March 28, 2015

#6: Lost in the Maze

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.

“He is a difficult customer, that Rick. One never knows what he’ll do or why.”

Story Covered in Part 6: Next morning, Laszlo and Ilsa reach Renault’s office. Strasser asserts that he will not let Laszlo escape, unless he rats on some of the resistance leaders. Laszlo passionately declines. He is then informed that Ugarte is dead. Desperate to find a way out, Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari, who monopolizes the black market. He is scared to help Laszlo but offers to get a visa for Ilsa. She refuses to leave Laszlo alone despite his insistence. Ferrari then informs them about the letters of transit that Ugarte must have left with Rick. Earlier, Ferrari has offered Rick to partner and benefit from those letters but Rick does not acknowledge possessing those. He meets Ilsa at the bazaar and tries to resume last night’s conversation, but she is very hurt and reveals to him that Laszlo is her husband and even was when Rick and Ilsa had met in Paris. Also, the Bulgarian couple is trying their best to get their visas and it seems accepting Renault’s terms is the only option for them.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 61-66: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Renault and Strasser. The Bulgarian couple’s visa problem comes to Renault.
  • Pg 66: At the black market, a native suggests a Frenchman to visit Ferrari to get his job done.
  • Pg 67-69: At the Blue Parrot, Ferrari persuades the Bulgarian couple to talk to Renault. Rick has come to collect his shipment while his café is being ransacked. Chats with Ferrari.
  • Pg 70-72: At the black market, Rick meets Ilsa.
  • Pg 72-75: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari.
Structure: After spending close to half of the movie at Rick’s Café, the Second Act has not only thickening of action, but complication of structure. There are as many as four long and important scenes in this part covering the second day of the story. The order of the scenes, characters criss-crossing each other, especially the use of the Bulgarian couple, is unsettling and adds a physical component to the emotion of being trapped and lost that our characters are going through.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: Hugely popular, even among small vendors, Rick is too much of a man to apologize to Ilsa without defending himself or hurting her even further. But when she attacks him with a secret she had always hid, he is left stunned more than ever.
  • Ilsa: She is in no mood give themselves another chance at explaining things and hopes that by avoiding each other she will be able to preserve the beautiful memory of Paris. But when Rick gets increasingly insulting, and repeatedly taunts at her character, she shatters his perception of their romance forever. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the film: “Victor Laszlo is my husband… and was, even when I knew you in Paris” although true, is not the complete truth. She only wants to hurt him badly. She now feels closer to Laszlo than to Rick. No doubt, she refuses to leave him alone and get visa for herself, showing her loyalty and devotion to him.
  • Victor Laszlo: Our admiration for him keeps growing. He is fearless and loyal to his cause. When proposed with the idea of ratting on his colleagues, he not only refuses, but he challenges and threatens the Nazi Major. He truly loves and cares for Ilsa and wants her to leave him and escape. As Ferrari observes, in this respect Laszlo is “a very fortunate man”. We start to root for their relationship around this time in the film.
  • Major Strasser: He is ruthless and mean. He is the true antagonist, unlike Renault who is funny and corrupt. He talks sharp and threatens out of habit.
  • Captain Renault: His admiration for Rick is getting more and more visible. Also, we get to see how excitedly he volunteers to ‘help’ pretty, young girls. Unapologetically immoral, and very funny – he is one unforgettable character.
  • Ferrari: The “leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca”, he starts drinking early in the day. He is corrupt and openly so. He is also “a fat hypocrite” who lives only to make money. He is influential and pretends that he is “respected”.
  • The Bulgarian couple appears before us twice in these fifteen pages. This clearly suggests that their sub-plot is going to be of some use soon.
  • Ugarte is dead. So his sub-plot is officially over.
Tools Employed:
  • Rising Tension and thickening of action in the Second Act: Plot-wise, so much has been covered in the sixty per cent of the script that we know the delayed set-up did not eventually harm in any way. And this is because everything is getting more and more complicated – the affairs of Laszlo, Rick, Ilsa, the Bulgarian couple, as well as the antagonists because despite their control over the situation they are not getting what they want – the letters of transit and information about Laszlo’s colleagues.
  • Shocking revelation: The revelation that Laszlo is Ilsa’s husband for a very long time is a shock, more so to Rick, but also to us. And since it is timed so well, and comes out of character motivation rather than convenience, it works marvelously.
  • An additional but insignificant character may add more conflict and meanings to a scene: The Arab vendor trying to sell linen to Ilsa has no role in the plot. But his presence makes things more conflicted. In fact, when he starts lowering the price in the presence of Rick, we know he is trying to literally “sell” Rick to her. How hurt she is gets accentuated by this insignificant character supporting Rick. And before the conversation gets more intimate, he goes off to get more linen for Ilsa.
  • Transitions to smoothen out the edges of scenes when, spatially and chronologically, they are not very seamlessly connected: The first scene ends with Renault mentioning the black market and readying himself to meet the Bulgarian couple. We cut to the black market where there is a short transition scene to introduce ‘The Blue Parrot’ before we go there. Once inside, we see the Bulgarian couple in conversation with Ferrari before Rick starts his chat with him. This shows that some time has passed since the 10am scene at Renault’s office.
  • Cover a character or plot hole by voicing it through a character: There can be no explanation to why the greedy and cunning Ferrari shares with Laszlo the information about Rick having the letters of transit. But it is essential for the plot. Hence, instead of leaving the audience to spot this character inconsistency and writer’s convenience, Ferrari wonders aloud – “I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me”.
  • MacGuffin: The letters of transit were driving the film even before it began (murder of the German couriers), and they will be driving the film until the very end. So yes, it is that tangible object the film is chasing, but the film is so much more than that. Hence, this is a perfect example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin.
Conventions Broken:
  • Every scene should be vital to the plot or at least for character exploration: The short transition scene of a native talking to a Frenchman about Ferrari is not important plot-wise. But it is very important film-wise. One, it builds Ferrari as the uncrowned king of the black market and hence the scenes that follow can be more powerful dramatically without bothering to share this information. Two, showing more insignificant characters and the world of Casablanca is a visual relief. But most importantly, this short scene is like a breathing space – it is there only to help us relax for a bit, before the story involves us again. This final purpose of this scene is something even good writers fail to consider. In most Hindi films, songs provide that breathing space. At times there is too much of that at the cost of plot. In great scripts, it is just apt.
Themes: The theme of virtues, of value system, against the harsh realities of life is perhaps the most universal and timeless theme of ‘Casablanca’. After mid-point, when we know a lot about the characters and their back-stories, we can look beyond the plot into their value systems. This segment, apart from being vital to the plot, is a great insight into that – from Laszlo’s fearless patriotism, to Ilsa’s devotion to him, from the Bulgarian couple’s vulnerability to Renault’s shameless tendency to exploit them, and from Ferrari’s corrupt, but still inexplicably tender, self to Rick’s influential, powerful but bitter and petty state at the moment. In this segment, in fact, Rick has almost lost Ilsa to Laszlo, thanks to his heartless approach toward healing the wounds of the past. Even we feel like rooting for Ilsa and Laszlo, looking at their selfless love. Virtues against harshness of life – we are participating in this battle.

Standout scene: For reasons mentioned above, the scene between Rick and Ilsa at the Arab vendor’s shop has to be one of the most powerful scenes in cinema.

What is the audience expecting: The film has beautifully made the personal life of Rick the biggest conflict to the political journey of Laszlo and Ilsa. At the end of this part as they get to know about Rick possessing the letters, we know it will boil down to Rick’s willingness to save Laszlo, Rick who “sticks out his neck for nobody.”

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