Movie Analysis: “Casablanca” – Plot

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it's a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to 'get' how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it's like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It's important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

This week's movie: Casablanca, screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. But seriously, if you haven't seen Casablanca, stop whatever you're doing and watch it! If you have seen Casablanca, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

As I noted yesterday in my comments, Casablanca has a simple plot:

Boy has lost girl.
Boy gets girl back.
Boy gives up girl.

And if you look at the story from purely an action standpoint, there is seemingly scant little of it. But this is where the scalability of plot comes into play: Because the characters are so big and rich in terms of their backstories, their wants and needs, and the resulting conflicts deriving from their respective goals, the character interactions themselves come off as deeply significant.

Look at these two scenes:


There is so damn much going on in these scenes! It just two people talking. Yet every single line, every turn from beginning to middle to end of each scene is filled with action, the type which can only be found in human interaction.

And so the plot. Nothing complicated here. But the characters! They utterly fill each moment of each scene. Always with that central question looming over the entire story: What will Rick do? Will he end up with Ilsa… or not?

How about you? What thoughts do you have about the movie’s plot? I look forward to reading your reactions in comments.

Trivia: Did you know the letters of transit are a complete fabrication? No such letters existed. The Epstein brothers came up with them as a key narrative device.

Go Into The Story

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