Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Using Casablanca to think about tension


The prologue to the movie sets up the theme of the movie: people are desperate to get out of Europe and Casablanca is the last stop before Lisbon and "the Clipper to America".

The story starts with news of the murdered couriers, couriers carrying documents, being broadcast by the French police.

The tension begins because the murderers are believed to be headed for Casablanca.

The desire to leave Europe is given a face by the Bulgarian couple who see the plane to Lisbon. The woman says wistfully "perhaps tomorrow we'll be on the plane."

Thus the two elements of the story are introduced: the letters of transit and the people who want them.

Signor Ugarte is revealed to have the transit documents when he gives them to Rick to hide.

Now we know what the documents are, their value, and who has them.

Tension rises when French police captain Renault tells Rick that notorious freedom fighter Victor Laszlo will be in the cafe that evening, and that Laszlo is in dire need of exit visas.

(A character must want something for there to be tension; Laszlo wants the visas. Often in editing notes this is noted as "what does the main character want?")

Laszlo and Ilse Lund come to the cafe. They're told Ugarte has been arrested and thus will not be able to sell the transit papers as promised.

The tension rises when the solution to the problem is blocked. (Ugarte has been arrested, the papers no longer available.)

The audience is left wondering what will happen next which is the essence of tension.

End of Act 1

The next morning, the location of the transit papers is discussed by German officer Strasser and Captain Renault. Strasser theorizes the papers are at Rick's cafe and tells Renault to search.

The tension here is that the audience knows the papers are there because we saw Rick hide them the night before. We wonder if Renault will find them.

The tension abates somewhat because he does not find them.

This is a smaller incident of tension, it doesn't really address the problem Laszlo has.

Laszlo and Ilse come to Renault's office and are told they cannot leave Casablanca without an exit visa signed by Renault, which he will not get.

Tension increase not because the problem has changed (the need for exit visas) but because the solutions are disappearing. First the transit visas from Ugarte are out of reach, now any kind of legal exit visa signed by Renault is out of reach.

Laszlo turns to the black market and visits Signor Ferrari who offers one visa, just for Ilse. She refuses.

"I'll be honest M'sier, it will take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles" Ferrari tell Laszlo.

The tension rises again because the third option for exit visas (the black market) is now also out of reach.

But then, a ray of hope:

Ferrari directs Laszlo to Rick, whom he believes to have the papers that Ugarte stole.

Laszlo comes to Rick, and asks him about the transit papers. Rick tells Laszlo the papers aren't available at any price, and if he wonders why "ask your wife". (Ilse and Laszlo are secretly married, something Ilse told Rick earlier in the day.)

Just as Laszlo and Rick are talking about the exit papers, they hear the Germans singing their national anthem raucously in the bar.

Laszlo immediately goes to the band and says "Play Le Marseillaise" The band looks to Rick, who nods, and the band strikes up the French national anthem.

The Germans are drowned out, the entire cafe is on its feet, and the audience understands that Laszlo has just sealed his fate.

Strasser orders the cafe closed at once (the now-famous "your winnings, sir" scene)

Later that evening, Ilse goes back to the cafe. She tells Rick that if he doesn't help them, Laszlo will die in Casablanca.

"What of it," Rick responds.

Ilse pulls a gun and Rick still refuses to hand over the papers. "Go ahead and shoot me, you'll be doing me a favor."

While this scene is tense, the audience isn't really worried that Ilse will shoot Rick, if only cause we know the "rules" of movies: if the hero dies it's at the end of the movie, not the end of Act 2.

But we also can't see how Laszlo and Ilse will get exit visas. We're glued to our seats to find out what happens next.

End of Act 2

Later that night, Laszlo and Karl (the waiter) return to the cafe after an underground meeting is raided by the police.

When Rick sends Karl to escort Ilse home, he and Laszlo stay at the bar. Laszlo asks Rick to give the transit papers to Ilse if he will not sell them to him. Not only give the transit visa to Ilse, but asks that Rick escort her to America.

(this escorting of ladies is nicely laid in twice earlier in the movie: when Yvonne has too much to drink; and when Ilse is in Rick's upstairs room at the cafe.)

Just then the police break in and arrest Laszlo.

Laszlo is now in the hands of the Germans, and Strasser has made it clear that he has no problem killing Laszlo.

The next morning, Rick tells Renault that he will be using the transit papers for himself, and Ilse.

The audience wonders if Rick will do this very selfish thing: leave Laszlo to die in Casablanca. Our sympathies are with Laszlo, we want him to carry on fighting the Nazis VERY much.

Rick has long maintained he "sticks his neck out for no man" but we've seen him act contrary to that twice now: once when he rigs the roulette table to pay out on #22 so the Bulgarian couple wins the cost of their exit visas and second, most tellingly, when he agrees to have the band play Les Marseilles.

Rick says what he's going to do, but our eyes are still glued to the screen to see if he does. We think he will because what other option is there.

The tension is both the lack of options, and the one option that does seem available is one we don't particularly like.

Rick arranges with Renault to set Laszlo up for a bigger crime, one that will certainly get him sent to a concentration camp. Laszlo comes to the cafe with Ilse believing he is bringing Ilse to Rick and they will get on the plane.

Renault arrives to arrest Laszlo.

Much to everyone's surprise, including the audience, this time it is Rick who has the gun.

When all four of them arrive at the airport, Ilse still expects it is Rick who will go with her.

But of course, Rick gives the papers to Laszlo and tells Ilse to go with him.

The climactic moment is catharsis of the best kind. Ilse and Laszlo get on the plane and Major Strasser gets shot.

The End

The problem for the characters in Casablanca is pretty simple: the need for exit visas. Tension builds when the solutions to the problem becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible to find.

A lot of other things contribute to making this a great movie (my favorite of all time in fact); tension doesn't exist apart from the other story elements. But tension is the fuel for the engine. Without it, the story doesn't move at all.

Any questions? Feel free to disagree in the comment column of course. A variety of opinions is welcome.


nightsmusic said...

I concur on the best movie ever! It really is. And I have a lot of 'best' favorites, but if someone were to ask, this is the title that would pop out without hesitation. Also, the picture you posted is the spot where the tears are streaming down my face, not so much because they're playing Le Marseille, but because of the sheer patriotism and defiance of evil of that movie moment. The whole movie should be a class, and I'm sure it is somewhere, because it's the epitome of some of the best writing out there.

I'm glad they added the "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" line. It wouldn't quite have been the same movie without it because it gives you the knowledge that, like it or not, now they're in this war together.

Your synopsis is a two thumbs up for me and I loved reading it!

Hope you had a good New Year.

BJ Muntain said...

James Scott Bell often uses this movie as an example - of tension, character change, structure, and more. He uses movies more than books as examples, because he knows movies, and because his students/workshop participants are all more likely to have seen a certain classic movie (Wizard of Oz is another he uses) than to have read any specific book.

Casablanca is pretty much the perfect movie, in both writing skill and emotion.

CynthiaMc said...

Love this movie.

Katja said...

I love your posts on building a novel!!

Building tension seems so simple. On paper, lol. Okay, in movies.

I biased-ly find that my first book (One Of Us Has To Go) has so much tension (doesn't even my title and my catchphrase? 😃). I also totally biased-ly find that the first chapter of my current WIP (Living Lies) has a lot of tension.

Then I believe (non-biased-ly) that it is my craft as in how I put words together isn't super great.
It seems like there are sooo many elements (like building blocks) to writing.
If only we could trade them... Because I have read work from other people that I felt lacked tension, with the complete absence of character goals, but then they make such wonderful sentences!
Aw, if only these building blocks were tradable.

Kaphri said...

A lesson in writing a solid synopsis.

Amanda Capper said...

I've never seen this movie. Or The Maltese Falcon. Or the one with Rosebud. I tend to fall asleep at movies. NO, wait, I really enjoyed Shawshank Redemption but only because of Stephen King.

I will go find Casablanca and study it.

Barbara Etlin said...

Thanks for this explanation of the use of tension. I'm taking notes. Casablanca is my favourite movie, too.

Having seen it numerous times, I recently noticed a tiny dialogue mistake. When Renault and Strasser talk to Lazlo and Ilse, Renault says that he understands they had wanted to see Ugarte the previous night at Rick's. "The conversation would be little one-sided. Senor Ugarte is dead. I'm making out the report now. I'm trying to decide whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape."

But they never mentioned this to Renault or Strasser. They were very secretive about this. Lazlo quietly asked Berger at the bar about Ugarte and Berger says, "Ugarte cannot even help himself. He was arrested here tonight."

Anyway, not a bad movie for one that had constant rewrites and four writers who were undecided on the ending until just before it was shot.

Mister Furkles said...

There is a difference between tension and suspense. Much of this is suspense. There must be tension throughout but suspense is about the main plot.

Tension may be as little as a awkward situation.

Suspense is the driving force of the story. Will Laszlo and Ilse get out of Casablanca or will Laszlo die at the hands of the Nazi? Also, will Rick change his selfish character and do the good deed? Anything contributing to or blocking these is suspense and the reset (such as the drunk Nazis singing) is tension.

And I would note, though it is only semantics, that it isn't what the character wants but what the character is trying to do.

Beth Carpenter said...

Excellent example. A complex movie, but it comes down to the simple, doesn't it? It's been years since I watched Casablanca. I'll have to find it and watch again soon. I've noticed it's harder to find favorite classics now. The various streaming services are grabbing exclusive rights.

Pam Barnsley said...

Yes, Casablanca is the best for all the reasons listed, but there is something else that elevates it to perfection for me. Just when we've come to expect otherwise, and we half-sympathize with him, the character of Rick rises above standard self-interest to risk everything. He risks love, happiness, money, and ultimately his life. He behaves heroically, selflessly. So many other heroes win with brute force, cleverness, or lucky super-powers; Rick wins by overcoming himself. What higher power can there be than that?

JEN Garrett said...

I am shocked, shocked to discover that so many people love this iconic movie! (Of course, I agree.)

KDJames said...

Good grief, Janet. *snort* Only you could summarize this movie and not mention the (unrequited) love story which is so integral to the plot. I haven't even seen the movie and I knew that.

I absolutely agree with Mister Furkles about tension and suspense being two different things. And in terms of a reader's standpoint, yes, you need both tension and suspense. Not arguing that.

But from a writer's standpoint, I'm not sure it's helpful to say, "this lacks tension" without acknowledging that conflict is what CREATES tension. Having "a character who wants something" isn't enough. There has to be something (many somethings) stopping them from getting it. Otherwise this story would be: characters want exit papers, are told where to get them, they go there and get them, leave the country, live happily ever after. *yawn*

So if you're a writer and have no idea HOW to create tension/suspense, google "conflict in fiction" or "types of conflict" (there are 3 or 4 or 7 or 53 types, IDK) and you'll find a half-ton of articles/posts. Casablanca has several types of conflict, from the Wiki summary I read. But arguably the most powerful in the movie is the internal conflict of Rick v. Rick, who believes he had been betrayed and callously abandoned by a lover and this has led to his lack of caring at the start. He has to learn and grow and accept and resolve that internal CONFLICT to act as he did at the end. And that is what makes the story so compelling and satisfying.

[And no, this is not a "romance" as there is no HEA for our protag, but there is a romance thread in it that informs everything.]

KDJames said...

Now that I think about it, it's interesting from a craft standpoint how the conflicts keep getting narrower and more personal as the story goes on. Does this always happen? Never noticed it before now. (Mind you, I have not seen the movie.)

At first it's not even about Rick and from what I gather he doesn't "want" anything, except maybe to be left alone
It's Laszlo & Ilsa v world war
Then Laszlo & Ilsa v shady random character (Ugarte)
Then L&I v the Nazis (personified by Strasser, who came from out of town)
L&I v local police (Renault, who lives in town, known to Rick)
As Rick gets involved in the story, it slowly shifts to be more about him and his conflict/struggle, L&I become almost secondary
Rick (as bar owner) v Strasser/Renault (authority)
Rick v Laszlo (personal jealousy)
Rick v Ilsa (resentment, unrequited love, regret)
Rick v Rick (duty, longing, conscience)

And of course, at the end -- do I need to issue a spoiler warning for a movie from 1942? -- Rick resolves both the intensely personal (letting Ilsa go) and the most general overall conflict (shooting the Nazi).

And how remarkable that this movie was released worldwide in 1942 (1943 in US) before anyone knew how that war would be resolved.

Hmmm. I might have to watch it.

Panda in Chief said...

The scene where the entire bar sings Le Marseillaise always makes me cry too, for the same reason. This will always be in the real top 5 favorite movies of my 100 or so favorite 5 movies.

Happy New year, everyone!

Kae Ridwyn said...

Arriving late today (hoo boy but it's been a busy one!) but THANK YOU and I love this post, Janet!
KD I also loved reading through your conflicts analysis. Thank you too! :)

Julie Weathers said...

Well, not only was that a great lesson on tension, but also one on writing a synopsis.

Happy New Year to all my Reider friends.

Barbara Etlin said...

In Janet's synopsis, it seems that Lazlo is the main character, who encounters obstacles to his goal of leaving Casablanca to continue his leadership of the movement against the Nazis.

But I think Rick is the main character and hero because only he has a character arc. The movie is about his change from isolationism (symbolizing the U.S., which had not yet entered the war in early December 1941) to joining the Allies. Lazlo's character remains the same throughout. Rick changes from "sticking his neck out for nobody" to giving up his chance to reclaim his lost love for Ilse in order to support the Allied cause.

AJ Blythe said...

I saw this movie when I was a teenager. Does it have a sad ending? I think it must because I don't remember liking it all that much and I do not like movies with sad endings. I think life's too short to spend my free time being sad.

Pericula Ludus said...

I disagree with nothing except for your spelling of "La Marseillaise". Potentially because I have never seen the movie. It does sound like a good story though! Great example of tension over something as boring as documents shaping a story.