A turning point par excellence: Humphrey Bogart’s nod

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016

Any storyteller knows the importance of turning points in a narrative. One of the most famous turning points ever in a movie is the nod leading up to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca.

Just to recap: It’s December 1941 and refugees from all over Europe are trying to escape to America through Casablanca. In this Moroccan city, Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) Café Américain is a gathering place for a motley crowd of Vichy French and German officials, pickpockets, expatriates, and refugees desperate to acquire letters of transit to get on the plane to Lisbon, en route to America. Rick ends up with two of these valuable letters. Not that he intends to sell them, not even to resistance leader Victor (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) who one day walk into his establishment. (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”) Rick and Ilsa were lovers in Paris years earlier, where they drank champagne and he said “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Then she left him waiting in the rain at the railway station and he traveled alone to Casablanca. Rick the café owner is a cynical and indifferent man. “I stick my neck out for nobody” has become his mantra.

Victor is in the café when a group of German officers starts singing patriotic “Die Wacht am Rhein.” He asks the house band to play “La Marseillaise.” The band members look at Rick, who gives them a silent nod. In the “duel of anthems” that follows, the Germans are drowned out by the French.

One simple nod and the plot turns. Rick – Mr. “I stick my neck out for nobody” himself – is forced to choose a side and take the consequences. The Germans close his café.

The close-up of Humphrey Bogart nodding is an insert shot later. He had no idea what the nod meant until he saw the film.

One small nod. It’s brilliant.

References to Casablanca
If you watch NCIS, you may recall Director Vance telling the story of the close-up shot to Gibbs in the episode called Rule Fifty-One. With this nod, Vance explains, Rick made a commitment and joined the cause. “All he had to do was nod,” Gibbs says. Vance replies, “And that started everything.”

In The Holiday, Iris (Kate Winslet) befriends 90-year-old Arthur (Eli Wallach), a long-retired screenwriter who tells her that his friends wrote Casablanca but that he suggested they add “kid” to “Here’s looking at you, kid,” one of the many memorable lines in the movie. As Miles (Jack Black) says, “Hello! Which totally makes the line.” “Here’s looking at you, Ilsa” wouldn’t have the same ring to it.

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