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.

The Significance of Editing

In films, we can see the importance of mise-en-scéne and cinematography quite easily because these incorporate everything within the frame that we are focusing on. Does editing hold the same significance as these factors? The characters, the colors, and the props are all bits of information that are relayed to us directly through the mise-en-scéne and cinematography. Editing is defined as “the process of selecting and joining film footage and shots” — Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience, 168. It is essentially taking different manifestations of cinematography and mise-en-scéne and putting them together. Knowing this, editing takes on paramount importance as it pieces together shots and footage in meaningful ways using cuts, transitions, and other things.

Editing can be broken down into different elements. Each element creates meaning in its own way by changing the way that the film is experienced by an audience. A cut is “the join or splice between two pieces of film” (Corrigan and White, 168). Cuts are the simplest and most common forms of editing and consists of many different types that create feelings about the film or assert an idea. Transitions are the join of two separate pieces of film with the use of some embellishment that also adds meaning to the film. This video talks about different types of cuts and transitions.

Another element of editing is the continuity style. Although it is not necessary or guaranteed, many films use a continuity style in order to orient space and time. They do this to give their film verisimilitude, which “is the quality of fictional representation that allows readers or viewers to accept a constructed [world] as plausible” (Corrigan and White, 180). By having spatial and temporal patterns, the film becomes something that is believable when we are watching it. A common use continuity editing is the eyeline match. A character is shown looking somewhere off-screen, then the camera cuts to another shot with a new subject. As viewers, we assume that the character was looking at what we saw in the second shot. Based on this edit, we can form spatial relationships between characters and objects as well as ideas about the significance of the character’s glance. In this clip from Star Wars: Episode 1, Obi-Wan Kenobi looks at his lightsaber off screen, then it cuts to his lightsaber. This mixed with his obvious desperation, we form an idea that he is planning to do something with the lightsaber to get out of his current situation, which he does.

Editing’s relationship with time is also important for creating meaning in a film. For example, sometimes the scenes of a movie will not be shown in chronological order of the story. When this occurs, typically there will be some sort of external cue through editing. Flashbacks might dissolve in simulating a character’s memory. Some sequences in films are not explicitly located in any part of the story timeline. This ambiguity is sometimes used on purpose for descriptions, psychological depth, and others. Duration also plays a part in the audiences viewing experience. A film tells a story that has its own timeline but is shown only in the runtime of the film. The length of the story and the length of the movie are almost never the same lengths, therefore it is important in editing to manipulate the duration to make the story flow and feel like its happening in its own timeline. This is affected by pace and rhythm. How often movie cuts can be measured by the average shot length (ASL). ASL helps determine the pace of films. Films take on different paces depending on what type of film they are or what kind of feeling they want to give off.

All of these elements put together are very subtle and go unnoticed when discussing the important parts of a film. However, editing creates so much meaning that basically none of the films you see today can exist without it. Not only is it necessary to put together films that we see, it is important in commanding the way that the viewer is seeing the film and interpreting it. What do you think is more important as a viewer, things like mise-en-scéne and cinematography or editing? As time has passed, the ASL of films has dropped. In your opinion what could be the cause of this trend? Is continuity something that you pay close attention to when watching a film?