Casablanca, a 1942 romantic drama directed by Michael Curtiz, is regarded as one of the most formative and instrumental pieces of American cinema. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, the film follows an American expatriate during the World War II era who must choose between the love that he has for a woman and assisting her husband who is a Czech Resistance leader escape the city of Casablanca. The film explores themes of individuality, and the duality between helping someone and essentially becoming subject to their intentions. Furthermore, the story revolves around interpreting and understanding the intentions of its characters and what they represent, as well as how they present themselves. This essay will analyze these characters and how the film's creators used different techniques to express and allude to their true personalities and intentions. As such, emphasis will be placed on two particular scenes within the movie: the scene where Victor visits Rick's apartment while Ilsa is hiding in his room, and the infamous conclusion of the film's final moments.
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One of the most prominent scenes throughout the movie is when Ilsa is hiding in Rick's room, moments before Victor shows up to confront Rick. (Franscisco, 14) This scene is pivotal because it shows Ilsa's divide and her different intentions, as represented through the relationship that she inadvertently cultivates with Rick and the one that she had with Victor years prior. Believing Victor to be dead, she lives as if he is for many years. As such, she finds herself romantically involved with Rick Blaine, the main character, for a small period of time. She eventually finds out that her husband, Victor Laszlo, is not actually dead and he needs to leave Vichy before he is discovered. This is when she chooses to return to his side, and seek out the assistance of Rick Blaine. Laszlo's character is a courageous individual, starkly contrasting the indifference that Blaine attempts to exude throughout the course of the film's narrative. His wife wishes to help him, which is why she seeks out Rick Blaine, not realizing that he is a man that she had a relationship years prior. As such, the two begin to accidentally rekindle this relationship, culminating in a night that they spend in Rick's hotel room, alluding to a passionate exchange between the two. (Franscisco, 14)
In a scene that follows, we see Victor come to Rick to talk with Rick, not knowing that his wife is in the other room. One particular shot stands out in this scene; as Rick is talking to Victor outside, we see Ilsa standing in a separate room, hiding from her husband. She has been met with the choice of following Victor out of Casablanca, and knows that this will eventually be her decision, regardless of the rekindled exchanges with Rick. In this shot, Ilsa is standing against the wall, with her reflection permeating in a clear juxtaposition from a mirror beside her. Both of these faces command an equal amount of the frame, and her clear confusion is shown heavily in the way that she stands and the expression on her face. (Franscisco, 14) This shot represents a moment of decision, and a differentiation in Ilsa's destiny. There is a level of confusion in each of the characters throughout the narrative, but this shot summarizes the level of indecision in Ilsa and the simultaneous acceptance of her decision. What's interesting is the lighting that's captured in this shot. Ilsa's face is well-lit and pronounced in her actual face, but the mirrored version of her is far darker and more shadowy, and the expression that she has appears to bare two different connotations, depending on which version of herself the audience chooses to focus upon.
As the shot slowly fades away, the viewer is left with a darkened image of Ilsa, which symbolically represents the direction that she is going to take. The mirrored version of her face becomes engulfed in the shadowy darkness first, emphasizing which half of her is going to be expressed most and the other version of her face begins to fade away as well. This in itself shows a tremendously influential attribute of the film's narrative. Throughout many of the scenes, the characters openly reflect upon how the story will conclude and how it will end. The conversation between Rick and Victor outside involves the fate of Ilsa; Rick wants her to stay with him when Laszlo is gone, because he is still deeply in love with her. Victor chooses to appeal to this and asks Rick to use the letters that he has to help take her to safety, away from Casablanca and the dangers that they face. Through the eventual points that occur in the film's narrative, we see Rick ultimately decide that Ilsa will regret it if she chose to stay with him, accepting to help her escape and intervening in the capture of Laszlo.
This sets up the final and most iconic scene from the film. There are two shots in particular which show the division of interest in Rick and Ilsa's characters and the nature of the film's principle theme: the dichotomy between influences and inspirations for one's actions. In the final scene at the airfield, there is a two-shot sequence of Rick and Ilsa standing before one another. It's here that Rick reveals that she should leave. The camera pans in closely in a swooping crane-in sort of way, allowing for a moment of contemplation and reflection between the two. It embodies the central nature of the film and the reality of the decisions that the characters must make. The shot itself adds a tense sense of shock and pathos as Rick reveals to her that he's set up the platform for her to leave. (Gabbard; Gabbard, 8) Furthermore, this sequence greatly illustrates the true reflection that Ilsa has in regards to the fact that she's now leaving. This shot and the lighting on the character's faces is similar to the aforementioned shot. In this sequence, there is a shadowy nature about Rick's character. He's aware of his decision but there's still some sense of reflection as he chooses to change his mind and allow her to leave. Suddenly aware of this, the lighting is used in a similar way in Ilsa's face. She is well-lit and commands the entirety of the right side of the shot and the expression that she gives Rick is one of somber acceptance and a sort of remorseful acknowledgment. This juxtaposition is powerful, and shows that the more moral, noble action is often one that requires the most amount of sacrifice and eventual regret.
The final crane shot of Rick and Louis walking away into the hazy airfield is a paradoxical one, symbolizing the struggle that Rick's character and the other characters possess throughout the film's narrative. The central theme involves morality, and the decisions that one makes to be representative of morality. Rick ultimately believes his choice is one that is good but even still, he is forced to ponder upon the true nature of his decision, and whether or not he was simply a tool for the plot that Ilsa and Victor had constructed. As the crane shot continues to rise, Rick and Louis start to slowly fade into the gray obscurity. Yet, their voices do not dwindle accordingly. It's symbolic of the notion that, regardless of how distantly these characters fade into the obscurity of history or how much their attempts at morality generally reflect moral goodness, their own desires, personalities and the very human and unique nature of their attempts at morality preserve them as defining voices and beings within this amoral world. (Gabbard; Gabbard, 6)
Throughout the film, Rick is portrayed as an apathetic, cynical man. He finds himself deeply in love with Ilsa and when he sees her again, it's only due to the fact that she needs his assistance and will potentially be out of his life permanently if he chooses to help her. One on hand, Laszlo's character is a man of deep conviction and a sense of heightened integrity. He was a staunch opponent of fascism and had dedicated his life to the fight. (Harmetz, 32) In even coming to Rick to save Ilsa, it was out of the interest of preserving her safety as well. At first, Rick is defiant, wanting to hold onto her and protect her himself, out of a deep love that he has for her. Yet, it's in this final moment that we see a genuine reflection of morality from Rick's character; he makes a painful decision, and this shot, coupled with the fact that his clothes are predominantly muted, allowing him to fade into the obscuring of the runway mist, emphasizes the true polarity between right and wrong, and doing something for one's own motivations as opposed to doing something for the sake of attempting to perpetuate goodness and true morality. Rick's character, and this shot in particular, is a symbol of this gesture, and of the reality that comprises both opportunity and sacrifice. In this world, both are necessary and Rick's eventual decision catalyzes a newfound existence for Ilsa and Victor.