Continuity Editing and Use of the Flashback in Michael Curtiz’s film Casablanca (1942)

There is a sequence in Casablanca that provides context to Rick and Ilsa’s previous behavior and later conflict in the film. It uses a flashback to demonstrate Rick’s passionate love towards Ilsa and later betrayal through a plethora of editing techniques.

It begins with a Rick reaction shot. He is shown staring off into the distance with watery eyes, reacting to the diegetic piano tune.  Then there is a dissolve into a flashback – the blurriness of the dissolve gives the viewer a sense of Rick’s intense sorrow at the upcoming memory sequence by letting the viewer see it through Rick’s foggy eyes.  A brief montage occurs after this scene which displays the development of the love Rick and Ilsa previously had with each other through dissolves.  These show fondness, but also show how little time has passed

When serious dialogue begins between the two characters, Curtiz follows the 180-degree rule to provide continuity to the scene. This makes it easy for the viewer to follow an important conversation that contains a lot of foreshadowing. The scene mentions Ilsa’s relationship with Victor Laszlo.  Another dissolve occurs and quickly the viewer is introduced to a new pace through sporadic jump cuts. These signify the chaos of war and the coming chaos of the plot. Also, the cuts introduce a shift from  nostalgic daydream to sorrowful tale.

The conversations between Ilsa and Rick continue to adhere to the 180-degree rule and include cuts to close-ups of each other’s faces demonstrating their continued love. However, the lack of dissolve gives the viewer an idea that something has changed between the two. This is when, later in the film, we learn that Ilsa became aware of Laszlo’s condition.  This leads to Ilsa betraying Rick. She leaves him stranded on the train station, and Curtiz uses an insert to deliver this news to the viewer and Rick. The insert, an extreme close up of a letter, allows the viewer to share the sorrowful experience through the perspective of Rick because it’s implied to be held in his hands. The water pouring on the letter blurs the text, and the scene cuts away with Rick leaving on a train without Ilsa. This cut is a dissolve that is nearly as blurry as the one in the beginning.  Both these events occurring represent Rick’s tears or sorrowfulness at Ilsa’s betrayal.

Masterful editing in Casablanca  really allowed Rick’s character motivation to firmly understood by the viewer.  The flashback used many editing techniques to really accentuate Rick’s intense feelings of love towards Ilsa. Also, the editing allowed the viewer to accompany Rick in a massive heartbreaking betrayal.  That later drives the plot and becomes part of Ilsa’s motivation to fake being back in love with Rick. This supports one of the themes of the film. Lovers will do anything to keep each other out of harms way, even sacrifice their own happiness.

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