20th Century Films

Writing Dialogue with Subtext: Casablanca (1942):

The "Play it, Sam" scene in Casablanca.

A famous scene in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) is when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) speaks with Sam (Dooley Wilson) while he is playing the piano. In this scene, we can see that Ilsa still loves Rick (Humphrey Bogart), even though she is married to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  

Although Ilsa never says that she loves Rick, the viewer can conclude this by connecting the dots between words spoken by Ilsa and Sam, and the look on her face when Sam plays the song, “As Time Goes By.”

The first dot to be connected is when Sam says, “I never expected to see you again,” and Ilsa later asks, “Where is Rick?” We can conclude that Ilsa had a reason never to return, and it is likely due to her relationship with Rick. When Sam says to Ilsa, “Leave him alone… You’re bad luck to him”, we can now connect a second dot: Rick and Ilsa were once lovers.

The third dot to be connected is when Ilsa asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By.” As Sam plays, the look on Ilsa’s face —one of sad longing and remembrance—shows us this song had a deep meaning for her when she knew Rick. The close-up shot continues while Sam sings, “…when two lovers woo, they still say I love you.” The haunted look on Ilsa’s face suggests that she still loves Rick. The song has brought back memories of their past relationship.

When the song is nearly finished, Rick enters the scene and scolds Sam, saying, “I thought I told you never to play…” This is a song that not only haunts Ilsa; it haunts Rick as well. Rick’s rebuke of Sam is followed by close-up shots of Rick and Ilsa. Their eyes meet, and Ilsa’s eyes are filled with tears. We can see that the former lovers are still connected after all these years. Time has gone by, but their feelings for each other still remain.

The emotional impact of the “Play it, Sam” scene in Casablanca is not only in the emotions that radiate from Ilsa’s face. It is also in the subtext of the dialogue. The viewer can connect the dots between words spoken by Sam, Ilsa, and Rick. We understand what is never directly stated.


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