The film industry prides themselves on their ability to innovate the film making process. Whether it is special effects or computer imaging movie studios are among the most dynamic of corporations. Why is it then that one of the world’s greatest films, Casablanca, was made in 1942 before the revolutionary technologies of today? It has to do with content and form. These two components are what make a movie great. Director Michael Curtiz took a standard love story and made it extraordinary. Through the use of politics and romance an American classic was born.
One thing that really makes this film interesting is the use of subplots. Robert McKee states that there are no fewer than five subplots before the major plot is addressed. The plot of the movie does not surface until a half hour into the movie. To keep the interest of the viewer many subplots are developed. By incorporating minor characters with major problems the director gives the story a lot of volume. This keeps the film at a decent pace. Without the use of these subplots the film would move far too slow. A slow film bores the viewer. Another advantage the subplots bring is variety. The story is not just one sided. There are many aspects that contribute to the overall picture. This type of stimulation is very important. Whether it is Ugarte with the visas or Laszlo coming to Casablanca the love story between Rick and Ilsa is enhanced. In the end the story doesn’t work without these aspects.
Unity is a key to this movie. Having all the pieces fall into place is just one reason that this movie appeals to so many people. Like I had mentioned earlier the subplots working together really make this movie what it is. Through the integrating of many stories the overall story is made that much better. Variety and unity go hand in hand. A film with too much variety and too little unity will become confusing, whereas a film with too little variety and much unity will seem uneventful and bore the viewer.
However, most important part of any film is the climax. The climax will make or break a story. When the rising action is happening the audience is going to want a payoff. Now in Casablanca the rising action happens when Ilsa is with Rick and she tells him that he must do the thinking for all of them. This sets up the climax were Rick makes the decision to let Ilsa go with Laszlo. The climax here results from the inciting incident where Ilsa goes to ask Rick for the visas but realizes that she loves him and wants to be with him. The problem is she is married. This leaves her lost and in the end she is unable to choose a path, it is up to Rick to d that. This is basically the story. This is why the climax is so important. Here it states a dramatic question that the viewer needs answered. Will Rick help Laszlo and Ilsa? Will Rick live happily ever after with Ilsa? Will Rick look out for just himself and let Ilsa and Laszlo remain stuck in Casablanca? These questions are the story. These are what make the story so interesting and they all stem from the climax of the film.
Character development is a huge part of this film. Rick is the most understood for good reason. As the central character in the film it is the job of the writer and director to make him seem overly important. This is done in a number of ways. In the beginning of the movie we hear Rick say, “I don’t stick my neck out for nobody.” This basically means that he looks out for himself and that is it. The thing is that on two separate occasions he does go out of his way for others. The first time is for an immigrant couple that wants to leave Casablanca but lacks the funds to do so. This sets up the idea that he will help others. The second time is at the end of the film. Here Rick gives the visas to Laszlo and Ilsa so they can leave Casablanca and fight the fascist movement. Rick puts it all on the line by killing Major Strasser, the Nazi military leader trying to keep Laszlo in Casablanca. What is significant about this is his personal sacrifice of Ilsa. We see that he is a decent human being who does care for others.
McKee also discusses the minor subplot characters in his book Story. Here he states that while these characters are important to the overall message the writer does not want to deter from the main protagonist of the story. Laszlo is key to this story but is his need to leave Casablanca as big as Ricks need to get Ilsa back? No, that is what McKee is getting at. The writer must be sure not to let the audience get too sympathetic with the lesser protagonists. If the viewer were to be worried about the relationship between Ilsa and Laszlo, as well as how Laszlo is going to leave, then Rick would no longer be the focus of the film and a completely new story would be born. This is why the writer must emphasize the problems with the main character and give just enough about the supporting cast.
Field also has a lot to say about Rick’s character. In Field’s book he mentions why Rick is one of the “good guys.” Looking back to the beginning of the film it is apparent that Rick really doesn’t care too much for most people side from Sam. It almost seems that Rick is the most heartless person in the movie. But something changes. It begins with Ilsa coming back. But this is not the event that changes him initially. This actually makes him even more upset. It is through the flash back that the viewer understands why he is so distraught about the failed relationship. It is also through this flash back that Rick realizes that while he is still upset with her, he loves her. He always will and that is why he must help her. By keeping up with Rick’s evolving personality the viewer is forced to feel sympathy for him. This is key to the telling of this story. In the end the viewer feels close to Rick and appreciates the sacrifice that he made for the greater good of all involved.
I mentioned that form is extremely important to the making of a great film. Casablanca uses the dramatic model to keep its form in line. The dramatic model states that a script requires a will or want, a climax, complications, a dramatic question, and a resolution. The will or want is simple even though it is stated later in the film. It comes down to Rick wanting Ilsa to stay with him; he loves her. There is a significant complication though, she is married. This leads to the climax where he sees that she loves him as well and wants to stay with him. Here the dramatic question is stated. Will Rick give up the visas and the woman he loves, or will he keep his world and look after only himself? The question is answered differently though. Ilsa wants to stay with Rick and he is willing to give Laszlo the visas. It is here that the climax is brought to it’s pinnacle. Rick does help Ilsa as we well know. He also resolves the problem by telling her that she would be miserable with him if she stayed in Casablanca. He tells her to leave with Laszlo; that it is for the best.
Plot points are another way of looking at this movie and the way that it changes. A plot point is defines as any incident that spins the story in another direction. Obviously the biggest plot point is Ilsa coming to Casablanca. Before this happens (thirty minutes into the film) Rick is only worried about keeping his club running smoothly. He really doesn’t seem too worried about the war or the people that he interacts with on a regular basis. This is illustrated by the way he won’t drink with the customers. Even before Ilsa’s arrival there is the matter of the visas. Rick gets them and this will ultimately work the story in another direction. The arrival of Major Strasser is a plot point too. It is through him that the viewer understands that Laszlo leaving Casablanca is not an option. Strasser’s presence forces Laszlo to seek a new way out. The last major plot point takes place at the end of the film. Here the decision was made that Ilsa would stay with Rick. Instead Rick sends her with Laszlo. This was a significant event.
Acts are the last way that I would like to break this film up. It is said that the first act should be about twenty minutes, the second should be about forty to sixty, and finally the third is about twenty. Casablanca does not conventionally break up this way. The first act lasts about thirty minutes ending with the arrival of Ilsa. The second act last the required forty to sixty minutes ending with the decision to have Ilsa stay with Rick. The third act starts with Ilsa at the air port getting ready for Laszlo’s escape, which appears at the correct corresponding time. The movie only defies the time placement with the first act. This is due to the amount of subplots that are needed to round the story out.
When you really look at this film it is clear that it is incredibly well composed. The writers put together a movie that proposes a will or want, addresses complications, leads to a climax, and resolves every aspect of the story. The fact that these things are all done, and done well, makes this movie a classic. Through the development of memorable characters that the viewer can understand the write has created a timeless story that will continue to entertain and excite audiences for generations to come.
Ebert Roger. “ Casablanca (1942).” Chicago Suntimes 15 September 1996. 15 October 2006
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. A Step by step Guide From Concept to Finished Product. New York: Random House 1984
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper 1997
Full Cast and Crew. International Movie Data Base