Continuity Editing and the Flashback Technique in Casablanca

As we learned in The Film Experience, continuity editing is a system of cutting used in film to maintain continuous narrative action. The idea of this technique is to create a seamless stream of events that flows effortlessly for the viewer.

This style of editing is used consistently throughout Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Below, I have found a short sequence that utilizes continuity editing in our first introduction to Rick’s cafe. I think the author of this clip does a great job of explaining how the style of editing allows the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the cafe and introduces the viewer to Rick’s clientele.

One of my favorite scenes in Casablanca was the Memories of Paris montage sequence. I thought the fade in that Curtiz used was very effective in creating a flashback effect, especially with the fade being white, creating a dreamy vibe, reminiscent of better times for Rick (although the end of the montage does end in his heartbreak). Below, I have posted a clip of the montage, which begins around 1:10.

I found an article by Scott Myers that explains why this flashback sequence is so effective. Here is the link to the article:

An important point that Myers brings up in this article is the fact that flashbacks seem to be a “no-no” in the current Hollywood world. They can often be viewed as extremely cheesy by the audience. Why is this the case? Also, why is it that one of the most cherished films of all time utilizes this supposedly “cheesy” editing mechanism? Myers says that the answer lies in excellent execution, something that is not typically achieved in many of today’s films.

Myers says Casablanca’s montage works for two primary reasons. The first being its structure- there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. The second reason is that it gives us background on Rick and Ilsa’s relationship, which is central to the story in Casablanca.

I would like to know what others thought about the flashback sequence in this film. Did you think it was effective or did you think it came off as cheesy?

  1. Something that we should probably consider (somewhat unrelated to the question of whether or not to include the flashback at all) is that cheesy today is not the same as cheesy in 1942. If Casablanca were to come out today, it would not be nearly as well received even if it were made with all the conveniences of modern cinema. The script is so iconic because it is an amalgam and originator of so many tropes that have now been overused. A lot of Casablanca is cheesy, not just the dissolve. The evil Germans, the gruff but sentimental all-American man, the dainty woman who is just so in love with the lead… the list goes on. But, it works, because the cheese is more or less cohesive. The dissolve works because its no more cheesy than anything else in the film, and we, as modern audience members, subconsciously watch the movie with the understanding that we are watching a film from a different time that can’t really be compared to modern movies. It creates a very different viewing experience where we as viewers need to redefine what we will and won’t permit of a film given its context.

  2. I’m no auteur so I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer that question well. As your post points out, the flashback scenes are well structured and self-contained, and importantly I think they do heighten the tension between Rick and Ilsa. If I were to remove the scenes I would have to compensate somehow. I personally am a fan of ambiguity and letting people imagine whatever they think best explains the situation, so leaving their past almost entirely unexplored could be very interesting. Spread in a few lines that makes sure the audience knows the key details – brief, Paris, she left him – and I think the film works mostly the same way after. However, it would hard to recreate the impact of Ilsa appearing immediately after the flashback scenes, the resulting fight, and the tension between the characters because of the fight.

  3. Hi John, I appreciate your response to my post. Because the film technology was not as advanced when Casablanca was created, how would you suggest Curtiz should have shown Ilsa and Rick’s history without a flashback scene? For example: The Grand Budapest Hotel utilized color to indicate a change in time. Casablanca is in black and white, so clearly this would not be possible.

  4. I am not a fan of flashback scenes, and (for me) Casablanca’s is no exception. As you said, it was well executed – but this doesn’t fix any of the issues I have with flashbacks. They take you out of the actual plot and action of the film; we lose all sense of Casablanca and the urgency of the main plot. It is vital to the story to understand the history between Ilsa and Rick, and the flashback does accomplish this. However, good writing and acting can accomplish the same task much more seamlessly. Flashing back is like cheating the constraints and expectations of a good film. It didn’t ruin the movie by any means, but I thought the flashback was the weakest point of the Casablanca.

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