CUT TO: INTERIOR RICK'S CAFÉ ? MAIN ROOM ? NIGHT
The customers have all gone. The house lights are out. Rick sits alone at a table. There is a glass of bourbon on the table directly in front of him, and another empty glass on the table before an empty chair. Near at hand is a bottle.
But I am getting ahead of myself...
An hour before this scene unfolds in Michael Curtiz's 1942 classic Casablanca, the customers were still at Rick's Café Americain, the house lights were up, a jazz band was playing, and every seat in the house was occupied. Among aristocrats mingled smugglers, soldiers, and refugees from every corner and social caste of Europe who have come in search of one thing: a way out of Casablanca. Much of this and more is surveyed by a man in a white dinner jacket. Sought by all, available to few, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the personification of aloof confidence. In the course of 20 minutes, he indifferently accepts the confidences of a thief, shuns a bank president, brushes off a beautiful suitor, casually jests with the chief of police, offers dry responses to a Nazi commander, and generally shows himself to be intelligent, decisive, wry, successful, and unsentimental. When the thief (Peter Lorre) is seized by the police following a scuffle and pistol fire, Rick coolly signals the band to play, having set right the toppled apéritif glass of one of his customers. And when he suddenly encounters an old "acquaintance" named Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, he plays the perfect host: joining them for a drink, dispensing compliments, picking up the tab.
It is only later, when the neon light over the door has been turned off and the club is empty (or as Rick acerbically puts it: when they're asleep in New York; when they're asleep all over America...) that this charismatic figure seemingly undergoes a complete transformation. Rather than confident, witty, and composed, he is suddenly world-weary, bruised, and bitter, having traded his self-assuredness for a cocktail of self-pity and self-loathing. With Sam, his piano player and only friend, he is suddenly rude and impatient. And in a perfect inversion of his otherworldly composure in prime time, he drunkenly topples his own glass spilling the remnants of his bourbon.
The appearance of Ilsa, or course, has served as catalyst. But as this morose scene unfolds, we begin to realize that her arrival has actually not brought about a change in Rick ? rather, the forlorn persona on display in the emptiness of the nightclub is the real Rick, the one that has been just beneath the surface all night long (and, presumably, ever since the fall of Paris). The terrific poise and enviable coolness were little more than a façade masking a jilted spirit.
If Closing Time allows us to see Rick as he is, this is in part because it is an hour when one naturally drops one's guard; but it is also because it is the hour when one's Past can assert itself. The early hours in the club are defined by the Present. Gambling, drinking, romance are all pleasures of the moment in the thrall of which we can lose sight of where we've come from or what consequences may follow ? thus shoving the past and the future aside. Rick perfectly personifies the Now-ness of his café when he meets up with a former dalliance:
Where were you last night?
That's so long ago, I don't remember.
Will I see you tonight?
I never make plans that far ahead.
But once the place has cleared out, the present recedes like a tide leaving the past to loom up and make a claim on Rick's consciousness. Rick masochistically insists that Sam play his and Ilsa's song ? the aptly named "As Time Goes By," at the sound of which we all get to experience in Proustian fashion the rushing forward of bygone days (the lights of Paris, the shared champagne, the romantic implosion at the train station), made possible through the narrative magic of the flashback montage. Here's looking at you, kid, indeed.
But the future too is asserting itself in this scene. Having lived in Casablanca indifferent to the passage of time and politics, Rick is suddenly waiting for a lady to come occupy the empty chair on the other side of the table. He is wrestling with his impulse to want her again even before she walks through door, and all the while the transit papers that give one incontestable exit from Casablanca are sitting right there, hidden in Sam's piano.
As an aside, a terrific replay of the Casablanca Closing Time scene occurs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but where the roles of man and woman have been reversed with Marion (Karen Allen) taking Rick's place and Indiana (Harrison Ford) taking Ilsa's. In Raiders, the woman is the cool, apolitical character running a club in a frontier environment (with Nepal filling in for Casablanca) who has been jilted without explanation and has been bitter ever since. Whereas, it is the man, at odds with the Nazis, who shows up in her club when all the customers are gone in search of something valuable in her possession (a medallion instead of a visa) and thus brings all the old resentments to the surface.
But meanwhile, back in Casablanca, as Rick and Sam await Ilsa's arrival, they perfectly exemplify the various nether aspects of Closing Time, which make it such a powerful motif. As noted above, the hour of Closing Time is not exactly the Present. After today and before tomorrow, it is an interstice in time in which a visit may be paid by the future or the past (also known as hope and regret). Similarly, Closing Time exists in a realm that is between the private and the public. It provides us some relief from the confines of our apartment without exposing us to the distractions of the agora. And finally, Closing Time is a space that can never be crowded or empty. By definition it is in that nether environment where everyone is gone but for a few, who either understand or shape us.
All quotations above are from the screenplay of Casablanca by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch.