What, you think I’m against these things?
To be sure, a cheap cynicism is an ugly thing: the cynicism of those who can’t handle the responsibility to act in an ethical way. The cynicism of business and government—of the manipulator, the cheater, and the me-firster—is not what I’m talking about.
But the cynicism of the broken-hearted idealist, the ethical loser, the romantic realist: that’s my kind of cynicism.
Look at Rick in Casablanca. Torn from the love of his life by the war, he fled to a remote political no-man’s land, where he runs a bar and proclaims that he “sticks his neck out for nobody.” His best friend, to the extent he has any friends, is a corrupt police captain.
The police captain is what we’d now call a sexual predator. A young couple from Bulgaria has made it to Casablanca, but they can’t finish their escape without an exit visa, and they can’t afford the fee. The captain lets the refugee wife know—she’s seventeen, he’s fiftyish—that exit visas might be provided if she sleeps with him. She goes to Rick for advice. She asks him what kind of man the captain is.
“Like other men, only more so,” Rick tells her: a classically cynical answer. He tells her to go back to Bulgaria. But in the next scene, he rigs the roulette wheel in his bar so her husband wins and has the money for the visas. It doesn’t endear him to the captain.
It’s a purely sentimental act. Rick gets no reward for saving the Bulgarians. I don’t think he even feels proud of it. He’s just acting according to his true character. Although his heart doesn’t bleed (except for his lost love), neither can he ignore a true innocent who asks for his help.
Rick is a cynical man saved by sentimentality, and Casablanca is a sentimental movie redeemed by cynicism. It’s the movie’s bleak vision that makes it bearable. Ilsa Laszlo’s do-gooder husband is so bland he’s almost not there. Even the resident prostitute—the one who sings the Marseillaise—is more memorable, and she’s only on screen for a minute. More pleasure comes from watching those icons of petty evil, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
There are less intentional darknesses in the film that I find fascinating, although not pleasant. One is the film’s own attitude toward the captain’s predation, which is that it’s a moral failing but not a very culpable one. (All is forgiven when he betrays his German masters and throws in with Rick at the end.) One is Ilsa’s display of the casual racism of the time by referring to Sam the piano man, 29 years her senior, as “the boy at the piano.” One is the glowering countenance of the Bulgarian boy-husband, who I can tell at a glance is far too dark and moody a man for the good of his poor young wife. (I can only imagine the bloody violence if she had slept with the captain—to save both their lives—and he found out.)
But as with most Humphrey Bogart pictures, the primary fascination of the picture is Rick. Rick is a misanthrope. He thinks the worst of people, including himself, and he idealizes no one. He drinks to excess and turns a blind eye to all sorts of crime in his establishment. But he’s a good man. It’s because he was happy once, and good, and good still comes out of him, involuntarily, like an embarrassing tic. He can’t help it. He was broken by disappointment, and that’s what made him a cynic. But the Bulgarian girl was right to trust him. Somehow she sensed his character.
I admire our grandparents’ conception of virtue as independent of self-esteem. Whether a man liked himself or not was his own business. It was his character and his actions that counted.
Even in the midst of self-loathing, there’s a pride that can keep you afloat, and the pride comes from knowing that, when it counts, you act in accordance with your character, your values. If you know that, no one else’s judgment matters.