You know a movie is great when it’s not just the “big scenes” but the little ones which gives the audience something to think about.
This is the first time we see Rick Blaine in Casablanca. The primary purpose of the scene is to get Rick the letters of transit and build up why they’re so important so the plot makes sense to the audience going forward. But the film takes its time to pepper the moment with various character-establishing details. For example, we are shown that the richest and most powerful in society, like a German banker, are desperate to get into his cafe. Where most people would be honored, he all but kicks the guy out. This shows that Rick is a rebel, he’s not afraid to piss off the prevailing establishment, and his cafe really is the hottest bar in town.
The character Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre, exists purely to serve the purpose of giving our main character the all important Macguffin (the letters of transit.) But see what they did with him? Even this apparent badass criminal who murdered two German officers is falling over himself to impress Rick, to the point of desperation. And while Rick is cold and indifferent, they seem to know each other well, showing that Rick is a dangerous man who isn’t afraid to fight against a corrupt occupational government. Most people would be throwing Ugarte out of their bar, not a prestigious banker. Similarly, Rick only admits to being impressed after its understood Ugarte killed the Germans to get the letters, not by the letters themselves or what they’d allow him to do. So in this first scene we are told how in demand Rick and his cafe are, the kind of people he hates/admires, as well as the fact that he has no love for the Germans. And yet, all the same we don’t really feel like we know anything about him as a person yet. His aloofness inspires way more questions than it answers.
Throughout the film Rick seems to go back and forth on whether he gave a fuck about Ugarte or not. He seemed genuinely concerned when Louis confided that Ugarte would be arrested. And he says “first they get Ugarte then she walks in. One goes in, another comes out” implying he cared for him on some level. But then in a later scene with Ferrari Rick says “you don’t feel any sorrier for Ugarte than I do.” So the whole film you’re left to wonder about a tertiary character who in any other movie wouldn’t be given a second thought after they served their purpose plot-wise. This is a minor point but that always made the world of the film feel more interconnected and realistic to me. For the purposes of the story Ugarte was a plot device, but to these characters he was a person whom they knew for a long time and had ongoing dealings with.
It’s at this point where we see Here you see Rick and Louis’ amazing screen chemistry, and how Louis is the only one in Rick’s life who has a friendly rapport with him, yet even Louis never really knows him either. Another two significant points: we see in this scene that Victor Lazlo is the only person thus far, and that we know of, whom Rick admires. Thus far, by establishing Rick has the letters, is at heart a sentimentalist, hates the Germans and respects Lazlo…we can all see where this is going. With all this information in place, there’s no doubt Rick would have given Victor the letters. But then Louis adds an afterthought “he’s traveling with a lady.” And while Rick initially dismisses this woman as irrelevant and assumes Lazlo would leave her behind, we all know she’s the one who’s gonna throw a wrench in everything. These three scenes (and a few others I left out like Ferrari offering to buy the cafe) do an amazing job building up the protagonist, Rick Blaine, and establishing the plot in ~15 minutes. All the big facts are set up, but the twist is that the lady Lazlo is traveling with is far more important to Rick than Lazlo himself, or his admired Cafe, or the extremely valuable letters of transit he now has. The backstory of Rick’s feelings towards Ilsa flips his entire character on its head, revealing that Rick’s not this suave awesome guy we thought he was, he’s embittered and sad. He doesn’t throw away beautiful women because he’s just that cool, it’s because no one means anything close to what Ilsa did.
With a lot of these classic movies, there’s a certain aura that surrounds them due to their place in pop culture. Casablanca, Star Wars, Godfather, whatever. And while it’s earned, I think it sometimes colors our perceptions of the stories before we really see them (for those of us born after they became famous.) You know what I mean? Like kids watching Star Wars already know Vader is Luke’s dad. And everyone knows by its reputation Casablanca is this big heartbreaking romance. But what’s fun is watching them with as open of a mind as possible, trying to forget their reputation. What I mean is, when you go into this movie already knowing that Rick loves Ilsa, or that the movie is going to be a tragic romance, it somewhat dilutes the potential impact of this magnificent character introduction.