Friday, December 10, 2010

Play It Again, Sam...or Should He?

Of course, the line "Play it again, Sam" never actually appears in Casablanca. What Ilsa says is, "Play it one time Sam, for old time's sake...Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."

I'm interested in Sam's predicament here. For those who have never seen the film (and you should be ashamed of yourself), Rick and Ilsa fell in love in Paris as WWII has just begun when Ilsa was a widow. But she learns that her husband, a great Czech statesman, is actually still alive, but she can tell no one lest he be hunted down by the Nazis. So she leaves Rick without explaining why which crushes him to the core. He ends up a curmudgeonly bar owner in Casablanca when of all the two bit gin joints in all the world, she walks into his. Sam, Rick's friend and employee, was there the whole time and has been ordered in no uncertain terms to NEVER, EVER under any circumstances play "As Time Goes By," their old song. But Ilsa asks to hear him play it again the way he played it for them in Paris so many times before (the clip cannot be embedded in the post, but you can see it here).

Sam lies -- "I'm rusty on it" -- but then, when she insists, plays it. Should he have? He was told never to play it and agreed. It is not quite a promise, but it wasn't exactly just an order from the boss either. It was a request from a friend to avoid something Sam knows would cause his friend great pain. As such, under normal circumstances, he would never do it.

Similarly, if Rick was at the Blue Parrot as Sam tried to lie about earlier, he would have had no problem playing it for Ilsa for old time's sake. It was a simple enough request for a piano player and one that would have brought back bittersweet memories for his old friend.

But here, he's caught in between. On one hand, Rick's pain would clearly be more intense than Ilsa's joy at hearing it, so on a utilitarian calculation, it seems that he shouldn't play it. On the other hand, she's in the bar, he's going to see her. The pain will happen whether he plays it or not. So, why not give Ilsa the little bit of pleasure? But even if the pain would happen regardless, it would still be his choice that caused the pain to be instantiated in that particular way. So, ethically, should Sam have played it again?