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Casablanca (1942)-Analysis of Lighting pt. 1

The Lights of Casablanca

-An indepth look into the lighting techniques employed and the context in which they were used, caught between film noir and the classic Hollywood style.

Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a perennial favorite, depicting unique
Casablanca (1942)
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman
characters caught in situations out of their control. While the film’s story is engaging on many levels, Curtiz’s use of lighting is an integral tool he uses to help tell of the story. Previously (1930’s) in Hollywood the point of lighting was to light everything as well as possible so the audience could see what was happening (Nelmes 70). Casablanca follows the lead of the early film noirs in their use of lighting contributing to the expression of the mood and characters. It was also being made at the time when film noir was still in its infancy, and since noir is not limited by a genre, only by the style of the film, it spilt over into Casablanca, giving it a different feel. (Grant 230) The director, Curtiz, grew up and first directed films in Europe, where cinema was more expressive, and many of the actors and actresses were also émigrés from Europe. (Harmetz 212) Another personnel decision which affected the feel of the film was the choice of Arthur Edeson, director of photography for both Casablanca as well as an early film noir The Maltese Falcon, a year previous. These influences led to a film that has more lighting effects in common with film noir than with the classic Hollywood style. These techniques are used to help create the characters of Rick Blaine as well as Ilsa Lund. Key themes are also partially developed with the use of deliberate lighting: the happiness of Paris,the increased tension at the end of the film, the fog at the airport, the lighting of Rick’s Café, and the ever-present spotlight. Most of these techniques expressed elements that would later be categorized as film noir, with the largest exception being how Ilsa is lit.



Film noir is a much debated term and it depends what definition you choose as to what exactly constitutes a film noir. Casablanca isn’t typically considered a film noir, it is on occasion listed as proto-noir (Biesen 82) or as an early example (Grant 237). These references are due to the overall dark feel and creative use of lighting. One of the prevailing influences for this dark trend was from cinematographer, Arthur Edeson. He had previously shot The Maltese Falcon (1941),
Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon DOP Arthur Edeson
Both movies shot by Arthur Edeson
an early noir and its influence can be seen in Casablanca. An obvious example is the sign in the café in Paris “La Belle Aurore” how it imitates a striking similar scene in The Maltese Falcon (1941). The shot is a close-up of the Spade and Archer detective agency sign shown in the exact way as the “La Belle Aurore” sign was showcased in Paris. This is a very interesting example as it shows to what extent Arthur Edeson was influenced by his earlier film noir work and his willingness to use those techniques in later films. In addition, Casablanca had many actors who worked on both projects, most notably Humphrey Bogart but also Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. This has implications for the film as the gritty realistic style from the previous film noir almost certainly would carry over and influence the overall feel of Casablanca.

Casablanca features many of the qualities of a classic film noir, (the feel is very dark and lighting plays a prominent role) but it doesn’t fit because noir normally affects other parts of a film; i.e. mood, and Casablanca doesn’t fit in this regard. It’s plot and attitude are different from the dark and pessimistic views of human nature normally found in crime dramas, the classic noirs. Disregarding plot and key themes and just taking into the visuals into account however, I think it qualifies just because of the low key lighting, partially obscured faces and odd, almost eerie lighting.
Rick's Cafe Americain
Notice the lamp throwing odd shadows
These lighting techniques, while seemingly commonplace today, weren’t widely used at the time. The prevailing wisdom was to light everything as well as possible instead of using light as an artistic tool (Nelmes 70). Another use of light as a tool and a classic noir feature is the partially obscured face(Grant 235). We experience this when Berger and Laszlo discus how Laszlo is going to acquire an exit visa. Berger’s face is initially shaded horizontally then vertically, as Lazlo’s is. This lighting and contrast is used to exemplify the struggle for independence, personal danger and the illegality of their actions.

The lighting contributes to the plot and themes in many ways and affects the mood of the film as a whole. The movie starts out with decidedly brighter shots then transitions to darker scenes toward the end of the film.
Contrast Compilation
Scenes showing Chairoscuro
Take the opening scene where the “Customary round up” of unsavory characters is happening, it’s shot during daylight on an open street. Compare that to the scene near the end of the movie where Victor Laszlo is taking refuge in Rick’s café after the meeting was stormed. It happens at night and there is very low-key lighting being employed inside the café. This darkening of the film adds to our worries and effectively heightens the drama that has been slowly building throughout the movie. Also near the end of the film the contrast between different areas of the shot start getting more drastic. This chiaroscuro effect, where there are bright lights and deep shadows, is used again for the effect of increasing tension. A poster boy for this would be Captain Renault and his black uniform often set against lit backgrounds. Both of these screenshots are taken from one of the final scenes where Rick takes Captain Renault hostage and forces him to allow Laszlo to escape. An exception to this
Plane in Casablanca
Fog Enveloping Airfield- Final Scene
trend is the fog that envelopes the airfield in the final scene. The gray invades the scene, characters and creates a feeling of uncertainty. This uncertainty is reflected in that ambiguity of the possibilities that could erupt; neither the characters nor the audience know how the conflict is going to be resolved. This technique experiences a heightened effect since it’s so unlike the cinematography found elsewhere in the film.

Rick’s flashback to Paris is the one of the only legitimately bright sequences in the entire film and this helps the viewer understand the happiness that Rick and Ilsa enjoyed there. Rick is sitting, drunk and in the dark reminiscing about the good times he enjoyed there. This sudden switch from dark to light shows exactly how miserable he is now and how happy he was in Paris with Ilsa. The last scene in Paris, where Rick is waiting in the rain for the train, the overcast clouds and dimmed lighting on the scene foreshadow Ilsa not showing up. It follows the established pattern where light scenes are happier and dark ones, more melancholy. Of particular interest is the sign in the Paris café, a shadow on a white background, giving the overall scene a bright, joyful tone.
Casablanca Sign Compilation
Paris vs. Casablanca
This keeps with the mood and purpose of the Paris flashback. The name of the café itself “La Belle Aurore” which means ‘the beautiful sunrise’ is another reference to the good times experienced in Paris, although it’s exposure is obviously limited to a French speaking audience. The sign for Rick’s Café Americain, shown, is the exact opposite. Searing white letters set on a dark background, the contrast is almost complete and exemplifies the difference between the locations. This intentional use of lighting shows the desire to further exemplify the pleasantness of Paris compared to the despair and fear of Casablanca.

This post is continued in PART 2
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