story, a war story, a thriller, a masterpiece of propaganda, a bit of a musical, and, of course, a star vehicle. Has Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman ever been better?

Advertisement

But it’s also a Cooperstown of character acting. What a peerless parade of supporting-player paired with part: Rains’s Captain Renault; Sydney Greenstreet’s Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot nightclub; Peter Lorre’s Ugarte, acquirer (so to speak) of the letters of transit; S.Z. Sakall’s Carl, the avuncular headwaiter; Leonid Kinskey’s Sascha, the excitable bartender; and, of course, Dooley Wilson’s Sam, singing “As Time Goes By.’’ How deep is the amount of talent? Marcel Dalio, as Emil, the croupier, doesn’t get any billing!

Dooley Wilson (center) and Sydney Greenstreet are two other key supporting players.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

So here you have the true usual suspects of “Casablanca’’ - and let’s not forget Paul Henreid, as Victor Laszlo, or Conrad Veidt (hiss!) as Major Strasser. In fact, this nonpareil cast consists of unusual suspects. After all, what’s more unusual than perfection?

Below we pay tribute to some of our favorites.

CAPTAIN RENAULT

Bogart and Bergman are the stars, but it’s Claude Rains who makes “Casablanca’’ work. No one else connects so many of the movie’s various dots, let alone could have done it with such panache. Rick, Laszlo, Ilsa, Strasser, all have to deal with Rains’s Renault. His office is almost as much of a crossroads as Rick’s Café Américain is. More important: no Renault, no happy ending, right?

As played by Rains, Renault is suave and unflappable and preposterously charming. The source of most of the movie’s best lines - when not the butt of them - Renault does Falstaff one better. He’s a witty man as well as the cause of wit in others. If all that weren’t enough, who else would Richard Blaine ever let get away with calling him “Ricky’’?

Advertisement

Now it’s true that Renault is corrupt and duplicitous, a political opportunist and sexual predator. Well, as somebody else with an eye for the ladies said in a movie once, “Nobody’s perfect!’’

MARK FEENEY

UGARTE

Think of “Casablanca’’ as a Venn diagram and Rick’s as the place where all those circles overlap - Rick, Ilsa, and Victor; the Nazis, the lovers, the cops; refugees converging from all over the map and intersecting in this one perfect 102-minute slice of celluloid. Now think about the circles outside the overlap - whose do you want to see more of?

For me, one word suffices: Ugarte. Peter Lorre’s sleazy little black-market criminal doesn’t have a first name and he doesn’t need one. Those three syllables convey his foreignness and moral ugliness, and yet he wears them with a sort of desperate pride. Character actors in classic Hollywood movies sin so the hero doesn’t have to, and where would Rick and “Casablanca’’ be if Ugarte didn’t murder his way into possession of the letters of transit? Think about it: the Germans get Victor, the Resistance gets crushed, the Allies lose the war, game over. Ugarte is dispatched according to Lorre’s preferred mode of exit - screaming in disbelief - but for some of us, he’s the secret star of “Casablanca,’’ a charmingly spineless antihero who deserves an indie movie of his own. TY BURR

SIGNOR FERRARI

Oh, Signor Ferrari. The majesty, the mass, the fez. It isn’t simply that Sydney Greenstreet was a large man (George Lucas had him in mind as he created Jabba the Hutt). There is only one way the camera can take him in: from the bottom up. His size commands the screen.

As Ferrari, Rick’s nightlife rival, he looks like and plays the heavy. Yet he operates with a deceptive lightness. In that white suit, Greenstreet looks ready to float away. Like most of the men in “Casablanca’’ who aren’t Rick, he also seems as if he could have wandered into Rick’s from a singalong in Cole Porter’s living room. WESLEY MORRIS

THE PICKPOCKET

Costar Paul Henreid with leads Ingrid Bergman and Bogart, for whom the love/war story was also a star vehicle.

Advertisement

Not more than a few minutes into “Casablanca,’’ as first-timers are still trying to figure out what sort of movie this will be, we meet a throwaway thief who doesn’t play by the rules. He’s there just to pick a pocket or two, we think. But in only a couple of scenes, armed with a handful of lines, this dark, dapper, “amusing little man’’ is the bearer of key information and astute observations.

Played with unscriptable panache by Curt Bois, the pickpocket doubles as setup man and scene-chewer. “Watch yourself. Be on guard,’’ he warns an elderly couple as they sit at a street-side cafe witnessing authorities bully a crowd. “This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere. Everywhere.’’ His ominous speech is curious sounding and oddly punctuated - no small achievement in a film that also contains Peter Lorre.

When the pickpocket shows up again later, it’s to preface the famous scene where German and French anthems face off at Rick’s (see Yvonne entry, below). Bois reprises his vultures line, and by now it’s frighteningly clear that the predators come in many stripes and colors. It’s that kind of movie. JANICE PAGE

YVONNE

Vive La France! With that declaration and her tear-streaked face, French actress Madeleine LeBeau turns the small but crucial role of Yvonne into one of film’s indelible moments.

As Rick’s ex-lover who, out of spite, arrives at the cafe on the arm of a German soldier (“Yvonne’s gone over to the enemy,’’ Rick deadpans), Yvonne proceeds to cause a ruckus. She epitomizes Vichy collaboration but, as with everything else in the film, her motives are far more nuanced. When Rick gives the band permission to play “La Marseillaise,’’ the French national anthem, Victor Laszlo leads patrons in belting out the song. Their voices drown out Major Strasser’s troops singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.’’ It’s a symbolic political and emotional victory, captured in the close-up of impassioned Yvonne and her poignant battle cry.

The scene is also memorable because we know that LeBeau (real-life wife of Marcel Dalio, who plays Emil) had fled Nazi-occupied France in 1940 when she was 17. She was a refugee during the making of the film, and she now has the distinction of being the last surviving cast member. Vive Yvonne! LOREN KING

VICTOR LASZLO

Could it be that “The Descendants’’ is indirectly descended from . . . “Casablanca’’? You might make that case when looking at Paul Henreid’s debonair freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo.

Think about it: both Laszlo and George Clooney’s Matt King are reserved stand-up guys who’ve long been oblivious to the infidelity of their neglected, lonely wives. Both the stranded Victor and the Hawaiian-bred Matt are passing their days in a remote, exotic locale. More to the point, both are living in a personal limbo created by their sense of duty to the masses - Laszlo to Europe’s oppressed, Matt to the umpteen cousins waiting for him to cash out their inherited family property. And limbo gets a whole lot more torturous for both, thanks to an unexpected development with the missus - e.g., walking into the wrong gin joint or, you know, sustaining a traumatic head injury.

How do they ultimately deal with their uniquely distressing cheating-heart woes? By bottling up their feelings good and tight, save for some carefully chosen words for the entrepreneurial loverboys who did them wrong. (Here’s looking at you, Rick.)

Laszlo might not be the flashiest character in “Casablanca,’’ but he’s certainly relevant in the sympathy voting, even after 70 years.