Analysis of CASABLANCA Famous Lines
- January 27, 2010
- Posted by: HalCroasmun
- Category: Articles
If you ask people their favorite movie of all time, many will say Casablanca.
On theAFI Top 100 Movie Quotes, six lines came from Casablanca and the movie was listed as the 2nd greatest movie of all time.
What made those lines so memorable?
And how can that benefit your writing?
As you read this article, you’ll see Famous Lines #28 and #67 and an analysis of what made these lines great. You may be surprised to see that the success of these lines came from setup, character, subtext, and a few other special ingredients. And even though the acting was great, the writing played a huge part in the notoriety.
So congratulations to the screenwriters Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch and the play writers Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
NOTE: My focus here is what makes this line great. I won’t be pointing out all the other skills used in this scene. Also, I’m not going to point out changes I’d make to bring this 1942 script up to today’s standards.
This scene occurs 1/3rd the way through the script. For those of you who don’t know the story, it takes place in World War 2. Rick and Ilsa were lovers in Paris, but haven’t seen each other for years.
At that time, they didn’t discuss their lives — especially that Ilsa was married to Laszlo.
Let’s see what we can discover.
INT. RICK’S CAFE – NIGHT
Ilsa sits alone at her table.
Will you ask the piano player to come over here, please?
Very well, Mademoiselle.
Sam wheels in the piano to Ilsa’s table. On his face is that funny fear.
Ilsa herself is not as self-possessed as she tries to appear.
There is something behind this, some mystery.
Hello, Miss Ilsa. I never expected
to see you again.
NOTE: Let’s start the intrigue right here. Ilsa knows the piano player in Rick’s bar…but the pianist never expected to see her again. Why? And why the “funny fear” on his face?
He sits down and is ready to play.
It’s been a long time.
Yes, ma’am. A lot of water under the bridge.
Some of the old songs, Sam.
Sam begins to play a number. He is nervous, waiting for anything.
Where is Rick?
I don’t know. I ain’t seen him all night.
Sam looks very uncomfortable.
When will he be back?
Not tonight no more. He ain’t coming.
Uh, he went home.
Does he always leave so early?
Oh, he never… well…
he’s got a girl up at the Blue Parrot.
He goes up there all the time.
NOTE: Wow! A lot of effort went into Sam covering for Rick. Again, we’re wondering why. Is Ilsa a threat in some way? After all, there’s a war going on. Or does it go deeper? Let’s see.
You used to be a much better liar,
Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You’re bad luck to him.
NOTE: Now, we get the subtext. Sam has been lying and Ilsa knows it. Also, Sam has been protecting Rick…but from bad luck?
Play it once, Sam, for old time’s
I don’t know what you mean, Miss
Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes
NOTE: There’s the #27 most famous movie quote. This is the first time we hear it and it doesn’t yet have enough meaning for it to truly be that great of a line. Watch as the meaning is built for this line and you’ll see how a simple line can become a great one.
Oh I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa.
I’m a little rusty on it.
Of course he can. He doesn’t want to play it. He seems even more scared now.
NOTE: Notice how this song is being set up. Ilsa says the line “Play it once Sam, for old time’s sake.” and assumes that Sam knows what she means. Sam instantly claims he doesn’t know, even that he is a little rusty, but all of that is just part of the subtext of this line. All of this set up tells us there is something about this song that is important to this story.
I’ll hum it for you.
Ilsa starts to hum.
Sam begins to play it very softly.
Sing it, Sam.
And Sam sings.
You must remember this, A kiss is just a kiss, A sigh is just a sigh, The fundamental things apply, As time goes by.
The door to the gambling room opens. Rick comes swinging out. He’s heard the music and he’s livid.
And when two lovers woo, They both say I love you, On that you can rely,
No matter what the future brings, As time goes by.
Rick walks briskly up to the piano.
Sam, I thought I told you never to
NOTE: Now, we have the second level of meaning that is applied to the song. Rick has told Sam never to play the song and is actually angry that it is being played. What would cause Rick to ban this song? What is he so angry about?
All of this is about dramatizing the line, the song, and even more important, the relationship.
As he sees Ilsa he stops short. Sam stops playing.
Two close-ups reveal Ilsa and Rick seeing each other.
Rick appears shocked. For a long moment he just looks at her.
Sam prepares to move the piano away.
Renault and Laszlo approach the table from the bar.
Well, you were asking about Rick and here he is. Mademoiselle, may I
— Hello, Ilsa.
Oh, you’ve already met Rick,
There’s no answer from either.
NOTE: And there it is. The look, the stare, the moment between two old lovers. Everything in this scene has been designed to set up this moment. The writer used intrigue, subtext, and emotion. Now that we’re here, what is going to be done with this emotional moment?
Well then, perhaps you also —
— This is Mr. Laszlo.
How do you do?
How do you do?
One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca.
And about Victor Laszlo everywhere.
Won’t you join us for a drink?
Oh, no, Rick never –
— Thanks. I will.
Rick sits down.
Well! A precedent is being broken.
NOTE: Notice that Renault has provided two things. First, confirmation that Rick never drinks. Then, Rick accepts a drink. Renault says “A precedent is being broken,” showing us that a change has taken place here and it is significant.
This is a very interesting cafe. I congratulate you.
And I congratulate you.
Thank you. I try.
We all try. You succeed.
NOTE: Two things have happened. First, a worthy adversary has been introduced. Laszlo has heard about Rick. Rick has heard about Laszlo. Rick’s last line shows his respect for and possibly concern about Laszlo. “We all try. You succeed.”
That brings us to the second thing. Laszlo’s presence means that Ilsa is unattainable. As with some of the other setups, having Ilsa be unattainable for now is going to pay off in many ways. But since we are focused here on how these famous lines were set up and written, let’s skip to the next place we see the “Play it, Sam” line and see how the meaning is amplified by the writer.
After Ilsa and Laszlo leave, Rick is left alone with Sam.
INT. RICK’S CAFE – MAIN ROOM – NIGHT
The customers have all gone. The house lights are out. Rick sits alone at a table. There is a glass of bourbon on the table directly in front of him, and another empty glass on the table before an empty chair. Near at hand is a bottle. He fills his glass and drinks it quickly. Rick just sits. His face is entirely expressionless. The beacon light from the airport sweeps around the room creating a mood of unreality. Sam comes in and stands hesitantly beside Rick.
No answer, as Rick drinks.
NOTE: Remember that Rick didn’t drink, but now, he drinking alone, in depression. Again, a visual indication that something serious has changed in his life.
Boss, ain’t you going to bed?
Not right now.
Sam now realizes Rick is in a very grim mood.
Ain’t you planning on going to bed
in the near future?
You ever going to bed?
Well, I ain’t sleepy either.
Good. Then have a drink.
No. Not me, boss.
Then don’t have a drink.
Boss, let’s get out of here.
No, sir. I’m waiting for a lady.
NOTE: Now, we have a point of recognition for the subtext of all the lines in this scene to this point. Rick has gone into a serious breakdown over Ilsa.
Please, boss, let’s go. Ain’t nothing but trouble for you here.
She’s coming back. I know she’s coming back.
We’ll take the car and drive all night. We’ll get drunk. We’ll go fishing and stay away until she’s gone.
Shut up and go home, will you?
No, sir. I’m staying right here.
Sam sits down at the piano and starts to play softly, improvising.
They grab Ugarte and she walks in.
Well, that’s the way it goes. One in, one out. Sam?
Sam, if it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
NOTE: This is a really great line. Why didn’t it become one of the top 100? Two reasons. First, it wasn’t set up as an important line. It’s being used more to show Rick’s state of mind. He’s distracting from what he really feels. So it is a “throw-away line.”
Second, there’s been no major meaning connected to it. So people don’t walk out of the theater remembering it. But let’s go on and see how the final meaning is given to two of the Top 100 lines.
Uh, my watch stopped.
I bet they’re asleep in New York.
I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.
Suddenly he pounds the table and buries his head in his arms.
Then he raises his head, trying to regain control.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
He holds his head in his hands.
NOTE: There’s the #67 line. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns…”
What makes this a memorable line? Four things:
- Subtext — This line is saying “I was just getting over her and now, she’s back to make me feel all that pain again.” But if it would have said those words, no one would remember it.
- Timing — The most emotional time in the scene.
- Sums up the situation — Rick is in a pathetic situation and the line delivers it well.
- Poetic — It has a cadence. It fits the “setup / punchline” format.
But notice this — If the line had been said when she first walked in, it would have been meaningless. However, after we have experienced all the set up for the relationship, and the total despair that Rick is in, it is a perfect summation line.
Now, let’s get the rest of the meaning to the “Play it, Sam” line.
What’s that you’re playing?
Just a little something of my own.
Well, stop it. You know what I want to hear.
No, I don’t.
You played it for her and you can play it for me.
Well, I don’t think I can remember it.
If she can stand it, I can. Play it!
Sam starts to play “As Time Goes By.”
NOTE: Notice that he didn’t say the exact line, but he amplified the meaning of the line. In the first scene, we saw Ilsa’s experience of the song. In this scene, we watch Rick’s meltdown. It is ironic that the same song caused such different experiences. She reminisces. He collapses. She enjoys it. He is tortured by it. She encourages Sam with the line “Play it, Sam,” but when it is Rick’s turn, he demands to hear it as if the song is his punishment for the mistakes he made in their relationship.
From a writing perspective, here are some of the things that made this line great:
- Deep meaning — Love and love lost.
- Multiple reactions — Ilsa reminisces. Rick collapses. Sam avoids.
- Trigger for a larger experience — “Play it, Sam” instantly takes us into the song that is a representation of their love story.
There you have it. #67 “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” and #27 “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.”
Overall, these are two simple lines that would have been forgotten if it wasn’t for a writer who set them up, made them emotional, and filled them with meaning. And now that you know how the writer did it, you can use these same skills on the screenplay you are writing. Who knows, maybe one of your lines will be in the Top 100 the next time they run it.