February 06, 2015

#2: The Hero in his Cynical Shell

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.

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?”

Story Covered in Part 2: UGARTE, a shady but smooth-talking smuggler comes to Rick. He discloses that he has managed to acquire a couple of letters of transit that he will be selling tonight for a huge price before leaving the city forever. He requests Rick to keep the letters safe with him for a while. Rick accepts that, but figures out that these letters are the documents retrieved from the murdered German couriers, which makes Ugarte their murderer. Rick then refuses FERRARI, the owner of the Blue Parrot, a competing night spot, who wants to buy this café or some of its staff and then makes YVONNE, a French girl he has been sleeping with but has grown out of lately, leave the café because she has had a lot to drink. Captain Renault, who seems to have known Rick forever, informs him that they will be arresting a murderer here tonight. And also, that Victor Laszlo, the famous resistance leader will be coming to the café tonight with a lady, trying to buy his exit visa. Rick bets that Laszlo will be able to successfully escape from Renault’s hand, the way he has been managing until now.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 13-15: Conversation between Rick and UGARTE who gives him the letters to hide. Rick hides those in the piano.
  • Pg 16-19: Rick refuses Ferrari’s offer. He makes the drunk and sulking YVONNE go home.
  • Pg 20-26: Renault informs Rick about the arrest he is going to make, about Strasser who is about to visit the café tonight and also about Victor Laszlo.
Structure: The story had entered Rick’s on page 8 and is still there. Plot-wise, two things have happened: Ugarte has given the letters to Rick to hide and Renault informs Rick about the imminent arrest and that Laszlo is about to come here tonight – so the news that started the film is driving these pages which been used to reveal the characters – mainly of Rick. Also, after his late entry, we have stayed with him throughout. There is also a song in this section, that helps in building mood.

The Character arc: The following characters are being or have been set-up until now:
  • Rick: All these pages have been used for his character revelation. We start admiring him very soon. But then, there are unanswered questions. Why and when did he come to Casablanca? Why doesn’t he return to America? What is his back-story? Why did he fight wars earlier when he is so neutral today? And finally, the irony: Renault too believes that under his cynical shell, Rick is at heart a sentimentalist.
  • Captain Renault: An unapologetic philanderer. Very corrupt. And is funny. He likes to do things in style and claims to be the master of his fate in Casablanca. But he is only trying to impress the Germans.
  • Ugarte: Very shrewd, this guy, a real opportunist, a “cut-rate” parasite. Everyone despises him. “I have many friends in Casablanca” must be a lie. And hence Rick is the only one he can trust.
  • Victor Laszlo: A famous Resistance leader who has managed to escape from the Nazis. He is rich, or at least has a lot of money to afford exit visas. And he is serious about the lady who is travelling with him. He will not leave her behind and escape alone. The beauty of this segment is that we know so much about him and he is yet to enter the film.
  • The friendship between Rick and Renault is introduced here. Although we never know that this will get so significant, the last sub-plot to close the film.
  • Laszlo is mentioned and hence his sub-plot begins, especially because it is connected with Ugarte.
  • Ugarte is here and is about to get arrested.
  • Ferrari’s interest in Rick’s Café. He will earn it by the end.
  • Rick and Yvonne have had a fling but now he does not care about her. She is sore, despite all the attention from Sacha.
Tools Employed:
  • Create a likeable three-dimensional protagonist: Rick has a great dry sense of humor. He talks sharply and deliciously. He appears to be fearless and has strong sense of values but projects himself to be selfish and indifferent to politics and feelings. He is also smart, calm and practical. His staff is loyal to him. A shrewd guy like Ugarte trusts him – this shows that he is non-judgmental. But he is majorly flawed – treats women badly.
  • Solid back-stories: Of the main plot, through Rick’s character. But also of the sub-plot of Ugarte. He and Laszlo were supposed to meet on this night for the letters of transit. This entire scheme of things is not very clear in the first reading. But it is very clear in the head of the writer.
  • Always break long sitting-down conversational scenes to short visually rich ones: The more than seven-pages long conversation between Rick and Renault is broken when EMIL, the croupier, comes to Rick for cash. The conversation is thus covered over three locations, each visually and aurally distinct from one another.
  • Ironical Foreshadowing: Rick makes a statement – “Whatever gave you the impression that I might be interested in helping Laszlo escape?” This is exactly what he will do in the end.
  • Spoken Lines: Even a character like Ugarte who has one conversational scene in the film is made memorable by the dialogues used for his character revelation. We also get detailed insights like that of Sacha’s interest in Yvonne, through crisp dialogue. With a short line like “What, again?” it is expresses that arrests happen at this bar more often than not.
Conventions Broken:
  • Set-up the film quickly: We have reached page 26, but the Inciting Incident of the main plot is not here yet.
  • Avoid expository dialogue: Interesting characters and delicious lines have made sure that we are eager to take in every bit of information. This brilliant exposition through dialogue is one of the biggest achievements of this script.
  • Ferrari mentions Rick’s isolationism. Rick also asserts that he sticks his neck out for nobody. This has been his character’s primary trait after the heartbreak eighteen months ago. But it also is a comment on America’s neutral political stand in the ongoing war.
  • The revolving beacon light from the airport adds to the image system of this city as a prison.
  • The plane to Lisbon is shown again as a symbol of hope and freedom.
  • The hollow assertion by Renault that he is the master of his fate, only to be interrupted by the entry of the German Major, highlights the corrupt hollowness of Vichy.
  • Another mention of Tonelli who is trying to assert his importance is a repeat of the political stand on Italy.
Standout scene: The long conversation between Rick and Renault is a brilliant expository scene, shedding light on the characters and the situation. Smart writing ensures that it is not a boring sitting-down scene.

What is the audience expecting: The arrest of Ugarte is imminent. And we are waiting for Laszlo. But we are very curious about Rick, to know more about him, and see what he does.

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