Best Supporting Actor Runners Up: Leslie Banks (Went the Day Well?), Joseph Calleia (The Glass Key), Laird Cregar (The Black Swan), Laird Cregar (Ten Gentlemen from West Point), Laird Cregar (This Gun for Hire), John Garfield (Tortilla Flat), Alan Hale (Gentleman Jim), Otto Kruger (Saboteur), Thomas Mitchell (Moontide), Frank Morgan (Tortilla Flat), Sig Ruman (To Be Or Not to Be), Suji Sano (There Was a Father), Rudy Vallee (The Palm Beach Story), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner)
I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say Casablanca wouldn’t be Casablanca without the contributions of Claude Rains. I suppose if someone else stepped into his role as the merrily corrupt Captain Louis Renault, the elements of the movie would have largely been the same, but it would have missed Rains’ jaunty insolence which allows him to expertly toe the line between villain and hero. Most actors, even the best supporting actors of the 1940s, would have struggled to make Renault credible, not to mention likeable, but Rains thrives as the corrupt, high spirited opportunist. He understands that Renault is neither good nor bad; Renault would consider these to be silly, moralistic considerations that are irrelevant to anyone who has to live in the real world. The only thing that matters to him to surviving and, hopefully, ending up ahead. That he ends up on the right side doesn’t say anything about him. He would just as soon have turned in Rick and handed over Laszlo and Ilsa if that would have made sense. Going along with Rick’s plan only saves him the hassle of loads of paperwork, not to mention stopping the added humiliation of being held at gunpoint and probably losing his position over it.
Renault is an opportunist, the kind of man who can thrive in perilous times and places. And Casablanca during the German occupation of France counts as a perilous time and place. Morocco’s murky status as a French colony while most of France was overrun with Germans invited instability and uncertainty. As the chief of police, Renault manages the city’s desperate refugees from the battlefields of Europe and its lecherous thieves looking to take advantage of them. Renault stands in the middle looking to keep a relative semblance of order, while still getting his cut. He is neither pro- nor anti-Nazi, pro- nor anti-France. When the Germans are in town, he plays the good collaborator. When they are kicked out, he will be the first to help track them down. At one point the German Major Strasser chides Renault for saying “Third Reich” as though he “expected there to be others.” Renault simply replies, “Well, personally Major, I will take what comes.” This line perfectly sums up Renault’s philosophy of life: to survive and prosper no matter what. He’s no idealist, like Laszlo; he won’t risk his neck for high minded principles.
On a philosophical level, Renault should be one of the greatest villains of the film. After all, collaborators are hardly celebrated after occupying forces are booted out. They are usually treated to tars, feathers, and other painful indignities. But Renault is a realist. He isn’t about to join the underground; they don’t pay and the immediate risks are greater than collaborating. He’ll worry about those risks later. In the meantime, he survives. Furthermore, he isn’t above using his position to line his pockets, accepting bribes and kickbacks. And if they don’t have the money, he doesn’t mind accepting the company of beautiful young women as compensation.
But Rains’ characterization lifts him above these base, not to mention criminal, activities, transforming a rogue into a lovable character. Even Hollywood’s stringent censorship board was fooled by Rains. Normally bad guys — or people who do bad things — had to be punished for their transgressions, no matter how they might redeem themselves. Rains plays Renault so expertly that the board didn’t even notice he was doing anything wrong and didn’t insist on some terrible retribution to even the mythical cosmic scoreboard of which they were normally hyper-aware. They allowed him to merrily walk away, to continue his illegal exploits, suggesting, as they usually insisted on not suggesting, often to absurd degrees, that crime can pay. It is only possible because Rains delivers an expert performance, cloaking his illegal exploits and collaboration with style and panache.