Casablanca: Shadows and Subtext

CASABLANCA, Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart, 1942
CASABLANCA, Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart, 1942

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.

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10 thoughts on “Casablanca: Shadows and Subtext”

  1. Or even clues that are not. I learned in real criminal investigations that often a fat one drops in front of you and pulls the case off into a direction with no point after all. Ooops. Just might have included a few along the way in my fiction.

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  2. Mike Fuller: we lawyers call those fat clues red herrings. I think the readers expect them. I find I treat early obvious clues with distrust expecting it to be a red herring. Just finished reading a book where the author deftly manipulated that inclination.

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  3. Shadows and subtext are the text of real life. A novel without both main story/conflict AND shadows and subtext would be uninteresting indeed, perhaps one I would abandon before finishing. If a writer does not care enough about the characters and the story to have well developed text, subtext, and shadows, I probably don’t care enough to finish reading it.

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  4. Wonderful post Keenan. We recently watched Casablanca (for the umpteenth time) and every time I see it, I see something else in it. Same with was it To Have and Have Not? Not sure, his first movie with Bacall. You are 100 percent right about subtext. That’s where the true work of the story is done.

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    1. So I watched To Have and Have Not. Seeing it right on the heels of Casablanca made the similarities obvious. Bacall was amazing but otherwise I think the studio was trying to rehash Casablanca.

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  5. That’s interesting. I’ve never seen them close together so I guess I haven’t seen the similarity. Now I will have to have a Bogie binge. Things could be worse! To some extent, all of the movies made during that time were Casablancaesq (now there’s a word) but they’re far more stylish than the offerings today – – at least I think so.

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