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 A Game of Chess:
 The Art of Slow Disclosure in Casablanca

Light glitters seductively from an empty champagne glass while a strong hand toys with a white pawn belonging to a handsomely inlaid chess set and a cigarette balances on the edge of an already overcrowded ashtray. A few moments earlier, a white slip of paper had appeared, obsequiously asking permission that one thousand francs be paid to some anonymous and fortunate party. In bold letters, with a thick black grease pencil, the chess player's hand temporarily abandoned the white pawn to write, "O.K. Rick." And now, silently, the smoke from the cigarette curls upward, the hand reaches for the cigarette and brings it up to the lips, and the camera follows. Here, for the first time, we see Rick.

In Hal B. Wallis's production of Casablanca, director Michael Curtiz delays the appearance of Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick, a full twenty-four shots from the moment the arriving German plane flies behind the sign for Rick's Café Americain. This sign is shot from a low angle, with nothing but the sky and the plane carrying German officials in the background, implying that this is a sign for an important place run by an important man. Ten shots later, the German officer Major Strasser descends the stairs of the plane to meet Captain Renault of the local police. The Major inquires about the suspect who killed two German couriers in order to obtain the exit visas they were carrying. The Captain assures him that there is no hurry, for the suspect will be at Rick's that night, "Everybody comes to Rick's." To which the major replies, "I have already heard about this café and also about Mr. Rick himself." Thirteen shots later, we get our first look at our hero's face, and this artful use of slow disclosure enshrines Rick at the very nexus of American, patriarchal, imperialistic, white power.

Now let's look closely at those next thirteen shots to see how Curtiz achieves this effect.

The first shot is a high angle establishing shot of the front of Rick's Café Americain. Following this is a low angle close-up of the sign we had seen in the sky, but this time it is lit up in neon shining boldly in the night. The image takes up the entire screen which leaves no room to doubt the importance of the café. Next, a tilt shot brings us down from the close-up of the sign to the doorway of Rick's. Slowly, the camera dollies in the door, and we feel like patrons walking in. The establishing shot was from the left side of Rick's, so the dolly-in swings us first to the front and then inside as if we were walking down the street from the left and took a left to enter Rick's. This subjective shot technique makes us part of the atmosphere, one of the patrons, one of the masses. Not Rick.

Once we are inside the club, the film cuts to a dolly shot that is taken from the left side of the room scanning the length of the room from right to left. Stopping on Sam, the black piano player, the camera slowly moves in for a close-up. This dolly shot acts much as a master or establishing shot would. It shows us the room, the people, the tables, the waiters, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, and Sam. All of Rick's kingdom, all of his domain, all at his command.

After the close-up on Sam, a colored face that clearly works for Rick, the film cuts to a medium shot of two Moroccans wearing fezzes and smoking from a hookah. The next series of shots reveals the desperate situation of many while Rick, we later realize, sits coolly and calmly above the fray, indeed, even playing a game. From the Moroccans, Curtiz pans left stopping on two old men smoking and complaining that they will never get out of Casablanca. Next, a middle-aged woman selling her diamond bracelet, probably a family heirloom, takes much less for it than what it is worth. The third shot in this series contains two old men whispering secrets then falling silent as a German officer walks by. Lastly, two men discuss plans to escape by boat in the morning. These four medium shots only last a few seconds each, yet they rapidly tell us that these people have problems with money, German officials, visas, transportation; in short, they face difficulty and danger. In addition, they forestall our introduction to Rick heightening our suspense and his mythic stature.

From the two men discussing their plans for escape, the camera pans, again following the movement of a waiter, to a man sitting at the bar having a drink and talking to the bartender. This medium shot stops with the bartender, Sacha, on center screen, just as the earlier camera movement stopped on Sam. Again, a colored face works for Rick. Cutting to the head waiter, Carl, not a person of color but still a foreigner, Curtiz introduces us to the third significant employee at Rick's, but we still have not seen Rick himself. A tracking shot follows the head waiter as he walks into the back gambling room; the film then cuts to a close-up of two attractive females inquiring about the elusive Rick. The head waiter explains to them that Rick never drinks with patrons, a comment that further elevates his status.

A few shots later, the film cuts back to the front room as a swarthy waiter approaches a table with a white slip of paper in his hand. The camera is on the right side of the table, and in the bottom right hand corner of the screen we see an arm in a white dinner jacket lying across the table. The waiter is centered in a medium shot, and the arm crosses the bottom left hand corner of the screen. The arm takes the paper, and we now arrive at the scene with which we began. Cutting to an extreme close-up of a check requesting payment of a thousand francs, Curtiz tells us two things: first, this mystery man has a great deal of money at his disposal; second, this mystery man must grant permission for things to happen. As the hand signs "O.K Rick," we wait impatiently for a glance at such an important man. Curtiz cuts to the front of the table in a close-up of the champagne glass, the left side of the chess board, the ashtray, the hand toying with the pawn, and we are left wondering what kind of man drinks a lot (the glass is empty) of expensive beverage (champagne) and plays the intellectual game of chess alone in a crowded room.

As the hand reaches for the cigarette and brings it to the lips, the camera tilts upward, and we see the face of Rick for the first time in a quintessential display of slow disclosure. Steadily, the camera pulls back from the close-up of Rick to a medium shot as we watch him move (predictably I might add) the white knight.

Curtiz adroitly controls the images on the screen and their sequence mixing mystery, suspense, desire, each a separate strand woven together like the three strands of hair in a little girl's braid. By the time we see Rick, we fully subscribe to his mythic stature, and the American, patriarchal, imperialistic power structure is comfortably secure. The white American male runs a café stocked with foreign personnel. He alone, omnipotent, controls money, women, Sacha, Carl, Sam, even Captain Renault. So strong is he, in fact, that there is no opponent worthy of him. Thus he sits alone in a white dinner jacket and a black bow tie drinking champagne and playing himself in a game of chess.

March 2001

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