Archive for March, 2012


Macguffin: The “Get Out of Casablanca Free” Card


The screenplay for Casablanca is picked apart for its precision in character development, but one thing that is rarely regarded is its use of the Macguffin as a plot device.  By traditional definition, the Macguffin is the “thing that drives the story.”  Another fair definition is, “the thing that everyone wants.”  In the case of Casablanca, it is two letters that allow a person to leave the city without a signature from the local authorities.  As it so happens, there are two people who need to leave the city, but have been denied the necessary signatures.  They need the Macguffin to help them get where they’re going.

The idea of a Macguffin is as old as the epics.  There has always been something, some sort of sacred relic that can fix whatever problem the protagonist is having.  It objectifies solutions.  It can be a fountain of youth, or a sword from the gods.  It can be a baseball stuck in your neighbor’s yard, or it can be the plans to destroy a moon-sized space station.  There is a basic human need to have simple solutions to major problems.  Is the economy a mess?  Elect a new President.

The advantage of a Macguffin for storytellers is that it focuses the audience’s attention on a single prop.  It represents the potential “Ace up the sleeve.”  We know that if Ilsa doesn’t get those papers, she could be trapped in Casablanca forever, forced to work in a Nazi concentration camp.  And her husband will likely be killed.

She is married to Laszlo, a major figure in the French Resistance.  Laszlo’s political position is the largest of the stakes.  But it is overshadowed by the relationship between Rick and Ilsa.  Rick and Ilsa had briefly romanced each other, but Ilsa left him, and Rick’s heart turned hard.  This is a giant elephant in a relatively small room.

The major distinction between this use of a Macguffin from traditional use is that, within the first ten minutes of the film, our protagonist has it in his possession.  The character arc here is about whether or not he will give up this prize.  Laszlo offers him money.  He refuses.  Ilsa attempts to repair their love.  He pushes her away.  By owning the Macguffin, he has their fates in the palm of his hand.  In this way he could easily have been written as an antagonist.  But he wasn’t.

Rick is in purgatory.  He can’t go to Heaven (America), and Hell (Nazi occupation) hasn’t yet found him.  He has his foot in both doors.  He can empower good or evil, but he wishes to remain neutral.

After shrugging off her apology for abandoning him, Rick finds himself drinking at his own bar.  A young woman approaches him and describes the very unfortunate situation that has found herself in.  As she relates her dilemma, it sounds almost as if she is describing Ilsa’s.  “Is it right for me to lie to him?  Even if lying will save his life?”  This doesn’t convince Rick to help Ilsa, but he is now in a position where he can save some other bloke from having the heartbreak that he had.

It is this secondary event that turns the tide for Rick’s character.  It speaks to an inner need, that if he can’t help himself or his friends, he doesn’t have to help no one.  The best part of this little sub-plot is that the stakes are basically identical (albeit in a scale-model fashion) to the Ilsa/Laszlo stakes.  They need to get out of Casablanca, and Rick may be the only one who can help them do it.  Rick rigs a game of Craps to get them some cash for a plane ticket out of here.  And as soon as he does this, he’s on the slippery slope to goodness.

Still, Rick makes them wait for the Macguffin.  He’s not ready to hand over that power just yet.  As he waits, the stakes get higher.  The Nazis get angrier.  When he allows the French national anthem to be played in his saloon, he gets a taste of Nazi influence.  He finally gives in, and shares his Macguffin with Laszlo and Ilsa.

Now it is her turn to choose.  Whom does she love more: the husband, or the lover?  Whenever the Macguffin changes hands, the new owner must show responsibility for it.  The Macguffin is directly tied to the stakes.  If she accepts it, she may be in an awkward position with Laszlo, who won’t really understand why Rick has changed.  Rick covers that some, but the whole turn of his mind will seem perplexing to them.  He has the two most valuable letters in the city, and he gives them up because, in his words, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

The Macguffin in Casablanca enables the character arc.  If Rick did not have the letters, then he would never be able to help Ilsa.  She needs him to forgive her so that she and Laszlo can leave.  But if he didn’t have the power to allow their journey, then she wouldn’t be required to seek his forgiveness.  The Macguffin is not only a plot device, but a character engine as well.