Casablanca and the Low Points of the Graph

Tonight I had the pleasure to watch CASABLANCA for maybe the fifteenth or twentieth time. It is still one of my favorite movies after so many years and so many times I’ve seen it. This movie has some of my favorite scenes of all time and the ‘Marseillaise’ scene always excites me. Some of the moments of the movie seem a bit over the top, of course, but the film was made 75 years ago, so of course some things didn’t age well. However, most of it still blows my mind. Certain dialogues are incredibly good and a few of the shots are crazy beautiful.

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The movie also makes me think a lot about writing. I believe screenwriting is a powerful school for whatever kind of writing you want to do and CASABLANCA is one of those films you absolutely must study. For some time now I’ve been interested in what I call the Low Points of the Action, which are typical points in the writing where the emotional graph seems to be quieter. Typically, when the catalyst moments, or inciting incident, or the Bad Guys Close In part, at the middle of the Second Act, or the Final Battle in the Third Act, when these moments happen, the emotional graph in high or increasing. And as these plot-points are racing by, writing is exciting and we follow closely all that is happening. I find, however, that the good writers pay as much attention to moments where the emotional graph is lower. I’ve written several times about how the MATRIX’s low points are well taken care of for the most part, but now let me talk to you a little bit about CASABLANCA – some of the scenes in the low points are so well written they are some of my favorite low point scenes.

One of them is the dialogue between Rick and Renault outside Rick’s Café.  Even though Renault is always introducing and explaining Rick almost ad nausea, this dialogue is lovely: «Rick, why did you come to Casablanca?», «I came for the waters.» «What waters? We’re in the desert», «I was misinformed.» It’s not a very important scene, only there to show once more the intimacy and the friendship between both characters and to suggest Rick is a mystery. But still, even at the low point, CASABLANCA presents to us a small pearl of a scene that always makes me smile.

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Another lovely scene is Rick and Ilsa’s encounter at the market. It is at the Midpoint of the film. The Midpoint is a difficult point to explain but I believe more and more it is an important moment of a screenplay or a novel or other large fiction text. At the Midpoint of CASABLANCA, Rick founds Ilse looking at an embroidery towel at the market. It is the moment Ilsa will tell Rick that she had been married to Laszlo even as they met in Paris, but somehow that doesn’t surprise us and the scene, as most Midpoints (some notable exceptions notwithstanding, like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), is not very exciting. But both Bogart and Bergman are excruciatingly beautiful in this scene and the way they talk to each other, the pain they carry, the weight of the past, all of it is superb. And then, in the middle of it, there’s the salesman trying to entice Ilse to buy the towel. «Only 700 francs,» he says. But when Rick addresses Ilsa, the salesman exchanges the price card: «For friends of Rick, only 200 francs» he says. Both Rick and Ilsa ignore him, and Rick says something that suggests he had met Ilsa the day before and not in the best way. And so the salesman steps up his game: «For special friends of Rick, only 100 francs.» This small comic relief in the middle of a dense intelligent conversation is absolutely brilliant and is so well written that it works in spite of being so risky. I love it.

Another two low points in CASABLANCA I really enjoy are a credit to Paul Henreid’s acting as he plays Victor Laszlo. The first happens in the hotel when Laszlo and Ilse return after the ‘Marseillaise’ scene, and after Laszlo was blown off by Rick about the letters of transit. In this scene, Ilse is asking Laszlo what happened with Rick. Laszlo goes to the window, looks down to see the policeman who’s following them hiding behind a column, he pulls the blinds down, then he goes to a table and lights a cigarette and then he shuts the light down and then he sits next to Ilsa in the dark, waiting for the policeman to think they’ve turned in. And then there’s a small piece of lovely dialogue. Laszlo asks if Ilsa was lonely in Paris when he was at a concentration camp. We all know the answer. We know she was in a love affair with Rick in Paris. And he knows it also. And Ilsa knows he knows. And he asks «Is there something you want to tell me?» And it would be perfectly fine if she had told him everything at that moment, but she says: «No, Victor, there isn’t.» And that’s brilliant! That seems innocent and easy, but it’s so difficult to write: because we all know the truth. The fact that she doesn’t want to talk about it is so much better, it gives us so much about Ilsa. And Laszlo’s reaction gives us so much about him. He tells her he loves her and she, as usual, replies: «Yes, Victor, I know.» And still, he understands her and doesn’t press her.

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This understanding mature character of Victor Laszlo comes into play in another low point in Rick’s Café, when he tells Rick he should escape with Ilsa from Casablanca.  In this scene, it always irritates me that the man is trying to bind his wounded wrist in a way that it’s so obvious it will not work. But overcoming this small detail, the conversation is so smooth and so to the point. It seems too much. It seems over the top. Would a man say that to another man? But it is also so smooth and so strong. That’s Laszlo. That’s what keeps impressing Rick. That Victor is so smooth and so strong. In the end, CASABLANCA is a bromance movie between Rick and Victor Laszlo. Rick falls in love with Laszlo and that makes him sacrifice his love for Ilsa. And that little moment in the Café just before Laszlo being arrested is another small pearl that makes us believe in that bromance.

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Well, but that’s me. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating. Maybe you don’t find fascinating any of these small moments. But I love low point of action scenes and I find that some of the best writing shows up in moments we’d usually underestimate. My favorite moment in CASABLANCA is still the ‘Marseillaise’ scene, and the «Play it, Sam» scene and «All the gin joints in all the world» scene, and the airport scene, and the intro. But the low points are also wonderful. And yet so simple. That’s what I think.

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