Casablanca begins with Jack Warner's Executive Producer credit emblazoned over the Warner Bros. logo, a sign of the power of studio heads during this era in Hollywood. The title sequence appears over a historically appropriate map of Africa (with "Arabia" written over what is now Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia). The accompanying music starts with an Arabic-influenced version of the French National Anthem which transitions into a rousing rendition of 'Pomp and Circumstance.'
The male narrator sets the scene for the film, explaining that right before World War II, many residents of occupied Europe dreamed of escaping Hitler's regime by going to America. The most common point of exit was Lisbon, but there was no easy, direct route to get there. The narration continues over a map of Europe, while a bold line, representing the European refugees, snakes south from Paris. As the narrator describes the perilous journey, images of refugees are superimposed on top of the map. Their destination is Casablanca, the capital city of French Morocco (which was, at the time, unoccupied France). There, wealthier Europeans had an easy time purchasing exit visas that would allow them to travel to Lisbon, where they would take ocean liners to America. However, most people who found their way to Casablanca were destined to "wait...and wait... and wait..." before finding a way out. There is an establishing scene of a marketplace in Casablanca, where European fedoras mix with traditional Moroccan fez.
Cut to a close-up of a hand receiving some kind of urgent news over a wire. The hand belongs to a French officer, who issues a warning over the airwaves: Two German couriers carrying important official papers have been murdered on a train in Oran (current day Algeria). The murderer and his accomplices are on their way to Casablanca, and all officers should be on the lookout for men with stolen documents. Cut to the police barging into the aforementioned marketplace, rounding up any 'suspicious characters' and demanding to see their papers. One man who is apprehended offers up expired papers, and when he is confronted with this fact, he tries to run away. The police shoot him in the back, and he falls. They uncover propaganda in his jacket pocket that says "Free France". Clearly, dissidents are taken very seriously in Casablanca.
Cut to a scene in a posh cafe, where a rich European couple laments the droves of "hippies" and uncouth characters who have descended upon Casablanca. A well-dressed young man ("the pickpocket") befriends them, filling them in on the drama surrounding the German victims. The pickpocket complains about all the vultures descending on Casablanca and warns the couple to beware. After the pickpocket leaves, it turns out he has stolen the older European man's wallet. A plane flies overhead. Hundreds of people, young and old, watch it with anticipation, hoping to secure a place on the next flight out of Casablanca. This plane, however, is coming in. It soars over the sign for Rick's Café Americain before landing. The plane is carrying Major Heinrich Strasser from Germany, who has arrived in Casablanca to investigate the case of the German couriers. Vichy Captain Louis Renault greets Major Strasser on the airstrip, assuring him that the situation is under control. Renault claims that the couriers' murderer will be at Rick's Café Americain that evening. Strasser is already familiar with and intrigued by Rick's Cafe and its enigmatic owner.
The following sequence contains some of the most recognizable images from Casablanca. It starts with the exterior of Rick's Cafe Americain, with the song "It Had To Be You" playing over it. The camera weaves slowly through the cafe, past military officers from France, Germany, and Italy, beautiful women, and Moroccan locals. The camera pauses on Sam, the live musician, keeping him in a triumphant medium close-up as he sings. Afterwards, there are a few short vignettes that establish the environment in Rick's Cafe. One man with a German accent tells another how desperate he is to get out of Casablanca. A woman tries to convince an Arab merchant to pay her more for her diamonds. Desperate refugees make shady deals to escape in the night. Meanwhile, other patrons discuss the mysterious proprietor, Rick. A waiter mentions that Rick never drinks with customers, regardless of their pedigree. The first shot of Rick in the film is actually a close-up of his hand signing a check. Next to the check are an empty martini glass, a half-lit cigarette, and a chess game in progress. The camera tilts up to his face, keeping him in a medium close-up, eyes low, against a dimly-lit and shadowy background.
Rick exercises his power by refusing a man entry into the cafe despite his claims of greatness. Braggadocio has no effect on Rick, clearly. However, he lets Ugarte, a slippery criminal, enter the cafe. Ugarte speaks at Rick, who all but grunts in response. Through this conversation, Rick's hardened cynicism becomes evident. He also does not easily share any personal information with Ugarte, who quickly changes the subject. Ugarte reveals that he has procured two authentic letters of transit, which he plans to sell for a lot of money, enabling his departure from Casablanca. He asks Rick to keep the letters safe. Rick figures out that Ugarte was responsible for the death of the German couriers, and that is how he has come to possess these precious documents.
The song changes, and Sam sings, "Who's got trouble?... Your luck will change if you arrange to knock on wood..." During a lighting cue in the song that leaves Sam and his piano in darkness, Rick hides the papers Ugarte gave him in the piano. A plump and well-dressed man, Signor Ferrari, enters and meets Rick's eyes. Ferrari is the owner of the Blue Parrot, a rival club, and wants to buy Rick's Café Americain, but Rick responds that it is not for sale at any price. Ferrari tries to offer Sam double pay to relocate to the Blue Parrot, claiming that the trade of human beings is what drives business in Casablanca. Rick makes it clear that he does not engage in black market immigration. As Rick predicts, Sam refuses to go.
Meanwhile, Sascha, the bartender, pours a young woman a drink from the boss's private stash. The woman, Yvonne, has fallen for Rick, and he repeatedly rejects her. Yvonne is drinking to heal her emotional wounds. Rick kicks her out of the bar and calls a taxi, seemingly impervious to her claims of heartbreak. After entrusting Sascha to escort Yvonne home, Rick joins Renault for a cigarette. The two men sit under a wandering spotlight perched on a tower above them. In a two-shot where both men have their backs to the camera, they watch the plane to Lisbon take off. Cut to a close-up of Rick, whose eyes follow the plane hopefully. Renault perceives that Rick wants to be on that plane, and asks him what keeps him from returning to America. Rick, as usual, deflects the questions with his dry sense of humor.
Emil, one of Rick's employees, comes outside to tell Rick, apologetically, that a man has won 20,000 Francs at blackjack. Rick goes inside to get the money, consoling the distraught Emil. Back inside the bar, Renault informs Rick that the arrest of the Germans' murderer is going to take place at his cafe tonight. He also warns Rick against tipping off the suspect, to which Rick answers, "I stick my neck out for nobody." Renault follows Rick upstairs, explaining that the arrest could have happened at the Blue Parrot but he has decided to capture the crook at Rick's instead, as it will be entertaining for the patrons. Renault tells Rick that Major Strasser has arrived in Casablanca. In this wide two-shot, Renault stands in the doorway, letting in a shaft of light. Rick is opening the safe, but we can only see his profiled shadow as he smokes his cigarette. Rick knows that Strasser cannot have come to Casablanca just to check on Renault's efficiency, and he is right. Renault reveals that Victor Laszlo, an escapee from a concentration camp, is on the lam and willing to pay major money for an exit visa. Laszlo is so notorious that even Rick is impressed upon hearing his name. Apparently the Nazis have been chasing Laszlo all over Europe, and Rick bets Renault 10,000 Francs that he will never be caught. They agree to the terms, and Renault reveals that Laszlo needs two exit visas because he has been traveling with a lady. While Rick believes Laszlo would leave his companion behind to get to freedom, Renault claims that Laszlo won't leave without her. Regardless, Rick brushes off any kind of emotional connection to Laszlo and his plight, maintaining that this wager is all about the money for him.
Renault sees through Rick's cynical facade, and reveals that Rick ran guns to Ethiopia in 1935 (to help the Ethiopians fight off an Italian invasion) and in 1936, he fought for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. Renault is under orders from the Gestapo to prevent Laszlo from leaving Casablanca. He is clearly very intimidated by the German police, despite his claims of autonomy.
Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Rick Blaine, his first romantic leading role, is one of the most iconic performances in Hollywood history. Acclaimed screenwriter and scholar Syd Field writes that Bogart's "screen persona and the part itself... morph[ed] into Bogart's mythological stature" (Field, 161). As the protagonist of Casablanca, Rick changes the most over the course of the film, so it is important to examine his introduction in these opening scenes. Like Michael Curtiz, the cinematographer of the film, Arthur Edeson, was known for using his visual toolkit to deepen characterization. The first images of Rick on screen represent his mindset at the beginning of the film. He is alone in the frame and the foreground is dark. The depth of field reveals mysterious shadows behind him, which shows that there is more to this man than meets the eye. However, the objects around him - an empty drink, a cigarette, and a game meant for two (played without a companion) - portray him as an abject loner.
Rick rarely reveals information about himself in these opening scenes. Rather, the audience gets to know him through the other characters' eyes. Before Rick ever appears on screen, the waiter lets it be known that Rick is not impressed by money or social stature. This begs the question which Renault eventually asks - why is Rick even in Casablanca? Later, Ugarte leads Rick to reveal his anti-Nazi viewpoint (which Rick subtly hints at in several occasions, like when he tears up a check from a German customer). Meanwhile, Renault is the one who shares some more concrete information about Rick's past - he has, twice before (in Ethiopia and in Spain), taken great risks to support the underdog. Rick is certainly a man with a strong moral code. He has a core set of rules and ideals that cannot be swayed, which reveals his integrity despite the corrupt environment he operates in. This code will be a major motivation for his transformation later in the film.
These opening scenes are also crucial to establishing the historical context of the film. It is important to note that in the years leading up to World War II, Warner Bros. was making their anti-Nazi stance very clear in the films they were producing, which was considered a risky move for profits. They notoriously opposed Hitler even before Pearl Harbor, when "isolationism was the prevailing sentiment throughout the United States" (Warner Bros. 71). During the production of Warners' first anti-Nazi Film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Jack Warner received many death threats. However, the financial risks paid off when the film did well at the box office. The studio's political stance is evident in the character of Rick Blaine, but also in the portrayal of Casablanca in general.
In his 1996 review of the film, critic Roger Ebert writes that in December 1941, "Morocco was was a crossroads for spies, traitors, Nazis, and the French resistance." The film was closely aligned with the current events that were unfolding during its production. The newsreel quality of the opening narration and imagery would have made 1942 audiences feel the heightened urgency and timeliness of the film. On November 8, 1942, the Allied forces invaded North Africa, and Casablanca was "liberated" a few days later. The film opened on November 26th in New York City, "with supporters of the 'Free French' parading down 5th Avenue" (Raskin 86). In the film, the man who is gunned down in the marketplace for having expired papers is a French rebel, and the papers that the officers take from him bear the Cross of Lorraine, which was a symbol of the Free French Forces. The film was slated for national release on January 23rd, when Winston Churchill and FDR met secretly in Casablanca.
Michael Curtiz also establishes an overall pattern that everyone in Casablanca has an ulterior motive. Nobody is there, as Rick jokes to Renault, just for their health. Before any of the film's main characters appear on screen, there is the "pickpocket scene" in the cafe. The old European couple makes it clear that they understand (and care) very little about life in Casablanca, and are just cooling their heels until they can purchase their exit visas. Along with the friendly man at the next table, they bemoan the "vultures" who have taken over the city and are up to no good. Moments later, the amusing young man robs the couple, illustrating that vultures are not always easily recognizable. Meanwhile, in Rick's Café Americain, it seems as though everyone is there for a reason, making it a microcosm of Casablanca itself. People are wheeling and dealing in every corner, and political alignments are discernable between patrons, as evinced by the Italian and French officers. However, despite the fact that he is the proprietor of the cafe, Rick does not become entangled in any of the drama. He remains aloof and neutral, knowing that if he has a drink with one patron, another may take offense. He keeps himself mostly clean of the Black Market and the corruption that Ugarte, Ferrari, and Renault engage in.