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Wednesday, 22 February 2017 15:06

‘Casablanca’ one of the finest scripts of all time

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“Casablanca.”

For some, that name evokes a city in Morocco, an urban center of four million people quartering one of the more important economies in all of Africa.

For most of us, however, “Casablanca” brings to mind the 1942 motion picture classic starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring a fine cast of supporting characters. When first released, “Casablanca” won only modest acclaim, but went on to win three Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Director  (Michael Curtiz), and Best Adapted Screenplay (brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch were the screenwriters.). Seventy-five years later, “Casablanca” remains an iconic movie, considered by many one of the finest American films ever made as well as the greatest American romance ever to appear on the big screen.

And that screenplay which won an Academy Award surely deserves large credit for “Casablanca’s” enduring appeal. 

Most movie-goers don’t leave the theater saying, “Man, the guys who wrote that script were fantastic!” Instead, we comment on the acting, the music, the cinematography, or the director, to whom we often mistakenly give credit for the story. We forget about the men and women who wrote the lines and original set directions, who took a story of their own or someone’s novel — or in the case of “Casablanca,” an unproduced stage play titled “Everybody Comes To Rick’s” — and turn that story into script.

And what a script we find in “Casablanca!” I have a copy of that original screenplay sitting at my elbow as I write, a screenplay whose dialogue and action seem to me a work of minor genius. For me, and I suspect for others who have seen the picture, “Casablanc” contains some of the best dialogue ever written for American movies. 

Let’s see why.

First, and most importantly, the writers for “Casablanca” had an ear for the rhythms of conversation and knowing when to end those onscreen conversations. This combination accounts for the terse dialogue of the script. And it is dialogue, not action, that carries much of the movie and accounts for its success. Embedded in our culture are such lines as “Play it again, Sam (which is “Play it, Sam” in the movie), “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” “I stick my neck out for nobody,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects.” 

Great lines, yes, but “Casablanca” crackles with such exchanges. Here are just a few.

At one point, Major Strasser of the Third Reich asks the American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) personal questions: “What is your nationality?”

Rick: “I’m a drunkard.”

In the same conversation, Strasser later asks Rick, referring to the German army: “Can you imagine us in New York?”

Rick: “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

Later, two young, recently married Bulgarian refugees want to leave Casablanca for the United States, but lack the money needed to pay the required bribe for the exit visas. The corrupt official, Captain Renault, privately offers the papers to the young wife in exchange for sexual favors. Knowing that Rick is well-acquainted with Captain Renault, the corrupt official, the woman approaches him to ask whether Renault will keep his word. At one point, she says: “M’sieur, you are a man. If someone loved you … very much, so that your happiness was the only thing in the world she wanted and … she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

Rick: “No one ever loved me that much.”

Young woman: “But, M’sieur, if he never knew … if the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart … that would be all right, wouldn’t it?”

Rick (harshly): “You want my advice?

Young woman: “Oh yes, M’sieur, please.

Rick: “Go back to Bulgaria.”

What is wonderful about the dialogue in the movie is that it surpasses the script — or at least the script in my possession. I’m not sure how the changes occurred, whether from the director or the actors or more writing, but there are differences between the written script and the script as performed. Perhaps the single greatest of these differences comes at the end of the film. Rick has just killed Major Strasser to allow Laslo and Ilsa to escape to Spain. In the script, Renault offers Rick an escape route, Rick thanks him and adds a line about a bet he’d made with Renault. 

 In the movie, however, Renault intends to join with Rick in the resistance movement, to which Rick responds: “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” To motion picture audiences during the fiery days of World War II, that line signified the union of the Americans and the French.

That many of the actors in the film were European refugees also adds to the poignancy of the story. Their accents and their first-hand familiarity with the Nazi regime enhance the written words of the script. Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), Paul Henreid (Victor Laslo), S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), and a number of actors in minor parts had fled Europe after the Nazi takeover. Sakall lost three sisters in concentration camps, and though the director Michael Curtiz had emigrated before 1933, several of his relatives followed him to escape death at the hands of the Nazis.

“Casablanca” is a 75-year-old monument to the value of love and romance, the need to resist tyranny, and the freedom so many associate, even today, with America.

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