Exile and Travel
The city of Casablanca is filled with foreigners, most of whom are exiles. Among the characters in the film, only the doorman Abdul is actually Moroccan. Though some characters, such as the colonialist French or the conquering Germans, are not in Casablanca as exiles, the majority are. Rick appears at first to be just another disenchanted American expatriate, but he is actually an exile from America, to which he cannot return, and also from France, where he cannot return as long as the Germans still occupy it. An exile is someone who can never return home. Along with the idea of exile comes the idea of travel. The movie opens with a montage of various means of transport, including ships, trains, cars, and planes, that refugees use on their way to Casablanca. These images of hurried travel contrast with images of leisurely voyage, such as a car ride through Paris and a boat ride down the Seine, both of which Rick and Ilsa share during the Paris flashback. Travel can be both a means, as in the case of the refugee, and an end in itself, as in the case of a tourist, but for the exile, it is never-ending. Unlike both the refugee going to a new home and the tourist soon to return home, the exile is perpetually homeless, traveling forever.
Dreaming of America in Africa
Related to the motif of exile is the motif of America, which is where all of Casablanca's refugees hope to go. If Casablanca is the oasis in the desert, America is the promised land on the desert's far side. America offers itself not as a place of temporary exile, but as a new home, even for foreigners. The difference between the refugee and the perpetual exile is determined by the ability to go to America, because America represents the final stop on the refugee path, where exile ends and an actual new life begins. Only Rick cannot go to America. Instead, he must remain in Africa. At the end of the film, he leaves Casablanca, which is on the eastern edge of Africa, for Brazzaville, which lies at the country's heart. Neither desert nor promised land, Brazzaville is pure jungle. If America represents what is known and desired, Brazzaville represents all that is uncertain. For Rick, the journey has just begun.
The spotlight that shines from a tall tower and lights up the city of Casablanca reminds people that they are always being watched. The spotlight is a constant presence at Rick's, regularly circling past the front doors. The spotlight first swings past the doors immediately after Louis has assured Strasser that the murderer of the German couriers will be found at Rick's, as if to stress the relationship between government authority and the invasive, spying light. The spotlight crosses Laszlo's path as he leaves Rick's with Ilsa, underscoring the fragility of Laszlo's safety and the fact that he is constantly being watched. Later that evening, Ilsa returns to Rick's and opens the front door just as the spotlight passes by, backlighting her brilliantly in the doorframe. This dramatic image is important for several reasons. First, it marks the first time the light actually pierces the front doors and enters Rick's. The image also makes Ilsa look like an angel, and lets us see her as her lovers see her. The use of light here is also a meta-filmic comment about the artificiality of the cinematic lighting. The spotlight reappears as Rick gazes out his window after he and Ilsa kiss in his apartment. Even Rick and Ilsa's romance, the device suggests, is being watched, and the war has completely altered the conditions of their love. This change could partly explain Rick's self-sacrifice at the end of the film. In order for Ilsa to escape the eye of the spotlight, Rick realizes, he must let her escape to America.