Over 75 years following its release, Casablanca remains one of the greatest love stories, mysteries and thrillers ever put to film. The story flows perfectly from scene to scene, it’s full of great characters who each had their own unique development over the course of the film and what Casablanca did better than maybe any other film up to this point is lead the audience down a path of deception and ambiguity. The result is one of the greatest most memorable endings in cinematic history and the names are mr. and mrs. Victor Laszlo, but that isn’t what the film leads us to believe will happen. Just minutes before we see the final scene we expect Rick to betray Laszlo, set him up to be arrested, with the transit papers, the rest of his life with else in Casablanca trying to both hide from the past and also reveal it all. Except of course that doesn’t end up happening, just as we as the audience hoped it didn’t. But the scene certainly leads us to believe that it will and this twist is made possible because of a number of important storytelling devices and I’d like to examine a few of them.
Very early on we were told of the transit papers, at the same time we learned that Rick simply doesn’t care about Laszlo or his attempt to fight fascism and has as little to do with the situation as possible. There will be more on this later, but he is ultimately inspired to take an interest in the situation once he finds out that Ilsa, his former lover, is involved. This is the first act and very little action happens.
A lot of decisions are made, development happens with the story but the action happens outside of the main storyline. There are a number of side plots which are able to keep the momentum of the story going. There’s never a dull moment and the story fills enough time so that when we enter these second acts we already know all of our characters, their backstories and what drives them. The bulk of the second act focuses primarily on Elson as though trying to avoid going direct for transit papers at a fear of problems arising because of him and ultimately them turning to him and the problems that arise because of him. When Elsa confronts him, she begins by trying to use force. After this is proven to be unsuccessful, she instead responds with love. Her story uses our expectations to make us believe something else will happen. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, obviously the success of Casablanca made their stardom even bigger but the very nature of putting these two actors in a film like this gives audience members the perception that this film is a love story first.
However by the end Casablanca proves to be more of a film noir, obviously that isn’t known in the end of the second act and when the audience goes to watch the third act the assumption is that they begin a romantic relationship. This goes sour and Ric strikes a deal to frame Lazlo. It appears that he’s willing to actively sabotage the anti-fascist movement so that he can be with Elsa. In the end he sacrifices his relationship with her so that she can be safe and continue on with Lazlo. This is the accumulation of his development which began with those side plots early on. He is apathetic towards everything or at least that’s what he says.
The film makes a clear distinction between facts and what it said they don’t always align, so Enric says something like „this nobody, may be the perception that he wants others to have of him“ but it really isn’t true. He is a good person who was willing to stick his neck out for others, well before Rick chooses to help Ilsa and Laszlo he helps the young Bulgarian couple. Without looking too far into this, I think it could be safe to assume that this couple acts as a foreshadowing of Rick eventually going on to help Elsa and Laszlo. He also sticks up to Sam, refusing to allow someone to buy him. Very likely in allusion to the social rights issues that were beginning to become more and more prevalent in the United States when this film’s production began. Perhaps the biggest example of Rick sticking his neck out for somebody else is his decision to continue to pay all of his employees, knowing full well that the end result could bankrupt him. This cold and desolate character that Rick wants people to think he is isn’t an accurate portrayal of himself at least not really. He’s clearly heartbroken over his loss of Ilsa, he wants her back, he still cared for her, the feelings which he had for her were real and he still has feelings over her. Over the course of the film he doesn’t change so much as finds closure and already had the reason that he was living a life that he was trying to make unhappy was because he needed to see the greater good. He knows how important the fight against fascism is and he tries his hardest to not just be an observer but to rekindle his former fighter and to do his best to support those who really need it. He’s able to see beyond himself in his heartbreak, reevaluate the situation and in the end begins to act the right way. This is true and realistic character development!
He is the same person at the beginning of the story as at the end, he just has a new way of looking at life. A past event that heavily impacted him, losing Elsa, was resolved after prioritizing what he needs to focus on. The second time that he looses Elsa, at the end, he chooses for it to happen knowing that it’s the best for everyone.
The final element that I want to discuss is how both the story structure and character development work together. Up until the end we don’t know what Rick is going to do, we think that he is going to be the same person. He resists change and continues living the life that doesn’t make him happy. The twist is that his character, who is so steadfast in his ways, chooses something different. The decision and the impact that has on the story means very little. It’s the accumulation not going to change anything going forward, because there is nothing going forward after this scene.
But what is so significant about this is the change and Rick. This is what we want from the film, the story means so much less than the character Rick, who is all that we haven’t fallen for the entire time and in the end he finds what he had been looking for. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.