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September 13, 2022

Breaking Down Casablanca According to Syd Field’s Paradigm

Casablanca is one of those films that you seem to know before you see it. Its place in culture is solidified even decades after its release. It sits on a cultural pedestal that often obscures how technically solid the film and script truly are. Certain films capture the moment or zeitgeist but do little in terms of lasting art. Eighty years later, Casablanca has proved that it is not one of those films. Let's break down Casablanca according to Syd Field's Paradigm and delve deeper into why this film has become such a timeless classic.

Free Casablanca script

To help you follow along with our breakdown more easily we've included a free Casablanca script. Download it here and pay close attention to the structure, dialogue and of course the formatting.

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Casablanca first premiered in 1942 and was written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. It was directed by Michael Curtiz and starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.

Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund from Casablanca looking out the window.
Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund are the main protagonists of Casablanca.

Casablanca often vies for the top spot (with Citizen Kane) as the greatest American film ever made. While it isn’t solely responsible for America officially entering WWII, it has been well documented that the film largely helped sway public opinion.

The romance between Rick and Ilsa (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) is a classic Hollywood romance, with the now infamous ending being referenced and parodied still to this day.

What is Syd Field’s Paradigm?

Syd Field is considered by many to be the godfather of screenwriting education. Though sometimes critiqued for being vague and open, his paradigm could be considered the first formal structure to break out of Hollywood inner rooms and make screenwriting available to the masses.

Judd Apatow has been quoted saying, “Syd Field wrote screenwriting books which did exactly what they were supposed to do - they made screenwriting seem possible.”

Field’s Paradigm breaks films into three acts, with each of those acts containing essential pieces to the plot. His paradigm isn’t meant to capture every scene in a film but rather the significant turning points that “hold up a film as tent poles do to a tarpaulin.”

Cast and main characters

Rick Blaine

Played by Humphrey Bogart, the main anti-hero of the film who owns Rick’s bar and shares a passionate history with Ilsa.

Ilsa Lund

Played by Ingrid Bergman the wife of Victor and past lover of Rick who uses her past to get the papers necessary from Rick so that she and her husband can flee to Lisbon.

Victor Laszlo

Played by Paul Henreid, husband of Ilsa and a leader of the resistance against the Nazi regime.

The Syd Field paradigm breakdown of Casablanca

Act 1

Opening Scene: The narration describes the situation in Casablanca. Refugees from the war in Europe use French-occupied Casablanca as a staging point to eventually get to Lisbon and then on to freedom.

Inciting Incident: Ugarte gives Rick two letters of transit for safekeeping, but Ugarte is then captured, leaving the letters of transit solely in Rick’s possession.

Plot Point 1: Seeking to find letters of transit to leave, Victor Laszlo, a Czech freedom fighter, and his wife Ilsa arrive at Rick’s bar. Ilsa and Rick have a past.

Act 2A

Pinch 1: After seeing a flashback of their romance in Paris, and seeing how Ilsa left Rick alone at a train station, Ilsa confronts Rick back in his cafe to explain, but he rejects her.

Midpoint: Laszlo and Ilsa seek letters of transit from one of Rick’s competitors, and when they cannot get two, they are told to ask Rick because he’s suspected of having Ugarte’s stolen letters.

Act 2B

Pinch 2: As Laszlo goes to a resistance meeting, Ilsa confronts Rick in his apartment, asking for the letters. When pleading doesn’t work, she pulls a gun on him, but can’t bring herself to shoot him and falls into his arms.

Plot Point 2: Laszlo confronts Rick, saying he knows he has feelings for Ilsa, and requests the letters of transit for her sake. Laszlo is arrested but Rick pulls a gun to save him and makes the French captain take them to the airport. It seems Rick has made plans to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa.

Act 3

Climax: At the airport, Rick tells Ilsa that she’s going with Victor. The letters of transit are for them. He says goodbye and sends her on the plane.

End: The Germans show up and Rick shoots their major, but the French captain hides Rick’s involvement, marking the beginning of an allied relationship between the two.

The cast of Casablanca's last scene at the airport.
End scene of Casablanca.

Key insights

The letters of transit in Casablanca are a complete fabrication. They’re a MacGuffin, and beyond that, at the end of the film, there doesn’t seem to be anyone checking them. Why doesn’t everyone just get on the plane?

While the letters of transit are important to the plot of Casablanca, one might argue that they aren’t important to the story. They’re merely a tool. A plot device.

It’s worth remembering that if the characters are real and interesting, and their relationships and wants are real and interesting, the audience will forgive most plot oversights or machinations. When they aren’t, that’s when people like to come in with the nitpicks.

Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is (in my opinion) the scariest character of Casablanca. While the Germans are the true “bad guys,” Captain Renault facilitates it, and the scary part is how he does it charmingly. He comes around in the end, but throughout the film, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that he’s an antagonist to Rick’s goals. When writing antagonists, look for opportunities to make them warm, funny, and all the other things we don’t usually associate with “bad guys.” It’ll make them not only rounder as characters but even drive their antagonism further.

Hollywood legend is that Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until filming the end whether her character of Ilsa would end up with Rick or Lazslo. I doubt that’s true, but good storytelling is what makes this myth plausible. As you’re writing choices for your characters, be sure that there is an alternative choice, and that it’s a viable option for that character. The audience can sense false choices, and they’re really hard to play for actors. But when a character is faced with a real choice, it creates a true dilemma, which is inherently more dramatic storytelling. The ending of Casablanca is the perfect example.

Here’s looking at you kid

Casablanca has become hard to pin down in terms of genre because it seems to dabble in so many. Roots of noir, war film politics, romance, comedy, and nearly even a musical abound in the story. And yet, despite all this, the film feels solidly whole.

This works because no one genre begins to overtake, and at any given point, the characters drive the action rather than genre expectations. When the characters are funny, it’s a comedy. When they need to secret themselves in the shadows, it’s noir. And when they sing, a musical. The characters drive the genre, rather than the other way around.

The film was adapted from a play, and in the theater, there are far fewer genre considerations, which could be one of the reasons this film can walk that tightrope between so many.

Once you have a solid understanding of how to build a story with multiple round characters and a developed plot, you can start to experiment and figure out your style. This distinctiveness is what will help set you apart from other writers and directors and hopefully get you noticed.

Luckily, you can use Arc Studio to help you on the entire writing journey - from outline to finished product! Arc Studio provides built-in story structures so you don’t have to put in all that tedious time formatting. Try out Arc Studio today, for free!


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Breaking Down Casablanca According to Syd Field’s Paradigm
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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