January 26, 2015

#1: A Bottleneck Called Casablanca

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“I have already heard about this café, and also about Mr. Rick himself.”

Story Covered in Part 1: December 1941. The Second World War has forced thousands of Europeans to try to escape to the Americas. In the hope to find their exit through Lisbon, many are waiting, some endlessly, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, still a part of unoccupied France. There are people from different countries, of varied age-groups, and of varied morality and intent. On the first day of our story, the local police get the news of the murder of two German couriers carrying important documents on the train to Casablanca. As a reaction to this, they start rounding up refugees, suspects or otherwise. CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect, informs the just-arrived German officer, MAJOR STRASSER, that they know who the murderer is and will be arresting him tonight at Rick’s Café. Rick’s is an expensive and popular nightclub where everyone goes – from the German soldiers to the French policemen and to the refugees dealing with black-marketers, to find means to survive and, if luck strikes, escape. The owner of this club is an American, RICK, aloof and nonchalant. And he hates Germans.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 1: A Narrator’s VO introduces the setting, followed by the first view of the city.
  • Pg 2-5: The police get to know about the murder of the German couriers and immediately get into action, arresting suspects of all kinds, even firing at them if need be. A EUROPEAN GUY smooth-talks an elderly Englishman, who is watching the pandemonium, and picks his pocket. The young Bulgarian couple, JAN and ANNINA BRANDEL, are among the refugees who hope to leave the city soon, as they spot an airplane in the sky. The plane swoops down a sign atop the building at the edge of the airport. That building is “Rick’s Café Americain”.
  • Pg 6-7: MAJOR STRASSER, the German Officer, alights from the plane and is welcomed by CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect. He assures the Major that they already know who the murder is and they will arrest him tonight at Rick’s. The Major has heard about this café, and its owner.
  • Pg 8-12: It is night. And Rick’s is overcrowded with people of all kind. Through their brief and secretive conversations we get to know that some have been waiting in this city endlessly. Others are trying to sell their belongings cheaply in order to survive. There are conspirators. And refugees illegally buying their visas from black-marketers. Even the staff is varied. The African-American SAM plays the piano, SACHA is the Russian bartender, CARL is a waiter from Germany, and ABDUL is the guard. RICK, the American owner, and our protagonist, never drinks with customers. He drinks alone, and does not allow Germans into the secret gambling room of his. As Rick throws a German out, who threatens him back, a nervous, thin man UGARTE enters.
Structure: The setting-up is very elaborate, and reading the first few pages is unsettling, with so many characters, much more than those I’ve mentioned in the Step Outline above. But taking time to do this is essential – we must know how it is in Casablanca. Also, watching these short scenes on the screen is not tiring at all, but cinematic. The protagonist enters very late, on pg 11, but on pg 8, the antagonist has mentioned him. Also, his café has been introduced even earlier.

The Character arc: We have just seen Rick. And we are aware that he is going to be a strong cinematic character.

  • The murder of the couriers has started the search of the murderer.
  • The Bulgarian couple is introduced as desperate refugees who aspire to leave urgently.
Tools Employed:
  • Opening Voice-over: Very briefly and very effectively it introduces the city and the title of the film.
  • Action kicks in quickly: With the news of the murders on the train and the subsequent arrests
  • Visual storytelling: Introducing Casablanca and Rick’s is definitely visual, especially with people from different ethnicity and cultures. At the beginning of pg 6, the first look at the café sign when the plane is landing is masterful, because not only it is a great introduction to the Café and its location, it is also a smart transition to the next scene of Strasser alighting from the plane.
  • Orchestration of characters: All with speaking parts are unique and colorful.
  • The spoken lines are already very charming, witty, and entertaining.
Conventions Broken:
  • The Protagonist should enter the film very early: Rick enters very late. But the pages before this have built him up, and his café. So although, he becomes visible on pg 11, he has “entered” the film much before that.
  • The Inciting Incident should be early so that the main plot gets kicked in as soon as the film begins: The writer is relying only on sub-plots to hold our interest.
  • The Image of the airplane on pg 5 is a symbol of hope and freedom. This plane will be playing a very important role in the climax.
  • Casablanca is like a prison. Refugees look wistfully at the plane, and later at Rick’s, secretly plan their escape or worry about their endless wait.
  • Rick’s Café is like USA itself, with representatives from all over the world, having a good time, finding hope, making money, and its owner – a snobbish capitalist.
  • Similarly, Renault represents Vichy, the puppet government of unoccupied France.
  • Major Strasser, the Nazi, has just reached Casablanca, implying the German expansion to new territories.
  • Also, Captain Tonelli, the Italian has been used on page 7 as an ass-licker to Major Strasser – clearly a political statement on Italy’s sucking up to Germany.
Standout scene: The scene leading to Rick’s entrance in which Carl informs some guests how it is not easy to impress Rick and he never drinks with customers. And then we see him, sitting alone, drinking, calm and composed, and stylish.

What is the audience expecting now: We are expecting the arrest of the murderer at the Café and are curious to know who he is. And we know Rick is going to be our hero. How, we do not know at all.

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