The Setting of Casablanca
The film begins with a voice over and geographical maps establishing Casablanca, an area in French-ruled Moracco located in Northwest Africa, as a destination during WWII for refugees exiled from war-ravaged countries in Europe. According to the VO, the rich and the lucky used Casablanca as a sort of stopover en route to Lisbon where they could then fly to freedom in America, while the poor and unlucky people simply got stranded there.
Casablanca is painted as a busy, overpopulated and unsafe place where the streets are full of schemers, criminals, crooks and pickpockets, as well as people buying, selling and bartering all sorts of things (including diamonds). Most of the story takes place at Rick’s Café Américain, an upscale nightclub, bar and casino, which is also referred to in the movie as “Rick’s Place.”
Ex-freedom fighter Rick Blain, the story’s protagonist, runs the illicit establishment where in addition to booze and blackjack, Rick also, for a profit, helps refugees obtain letters of transit out of Casablanca toward freedom. Rick has a good gig going despite his cynical, selfish and somewhat jaded sensibilities until the day his former lover Ilsa, the one true love of his life, a woman who left him in Paris, suddenly shows up on her way to America. The love between Rick and Ilsa is rekindled and he asks her to marry him. But there’s one problem: she’s already married to Victor Laszlo.
Laszlo, who was actually in fact married to Ilsa during her love affair with Rick in Paris, had been imprisoned and escaped a Nazi concentration camp and was thought dead by Ilsa when she had the affair that led to her falling in love with Rick. It wasn’t until Ilsa and Rick were about to leave Paris together that she found out Laszlo had survived. Ilsa fled with Laszlo to save his life. This love triangle between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo keeps us in suspense until the end of the movie when Rick urges Ilsa to get on the plane with Laszlo and continue their journey toward freedom. Rick stays behind to help others get their freedom, too.
In so many ways, Rick’s Café is the perfect setting for Casablanca. For one, the fact that it’s a stopover explains away anyone who shows up there. Also, the illicitness of what goes on there naturally presents endless material for conflict, tension and drama. Rick’s Café is an oasis of sin and sinister fun like gambling, drinking and sex that in many ways is an escape from reality for people who find themselves in Casablanca. But it’s also a sort of purgatory because these people, the individuals who find themselves there, are either temporarily or permanently stuck there for one reason or another and desperate to escape to America.
Since Rick runs the show there, it serves as the perfect setting for his character arc and his story. At the start of the film, protagonist Rick “I stick my neck out for nobody” Blain clearly has a lot of growth ahead of him if he’s destined to become the true hero of the story. In the end, he sticks his neck out for Ilsa and Laszlo. Rick gives up the one thing he really desires, his true love Ilsa, for the greater good. In a funny way, the setting acts like a character, too, with an arc of its own because like its owner Rick, Rick’s Café starts out as a symbol of desperation and illegal activity but through the story it transforms into a beacon of hope and freedom, too.