JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – Everyone Comes to Rick’s
WARNING: As I said last week, I’m assuming that people reading this have seen Casablanca and thus will be fine with my discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t watched the movie, do yourself a favor and DO NOT READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, IMDB has a good one here.
This week, as we continue to focus on Casablanca’s 70th Anniversary, I want to set my sights on story elements. Robert McKee, in his classic book on writing Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, uses Casablanca as one his teaching examples. (Side note: Story – while principally about screenwriting – is full of knowledge and wisdom about writing in general and is very applicable to comic book script writing. Highly recommended.)
In writing, you’ll hear the word MacGuffin used from time to time. It was possibly coined by Alfred Hitchcock and is something that the characters in a given story care about passionately but the audience? Not so much. We’re concerned about the characters. A classic Hitchcock MacGuffin is the microfilm in North By Northwest; it matters greatly to the characters but we’re concerned more about whether Cary Grant is going to survive and if he is going to wind up with Eva Marie Saint.
In Casablanca, the MacGuffin is the letters of transit which are a kind of Get Out Of Casablanca Free Card. They are signed by General DeGaulle and cannot be countermanded or even questioned … or so we’re told. In fact, no such things existed; they were wholly an invention of the screenwriters.
Before the movie has started, the letters have been stolen and the German couriers carrying them were killed. They are greatly desired by any numbers of characters in the film and wind up in the possession of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick. His former love, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreid), a leader in the anti-Nazi resistance, desperately need the letters to escape the clutches of the Nazis and reach America, where Lazlo can continue his work.
What we care about is: who is Ilsa going to wind up with? Rick or Victor? So the letters become a brilliant MacGuffin driving the personal interaction of the three principle characters and, in so doing, decides the fate of all the characters involved. That makes it a great MacGuffin.
There’s another term used in dissecting writing and that’s inciting incident, which I first encountered with McKee. It’s the moment in the movie that changes the status quo. It’s the rock tossed into a still pond that creates ripples reaching outwards further and further. It’s the moment that the plot really starts. It sets everything into motion and causes the protagonist to act and/or react.
The Inciting Incident can occur at the start of the story or even take place before the story begins. It can happen later although usually it happens within roughly the first ten minutes. Not always.
I’ve talked with those who think the inciting incident in Casablanca is when the Letters of Transit are stolen. That act would appear to put the action of the story into motion. I disagree; for me, the inciting incident in Casablanca is when Ilsa walks in the door of Rick’s café and re-enters his life. This occurs at an incredible twenty-four minutes into the film. That’s right; the story doesn’t really start for almost twenty-five minutes.
So what are they doing all that time? Brilliantly establishing the characters (especially Rick), the status quo, and the setting. One of the great strengths of Casablanca are all the supporting characters, even minor ones, and they all have parts to play. We have an idea of who Rick is and what his life is before it all gets upended by Ilsa’s entrance. That gives the film much of its richness and texture and weight.
There’s lot more to talk about the structure of Casablanca and we’ll return to it next week.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell