An idiom is a group of words that means something we collectively understand, but the meaning has no obvious connection to the words in the goup. Think – cold feet, seeing the light, or raining cats and dogs. In the case of film and screenwriting, classic lines like, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”, and “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” all transcend the literal meaning.
And sometimes these lines are crafted so keenly, a line of a script quickly turns into a cultural idiom. In this case we’re looking at the 1942 classic from Casablanca.
Improvisation and here’s looking at you kid
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Casablanca gifted us several iconic lines. But, did you know that Humphrey Bogart improvised the most famous saying in film history? The original line read, “Here’s good luck to you kid.” But when Rick stood in front of Ilsa in the closing moments of Casablanca, Bogart flipped the script.
What does Rick mean when he says, “Here’s looking at you kid.”?
The lore behind the line leaves us with several possible origins. The first is historical. The phrase, here’s looking at you, was popular slang in the 1930’s, just years before Casablanca came out in 1942. But there is another interpretation that is more popular. And more enlightening to the meaning of the line.
This interpretation is based on the story about Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) playing poker. While filming Casablanca, Bogart taught Bergman how to play. During breaks in filming, the cast would play poker, and the line here’s looking at you, was used as an explanation of a poker hand where the King, Queen, and Jack all look at you. So, the improvised line harkens back to filming and provides some additional context to the cultural idiom. The common interpretation of “Here’s looking at you kid.” is that Rick is telling Ilsa that he’ll always be looking after her and loves her (albeit abstractly).
Nuance and meaning
But if we consider the poker story a bit more deeply and think about what the phrase means specifically in poker, an additional and more nuanced meaning to Bogart’s improvisation emerges. Instead of saying the scripted line, good luck, Bogart uses Here’s looking at you kid to communicate their game was not ending. Humphrey Bogart rejected the finality that good luck indicated and pivoted the subtext to shift the next move to Bergman’s character.
Why would he do this? Because in Rick’s mind, Ilsa held the face cards. So, when he said, “Here’s looking at you kid.” he was telling Ilsa that she held the power and it was her turn to make a move. In the end, Rick wasn’t being passive with a coded I love you, good luck. Instead, he uses the poker code to admit he is losing while subtly asking her to stay.
What do you think about this interpretation? Did we uncover the actual meaning, or are we searching for truffles without a pig?