How do the Elements of Film Form convey Meanings and Ideologies? An Eduqas A Level Film Studies exemplar essay: Casablanca and Do The Right Thing.

Compare the way the films you have studied use the key elements of film form to convey meanings and ideologies? 40 marks

700-800 words.

One way that both Casablanca and Do The Right Thing convey meaning and ideology is through their use of mise-en-scène. Despite the fact that Casablanca is a product of the early 1940s and Do The Right Thing is a product of the late 1980s both films were produced with the intention of effecting direct, real-world change (to galvanise American opinion against the Nazis and to highlight the intersectional injustices that oppressed African Americans respectively) and incorporate symbolic elements into the frame in order to do this. Casablanca, as a studio picture, is as much Hal B. Wallis’ film as Michael Curtiz’ in this regard as he had day to day control over prop and set decisions. In Casablanca there are regular symbolic uses of frame elements: from repeated uses of the Free French cross (both in ring form and as shadow – in the window of La Belle Aurore for example) to the use of the searchlight to represent the vigilance and surveillance of powerful forces outside of Casablanca and the story-world.


Similarly Spike Lee gives naturalistic elements symbolic significance such as the “wall of fame” photographs which act as models for behaviour and success for Sal’s family but also appear to be aghast onlookers in the climactic scene.


It is also notable that Vito and Mookie’s conversation about civilisation is conducted underneath a picture of the Colosseum, again demonstrating that, whatever their situation, the Italian Americans have well recognised symbols of success and power to offer them hope and solace. In contrast the African American characters have Smiley’s photographs (mangled and drawn upon) and Senor Love Daddy’s radio monologue; in which he lists black success and excellence but which reinforces Lee’s point about the narrow avenues open for black exceptionalism in 80s America.

Where they are very different is in the way that they use mise-en-scène to connote genre (which has an impact on meaning). The low-key lighting, partially obscured face and venetian blinds in the scene where Ilsa watches Victor leave to meet the Free French all signify Film Noir (Curtiz was heavily expressionist-influenced and his director of photography was Arthur Edeson who had also made The Maltese Falcon) which, as a genre, is concerned with intrigue, moral choices and the struggle between good and evil. Curtiz also uses frame-filling noir-ish shadows to hint that Rick Blaine is an anti-hero, and might let Victor die, to keep the film from sentimentality.


Lee, on the other hand, opens his film with a stylised set for Rosie Perez to dance in. The deep colour saturation, open floor and high key lighting are all features of music video and Lee often uses the form of music video (especially post classical, or MTV, editing) as a way of linking his film to black music culture (at the time Chuck D, from Public Enemy, referred to rap as “black CNN”). At other points his use of heat-haze in front of the camera helps to ratchet up the tension by recalling other heat-tinged films set in the deep south.


Trust me. The heat distortion’s there.

Another way that both films convey meanings and ideologies is through their use of cinematography. Both films are attempting to place individuals within a wider picture and as a result both films use deliberately obvious crane shots. Lee uses the crane to put Mookie, as he awkwardly, pigeon-toed, stomps his way across an expanding screen, firmly in the real Bedford-Syvesant. Mookie is a man who belongs in this community, and his struggles are the same as everybody else’s, however Bill Lee’s score accentuates the crane shots and becomes both cinematic and Gershwin-like.


This elevates him to heroic status and also instantly places Mookie’s struggles within the complicated post-slavery historical web of Jim-Crow, northern migration and the influence African Americans have had culturally. In Casablanca a similar effect is achieved in the final shot. The crane shot suddenly, cinematically, underlines Rick’s point that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” as Louis and Rick seem small and insignificant. The dialogue, however, maintains its volume, in a hyper-real way, which means that the ideological point is made that they are still important, despite the huge events that are engulfing them, and that to succeed in the war individual humanity will need to be retained. Another difference in both films is that Casablanca uses flattering lens sizes (and filters) to make the central characters mythic and glamorous, to emphasise the nobility of their struggle, whereas, in Do The Right Thing, Ernest Dickerson uses fish-eye lenses to distort faces in order to emphasise their failures and descent into conflict.


I have already touched on the way that sound is crucial to the way that both films convey meanings and ideologies, especially through the different techniques of scoring and sound tracking. Steiner’s score for Casablanca helps to emphasise scale of the unfolding drama however it is the inclusion of La Marseillaise which is designed to have both emotional and political impact as it reminds the audience of the fall of France. Similarly Do The Right Thing has a score but is also sound tracked by a selection of artists. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” takes on particular significance; as it opens the film and is played on Radio Raheem’s Ghetto Blaster. The track is both a call to arms and a comment on the action of the film.

Use of editing helps to convey meaning and ideology in both films and both films also use continuity and discontinuity editing at key points. Casablanca opens its action with a montage sequence which helps to locate the action and frame the narrative. The entry into Rick’s Café Americain, however, utilises continuity editing and fluid camera movements to help to set the scene, convey atmosphere and begin to develop some of the intrigues and tensions of story. Lee, on the other hand, does use continuity editing to help develop his characters and story but will break with the editing style (most notably in the racial slur scene) to develop his message.

Use of performance is the final element which helps to convey meaning and ideology. Curtiz is deliberate in his use of the stylised performance conventions of pre-war Hollywood cinema. Bogart uses the mannerisms of the noir anti-hero (his character vacillates between control and dominance to hard-drinking and defeated) and often plays up to the off-hand requirements of the script. Bergman plays Ilsa constantly on the verge of emotional collapse which emphasises the sense of hideous tension Wallis wanted to create. Lee, on the other hand, jumps between performance styles at times. Key sections, like Radio Raheem’s love and hate speech (lifted from The Night of the Hunter), the racial slur scene or the choral comments which occur after Raheem’s death are non-naturalistic and not in the same performance mode as other sections of the film. Lee varies his actor’s performance style to aid the delivery of the message and serve the film’s ideological purpose.

One thought on “How do the Elements of Film Form convey Meanings and Ideologies? An Eduqas A Level Film Studies exemplar essay: Casablanca and Do The Right Thing.

  1. Pingback: How should I write about film details? An exemplar essay about film elements, meanings and ideologies. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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