Chiaroscuro in Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)

On Valentine’s Day, Casablanca is returning to the big screen at the Philadelphia Film Center. I was inspired to revisit some clips from the film, and they were stunning. Besides its melodramatic plot and its morally ambiguous characters, this film benefits from the work of its German-Expressionism-influenced cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who masterfully uses lighting to complement and even advance the narrative.

Notice the progression of dark to light from left to right. Rick, the character on the left partially shrouded by a moody shadow, is emotionally conflicted and brooding as he confronts his former lover Ilsa, shown bathed in a soft light à la Madonna, perhaps to imply innocence and purity. The lighting technique here may be called chiaroscuro, which has been used since the Renaissance by the likes of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. It is a great dramatic device for paintings, but it is arguably even more effective for cinematic storytelling since time is an additional factor. Watch in the clip below how lighting changes as the scene unfolds.

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