What a journey it has been, to complete this in-depth study of this brilliant screenplay! It has given me a tremendous sense of fulfillment, as this is the first script I have studied in such minute detail. But more that that, this study has humbled me, and has made me wonder once again at the power of the moving pictures.
There is one point I always make during my introductory lecture at a writing workshop. We all will agree that the screenplay of a great film is as rich and layered as a good novel, and is as true and relevant as the stories from real life. What most of us do not realize is that the amount of written word a screenplay uses to create this involving, enriching story-experience is much, much less than that of novels. A typical screenplay is less than 120 pages long, and each page has more blank space than letters and words. If you formatted a screenplay like a novel, it would not take more than 50 pages. To still achieve what great movies do is not only among the most supreme achievements of writing, it is a wonder how they do it. ‘Casablanca’ is and will always remain a prototype of what screenwriting can achieve.
It must be mentioned here that the script of ‘Casablanca’ was only half completed when the shoot began. The writing continued as they shot. In fact during the last days of production, scenes were written on the morning they were being shot. It might give us a wrong idea that this is how it can be done. If this unorganized, ad hoc writing could produce a movie of this stature, we could easily create half-decent movies with similar approach. We must realize that the screenplay was based on a play, and hence the story was very much in place when they started shooting. The bottom-line of this discussion is – go ahead if you do not have the patience to complete the dialogue draft and start shooting, but in your head, and in the heads of all cast and crew, the story must be extremely clear. And that story should be as powerful, rich, and emotionally involving as this. As someone rightly remarked, and I cannot agree more, that the most important thing for a film is not the script, but the story.
And what a brilliant story ‘Casablanca’ is. Using a unique, but now dated setting, it works even today because it is based on certain archetypes. It is the story of love and loss, of trust and betrayal, of loyalty and courage, and thus it is and will always remain relatable for all of us. But more than anything, it is the story of human vulnerabilities, against our most intimate emotions as well as the brutal force around us. And it is the story of winning over those vulnerabilities, with the help of our virtues, the inherent goodness and strength deep within us. We love our characters in this film because they are as vulnerable as we are, and we admire them because they are as virtuous as we should be. And then, we really, really want to listen to this story, and we want to know what happens in the end.
Despite adopting a classical three-act structure, this script breaks some conventions, and breaks them really well. With an extremely long set-up, and a very late arriving main plot, the film’s first act consumes forty per cent of it. This is not only unusual, I would go on to say that it is not advisable. But then, if this is the structure you want to adopt, the screenplay teaches you how to do it. A MacGuffin introduced in the first page, using extremely involving sub-plots to create the illusion of main plot, creating some unforgettable cinematic characters, including those with small parts, and giving them some of the best lines ever heard on film, the script keeps you involved and guessing. It plays with your expectations, constantly, and it delays exposition teasingly. The exposition also works because of a very solid back-story, believable and very relatable. In fact, it is a wonder how the emotional depth of the back-story, that actually becomes the emotional spine of the film, has been conveyed to us so magically. During my latest re-watch of the film, I was crying and smiling, as if it were my own story. I believe that this emotional resonance the film manages to achieve has also to do with how it controls it rhythm. It slows down at the right moments, to let us anticipate, feel, think, and come closer to the emotional space of our characters, so that when it picks up, we are not thinking any more, but reacting emotionally, and urgently to whatever they are doing on screen.
The aural ambience of the film is almost unparalleled. It does not have the irreverence of a Tarantino, nor the incision of an Allen. And yet it is a classical example of how film dialogue should be – attractive, pleasing at different levels, and most importantly, true to each character. And then there are image systems, as discussed under the heading “themes” in the ten preceding posts of mine. Since it is based on a play, there is a lot to hear, but there also is a lot to see, and it goes beyond the charismatic insouciance of Bogart or the endearing beauty of Bergman.
And then, the ending! “Wow them in the end!” – advises Robert McKee’s character in ‘Adaptation’, the film where he claims ‘Casablanca’ to be the best screenplay ever written. I’m grateful to McKee for leading me to this detailed study of this script and also for giving this mantra. I’ll always keep in mind the climax of this film as an example of a “wow finish”, something that Rick himself had seeded around mid-point.
A brilliant love story, an extremely engaging and powerful political drama, with elements of urbane comedy and a musical, it is rich and varied. It is driven by characters who will shine forever, and remind us of what being human is, or can be. For its sheer brilliance, and timeless appeal, I most humbly recommend ‘Casablanca’ as a must-watch-before-you die (#44), before I formally conclude this study of its screenplay. Informally, studying and learning from it will continue, for as long as I live. I am pretty certain of that.