Mise-en-Scene in Casablanca

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ASSOCIATEDCONTENT.COM JANUARY 23, 2008

The classic Hollywood movie Casablanca opens the standard cinematic progression that has marked hundreds of thousands of other movies; establishing the universal before irising in on the intimate. Casablanca initiates with a sequence of establishing shots that mean to convey necessary information about a time place to its audience in as timely a fashion as possible. But this introductory sequence at the beginning of Casablanca is also intent on doing far more; it serves the very vital purpose of the underlying propagandistic elements of this seemingly traditional romantic drama by effortlessly constructing an ideological line in the sand between the good and the dark shadows of evil that populate this foreign land. The alien environment of the actual city of Casablanca was one that few American moviegoers still in grips of the effects of the Great Depression would be highly unfamiliar with, while at the same time instantly recognizing the emotional anxiety of these people suffering against forces over which they had no control. The beginning of Casablanca swiftly assigns a feeling of chaos and utter disorder to the lives of those in the city that, while foreign could also generate empathy.

Casablanca wastes no time in tracking from the impersonal to the intensely personal in its pursuit of good old-fashioned propaganda in support of its stance against the folly of isolationism in the face of aggressive evil. The Moroccan city is painted as a key point on the map in the process of escape by Europeans from the Nazis to America. The lighting is done so as to highlight the shadows of this city where good and evil intermingle and intertwine to create an unyielding atmosphere of moral ambiguity. The shadows look great from a cinematic perspective, but they look even better as a subtle symbol of the lurking shadow of oppression rising across the Atlantic in the guise of fascist imperialism. Every artistic choice in that ill-defined and little-understood theatrical term called mise-en-scene that is used throughout Casablanca’s opening scenes is dedicated to the narrative-functional style of filmmaking that dominates not just Hollywood, but most of world cinema. One of the most effective, if unrealistic, of these methods is that which relies upon withholding information from the viewer until the last possible moment in order to make the revelation all the more dramatic.

Another typical narrative-functional device utilized in Casablanca is the opening voice-over narration. This has long been a favorite use of the classical Hollywood style of moviemaking because it can so successfully impart vital knowledge that might take up precious filmic time if done in a conventional manner. The narration that opens Casablanca instigates an emotional connection between the audience and the movie’s characters that might otherwise too long remain alienated from the viewers as a result of their foreign detachment from the happenings in American society. Of equal consequence is the ability of this narration to emphasize the central conflict that is at the heart of the Casablanca’s value as an instrument for inculcating a specific ideology. The narration quite smoothly adds to the foundational aspect of the film that proposes that the fascist Nazis of Germany are the real foreigners and aliens in any land, and that all those who are opposed to the Nazis’ encroachment upon humanity and decency are united as one.

Casablanca clearly is far more than just a drama, suspense or romance, it is arguably the single most effective piece of cinematic propaganda to come out of Hollywood during the World War II years. Even the costuming is taken into account in the architecture of this ideological call to arms. For instance, the French policeman Renault’s uniform is a masterpiece of subtlety in the arena of mise-en-scene. Renault, played to usual perfection by Claude Rains, is an inspiring and imposing figure in his military uniform, even despite the short stature of Mr. Rains. In fact, the shortness of Rains actually serves to lend even more weight to the idea of Renault in his service as a figure of authority in the service of the Nazis, who were themselves headed by a shrimp and who as a collective entity are diminutive in relation to everyone else on earth. Renault’s disloyalty and dishonesty while situated inside his military attire while carrying out his job in the thin blue line is brilliantly set in contrast to the deceptive amorality of Rick Blaine, played by the magnificent Bogey. Rick is almost always seen wearing a white tux, especially inside his café Americain. That whiteness is a striking symbol of Rick’s inherent goodness as he traffics with every shady type of character in the city from cheating gamblers to hookers to Nazi officers. Renault’s military uniform is even today, long after we should know better, of an unblinking morality, whereas the tuxedo of Rick is highly suggestive of a façade. In the end, of course, both men are revealed to be basically decent even if willing to engage in questionable tactics at times. The only character in Casablanca who seems above suspicion as an utterly unambiguous hero, is the leader of the resistance and Rick’s romantic rival, Victor Laszlo. Victor’s costume never draws attention to itself, as befitting a man who must blend into the crowd in order to merely survive. Laszlo is only seen wearing a very traditional dress suit, and it is only through his carriage and manner that he is capable of making this rather boring and conventional outfit appear heroic.

The practicality of every aspect of narrative-functional moviemaking that is on display in Casablanca ranges from cinematography to makeup to costumes to props and beyond. Every action, ever scene, and every line of dialogue that occurs in Casablanca are brilliantly engaged to maintain the dynamic narrative ideology of Hollywood’s classic narrative-functional style of filmmaking. That it manages to do this while also being one of the most forceful examples of cinematic propaganda is a testament to the often unappreciated power of classical Hollywood narrative.