Film Three-Quarterly: Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca title


One of the pleasures of this project is sitting down to re-watch some classic films, this time with a different objective. Casablanca is often used in screenwriting courses as an example of a perfect narrative and structure. But if a beginning screenwriter looks to Casablanca for advice on how to write a script, they will shed tears and blood trying to match something so finely interwoven. As Robert McKee points out in “Story,” Casablanca introduces five subplots before getting to the main plot–the love triangle between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, and Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo.

The first frame
The first frame

Written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, and based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Casablanca has a wit that does not take away from the serious nature of its politics, or the mature pain and regrets felt by all who come to this limbo-like city. Despite their fine dress, the great music, and the fun of the casino/bar that is Rick’s, this is a city where life is cheap, and where people make money almost exclusively off people’s misery.

The film is 102 minutes long, so according to our F3Q rules, our main scenes arrive at 25.5, 51, and 76.5 minutes in. Let’s see what we can learn about this film by looking at them.

By the time we get to the first quarter, we’ve been introduced to the city of Casablanca and its position as a possible gateway to freedom from those escaping the Nazis. We’ve also been introduced to–in order–Rick’s Cafe (and how it lay in the flight path of the all-important airport), Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) the Nazi, Captain Renault (the wonderful Claude Rains), Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson), a slew of minor but well rounded bit players, Rick, and then Ugarte (Peter Lorre) and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). We’ve seen how Rick operates–he refuses to help out Ugarte, from whom he gets the stolen Letters of Transit–and we hear him say “I stick my neck out for nobody.” We hear that a major member of the resistance Victor Laszlo is coming to Casablanca, traveling with a woman, and Rick is not to help them leave.

Casablanca 01

So at this 25th minute, this is exactly when Ilsa and Laszlo walk in, setting the plot in motion. Seeing Ilsa again sucker punches Rick right in his broken heart. He thought he’d never see her again. And Laszlo is a man most people thought was dead. The tension arises through things both unsaid and unknown, which will be worked out through the rest of the film. Does Laszlo know that Rick and Ilsa were lovers? Does Rick know that Laszlo was the dead husband–or so she thought–that Ilsa spoke about in Paris? Who does she love still? And who will Rick help?

Several things make this quarter interesting compared to standard screenplays. Rick is not a hero who makes a choice in this scene. The film builds and builds until much later, past the final quarter, when Rick finally makes a choice. This script would not get out of development nowadays, perhaps, with such a passive lead character.

In fact, Rick is so passive, that he is not the focus of any of these three main scenes. Without doubt he is the film’s hero. But his character is–like America a few years previous–an isolationist. “One woman has hurt you,” Ilsa later tells him, “and you want to take your revenge on the rest of the world.”

Casablanca 02

By the time we get to the middle scene, we know the back story of Rick and Ilsa’s Paris relationship (and how they knew Sam) through flashback as Rick drinks his sorrows away. From the beginning of the film to this bender, the first half takes place in one day. When the second half begins, it begins with a new day, and a scene in Renault’s office. Strasser is there too, and they know that Rick has the Letters of Transit but they don’t know where. They welcome in Laszlo and Ilsa and offers a Visa to the former if he gives up the names of other resistance leaders in Europe. Laszlo is defiant and tells the Nazis they have no jurisdiction here. Strasser reminds him of Ugarte’s fate.

This mid-point sets up the rest of the film as these threats act as a catalyst–which unless I’m reading the lighting wrong, all takes place on the second day. Laszlo knows he’s a marked man and needs those Letters. And it’s now clear that Rick controls several characters’ fates by possessing the Letters of Transit, despite his selfish bluster. However, Ilsa and Laszlo do not know yet that Rick has them.

The lovely problem with discussing “Casablanca” is that every single scene is important not just to the plot, but to each character appearing in it. Each line of dialog tells us something about the character that speaks it. I’m trying not to write out the whole story like a bad 8th grade book report.

Casablanca 03

In the third quarter scene, Laszlo and Ilsa meet in their hotel room. Maybe it make more sense that the third quarter is the scene that follows it, when Ilsa confronts Rick and insists he gives her the Letters, but instead breaks down and they fall into each others arms again.

But does the actual quarter scene make sense? It’s just as important, though not as romantic, for sure.

Laszlo and Ilsa now know that Rick has the Letters but won’t sell them, and the Nazis have shut down Rick’s Cafe until further notice. Alone in their room, Laszlo asks Ilsa if she was lonely (i.e. not with another man) in Paris while he was in the concentration camp. She lies and when given a chance to confess she doesn’t. I suspect that Laszlo knows exactly what’s going on. But does she know that he knows?

(BTW, notice how this third quarter frame is almost the same as the first quarter?)

Neither this scene nor the one that follows it follow the “dark night of the soul” cliche. However, in this final quarter scene, Ilsa resolves to go and get those papers, no matter the cost. In that following scene, Ilsa does throw down a gauntlet to Rick–he will have to decide their fate. The rest of the film shows Rick finally having to make some hard choices about people other than himself…but it’s taken the film all this time to get here.

By looking at these three scenes, I’m not suggesting that the Ilsa and Laszlo story is secretly more important than the Rick and Ilsa romance. We came to see a love that cannot be, even when there is through a twist of fate, a second chance.

But perhaps what this structure suggests is that, in the world beyond Rick’s Cafe, the meaning of Ilsa and Laszlo’s relationship, that combination of resistance and romance, is more important. The film has been telling us this is so throughout. So when Rick finally figures out that he needs to set aside his feelings for the greater good, we’ve arrived there first. (This is also why, in lesser scripts, sudden changes of heart feel phony.)

Casablanca last frame
The final frame.

On a side note, there’s a lovely bit of costume design as storytelling: When Ilsa fails to turn up at the Paris train station in the flashback, Rick is wearing his iconic fedora and tan (I suppose) raincoat. We don’t see this outfit again until the very end, when Rick says goodbye to Ilsa at the airport. Very subtle, but poetic.

Also: I think Rick really starts to change his mind about being isolationist when he hears the Nazis singing beerhall songs after commandeering Sam’s piano. To live in a world of that music, or the world of jazz and the American Songbook? The choice is obvious.

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
Edited by Owen Marks

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