Studies in Flashbacks: “Casablanca”

Part 1 of a five-part series on movies where flashbacks work.

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the first of five movies which use flashbacks: Casablanca, the famous 1942 movie, screenplay by Julius Epstein & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

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Setup: Out of nowhere Ilsa Lund has reappeared in Rick’s life. He gets good and drunk, then remembers key events from his past that broke his heart, a sequence known as the Paris montage. Here is a breakdown of the scenes:

  • The Arc de Triomphe

“Richard, I cannot go with you or see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling, and God bless you. Ilsa”

Stunned Rick tosses the letter aside as the train pulls away.

Here is part of the sequence:

The entire sequence is 8 pages long in the script. All of it flashbacks. Why does it work? Here are two takeaways:

  • The sequence has a beginning, middle and end, a well-structured montage.

So if your story needs an extended flashback sequence, make sure it has a strong structure, and serves a necessary and important function in the story. You’re probably in the ballpark if you’re working with a mystery where the answers gets revealed.

Okay, I can hear some of you: “Casablanca is an OLD movie. Maybe flashbacks worked back then, but not in contemporary movies.”

Uh, wrong.

Tomorrow: The Social Network.

And remember, use flashbacks if they are the only and best way to tell your story.

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