March 09, 2015

#5: The Injury and the Insult

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.

“Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”

Story Covered in Part 5: We go back to the days in Paris, before June 1940, when Rick and Ilsa were deeply in love with each other. But Ilsa does not want him to ask questions about her – keeping the mystery about her intact, except that she had someone in her life who is now dead. Sam, the pianist, knew them from then. When the Germans took over Paris, Ilsa wanted Rick to leave. He insisted that they should leave together, but she did not turn up at the last moment. Sam and Rick leave Paris together. Flashback ends and we return to Rick’s Café where Rick has been drinking. As he expected, Ilsa comes and tries to give an explanation about why she did not come with him eighteen months ago. But Rick insults her badly and she leaves.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 52-58: Flashback – the days in Paris
  • Pg 59-60: Ilsa comes to meet Rick. But things turn worse and she leaves
Structure: Our first day, and night, in Casablanca ends around mid-point in the film. This film thus has the structure similar to those of Hindi films, with the film divided in two halves, and a dramatic build-up to the interval. Does this mean Casablanca has two Acts? No. Its Act Structure might be slightly unconventional, but it is still a three-act film. After the Set-up, and a brief exposition, we have entered the act of Confrontation, the Middle, the Second Act. This Confrontation should grow with Rising Tension in the pages to come, before it gives way to the Final Act. Also, please pay attention that until now Rick knew more than us about his back-story. But now Rick and we know exactly the same things and Ilsa knows more than us. It is interesting how the protagonist and the audience will now discover things together for a while, at least during most of the Second Act.

The Character arc: We now completely empathize with him. But before we could completely hate Ilsa, she comes back to explain things. And she looks genuine. Rick exposes his really weak and mean side by insulting her, almost calling her a whore. When she gets up and leaves, we feel bad for her as well. But we do not really blame Rick. One wonderful and, more importantly, true scene has made us more involved with these characters than in several other movies. Also, we get to see how close Sam and Rick have been, and why. When Sam says – “Don’t forget there’s a price on your head”, it is almost an evidence that once Rick indeed was fighting for the cause.

Tools Employed:
  • Flashback for exposition: It works for several reasons. One, after forty per cent of the film, we are dying to know their past. So we welcome this exposition. It is only seven pages and has a lot of information, so it is succinct and does not stretch things unnecessarily. Plus, after such a long time at Rick’s this evening, this quick montage is very cinematic and comes as a great visual relief.
  • Dramatic Irony: When we see the lead pair in their days of togetherness, blissfully ignorant of the imminent future that we are aware of, our heart reaches out for them. This is a perfect example of Dramatic Irony – keep your characters behind your audience when need be for greater emotional involvement.
  • Fulfilling Expectation: Rick had said earlier that he knows Ilsa will come. This creates an expectation. When she comes, we feel good. If he had not foreshadowed it in the previous part, her return would appear forced and manipulative.
  • Spoken lines: A masterful use of spoken lines makes the last scene one of the most dramatic and memorable in cinema. When she tells him about this man she looked up to and worshipped with a feeling she supposed was love, she is talking about Laszlo. But we feel she is talking about Rick, implying that she never really loved him. Rick interrupts her and then goes on to insult her. We are yet to discover that Ilsa still loves him and hence during the re-watch of the film, this scene works like magic. We can feel Ilsa’s pain instantly. This is one scene that gives this film an edge during its re-watches. Another line that adopts new meanings during re-watches is when Ilsa, during her last meeting with Rick in Paris, helplessly utters - "I hate this war so much. Oh, it's a crazy world. Anything can happen." She has already got the news of Laszlo's return (after his presumed death) and hence possibly she is mentioning that when she says these lines. But in the context of the scene, it appears she is saying this out of concern for Rick.
  • And then, of course, that famous line – “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It is used twice in the flashback. In the script, I found it repetitive. But the way Bogart uses it is the stuff of the movies we love.
Conventions Broken:  After a very long and delayed set-up, the film uses a quick and rich flashback to explain things, followed by a two-page scene that gives it a new dramatic high. By the time we reach the mid-point, we feel that we have seen a lot of the story, when it is not true. This two-page scene has given the film a dramatic urgency it was lacking until now. This rhythm of the screenplay is very unusual. But here it works beautifully.

Themes: The use of “As Time Goes By”, as mentioned in the last part, works beautifully. And then the use of rain in the last scene of the flashback is so cinematic. Here, rain stands for urgency, chaos, and destroyer of hopes and dreams, working sub-consciously for the audience. The close look at the letter however, when the rain smudges the writing as we try to read it, is an example of less subtle symbolism.

Standout scene: When Ilsa comes to meet Rick and he insults her. As mentioned above, it is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes. In this scene, Rick mentions twice, the need for “a wow finish” to a story. I would like to call it a brave foreshadowing of the wow finish of the film itself!

What is the audience expecting: Now we know a lot about their past. But we still do not know the entire back-story because of Rick's interruption to Ilsa. This has made us curious, and we are eager to see how their complicated affair will resolve. We actually have no idea at this moment, where the film is going.

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