“Michael Curtiz’s direction of Casablanca is remarkable for being completely economical. He creates a picture we would be hard-pressed to improve, and does so without calling attention to the fact that it has been directed at all.”
This observation, from a review by Roger Ebert, reveals the difficulty one encounters when attempting to do a rhetorical analysis of this classic film. Truly, Curtiz’s production is perhaps the direct antithesis of another landmark film, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, released the year before. Whereas Welles utilizes special effects and deep-focus photography, among other unprecedented techniques, Curtiz relies on a mode of cinematic storytelling that had existed in Hollywood for a number of years. Most of the scenes in Casablanca, for example, unfold accordingly: establishing shot, camera movement, medium shots, close-up shots/reverse shots, point-of-view shots, and reactions. “Is there a single shot that calls attention to itself for its own sake,” asks Ebert rhetorically? In Citizen Kane, one can provide numerous examples.
If one accepts the notion that Casablanca does not reflect the same level of ambitious filmmaking as Citizen Kane, he or she may be left wondering why it is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Surely, the answer rests in the characters—not only the performances of the stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but also Curtiz’s refusal to let his direction distract the audience from their story. In relation to Bogart’s character, Rick, the filmmakers employ two discursive techniques in particular, perceptual veiling and repetition and frequency; the result is a sense of ambiguity, or mystery, towards this character that mesmerizes the audience throughout the entire film.
Although Ebert is correct when he asserts that Curtiz does not present “a single shot that calls attention to itself for its own sake,” there are at least two points in which the director’s hand is undeniably noticeable. Early in the film, a huge crowd stares into the sky as a plane flies overhead. The last shot of the plane shows it as it passes over Rick’s Café Americain. Here Curtiz employs what Altman would classify as an intratextual spectatorial model; that is to say, he reveals the importance of this scene to the audience through the spectators who stop and stare at the plane. By framing the plane and the Café in the same shot, Curtiz establishes an immediate connection between Rick, his Café, and leaving Casablanca. As a result, the viewer is not surprised when, in the following scene, Major Straussa explains to Captain Renault: “I have already heard about this café, and Mister Rick himself.” Furthermore, the viewer’s suspicion that Rick will somehow play a major role in this film is substantiated.
In the next sequence the viewer is allowed to enter Rick’s, but Rick himself cannot be found. A patron asks the waiter, “Will you ask Rick to come have a drink with us?” Again, one is presented with more talk of Rick, but not allowed to see him. When Rick does finally appear, he is presented in three quick shots, none of which reveal his face: 1) a medium shot of his outstretched hand accepting a bill from a customer, 2) a point-of-view shot in which one sees Rick signing his name—the first sure notice that this gentleman is actually Rick, 3) a match-on-action shot of Rick’s hand as he puts the pen down and returns the check. Finally, the camera tilts up and reveals what the audience has eagerly desired to see all along--Rick’s face. Clearly, Curtiz is intentionally veiling his audiences’ perceptions in order to prolong the sense of curiosity towards this character. Alfred Hitchcock uses veiling at the beginning of his film, Marnie (1964), to a similar effect. While the viewer sees numerous people discussing the title character, she is only presented in brief shots, all of which hide her face. In both cases, the directors successfully keep the audience in suspense about the identity of their protagonists.
The mystery surrounding Rick’s character is further expressed through the use of repetition and frequency. According to Altman, “the process of repetition plays an important role in assuring attention to important concerns.” In Casablanca, two phrases are frequently repeated, both of which add to the ambiguity of Rick’s character. In response to Captain Renault’s command that he must not help any one obtain an exit visa, Rick explains: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Rick recalls this exact phrase later when he is criticized for not helping Peter Lorre’s character, Ugarte, as the Germans are arresting him.
Also notable is the fact that characters frequently use the word “impressed” when discussing Rick. In response to a man who remarks that perhaps Rick would have a drink with him if he knew that he “ran the second largest banking house in Amsterdam,” the waiter explains, “that wouldn’t impress Rick.” Similarly, after handing the letters of transit over to Rick for safe-keeping, Ugarte says: “Rick, I hope you are more impressed with me now.” When Rick confronts him with killing the German couriers in order to obtain these letters, Rick responds: “You’re right, Ugarte, I am a little more impressed with you.” Captain Renault also uses the word when informing Rick that Victor Laszlo will be appearing at the Cafe. When Rick acts surprised at the mention of this name, Renault says: “Rick, that is the first time I have seen you so impressed.” In accordance with Rick’s self-serving nature, as evidenced by his phrase, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” the use of the word “impress” is appropriate. Based on these repetitions in the dialogue, one understands that Rick is a cold-hearted man who is never moved to action on another person’s behalf because no one or no thing is able to make an impression on him. As the film progresses, however, the viewer is faced with a tantalizing dilemma: how does one rectify the disparity of the film’s repeated words with Rick’s repeated actions?
There are at least four points in the film where Rick sacrifices himself for another person’s benefit; remarkably, three of these four instances do not even involve characters with which he has any previous emotional attachment. Early in the film, one of his employees approaches him and apologizes for allowing a man to win 20,000 francs gambling in the back room. Clearly, he had made a mistake, and a costly one at that. Instead of reacting harshly at losing such an enormous sum, however, Rick simply explains that these things happen and hands over the money.
Captain Renault reveals another example of Rick’s self-sacrificing nature when illuminating his past. Renault recounts: “1935 you ran guns to Ethiopia; 1936 you fought in Spain on the loyalist’s side.” When Rick counters by explaining that he was paid well on both occasions, Renault retorts: “The winning side would have paid you much better.”
A third example concerns the young woman who comes to Rick for advice; specifically, she informs him that Captain Renault will provide her and her husband with the exit visas they cannot afford provided that she sleep with him. Her concern is whether or not Renault can be trusted if she is forced to go through with this act. In response, Rick provides little solace and even becomes agitated with her for making him think about Ilsa. Surprisingly, he then proceeds into the gambling room where he allows her husband to win enough money playing roulette to pay for the exit visas. Not only does Rick risk fracturing his relationship with Renault, he once again freely gives up his own money.
The fourth and most significant example of Rick’s self-sacrifice occurs at the end of the film. Instead of using the exit visa for himself and returning to the Unites States with the woman he loves, he allows Victor Laszlo, Ilsa’s husband, to use it, thus stranding him alone and heartbroken in Casablanca. As a character, Rick is a complete contradiction. Like Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a man who is both Nazi and hero for the Jewish people simultaneously, Rick is both self-serving and self-sacrificing. Through perceptual veiling and the repetition and frequency of specific words and actions, the audience becomes entangled in the mystery of Rick’s identity, and ultimately, all the intricacies of life in Casablanca.