Everything's in Casablanca

Diana Paladino

Of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine

Improbability is a striking feature of Casablanca, and one of the most appealing qualities of the film. Unusual encounters (such as Rick's and Ilsa's in that remote city of French Morocco); surprising coincidences (such as the fact that Ilsa and her husband are seeking the very "letters of transit" that a spy had left with Rick before dying), and frankly extravagant conventions (such as the one that Jesús G. Requena indicates regarding "the kid-glove treatment that the Nazis lavish on the man presented as their greatest enemy: Laszlo, the leader of the resistance." [1] . In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Casablanca succeeds in organizing a coherent and solid plot. It is therefore appropriate for us to ask ourselves through what means the film manages to do so; and in the process, to consider how the film holds our attention with no more explanations than those that are offered to us; obtains our emotional involvement in each scene; and secures our obliging approval of each grandiloquent line of dialogue. In short: what are the mechanisms that make us feel at home in the Babel-like setting of Casablanca? What are the rules that govern the interplay of verisimilitude and improbability in this film?

To begin with, we can consider the immediacy and conclusiveness with which the story builds a credible imaginary universe. A universe initially made of referents that are very close to the contemporary spectator (the Second World War), and that are gradually diluted so that the story becomes contained almost exclusively in the microcosm of Rick's Café. In the opening scenes, the film employs the blunt and direct style of newsreel footage,[2] in evoking the famous 'March of Time' through a documentary-like assembly of images with voice-over commentary by a narrator. Then, once the general context of the war and the private situation of Casablanca are respectively presented, the voice of the narrator disappears and we are introduced completely into the story. Let's review these scenes briefly:

  1. A voice-over establishes a concrete time and space: "With the coming of the Second World War many eyes of imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly. And so a tortuous roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles. Across the Mediterranean to Oran. Then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. " On the screen, these coordinates are marked over a rotating Globe. Over this, images of a massive exodus of people reinforce the idea of a documentary as suggested by the sound track, giving the impression of authenticity.

  2. The first shot of Casablanca located in a point of the map melts with a panoramic image of this city. In the meantime, the voice-over establishes a bridge between the general context of the World War and the particular problems of those who arrive at this port of unoccupied France to obtain their visas.

  3. From a general shot of the city, a tracking shot brings us to the level of a street packed with street-venders, stores and exotic pets. The confusion, the disorderly movement, and the vertigo of the unknown all converge to create the setting of Casablanca. The voice-over ends by saying: "But the others wait in Casablanca... and wait... and wait... and wait." With these words the voice-over is concluded and an omniscient narrator takes control of the story. Discourse is transformed into story.

  4. An officer receives and broadcasts over the radio the following telegram: "...two German couriers carrying important official documents murdered on train from Oran. Murderers and possible accomplices headed for Casablanca. Round up all suspicious characters and search them for stolen documents. Important." In fact, this information is important. It is the pivot of the plot, the thing that drives the action. The letters of transit are the objects desired by all the characters: by Lazlo and Ilsa who are trying to leave Casablanca, by Renault and Strasser seeking to trap the murderer, and by Ferrari who wants to sell them. Only Rick, who actually possesses the letters, desires something entirely different.

  5. A brief sequence of images shows arrests, persecutions and murders that are carried out in broad daylight in the streets of the city. While stealing their wallet, a pickpocket explains to an English couple that the disorder is due to the death of a German courier. An airplane is followed by the eyes of a long row of people who are waiting for their exit visas: "Perhaps tomorrow we will be on that airplane, " a young woman says longingly. In the last shot of the plane, the sign of "Rick's Café Américain" fills the screen. From here onwards, the film moves on to the central action of the plot.

Gradually, like a funnel, the story narrows the focus of the narration from the general and universal to the particular and contingent. Then the arrival of the head Nazi, Major Strasser, at the airport renews the interest in the visas, reinforces the image of subordination of Vichy (incarnated in Captain Renault) to the Nazi power, and justifies the convergence of all the characters in one unusual setting: Rick's café. Citing once more Requena: "A café is populated, like Hollywood itself, by people from all nations, and [a place] where the occupation forces insist on behaving with exquisite courtesy. "[3] Rick's place is neither more nor less than a stylized reproduction of what was shown before in the streets of Casablanca, with the same heterogeneity and the same exoticism. A place where people sell their jewelry for a visa, and that is also populated by the hopeless who fear dying without ever reaching the Promised Land, the desperate who day-dream about a fabulous escape plan and the unworried who gamble in the illegal casino. With all of these initial images inside "Rick's Café Américain," the imaginary universe of Casablanca is established.

Secondly, in order to understand the logic of the interaction and the limits that govern the horizon of the possible in this film, we should start by considering that it is a melodrama. That is to say, a genre with predetermined conflicts (the impossibility of forming a couple), norms (paying for sins committed at an earlier time), situations (secrets/revelations, separations/reunions) and conventions (dramatic effects). In this perspective, not only does the love triangle Rick - Ilsa - Laszlo develop, but also such arbitrary factors as destiny (driven by the war that once again separates the couple) and the stereotyped quality of the characters, especially Laszlo, Strasser and Renault. Laszlo is the material and intellectual leader of the resistance, a perfect hero even for the Germans (the Third Reich's representative admits he is a brave man). His repeated escapes from the concentration camps have virtually elevated him to a legend. Major Strasser appears as the great Nazi villain, a complete film icon. While the witty Captain Renault defines himself as a corrupt and accommodating official who can easily adapt to new situations.

Furthermore, the schematic treatment of opposing forces (the Nazis vs. the rest of the world), the ambiguity provoked by false appearances (Rick supposes that Ilsa is an adventurer) and the passive attitude of the protagonists (first Rick, grieving beside a bottle of bourbon, and then Ilsa, asking him to decide for the two of them), all correspond to the conventions of the melodrama.

Now there are other events that the prodigious "probable improbability" of melodrama cannot account for. Let's remember the ridiculous and ingenuous offer that Major Strasser makes to Víctor Laszlo: two visas in exchange for the names of the resistance leaders of Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Athens. How can a Major of the Third Reich seriously propose such a thing to the man who has been persecuted in all of Europe by the Nazis? "If I did not give them to you in the concentration camps, where you have more persuasive methods than you dispose of here, I certainly won't give them to you now, " replies Laszlo dazed. In this same style, the psychological complexity of the protagonist escapes the conventions of the classical melodrama. Differing from that of Ilsa, Rick's personality has ambiguities that go beyond the genre and, even more so, of the back and forth of a script during the screenwriting process.[4] Ilsa's feelings oscillate between desire and duty, love and admiration, personal happiness and the cause of the Allies. Options that, in the final analysis, are reduced to the choice between Rick and Laszlo. Nothing could be more perfect for a melodramatic heroine. Rick, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. Strasser and Laszlo have heard about him. Clients want to meet him, to share their table with him. Renault tries to decipher him. Ilsa admits not knowing what type of guy he is, even stating "I saw him quite often in Paris." Ferrari says that he is a difficult and unpredictable man. In contrast to these imprecise descriptions of Rick, concrete details about a past of political commitment are cited: in 1935 he ran weapons into Ethiopia; in 1936 he fought in Spain against the fascists. Strasser adds that since 1937, he cannot return to United States and that he knows what Rick did in Paris and why he had to leave. In fact, in the flashback, on the day the occupation begins, his faithful companion Sam reminds him that there is a price on his head and that the Germans will come for him. Seen in this light, Rick is almost a hero. An image that has nothing to do with the proud businessman who looks down on his own clients, or with the individualist who boasts that he is not interested in the war, that his only cause is himself and that he sticks his neck out for nobody. There's no doubt that these oppositions bring nuance and density to the character, that they were necessary to reduce the moral and ideological differences separating Rick from Laszlo (a factor that concerned Bogart, and the reason why he asked the studio to emphasize this idealistic side [5]). Furthermore, without these ambiguities of character, it would have been hard to justify the altruism of the final renunciation at the end (I'm not good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problem of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" ). The truth is that Rick's contradictions go from one extreme to the other and reach unsuspected limits, so that in the end two absolutely opposite hypothesis are evoked: Will he betray Laszlo and leave with Ilsa, or will he sacrifice himself so that the couple can escape? How is it possible that we naturally accept so polarized a character? A key ally in this sense is without doubt Captain Renault. He admires and respects Rick. His point of view is sharp, complicit and yet there is enough distance left as to introduce a touch of irony (Rick is the type of guy I'd fall in love with if I were a woman). His is a mediating point of view that guides our vision and induces us to value in Rick a compassionate background: "under a cynical cover there's a sentimentalist, " he tells Rick in the beginning. Later, the conjecture is confirmed after the episode with the young Bulgarian woman, with Renault's comment: "You are not only a sentimentalist, but you have become a patriot." The other mediating presence between Rick and us is Bogart himself. A dense and complex figure, combining traits of the gangster, the criminal and the private detective. Bogart's person comes across as the noir aspect of the Rick character (his dark and cynical side), contributing predictability to the character by means of a recognizable code, temperament and idiosyncrasy.

As Umberto Eco has pointed out, "Casablanca is not one movie, but many."[6] Therefore, besides the melodrama and the film noir evoked by Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca is the intrigue of an espionage film set in motion by the disappearance of the letters of transit; the newsreel documentary intending to legitimize the story; the exotic setting of an adventure film; and the claustrophobic male universe of a war movie. Casablanca is a superposition of fictions and a mixture of genres. It is a pastiche. A dynamic, heterogeneous, and exuberant text, that builds its own imaginary universe using the base of other texts (films, characters, genres) with different laws and different codes. This is one of it's major attractions and principal reasons for enduring… as time goes by.

1 Requena G.J. "Casablanca. El film clásico," Archivos de la Filmoteca, No. 14 (June 1993), Valencia, p.89.

2 These scenes were shot directly by Don Siegel, assistant film editor.

3 Requena, Op.cit, p.89

4 A well known anecdote about Ingrid Bergman asking director Michael Curtiz with which of the two men Ilsa will end up, and his response about not knowing either. But to act as if she is in love with both until this issue was resolved.

5 Howard Koch added the references regarding Rick's political past.

6 U. Eco, La Estrategia de la ilusión (Buenos Aires: Lumen, 1992), p. 291.

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