Casablanca (1942), written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, is generally considered one of the best films of all time. The screenplay was voted by WGA members as the best screenplay of all time. Let’s analyze it.
- Draft Read: 6/1/42
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 160
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Casablanca, Morocco (Vichy, France?)
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple days
- Genre(s): Love, Thriller, War
- Theme(s): Film-noir, Depression, Patriotism, Deception, Gambling
- Protagonist Change: Significant
I put off reading Casablanca for a while because I thought it would be a slog to get through. That is of course a ridiculous assumption, because it’s a fun, entertaining and at times thrilling read. With that said, this is perhaps the most analyzed screenplay of all time, so I will keep my analysis short.
Characters? Themes? Dialogue? Everything? Really, it’s a truly fantastic read.
I love Rick’s deadpan nature. Here’s a back-and-forth on Page 18, shortly after he’s introduced:
(his eyes lighting up)
Er. Thank you. Will you have a drink with me, please?
You despise me, don’t you?
If I gave you any thought, I probably would.
(staring at his drink)
For a price, Ugarte, for a price.
It is clear from the start that Rick is all about the money… until it’s obvious that it isn’t Rick is depressed, longing for past love.
Would it be bad to call the plot of Casablanca insignificant? It’s a good setup; the craziness of Casablanca in 1941; but the inter-dynamics between characters is where the story truly comes to life. Let’s move right on to just that.
Rick is a perfect depressive. But even if he tries so hard to appear emotionless and numb, deep down he is a ‘sentimentalist,’ as Renault notes. Ilsa is a perfect character caught between two lovers (or at least appears to be). Laszlo is a great idealist. Strasser is the textbook Nazi. Perhaps the lightest character is Renault, caught between the allies and the axis, but he too joins the allies to make for a upbeat conclusion.
Sam, the piano man, is a great character, like many of the supporting stars, but disappears from the screen in Act 3 (although Rick does guarantee his job when he sells his place to Ferrari). Supporting characters simply disappearing from later scenes in films seems to have been more common back in the day (ex. Noah simply vanishes in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)).
Dialogue & Pacing
There are many quick reversal jokes (that is, jokes where a person’s serious nature is made fun of). For example, when a Man seeks to talk to Rick on Page 14:
(To Carl – holding out a bill)
Perhaps if you told him I ran the second-largest banking house in Amsterdam…?
(shaking his head)
That wouldn’t impress Rick. The leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen, and his father is the bellboy.
Another between Strasser and Rick on Page 39, which works also by showing us Rick’s deadpan and emotionless nature:
Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Unofficially, of course.
Make it official, if you like.
Pacing is relatively standard. Ugarte’s death serves as the inciting incident, and the story more or less builds toward the climax. One could probably make the argument that Act 2 has some slow points, but even if so, they are minor in context.
The themes are so strong in this script that it would be a challenge to find someone who did not relate to at least one of them. A person who has gone through heartbreak may relate to Rick. An idealist to Laszlo. An entrepreneur to Renault (because even the most cutthroat businesspeople have strong internal emotions). Some, in fact many, people may relate to multiple themes and characters.
I would wager the emotional impact of this film is one of (if not the) primary reasons for its staying power. After all, the story, while unique, isn’t particularly interesting. But the themes and messages? As relevant today as they were then.
Best Part of The Script
- Start on Page 56 – The Scene in which Rick rick meets Laszlo, with Renault providing some entertaining commentary.
- Start on Page 71 – An intense scene between Rick and Ilsa.
- Start on Page 104 – The scene in which Rick rigs the Roulette wheel for Jan.
- Start on Page 133 – The scene between Rick and Laszlo in which Laszlo justifies fighting for justice; glass half full versus empty.
- Pages 148-160 – The climax is of course excellent and is where Rick really comes to life.
That’s all I have to say. Here’s looking to you, kid!