March 02, 2015

#4: Destiny’s Dice

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.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Story Covered in Part 4: Laszlo has a secretive chat with Berger who informs him about Ugarte’s arrest and assures him of helping him in every way. He invites him for an underground meeting the next night. Ilsa, momentarily alone, strikes a conversation with Sam, asking about Rick, and he evades her questions. Finally, she persuades him to play “As Time Goes By” that causes Rick to storm out to them. And he sees her! They have an awkward conversation in the presence of Laszlo and Renault, before Laszlo calls it a day. Ilsa leaves with him, lying to Laszlo that she does not know Rick very well. Now alone, Rick drinks at the café, waiting for Ilsa to come back. He is miserable and Sam fails to convince him to avoid her.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 40-42: Laszlo’s secretive conversation with Berger
  • Pg 43-44: Ilsa talks to Sam. Rick comes out and freezes on seeing Ilsa.
  • Pg 45-48: Ilsa and Rick have an awkward conversation in the presence of Laszlo and Renault.
  • Pg 49-51: Rick drinks and Sam tries to dissuade him.
Structure: The play-like conversational nature of the script continues. But the Inciting Incident of the Central Plot, on page 44, is a very dramatic moment, built up very well, very intelligently. And then before much could be revealed, Ilsa leaves with Laszlo. Destiny has played a cruel move on Rick and he is miserable. Now we know what this film is actually going to be about. The set-up ends here. The writer has used 35 per cent of the film to bring the Inciting Incident. And immediately after that, around the end of 40 per cent, Act I ends. This is very unusual structure.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: All that we knew of him changes in a moment with Ilsa’s return. Not only is he bitter and self-destructive, but also very vulnerable and obstinate when it comes to love. I also love how he makes veiled attacks on Ilsa and Laszlo. To Laszlo he says “We all try. You succeed.” This definitely alludes to his relationship with Ilsa, under the garb of a statement on the political struggle.
  • Ilsa: It is obvious that it was she who spoiled whatever relation Rick and she had in the past, but she does not come across as a heartless woman. We badly want to know about their past.
  • Sam: He has developed into an important character. He and Rick came to Casablanca together and he is the only person apart from the two lovers who knows everything about them. He is also very protective of Rick and harbors bitterness for Ilsa. Otherwise, there was no need for him to mention to her that Rick has “a girl up at the Blue Parrot.” Also, we love the way he talks: “Ain’t you planning on going to bed in the near future?”
  • Laszlo: Not much change, but his sense of humor continues to impress us: “In a concentration camp, one is apt to lose a little weight.”
Sub-plots: The information that Ugarte has been arrested has caused unexpected problem for Laszlo. He will now have to rely on others for his escape. Berger invites him for their underground meeting the next night.

Tools Employed:
  • Make sure the audience relates with your protagonist: Until now, we were admiring Rick. We were charmed by him. But now, suddenly, we relate with him. He is no more a dashing debonair we praise from a distance. He is like one of us – vulnerable, weak, stubborn, and has suffered heartbreak. And like real life, he is ruing destiny’s cruel move on him.
  • Use character motivation over chance encounter: Ilsa makes Sam play her favourite song after much reluctance. Rick comes out when he hears it, livid. And then they meet. A lesser writer would make them meet accidentally, creating a weak melodramatic moment. The way it has been done here is dramatic, almost unforgettable, because character motivations have been used to reach this point.
  • Reverse the expectation of the audience for small pay-offs: It has been forced on us that Rick never drinks with customers. But here, he does not refuse Laszlo’s offer. He even pays for the evening. This shift of character has been verbalized by Renault to smoothen it further. And all this gives us pleasure as audience.
  • Foreshadow: There are two instances of effective foreshadowing. Berger shares with Laszlo that they have heard news of Laszlo's death five times already. Later, in the 9th part, when Ilsa reveals to Rick that she got the news of Laszlo's death and believed in it, we know this could be true, thanks to this conversation between Berger and Laszlo. The second instance is when Rick shares his belief with Sam that Ilsa will come back to him this night. This wonderfully raises expectations in us. So when she comes back (in the next part) it does not appear forced, manipulative writing because of this brief foreshadowing.
  • Delay the actual exposition: We have been teased by several tit-bits of information, but have not been exposed to the main back-story of the central plot. We are now dying to find out what had happened between them in the past.
  • Spoken Lines: I especially loved this line by Rick, who is now drunk and miserable – “Sam, if it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” “Uh, my watch stopped” replies Sam. Rick adds – “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.” Remember, America did not officially enter the war before December 1941!
  • Another beautiful instance of good dialogue is when, in front of Laszlo and Renault, Rick talks with Ilsa about the last day they met – “I remember every detail. The German wore gray, you wore blue.” And what is Ilsa’s reply to this wonderful mix of personal and political? “Yes. I put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I’ll wear it again.”
Conventions Broken:  As mentioned above, the structure of the film so far has been very unusual, with a much delayed set-up.

Themes: The use of the song “As Time Goes By” is very apt, adding themes of nostalgia and old romances. We have spent only one day in this city but know that the back-stories of the characters are dense. This song further enhances that feeling of witnessing a rich and layered story.

Standout scene: When Rick and Ilsa meet – the way that moment has been built up, as mentioned above, and how it does not give us too much after it is over. This moment is one of the best crafted moments in the history of romance on film.

What is the audience expecting: We want to know the back-story of Rick and Ilsa, especially because Sam is very protective of Rick. We also wonder if she will come back tonight to meet Rick in private.

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