It’s 1941. Jaded New Yorker, Rick Blaine operates ‘Rick’s Café’ at the end of the runway in Casablanca. Under the Vichy Government of France, Casablanca is an outpost of hope as European refugees stream through, bartering traffic to Lisbon, America and a better life. Into the café comes Ilsa Lund on the arm of her Czech husband Victor Laszlo. She is the schism in Rick’s heart, and he is devastated to see her with another man. Cool headed Rick wallows in despair before rallying to ‘do the right thing,’ and help Victor (a vital Resistance Leader) and his wife escape. “We’ll always have Paris.”
Human life in Casablanca is ‘cheap’. A rising trade in refugee traffic has lead to duplicitous officials and corrupt locals. When a senior Nazi officer arrives to investigate the death of two couriers, a hunt begins for their murderer, and the return of two unlimited ‘transit visas’ they were carrying. The visas are free tickets out of purgatory. Ugarte, a sly and needy transient, brings the visas to Rick for safekeeping. After Ugarte is killed, it becomes Rick’s choice who will use them. “Round up the usual suspects”
Underpinning this all is the relationship between Rick, the mysterious American, and Renault, the corrupt French official who allows him to operate. Both men are worldly and detached. Both men have ideals which have become corrupted by the devastations of war. Both men are offered redemption. “It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship”
LENGTH -158 Pages!
By contemporary standards, this script seems surprisingly long. I know, I know, “Feel the width,” it’s just that modern scripts are often contractually set at 100 pages – and the first thing to go to achieve this is the lyricism.
Although produced during the second world war (ie: contemporary with its narrative) it’s now clearly a period film, so there are a few thing which seem dated (notably the opening sequence which seems rather like a newsreel before the main feature.)
Also seemingly outdated is the luxurious, highly literate writing-style – the very thing which makes it such a luscious read. The script includes detailed descriptions of scenes, set ups and the emotional machinations which most directors today beg you to cutout. But fuck them – this is a writer’s blog… and Casablanca is a thoroughly delightful read. It’s steak and three veg in a McDonald’s and fries world. In fact, some of the writing is so beautiful that even inconsequential scenes resonate long after reading… scenes which were not (ironically) translatable to the screen in an age of slow film stocks, large unwieldy cameras and the restrictive studio setting.
I’ve written the opening of the film out in full here to illustrate the ‘voice’ of the script… Also – this is a Page 2 set up of the B Plot. It seems astonishing to me that so much love was given to the secondary characters of JAN and ANINA. It’s true that they echo the A Plot – and give our hero a path back to his heart, but still – these guys knew how to tease an opening. And seriously, who remembers who Jan and Annina are?
FULL SHOT – GLASS SHOT – OLD MOORISH SECTION OF CITY – DAY
At first only the turrets and rooftops are visible against a torrid sky. In the distance is a haze-enveloped sky. The CAMERA PANS DOWN the facades of the Moorish buildings to a narrow, twisting street crowded with the polyglot life of a native quarter. The intense desert sun holds the scene in a torpid tranquility. Activity is unhurried and sounds are muted… Suddenly the screech of a siren shatters the calm. Veiled women run screaming for shelter. Street vendors, beggars and urchins melt into doorways. A police car speeds into the SHOT and pulls up before an old-fashioned Moorish hotel — flop-house would be a better word for it.
of this decrepit hotel. Native French police officers run up the steps, crash into the doors of various rooms, come out – dragging frightened refugees.
CLOSE SHOT – DOOR
as one police officer flings it open. The shadow of a man hanging by a rope from a chandelier is seen on the wall. The officer slams the door shut.
The other policemen have stopped a white civilian and are talking to him.
May we see your papers, please?
I– I don’t think I have them — on me.
In that case, we’ll have to ask you to come along.
(patting his pockets)
It’s just possible that I — Yes, here they are.
He brings out his papers. The 2nd policeman examines them.
These papers expired three weeks ago. You’ll have to —
Suddenly the civilian breaks away, starts to run wildly down the street. The CAMERA TRUCKS WITH HIM. From off scene we HEAR the policeman shout, “Halt!” — But the civilian keeps going. A shot rings out, the man falls.
The CAMERA PANS TO a —
MED. CLOSE SHOT
JAN and ANNINA BRANDEL are huddled in a doorway, the dazed and frightened spectators to this casual tragedy. They are an Austrian couple, very young and attractive, thrust by circumstances from a simple country life into an unfamiliar hectic world. Annina’s hand clutches her husband’s arm as their eyes follow the police who are examining the victim.
JAN AND ANNINA
They both speak with a Central European accent. At this moment the police car sweeps past them on its way back Jan takes his wife by the hand.
The Prefecture must be this way.
The dialogue is brilliant. The subtleties of the character are played out in the way they speak. Particularly Rick and Renault’s friendship – their similarities and difference… their nobility.
Ilsa asks Renault who Rick is:
Renault: Well, Mademoiselle, he’s the kind of a man that — well, if I were a woman and I — were not around — I would be in love with Rick. But what a fool I am — talking to a beautiful woman about another man.
The script is surprisingly funny – granted it’s a dark sense of humour, but it’s delightful to read. It also gives our unlikely romantic lead (this is Bogart’s first romance) an intelligent and worldly nature.
Ilsa: …the last time we met…
Rick: It was ‘La Belle Aurore.’
Ilsa: How nice. You remembered! But of course — that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
Rick: Not an easy day to forget, was it?
Rick: I remember every detail — the Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
Rick: If it’s December in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
even the ‘bit’ players have good jokes.
Dark European: …have you not heard?
Englishwoman: We hear very little — and we understand even less.
Ugarte: You will forgive me for saying this, M’sieur Rick, but you are a very cynical person.
Rick: I forgive you.
Renault: (to Rick) How extravagant you are — throwing away women like that. Some day they may be very scarce.
Renault: What in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: Waters? What waters? We are in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Rick: I stick my neck out for nobody.
Renault: A wise foreign policy.
Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick: I’m a drunkard
Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.
Contrasting to this is another surprise – how cruel Rick is to Ilsa. He is hurt, and angry and unforgiving. He’s also drunk –
Rick: Yes that’s very pretty. I heard a story once. In fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano in the parlor downstairs. “Mister, I met a man once when I was only a kid’, they’d always begin… (She gets up and leaves) Huh. I guess neither one of our stories was very funny. 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.
Later, when he tries to apologize – it is Ilsa who is unforgiving of being called a whore. It’s not until Rick sees another young couple faced with the same dilemma that he realizes how honourable Ilsa has been.
And there are phrases throughout that are so timeless that they’ve entered the lexicon of cliché… Imagine hearing these for the first time:
* Rick: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
* Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
* Rick: Here’s looking at you kid.
* Ilsa: Kiss me. Kiss me as though it were the last time.
* Sacha: Boss, you’ve done a beautiful thing.
* Rick: We’ll always have Paris
* Rick: But it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
* Renault: Round up the usual suspects
* Rick: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The fact that four of these zingers come in the last scene suggests that the writers have hit on the sort of swagger that all men want to achieve. A manly recognition of the nobility of love.
The screenplay very successful as a Romance. The women are noble and compromised. They are complex and passionate. The men are tacitern, ironic and (well) manly. They take charge and make decisions.
Rick is enduringly sympathetic for his flaws (his cruelty, detachment and wounded sentimentality) and for all of that – it’s easy to imagine that a contemporary ‘Bogart’ would want to make his character ‘more sympathetic’. What would Russell Crowe want to say to Ilsa?
Some of the contemporaneous restraints at the time, (mores, morals and censorship,) give the romance of this story even more resonance… They kiss – they don’t have sex. We presume they had sex in Paris – but it’s not even alluded to. The husband doesn’t confront Rick about the affair – but selflessly gives him the woman he loves to save her.
That they are in love in a time of war – also means that there are more important things for them to think about and their love is encapsulated by it’s out of worldly inability to be.
The only ‘sour’ note to a contemporary ear – is the strange story / lie Rick tells to Laszo (Ilsa’s husband) that Ilsa had tried to say she loved Rick, but it was a lie. I didn’t understand what he was hoping to achieve – but I’m not sure in the real world how helpful such nobility would actually be. Maybe it’s a boy thing.
This film has many authors. Apparently the shooting script wasn’t completed until two weeks into filming. They had to shoot in sequence – and the actors didn’t know how it would end. There are two main writing teams credited, twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G Epstein, Howard Koch and (uncredited) Casey Robinson. There are jokes that every Warner’s writer had a go at suggesting an ending.
It’s based on a stage play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Although it was produced in London in 1997 – the play is very difficult to find, and I haven’t (yet) read it.
Overall, I think it’s probably a triumph of creativity over committee. Without a score of Columbia graduate students, agents, stars and producers having ‘input’ – the film seems to have arrived with a complexity of character, and clarity of voice.
The film stands up very well. It’s dated, in that it seems like a ‘period’ movie, but pleasing none the less. Its languid story telling takes a little getting use to – and the old fashioned coverage and editing, as well as a need to repeatedly explain things becomes a little wearing.
Overall, the script reads better than the movie – as though it were going to be shot in the style of Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart”.
COULD YOU FILM IT TODAY?
I was thinking while I read it – could you re-make this in Afghanistan or Iraq? How about Vietnam or Cambodia? What about Darfour or Palestine? What if it was talking about Afghani refugees in New Delhi? Sadly – I don’t think it’s the script that would restrict that – it’s the sordid and cloudy nature of contemporary conflict. The love story would always work – but now it’s the backdrop of conflict which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
I think if you were to transpose the story to a contemporary setting you’d also need to consider the more transient nature of the modern heart. Would it still work if Laszlo were a senior peace negotiator in Israel, and Rick a Palestinian helping him get home?
It’s possible that we’d need to transpose the conflict out of this world all together: Into the future (Star Wars?) Or anthropomorphize it (Watership Down) “Here’s looking at you, kid”… with goats.
No – I think Woody Allen has the last word on remaking this: “You played it for her, you can play it for me.”