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Casablanca - Plot and Structure

There are many ways to break down screenplay structure. The basic three acts, the 5 plot points, and one of my favorites, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beats.

Here’s Casablanca, summarized and broken down in the STC 15 beat structure.

Opening Image

A world at war and one destination for refugees: Casablanca

Theme Stated*

Ferrari to Rick: “isolationism is no longer a practical policy”

Set-Up

Police are on the lookout for the murder of two couriers carrying valuable documents. They round up suspects off the streets.

Rick (Bogart), a saloon owner in Casablanca, makes business serving drinks and gambling to the myriad of people that come through and get stuck in town. Rick is a loner, bitter, and content with a life that has more darkness than light. 

Catalyst

Ugarte (Lorre) asks Rick to hold two letters of transit that will allow its holders to exit Casablanca and make passage to America.

Debate

Rick doesn’t want to get involved, but agrees to hide the documents for Ugarte until later that night. Ferrari, a competing saloon owner, propositions Rick to sell his saloon, but Rick isn’t selling. Ferrari tests the loyalty of Sam, the piano player, who politely rejects Ferrari’s offer to work for him.

Captain Renault (Rains), the local governing official, chides Rick when he sends a drunken woman home without taking advantage. Later, Renault informs Rick that the police will be arresting the man who murdered the couriers tonight, in Rick’s saloon. He also tells Rick that a French Freedom fighter, Laszlo, is in town, seeking passage to America with a beautiful woman. And that fact has brought a German officer, Major Strasser, to Casablanca.

Major Strasser arrives at Rick’s saloon to watch Renault arrest the murderer, Ugarte. Renault’s men attempt to arrest Ugarte and when Ugarte pleads for Rick’s help, Rick tells him there is no use in running and doesn’t get involved.

After the arrest, Strasser asks Rick to join his table and questions him on his past and his loyalties. Though Rick has a past as a fighter for the underdog, his equivocating answers show Rick’s loyalties aren’t to any flag, and Renault assures Strasser that Rick is completely neutral.

Break into Two

Laszlo enters Rick’s saloon, with a beautiful woman, Ilsa (Bergman), who catches Sam’s eye. Laszlo and Ilsa, there to meet Ugarte, encounter an underground Free France operative, but the meeting is interrupted by Renault.

Renault introduces Strasser to Laszlo and Ilsa. Strasser requests Laszlo and Ilsa meet him in the morning to discuss their being in Casablanca.

Laszlo continues his conversation with the underground operative, who tells him of a secret meeting the next night.

Sam pulls his piano next to Ilsa, who asks him to play some of the old songs. She asks about Rick, and Sam tries his best to lie and keep them from seeing each other. Ilsa asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By.” Rick enters, overhears the song, and storms over to Sam. Rick spots Ilsa and is shocked to see her.


Laszlo and Renault join and all are introduced. Rick and Ilsa talk about the last time they saw each other, in Paris the day the Germans marched in. Laszlo and Ilsa leave, not before being reminded by Renault to meet with Strasser in the morning.

The lights go out at Rick’s Cafe.

B Story/ Fun and Games

Rick drinks alone in the dark. Sam tries to get Rick to go home, but Rick wants to wait for Ilsa, he’s convinced she will return tonight. Sam, ever loyal, keeps him company. Rick can’t imagine why Ilsa is back in his life. He asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” which transitions into a flashback of Rick and Ilsa’s romance in Paris.

In Paris, Rick and Ilsa fall madly in love, though they intentionally don’t tell each other personal details of their respective lives. When the Germans march toward Berlin, Ilsa urges Rick to leave for fear they will discover his record and that he’s on the blacklist.

Rick wants Ilsa to leave Paris with him, and while she loves him, she is conflicted. They agree to meet at the train station the day the Germans arrive. But that night, while waiting for Ilsa at the train station, Sam gives Rick a letter Ilsa left for him which says she isn’t coming. Rick’s heart is broken and he doesn’t know why.

Back to the present, Ilsa enters Rick’s to explain what happened that day in Paris. But Rick is inconsolable. Ilsa conveys how special her time was with Rick, but it falls on Rick’s drunk, deaf ears. Ricks asks who Ilsa left him for, Laszlo, or others in between. Ilsa leaves.

Laszlo and Isla arrive at Renault’s office to meet Strasser. Strasser informs Laszlo that he will not be permitted to leave Casablanca, unless he gives Strasser information on the French resistance. Laszlo is resolute, rejects the offer, feeling somewhat safe in non-German controlled Casablanca. Renault discloses that they know Laszlo was to meet with Ugarte and Strasser takes the pleasure to inform Laszlo and Ilsa that Ugarte is dead.

Rick meets with Ferrari at his saloon, the Blue Parrot. Ferrari wants the letters of transit and offers a deal to whomever has them, and he’s convinced Rick knows where they are. Rick sees Ilsa at the bazaar and goes to talk to her.

Rick apologizes for not being more welcoming the previous night and wants to hear Ilsa’s excuse for standing him up in Paris at the train station. Ilsa declines, saying that Rick has changed since those days. She wants to keep their time in Paris in the past. Ilsa tells Rick that Laszlo is her husband, and was during their affair in Paris.

Midpoint

Laszlo and Ilsa meet with Ferrari, who tells them that Ferrari, with his past, won’t be able to leave. Ferrari says he could get a visa for Ilsa, but after talking it over, Laszlo and Ilsa tell Ferrari they will continue to try to get two visas. Before they leave, Ferrari tells them that Rick has the letters of transit that can get them both out of Casablanca.

Bad Guys Close In

Rick drink back at his saloon, and is joined by Renault who asks directly if Rick has the letters of transit. Rick responds with a direct question himself and Renault relents the line of questioning.

A fight between a German and French solider breaks out and Rick breaks it up. Seeing the sentiment of the French, itching for resistance to the Germans, Strasser tells Renault that Laszlo is too dangerous to be let out of Casablanca, and too dangerous to be allowed to stay.

A young woman approaches Rick and questions if Renault is trustworthy. She and her husband have no money, and are trying to get visas to America. Rick hones in on the dilemma; the young woman will have to do something she doesn’t want to do to get the visas from Renault, something she could never tell her husband. The woman asks Rick if he could ever forgive a woman who did something horrible but with his happiness in mind. Rick leaves her, saying her problem might work itself out.

Laszlo and Ilsa arrive and Rick seats them at a table. In the gambling room, Rick finds the young woman’s husband, losing and down to his last chips. Rick tells him to put it all on 22 and gives a look to the croupier. The man wins and Rick tells him to leave it on 22. Again, he wins and Rick tells him to cash his chips and never come back. Rick walks out, graciously thanked by the young woman who saw what Rick did. Renault, who also observed, is convinced Rick’s action proves he’s a sentimentalist.

Laszlo meets privately with Rick and offers to buy the letters of transit. Rick declines to sell them to him, and tells Laszlo to ask his wife as to why.

Down the in saloon, a group of German soldiers start a chorus of a German song. Laszlo approaches the band and tells them to play a French song. The entire place joins in, singing the French song and drowning out the German soldiers who eventually give up. The saloon swells with French pride. Strasser tells Renault that it’s clear Laszlo has the potential to be dangerous to the German agenda.

All Is Lost

Strasser tells Renault to close Rick’s down immediately. Strasser tells Ilsa that the only safe place for Laszlo is back in German-occupied Paris.

Dark Night of the Soul

Back at their hotel, Laszlo and Ilsa spot a man shadowing them, standing across the street. She tries to convince Laszlo not to go to the underground meeting tonight, but Laszlo doesn’t think hiding and cowering is productive. Laszlo tells Ilsa that Rick won’t sell him the letters of transit and said to ask her why. Laszlo asks Ilsa if she was lonely in Paris while he was in the concentration camp. He asks if she has anything to tell him but she says no. She asks if she does something, will he believe… He cuts her off, saying he will believe. He kisses her goodnight and leaves. Ilsa stops him at the door and tells him to be careful. She runs to the window and sees Laszlo walk into the night, the man following them nowhere to be seen. Ilsa immediately grabs her coat and leaves the hotel room.

Rick closes up and finds Ilsa in his upstairs apartment. Ilsa pleads for the letters of transit. Rick rebuffs her, not able to trust what she says or her motives. She says Laszlo will die without his help, but Rick doesn’t care. Ilsa pulls a gun and demands the letters, but Rick walks up to her and the gun, calling her bluff. Ilsa lowers the gun and admits she never stopped loving Rick.

Later, Ilsa tells the story of how Laszlo got caught in Czechoslovakia while she was in Paris and word got out that he was killed trying to escape. She explains that she didn’t tell Rick about her husband Laszlo because of information she knew due to Laszlo being a part of the resistance. Ilsa says didn’t find out that Laszlo was alive until the very day she was supposed to leave with Rick. Ilsa tries to get Rick to help Laszlo leave Casablanca, so that she can stay there with Rick.

Laszlo returns to Rick’s from the underground meeting with Rick’s employee, Carl. Rick quietly orders Carl to take Ilsa home and goes down to talk to Laszlo. Laszlo tells Rick that everyone has a destiny for good or evil and that Rick is conflicted with himself. Laszlo puts the cards on the table, knowing that Rick and Ilsa have a past. He asks Rick to help Ilsa get out of Casablanca. Then, the French authorities arrive to arrest Laszlo.

Break into Three

At Renault’s office, Rick tells Renault that he doesn’t have anything to hold Laszlo for long. Renault tells Rick that he knows he has the letters of transit and to not help Laszlo escape. Rick comes clean, saying he has the documents and intends to use the letters himself, tonight, to get him and Ilsa out of Casablanca. Renault questions Rick’s motives, and Rick says he has a interest in Laszlo not leaving Casablanca so Rick and Ilsa can be happy in America.

Rick offers to set Laszlo up, offering to selling him the documents so that Renault can catch him and lock him up for good. In exchange, Rick wants Renault to allow him and Ilsa to leave without any interference. Renault agrees to let Laszlo go and to follow Rick’s plan.

Rick meets with Ferrari and finalizes the sale of his saloon, making sure his loyal employees are taken care of. Back at Rick’s saloon, Renault arrives to make sure everything is set. Rick sends Renault to wait in his office when Laszlo and Ilsa arrive.

Ilsa pulls Rick aside, worried that Laszlo thinks she is leaving with him. Rick tells her they will tell him at the airport. Rick gives the documents to Laszlo and Renault enters to arrest him. However, Rick has a gun pointed at Renault. Rick tells Renault to call the airport and clear the way for the letters of transit. But, Renault doesn’t call the airport, he calls to alert Strasser, who gathers his men and heads to the airport.

Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo, and Renault arrive at the airport. Rick tells Renault to make the airport crewman put Laszlo’s bags on the plane and Laszlo goes with him. Rick tells Renault to sign the letters of transit himself, and, revealing his true intentions, to put Laszlo and Ilsa’s name on it.

Ilsa doesn’t understand, this isn’t what they agreed on the night before. 

Rick tells her if they stay, they will both be imprisoned by Strasser. And that Laszlo needs Ilsa at his side to continue his fight for freedom. Rick intimates that his and Ilsa’s love will keep them together wherever they are.

Rick tells Laszlo that Ilsa came to him last night, pretending to be in love with him to get the letters of transit. The plane readies for takeoff. Ilsa says goodbye to Rick and she and Laszlo walk to the plane and fade into the fog.

Renault declares he was right that Rick had a heart and knows that Rick lied when he said Ilsa was just pretending to still love him. Renault warns Rick that they are both in trouble. And when Strasser arrives, Rick keeps him from stopping the plane by shooting him.

When Strasser’s men arrive, Renault tells them that Strasser has been shot, but doesn’t give up Rick. Rick and Renault watch as the plane takes off into the night.

Renault recommends that Rick leave town. Rick reminds Renault that he owes him money for betting that Laszlo wouldn’t escape Casablanca. Renault agrees, saying the money should cover both of their travel expenses.

Rick gets the hint, they both need to leave town and thinks “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Final Image

Rick and Renault walking into the night fog.

_______________________________________________________________________

Wow, what a story. I mean, it’s #1 on the greatest screenplay lists for a reason!

 *Theme Stated is always the hardest for me to figure out. It doesn’t come early like STC outlines, but Ferrari’s line about Rick isolating himself is the first line that gets at the heart of the story conflict, as well as protagonist’s conflict.

Filed under Casablanca structure plot STC WGA101

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