Unformatted text preview: Lesson 5 Notes
The classic film Casablanca will be the first full-length film we study in this course. You
will find a link to it under the Films portion of the main menu. Casablanca will remain
available to you from now through the end of the semester. Be sure to watch the film
before reading this lesson.
In this lesson, we will examine five clips from Casablanca in detail:
• The opening (0:00 – 6:30), which consists of title music, a prologue, and the setup;
• The pivotal five minutes at Rick’s (31:18 – 36:18) when Rick and Ilsa become
reacquainted; • Rick’s flashback to Paris (37:15 – 51:12), in which we learn Rick and Ilsa’s back-story;
• The “battle of the bands” (1:11:56 – 1:14:40) and its aftermath; and
• The final scene at the airport (1:35:50 – 1:42:34). Our focus will be on the film’s two most prominent themes: “As Time Goes By” and La
Marseillaise. We will trace the uses of these themes, the ways in which they are
developed, and their functions within the selected scenes. In the process, we will touch
on other musical themes, as we consider the music’s interaction with the narrative, as
well as with various techniques of filmmaking.
The era of classic Hollywood film was dominated by the “studio system,” a time when a
handful of major players had the means for both production and distribution of films.1
The major Hollywood studios at this time kept directors, composers, actors,
musicians—and all the necessary film professionals—under contract to create films for
the studio. Remarkably, in the 1940s each of these studios was producing about 50
films per year—almost one every week!
It is a testament to the talent and efficiency of the studio system that, with such a high
volume of production, there were quite a few first-rate films among them. Casablanca
(1942), produced by Warner Bros., is a case in point. Based on an unproduced play by
Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” the film’s script went
through a series of revisions—even as shooting was taking place. What resulted was
the very timely setting of Casablanca in early December 1941 (just days before the
Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor), and a love story that sacrifices itself to the greater
needs of a world at war, turning the protagonist, Rick Blaine, into one of the most
memorable and heroic characters in all of cinematic history.
For all the uncertainty that accompanied the final script revisions—even the stars didn’t
know whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or Victor—there seems in retrospect almost
an inevitability that the story would take shape as it did. Indeed, as soon as the United States had entered the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood had
turned its efforts to making patriotic films. Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood
Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942, to coincide with the Allied invasion of
North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23,
1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca conference, a high-level meeting between
Churchill and Roosevelt in the city. The movie thus was very timely and, not
surprisingly, it contains many elements of propaganda.
The studio system only rarely allowed the emergence of the Hollywood film director as
auteur; that is, as the one whose creative decisions shape the film to conform to his or
her artistic vision. In those days—with a few notable exceptions—the producer was
largely responsible for a great many of those decisions, and producer Hal B. Wallis can
rightly be credited with the film’s success, more so than director Michael Curtiz.
Granted, Curtiz was noted for his well-paced staging; he had directed Captain Blood
(1935), an exciting and popular sea adventure, as well as The Adventures of Robinhood
(1938). (Recall that we previewed the opening of the latter in Lesson 4.) In both cases,
though, it was Hal Wallis who had tapped Curtiz as director and paired him with Erich
Korngold as composer. And for Casablanca, it was Wallis’ decision to bring in his
favorite composer, Max Steiner.
Title Music and Prologue
In Lesson 4 we watched the first two minutes of the film’s opening. Let’s extend that
clip, and this time watch the first six-and-a-half minutes of Casablanca.
The Warner Bros. logo music (0:00 – 0:15) was composed by Max Steiner in 1937 for
the film Tovarich. What do the music and images tell us about the film? First, that
Warner Bros. is being “branded,” and Steiner’s music gives it import. Second, the
names Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid were well known to
audiences, movie stars from the A-list, signifying the studio’s highest quality. Third, the
WB logo has already dissolved to a map of Africa when the three stars’ names appear,
and drums have entered, beginning the process of situating us for the story that is about
When the title “Casablanca” appears, the music takes an exotic turn toward the Middle
East (0:17 – 0:57), signaled by the use of a diatonic scale containing not just one
extra-large scale step (an Augmented 2nd), but two of them. As we observed in Lesson
4, scales containing this interval tend to sound exotic to Western ears. Never mind
whether the music is authentically middle-eastern—it’s not! Still, the primitive drums and
Arabic sounding melody succeed in situating us in a place that is foreign to American
audiences, vaguely somewhere in the Middle East, and the title “Casablanca” tells us
exactly where. The music takes another geographic turn (0:57 – 1:05), this time toward France, with
the quotation of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise (timed precisely with the
credit of “Music by Max Steiner”). This is, after all, a movie about World War II, and
Casablanca was at that time part of unoccupied France. The credits for producer and
director conclude the title sequence, with director Michael Curtiz’s name coinciding with
a dissonant chord that serves as a transition to the opening of the story.
The main title music, then, (0:00 to 1:11) consists of the logo music and two themes:
an exotic middle-eastern theme and a western theme, La Marseillaise, which would be
familiar to audiences. In a very real sense, the music has given us a broad overview of
the film we’re about to see, one in which western protagonists play out their respective
parts relating to a love story and a war story, against the exotic and alluring backdrop of
The narrated prologue (1:12 – 2:18), which opens the story, is accompanied by music
(“refugee” theme) that blends traces of middle-eastern elements with Romantic idioms.
There is a newsreel feel to the montage sequence, and the music clearly serves the
function of providing continuity across the series of dissolves and overlays that illustrate
The prologue concludes as the map trail zeroes in on Casablanca, and we are
introduced to the city from above, with the sight of a high Mosque tower, looking out
across the city toward the sea. The camera finally tilts downward to view a street in
Casablanca, and is then lowered by crane to street level. Diegetic sounds are heard for
the first time, and at this point the underscore returns unabashedly to an exotic
middle-eastern theme similar to the one we heard in the title music, now played by a
reed instrument that is suggestive of an instrument of middle-eastern origin—as though
we are hearing diegetic music without seeing the musicians.
There is a famous saying in the world of architecture, that “form follows function.” The
saying holds true for many disciplines and arts, and it is especially fitting in the case of
nondiegetic film music. The music’s form will always be subordinated to the form of the
narrative, because the music’s function is to support the narrative. Composers of film
music learned early the value of writing short musical phrases, often making use of
sequential progressions. These compositional techniques are elastic, and they allow the
music to “follow” the narrative in either a literal or figurative sense.
Max Steiner was a master of writing music to “follow” the narrative. “Music should fit the
picture like a glove,” he said. Consider the remainder of this opening clip (beginning at
2:23), which sets up the main elements of the narrative with remarkable concision. A
dissolve takes us from the city street to the interior of military/police headquarters.
Notice an almost fanfare quality to the musical transition that “announces” we are about to hear something important. (Steiner uses the first five notes of the German national
anthem, “Deutschland über Alles,” set in the minor mode for this fanfare.) Notice, too,
that a soft drum roll on timpani underscores the reading of the bulletin.
Twenty seconds later (at 2:43) a dissolve carries us back out to the streets of
Casablanca as police begin the roundup of suspicious characters. For the first time in
the film we encounter cuts between shots (rather than dissolves and fades), which are
essential to the continuity editing system. For the next minute, diegetic sounds of police
whistles, sirens, and vehicles combine with Steiner’s underscore to
convey—finally—temporal continuity. The action is fast, and Steiner’s score stays with it
every step of the way, at least figuratively, if not literally.
A clear instance of mickey-mousing occurs after the man running from the police is
shot, when he falls to the ground with a nondiegetic thud. As the police discover that the
literature in his hand is from the French underground (3:47), the La Marseillaise theme
returns, except now in the minor mode. This theme bridges the cut to the next scene
outside police headquarters, where we see the motto of formerly free France still etched
above the archway: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.”
The scene across the street at an outdoor café, involving a couple and a pickpocket,
provides a bit of comic relief, even as it continues to provide us still more information,
such as the proclivities of Captain Renault, the prefect of police. Moments later, the
diegetic sound of an airplane draws the attention of everyone. As we join the throngs of
refugees looking longingly toward the plane, the “refugee” theme returns precisely at the
moment we see the plane in the sky (4:59). We get a beforehand introduction to the
Bulgarian couple, as well as to Rick’s Café Americain, before we see the plane land at
the airport nearby.
At the airport we are introduced to Major Strasser and Captain Renault. Notice that the
music grows quieter after the landing of the plane, concluding with a soft timpani roll,
barely distinguishable from the diegetic sound of the idling engine. Both the engine and
the diegetic music cease (at 5:38), cueing out amid the greetings of “Heil Hitler!”
Dialogue propels the plot and prepares us for the dissolve to the next scene outside
Rick’s, where the sound of diegetic music beckons us to enter.
The opening six-and-a-half minutes of Casablanca are remarkable for their economy
and efficiency in situating the viewer within the diegesis and moving the plot forward.
We receive a great deal of information about the world situation and about Casablanca
specifically, and we are introduced to an assortment of characters that have converged
on the city. Let’s watch this clip again, considering the remarkable ground covered in
such a relatively short time, and taking note of the significant role of music and the
details we have observed.
At Rick’s After the dissolve to the exterior of Rick’s (at 6:30), we as viewers are invited inside the
café, joining with other patrons entering through the front door. For nearly the next half
hour of screen time, the drama unfolds inside Rick’s as though in real time. The
temporal continuity is largely established by the presence of diegetic music in the main
room, courtesy of Sam at the piano, along with his band. Spatial continuity is also
reinforced by the music, based on proximity to the musicians. For example, we can hear
the music in the backroom casino when the door is open, but it is barely audible when
the door is closed. Similarly, we hear the music in Rick’s office until the door is closed.
The diegetic music, along with the hubbub of the crowd, creates the atmosphere of a
nightclub, one that attracts everyone, including the viewer.
The most important aspect, though, of the diegetic music in Casablanca is “As Time
Goes By,” a song written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931. Max Steiner had originally
intended to write a new tune for the film to take its place, but critical scenes had already
been filmed with Ilsa saying the title, “As Time Goes By,” and Ingrid Bergman was no
longer available for retakes. It would seem to be yet another aspect of inevitability in the
way Casablanca took shape.
Max Steiner was a master of orchestration and development, and he embraced
Hupfeld’s tune as though it were his own. In a very real sense he makes it his own, as
the tune becomes the most prominent theme of the underscore for the remainder of the
Let’s have a look at this pivotal point in the plot, when Ilsa asks, “Play it once, Sam, for
old times’ sake,” and then, “Sing it, Sam.” The song immediately becomes invested with
deep emotion, as we watch Ilsa as she listens. Her reverie is short lived, though. The
moment Rick hears “As Time Goes By,” he marches over and interrupts with a harsh
reprimand, “Sam, I thought I told you never to play . . .”
So the former lovers become reacquainted. Notice the emotional “stinger” that cues in
the nondiegetic music, followed immediately by a “minor-ish” rendering of the opening of
“As Time Goes By”—the same twelve notes that Ilsa had hummed for Sam. The melody
is largely made from a sequential repetition of the six-note motive that begins the song
(“You must remember this . . .”), making it easily recognizable and ideally suited to the
sort of motivic manipulation that is essential to Steiner’s compositional technique.
For the remainder of the scene, Steiner paints the emotional tenor of the table
conversation in varying colors, drawing again and again on segments of the tune,
further deepening our associations with the music. In a remarkable musical moment
(2:56), Steiner gives the brass a minor-mode statement of “Deutschland über Alles,” in
counterpoint against the strings’ rendering of “As Time Goes By,” beginning as Ilsa
remarks, “But, of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.”
Rick’s Flashback As though we haven’t heard enough of “As Time Goes By”—and we haven’t—in the
next scene Rick as much as demands that Sam play the tune for him (0:59), and it then
becomes the gateway to his flashback. In the dialogue leading up to this, though, there
are some pointedly political lines uttered by Rick—a reminder to the audience that the
United States was a latecomer to the worldwide conflict. So, while “As Time Goes By” is
the vehicle that travels seamlessly from diegetic to nondiegetic music—carrying us
across the dissolve to Rick’s flashback—it is La Marseillaise that accompanies the
establishing shot of Paris and the view of the Arc de Triumph (1:41).
Eight minutes later, in a reversal of order, the flashback’s final scene at the train station
is accompanied by ...
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