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.
In Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, a heavy emphasis is placed on the emotions of interaction between characters, especially Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). This is carried out largely through the shot/reverse-shot pattern, wherein the shot is cut back and forth in tandem with the flow of dialogue to show the characters as they speak. In his article “For the Sake of Conversation: On shot reverse shot,” (http://www.aotg.com/index.php?page=shotreverseshot) Mott emphasizes the significance a character’s reaction to their counterpart’s words can have in producing a desired emotional response. Rather than simply shifting directly between the faces of the speakers, a shot can linger on one character to show the audience how they react to what they hear and see. This can be seen in the final moments of the film (clip shown below), as shots follow Ilsa’s speaking and listening to Rick.
As their goodbye builds to its iconic finale, the shot transitions from a close-up showing the temporary lovers in the frame together to a shot/reverse-shot sequence (1:07). The scene is meant to emphasize Ilsa’s response to Rick’s goodbye, and this transition allows the shot to remain heavily focused on her face as she comes to realize the finality of his words. Interestingly, the transition also has the effect of isolating them from one another as a visual representation of their approaching reality. Through this and other such stylistic decisions, the dialogue editing in Casablanca effectively emphasizes the words spoken between its characters and the emotions that motivate them, which may help explain its position as one of the most referenced screenplays in American cinema.
Casablanca is almost impossible to watch as only the film that is. It seems like every scene has a classic line; most of them are so integrated into American culture that I didn’t even realize they were from the film. As such, it should come as no surprise that later films owe a great deal of inspiration to Casablanca. One series in particular that wears this influence on its sleeve is Star Wars. In particular, Mos Eisley exists as a (insert whatever genre you think Star Wars is) version of Casablanca. Certain lines pay direct homage to Casablanca – 15,000 credits to leave Tatooine directly parallels the 15,000 francs to get a visa out of Casablanca. Classic Star Wars characters are spiritual successors to their Casablanca counterparts. Han is a space John Wayne with the attitude of Bogart; Jabba is a sluggified version of Signor Ferarri (early versions even kept the Fez). This article gives an excellent breakdown of the various influences of Star Wars. It doesn’t spend much time on Casablanca, but the time it does spend is interesting and insightful. This article stays much more focused on Casablanca as it relates to star wars. While I think both articles are interesting and worth reading, neither of them are professional in any capacity. I don’t think that this distinction is extremely important here since both films are very much made to be enjoyed by the general public (in the best way possible), but it is good to keep in mind.
Casablanca is an excellent example of continuity editing, through the use of a multitude of editing techniques the film constantly places the characters and locations in time and space relative to each other seamlessly. While watching Casablanca I never had to ask myself questions like, how did we get here? Or where is this? Or when is what I’m seeing happening? All of this editing comes together to eliminate any possible distractions from the story or characters allowing you the viewer to stay fully invested in the love triangle and struggles unfolding around them. One shot shot in particular that doses a good job establishing where rick’s is in relation to Casablanca and more importantly the airport.
In this scene we see the front of Rick’s café as Rick brings his current girl out to send her home, right away in this scene we see a spot light cross the front of the building rhythmically a few times then it quickly cuts to a light house to orient Rick’s in the city.
As seen above the cut to the lighthouse.
Later in that same scene as Rick talks with the chief of police you see both of them look off camera toward the sound of an airplane.
The city of Casablanca is a small slice of heaven (or hell for some) nestled right in between a war controlled Europe. While most of the continent is fighting, rationing food, and ultimately doing anything to survive WWII, the people of Casablanca are eating, drinking, and gambling away their time. There is some pieces of WWII present, like the corrupt officials and Nazi leaders deciding who can get in or out, but these same people frequent Rick’s bar just like everyone else we see in Casablanca. The people of Casablanca seem to live behind a veil of alcohol and gambling, masking themselves from the harshness of their past lives as well as from the state of Europe as a whole. Rick especially seems to be just a shell of a man at the beginning of the film, throwing aside the very human emotions of lust and greed by turning down both women and money. In fact, we don’t see any emotion out of Rick until one key event happens: he hears Sam play “As Time Goes By”.
This song is all it takes to turn someone who’s sole identity is a bar owner back into a passionate human being. With a few chords, the veil that Casablanca has placed on Rick is torn off, and he is now seeing nostalgic glimpses of his time in Paris with Ilsa (who’s face is equally as emotionally revealing during this song).
The change that “As Time Goes By” makes on Rick is not just a temporary one. For the remainder of the film, he is a completely different man than the one we are first introduced to. The man that “never drinks with his guests” is now seen in every following bar scene with a cocktail in hand. The previously straight laced, successful Rick eventually finds himself alone in his bar with just Sam, pitifully finishing a bottle off on his own. It’s during this scene that we once again see extreme emotion out of Rick, unsurprisingly after he forces Sam to “play it again”.
The final, and potentially most powerful example of song taking over the people of Casablanca is during the intensely emotional national anthem battle. As soon as Laszlo begins conducting the band to start the French Anthem, people immediately put down their drinks to stand up and join. Gamblers, drunks, Casablancans become the people who they really are when there isn’t a veil over their eyes: sad refugees away from home who still have a sense of nationalistic pride. What reveals this more than the French woman who literally has tears screaming down her eyes as she belts the French anthem?
Everyone in Casablanca has come from a different place. Some are sad, some are only concerned with escaping, and some are just drunk. It is very easy to forget where one has come from in Casablanca with all the distractions it creates. However, there is only one thing that can take the people back to their past and true selves: song.
I noticed a continuity that extended beyond the editing in Casablanca. As I was watching, paying attention to the continuity editing, I noticed one thing that seemed to stay the same. There were many establishing shots followed by shot/reverse shots. But within that spacial orientation, I found myself connecting characters in more than just the space of the single scene. I noticed that characters were continuously placed on a certain side of the frame. In particular, Rick on the left and Ilsa on the right.
The examples go on and on. Almost every time we see them on screen, Rick is on the right side and Ilsa is on the left side. I think this continuity is helpful for viewers to always know where we will find each character. It also, especially in the scenes in Casablanca, establishes two forces that are constantly at odds with one another, always occupying their own space. Those spaces never do truly merge, as Rick and Ilsa do not end up together in the end.
As the flashback to their time in Paris begins, we see a montage of shots all placing the two characters in this orientation. The first time we see them in different orientations is after they have recently been informed of the impending German invasion. This event has rocked their world and turned it 180 degrees to then show Ilsa on the left and Rick on the right for not just one but a series of shots.
Another time we see Rick on the right side of the screen is when he is shown conversing at a table with another woman. By placing the female on the left and Rick on the right, we get a subtle visual cue that this relationship is different. Rick has his heart fully set on Ilsa, paying a minimal amount of attention to this woman. He is forwardly emotionally invested, as he is the left-oriented character infatuated with the right-oriented character.
I know there are probably a few more shots with Rick on the right and Ilsa on the left, but they are certainly a small minority. This has got me thinking of other films I have seen and whether they have a continuous hemisphere in which a character will occupy and how the changes in that have been used to symbolize changes in the character or story. I’m also curious as to any other reasons why this orientation would be used continuously in Casablanca.
Casablanca begins with an info dump bringing the audience up to speed with the events of the Second World War thus far and how the city relates to the plot. This then cuts to an establishing shot of the market in Casablanca and cuts to establish the deeply foreign and somewhat hectic nature of the setting. This mood is further enhanced when the film cuts to scenes of the usual suspects being rounded up by the Vichy police. When the single resistance fighter flees the police, the film cuts to him being shot in front of a propaganda poster of Marshall Petain, the leader of Vichy France. The film further cuts to the fighter’s papers with a prominent Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the Free French movement. This sequence artfully establishes the overarching narrative of the conflict between the Free French and the Nazi’s with their Vichy collaborators.
This narrative is established on a smaller scaled when Ugarte, who is fleeing from the police, grasps Rick and begs for Rick to help him. The shot focuses solely on Ugarte as he is being dragged away, with no cuts to Rick’s face as the action occurs. Rick’s face is only shown with muted expression in reaction shots after Ugarte has been pried away, as if to show his hardhearted indifference. This visually shows Rick’s neutrality and this neutrality is driven home by the line “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
The more literal aspect of Rick’s internal conflict, his romance with Elsa is conveyed through a bit of elliptical editing and some brief scenes in Paris. The early love scenes with Rick and Elsa riding in a car have dissolve transitions, conveying a long passage of time and adding to the slow moving and lighthearted atmosphere of preoccupation Paris. This slow pace gives a sense of the importance of the time spent together. The early shots contrast with quick pace of the cuts and action in the establishing shots of the German invasion when the occupation of Paris is imminent, conveying the urgency of the situation and the shock of Rick and Elsa’s separation.
In Rick and Elsa’s final scene, this lingering conflict is resolved. Whereas Rick and Ugarte had no shot reverse shot dialogue, Elsa and Rick have significant cuts from one another with long close up takes on Elsa’s face to show her reactions as Rick convinces her to leave with Laszlo. Close up shots of Rick’s face are used only when stating particularly impactful lines. Spatially, the two are close, indicating a lingering intimacy between the two. The editing is used to show that Rick has fully taken a side, both literally his personal conflict and in the larger metaphorical conflict as well as to resolve his romance with Elsa.
To drive home the point, the film cuts to Captain Renault commenting on Rick’s choice, eyeline matches him looking at a bottle of “Vichy Water,” cuts back to Renault pondering, and then cuts to the bottle being dropped into the waste basket and Renault kicking the basket over. (starts at 1:06).
How else is Rick a metaphor for the United States pre-Pearl Harbor? How does the film use Rick as a proxy for the conflict between personal wants and duty to a greater cause? How is editing used to convey Rick and Elsa’s reconciliation 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: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studies-in-flashbacks-casablanca-7e154431d19c.
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?
Much of the film is about the hardships of being treated as a refugee rather than a person. There is a lot of talk about being stuck in Casablanca and Laszlo even says “I am also a human being” at one point. An interesting note about the creation of the movie is that “Many Nazi roles were filled by Germans who’s actually fled Germany, including Conrad Veidt who plays the menacing Major Strasser. Veidt was an outspoken anti-‘Facist whose wife was Jewish.” (https://www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com/articles/behind-the-scenes-casablanca/2016/02). Ironically, the movie is about humanizing refugees and here we have actors who act the part of the people whom they have fled from.
A different article relates how the refugees in Casablanca are similar to the refugees seen today in the world. “In the current crisis, the possession of false passports has often been treated as evidence of guilt, but Casablanca attempts to show that the black market is often the last report for otherwise honest people in desperate straits”. (http://www.slate.com/culture/2018/01/watch-the-trailer-for-steven-soderberghs-iphone-shot-thriller-unsane-video.html). The article goes on to say how the world tends to view refugees today as not people, exactly as the movie referenced and made a strong point against. The article says “it depict the victims of war as sympathetic individuals.”