‘Casablanca’ is one of the greatest movies of all time and also one of the most heart breaking love stories ever seen on a movie screen. There is one simple scene in this movie, that I like the most. No, It is not the famous final scene, nor is it the scene when Ilsa asks Sam to play it again, and its not the scene when a teary eyed Rick boards the train.
It is the scene that introduces Rick. There is one shot in this scene that tells us everything we need to know about Rick. Rick is an enigma, no one understands him clearly. No one knows what he might do and when. So much of the enigma around Rick is built before this scene in which we see him for the first time.
Before this scene, the first mention of Rick comes when the German Major Heinrich Strasser and Captain Louis Renault, the prefect of police, introduce each other.
“Everybody comes to Rick’s”
“I’ve already heard about this cafe. And also about Mr. Rick himself.”
Then we go into Rick’s cafe, and hear Sam’s music. There is again a scene that builds the mystery around Rick. We are told, he never drinks with his customers, and that being the second largest banker in Amsterdam wouldn’t gain you an audience with him. Our interest is piqued by this time, and we want to know who this Rick is, and what makes him so exclusive. Our cravings are instantly gratified, for we enter the scene that introduces Rick.
Rick is at a table in the inner chambers of the cafe. A waiter brings a check to Rick, he signs it “OK, Rick” and hands it back to the waiter. As the camera follows Rick’s hand to take a puff, we see him, and also see what’s on the table. The frame is filled up with him, and the table. The table is filled with a chessboard, and a glass of whatever alcoholic drink he likes most. This is the shot that impresses me the most. It is so simple, so economical, and yet tells us so much about Rick. The real truth about Rick. Many people in the movie make many guesses as to the true nature of this man, but they fail to see what is so conspicuous.
Rick is a man who is heart-broken, hence the glass of alcohol. He is also a man who also doesn’t care about the world; while the whole world is at war, here is a man who is at war with himself, hence the game of chess, which, he is playing with himself. He has given up with the world, and he is still sad, that Ilsa had left him. This is his secret. This is all that we need to know about him.
The chessboard is also a way of foreshadowing things. Rick has really got to fight with himself in the later part of the movie. He has to make a moral decision; is he going to take Ilsa with him and forget about the war, and everyone else, and be selfish, or is he going to sacrifice her for the greater good, and let her go with Victor Lazslo?
All this in one, simple, beautiful shot.