I watched Casablanca again the other night and realized two things. First, it clips along at a pretty fast pace even by today’s standards. Second, there is a huge amount of subtext. The pace could have crippled the story were it not for the masterful use of subtext imparting both information and intrigue.
For instance, Rick Blaine says repeatedly he “sticks his neck out for no one.” Yet he’s challenged by two different characters, Capt. Renault and the evil Major Strasser, both of whom state Rick had fought for the underdog twice and recently. His reaction? He makes a joke out of it. What do we conclude? Something happened. Something happened so big that it changed him. Or maybe he’s lying.
In another scene, a young Bulgarian bride comes to Rick and asks him if Capt. Renault keeps his promises. (Earlier it’s implied Capt. Renault trades visas for sex.) Rick responds by rigging the roulette game so her groom can win the money needed for the visas. Recall Rick sticks his neck out for no one. But he casually gave away twenty thousand francs. What does that mean? Money doesn’t matter to him or he does stick his neck out?
That scene foreshadows Ilsa’s after-hours visit to persuade Rick to give her the letters of transit. They argue. She pulls a gun. He grabs her. She cries. They kiss. Cut to exterior shot of Rick looking out a window, drink in hand.
Did they have sex? It sure feels like they did. But he’s still wearing his tux and bow tie! It’s the early hours of the morning, he isn’t going anywhere, why would he put his tux back on? And did Ilsa have sex with Rick just to obtain the transit letters or does she really love him?
Because so much of Casablanca’s story is mysterious (each set of facts lead to two different inferences), you really don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. Using our reader’s predilection to think is what mystery is all about. We create a puzzle, they solve it. We don’t have to lay a trail of breadcrumbs for our readers. We can bury our clues in subtext. Along the way, we can allow our readers to draw a conclusion then we can challenge it.
By hiding clues in subtext, the readers will be more emotionally engaged in the puzzle-solving and thus they will be more satisfied when the solution is revealed. And those are the readers who will be thinking and talking about the story long after they’ve read it.