Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Casablanca & “Invisible” Editing

Often many people hear that Casablanca is a pinnacle of Classical Hollywood Cinema, but do they really understand why? As a film, it was never meant to be so widely known as a “classic.” Michael Curtiz, the film’s director, and others, apparently thought they were just making a run-of-the-mill Warner Bros release that wasn’t going to make such a splash. However, for its time, when watching the film now, it is clear why such a film would be popular, particularly with how the ending still retains its power 79 years after its release. The story itself, which revolves around Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, Morocco, displays the conflict of WW2 with such transparency that one may weigh the film’s greatness in this specific aspect. There is a wide range of ethnicity in the bar— opening with a Russian bartender saying, “на здоровье [Cheers],” which only establishes the setting as a middle ground or stepping stone to one’s actual destination. The Bulgarian couple fleeing to America is another side example of this. Rick inexplicably helps the couple by cheating his own roulette table, which adds to the complexity of Bogart’s character. What goes without saying is that Casablanca is easily quotable. Much of Rick’s lines are delivered with initial pessimism or “isolationism,” which grows into a selflessness, which may mirror the United States’ history of isolationism. All of this mentioned, it almost feels as though Bogart was born to play the role. However, Bogart does not deserve all the credit. Both performances by its leading stars, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), are a factor of greatness that is enough for some to claim Casablanca as perfect. For a film so rife with surface factors of greatness, it rarely seems to be a point to mention the “invisible” or seamless editing in Hollywood Cinema. For the public who aren’t familiar with the conventions of Hollywood Cinema, it may come as a surprise to realize how the film covers some of its edits. As conventions go in Hollywood Cinema, continuity editing is of utmost importance. For a Hollywood film, cinematic artifice is not supposed to get in the way of the story or characters. As a narrative film, Casablanca does not bring attention to and purposely hides its editing in unique ways that reaffirm the Hollywood film style.

In Rick’s “depressive sequence,” a seamless edit that leads us to a flash-back of Paris is achieved; however, this entire scene is done with meticulousness. The director Michael Curtiz, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, and editor Owen Marks seem to bury these edits with clever choices. The scene begins with a searchlight scanning the bar’s exterior/entrance, a recurring visual, which then fades into Rick pouring a glass from a bottle. For this fade-in, almost undetectable, the attention is not the transition over the interior, and the director acquaints us with the interior through movement. The movement of the searchlight across the screen matches the lighting of the interior and the movement of Rick pouring himself a glass.  Rick, obscured by shadow, but also with the left side of his face lit, indicates his discontent. The light almost produces a glistening tear on his face, but the shadow closes him off as though his emotions are conflicted. Parts of the mise-en-scene, like the glass and bottle of booze in his hand, show his deep-seated anguish at his past coming to haunt him. Doubly, Rick was not a drinker until Ilsa returned. His facial expression is indicative of his anguish, but also his slouching position, cigarette smoke, and the background of lowkey lighting add to this. As Sam (Arthur ” Dooley ” Wilson) comes in, the lighting from the searchlight outside bleeds into their conversation. For the lighting, Sam is darkened while, as tradition, the light makes Rick, the star, the focal point— the lighting pops, particularly off of his white suit. In addition to how movement obscures the editing, sound does too. As Sam moves his piano, the creaking noise and Rick lifting his glass covers a cut to a close-up of Rick. As Rick asks a question about the time in New York, it cuts to Sam— the audience is meant to be contemplating his question, which obscures the cut once again. 

Bogart’s acting when he slams his fist against the table and delivers one of his most famous lines: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” is an impressive vulnerability, as well as mood, in close-up. Again, sound, specifically the music Sam plays in the background, allows the editor to cut to a medium shot of both characters. The music stitches together the scene, as Rick gets Sam to play Herman Hupfield’s “As Time Goes By.” Brilliantly, everything leads us into the camera moving closer to Rick’s face and into a dissolve— the film essentially brings us into Rick’s mind by having the song act as our bridge into the past. Finally, an inexperienced filmmaker may have difficulty indicating a flashback; however, Curitz shows the transition to Paris by switching from “As Time Goes By” to the French National Anthem. The editing in this scene is seamless through both the music denotation and the slow dissolve from Rick’s face, which turns murkier as though it is connoting memory. The fact that this song could set off Rick’s reflection indicates that this song has a deeper significance to the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. For the audience, this song is meant to intrigue us as well as connect to our main character’s past. 

The flashback, of course, brightly lit, frames the two characters in tandem—Blaine’s arm around Lund in a car. The background changes liberally as though the only thing that matters to these characters is their time together. These are memories, so each fade segments different sections Rick remembers. Relying on memory is fallible, so this flashback is an approximation and blending of events. Cleverly, sound again covers a cut, with Rick popping the cork off a champagne bottle. It cuts to the bottle and swiftly cuts to Bergman’s over the shoulder head turn. She walks over to Bogart, and as she sits, another cut frames them together— the movement hides the cut. After Bogart’s “Here’s looking at you kid,” the dissolve transitions to a dancing scene where the characters, interlocked, dance together. The spin of the characters eloquently transitions the scene, while the music changes with a break in the piano. A fade to a high angle looking down on the dancers with the disco ball creates an immersive scene, which adds texture and a vantage point that plays with space. There is a fade into their apartment, with their eloquent attire, which has the camera track in to show this closeness. The shot-reverse-shot is done in their conversation on the couch with high key light (star lighting) on Ingrid Bergman. After Bergman says, “He’s dead,” there is a cut. The subject matter, the music shift, and the lowkey lit face of Bogart turning all cover this cut. 

The film then swiftly cuts to loud music and footage of the Germans approaching. This scene is a tonal shift, it disrupts their relationship as the scene disrupts the tranquility of the memory, but it also moves the narrative along. There are quick cuts, mimicking the planes flying, and then a fade into a newsie— a newspaper gets to Bogart and Bergman. The later bar scene in Paris has Sam playing, “As Time Goes By,” which connects us to how the flashback started. For this, Curtiz seems to focus on close-ups and cuts to Bergman’s expression. The close-ups are indicative of her reluctance to marry Rick. A German message from outside loudspeakers engulf the room, and through this sound, there is a cut. The match from the couple (Rick and Ilsa) opening a window and looking out is again concealed through the sound and narrative progression. As previously mentioned, Ilsa’s reluctance to marry or stay with Rick is shown in her expression, which Curtiz isolates in close-ups. The cut after their kiss and spilled champagne to rain is well covered— we transition from wetness to more wetness. The cut to Rick’s, or “Mr. Richard’s,” POV looking at the letter is a change from the earlier choices. The writing on the letter, smearing from drips of rain, is isolated in Rick’s fingers. We experience this emotionally devastating moment with him. In a brilliant choice and finale to this flashback, smoke from the engine covers the frame as our characters leave without Ilsa. The smoke distinguishes the ending of the flashback but also serves to hide the dissolve. This way of hiding the dissolve with fog will be used again by the filmmakers in the ending plane sequence. 

In total, this flashback sequence demonstrates the ingenious and unique ways these filmmakers chose to follow the laws of Classical Hollywood Cinema. The continuity of narrative is displayed throughout this sequence in how every aspect of the frame is used for narrative progression. With moments of sound, movement, and image, the seamless transitions contribute to the filmmaker’s burying edits while propelling the story forward. For a film so highly revered, editing may not be on everyone’s radar. Some may not know the language of cinema, or the filmmakers may have been just too successful in covering their edits. Although there is a claim that Hollywood cinema is artistically barren, the strategic burial of edits the filmmakers chose in the flashback sequence counters this claim. For Casablanca, the scene’s aspects indicate that it is reaffirming or reimagining ways of continuing the traditions set, particularly with sound and visual. In the end, Rick, our “hero,” allows Lazlo to go off with Ilsa. He sacrifices his love for the greater good. An ending so resonant that it cements Rick Blaine as one of the great characters in cinema. In all, the discreet editing allows us to get to this point in the narrative without being taken out. It is very artful in its construction. 

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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