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Does It Make Any Sense?

By Amir Faress • 12/25/19

Exit Visas: A MacGuffin

MacGuffin. It’s a term made popular by Alfred Hitchcock and often associated with the suspense genre more broadly. It refers to a desired object, a motivator, the thing that functions as the fulcrum around which a story turns. Casablanca’s central storyline revolves around one such MacGuffin: exit visas stolen from German couriers killed on their way to occupied Morocco on or about December 1941, two years into the Second World War.

The visas are first introduced as “letters of transit signed by General de Gaulle. Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.”

War refugees from around Europe and elsewhere have flocked to Casablanca, a city whose “leading commodity” is human trade/transport.

Rick, an American saloon owner, comes to possess said visas after a whirlwind evening that sees a man shot in his bar. In a city where “human life is cheap,” these exit visas are the most prized possession.

The movie’s plot is set in motion when Lazlo — an Allied war hero now married to Rick’s ex-lover, Ilsa, for whom Rick continues to pine — seeks those passes to make the flight to America along with his wife.

And here, the problems commence.

The idea that there exist exit visas which “cannot be rescinded, not even questioned,” allowing those in their possession to freely depart, is rife with problems.

To start with: Why couldn’t they be rescinded?

Morocco is administered by the French, but under heavy German supervision. French subservience portrayed throughout the film leaves no question as to who is really in charge, with Renault, the corrupt police prefect, going out of his way to please his German masters at every turn.

Given the French subservience in this power dynamic, it is hard to imagine how the signature of the French premier “cannot be rescinded.” The Germans are the ultimate authority and Lazlo is “an enemy of the Reich.”


The second problem with the film’s MacGuffin is also a no-brainer: If the French/German authorities are so eager to prevent Lazlo’s escape by means of an exit visa, why could they not simply provide Lazlo’s information to the airport and prohibit his departure?


We have every reason to believe this is something that would be well within the power of the authorities, both French and German. In an exchange between Rick and Renault at the beginning of the third act, during which the latter feigns a desire to leave Casablanca with Ilsa, Rick asks Renault for a special guarantee: “We have a legal right to go; that’s true. But people have been held in Casablanca in spite of their legal rights.” This line makes it quite clear that the authorities could stop any person’s passage if they so please.

Significantly, the fact that the visas in Rick’s possession are of a special kind - bearing the signature of the French premier - is ultimately irrelevant. It is, therefore, hard to make sense of why the French/German authorities worry endlessly about Lazlo getting his hands on the signed visas if they could revoke such visas as easily as any other. Likewise, it makes little sense for Lazlo to “offer a fortune to anyone who will furnish him with an exit visa” if such visas might be easily revoked, especially because – and here is a new twist – he could incriminate himself by merely possessing – much less using – them!

The third problem – by far the MacGuffin’s most confounding and counterintuitive aspect – is the suggestion that the very possession of the exit visas constitutes a crime.

The third act opens with Rick cooking up a scheme to get Lazlo out of jail. (Lazlo was arrested the night before under “petty charges.”)

Rick pretends to have a stake in Lazlo remaining locked up so he’ll be able to escape Casablanca with Lazlo’s wife, Ilsa. For this to happen, Lazlo must be arrested not on “petty charges” but “something really big, something that would chuck him in a concentration camp for years.”

And that’s where the exit visas come in. “I’ll arrange to have Lazlo come [to the saloon] to pick up the letters of transit,” Rick says to Renault, sharing his supposedly diabolical scheme, “and that would give you the criminal ground on which to make the arrest.”

This could only mean that the mere possession of the exit visas in itself constitutes a crime, which begs the question: how could the exit visas provide anyone “the legal right to go” (be used legitimately at the airport) yet be – at the same time – illegal to possess?

One could perhaps make the argument that when it came time for the actual arrest later that evening, Lazlo was technically arrested not for merely possessing the visas but on the trumped-up “charge of accessory to the murder of the couriers from whom these letters were stolen.”

But this charge, if anything, bears out Rick’s earlier suggestion that the mere possession of the exit visas constitutes a crime as it ties the possessor directly to the murder of the couriers. Hence the point survives: We are to believe the said visas are usable at an airport controlled by the same authorities who would arrest one for possessing them!

The fourth problem has to do with the manner in which the exit visas figure into Rick’s whole scheme. It is not at all clear why Renault did not save himself all the trouble of releasing and re-arresting Lazlo by simply asking Rick to bring the visas to the police headquarters, claim they were found on Lazlo, and falsely charge him (as he did later) with involvement in the murder of the German couriers. It is not like Renault was to catch Lazlo on camera or in front of a crowd of potential witnesses. The two exit visas were to constitute the totality of the evidence in the dossier to be made against Lazlo. To make his case, Renault did not have to release Lazlo and have him rearrested. 

But let us for argument’s sake imagine that Renault - for reasons the audience is not privy to – simply could not frame Lazlo unless he literally caught him in the very act of possessing the visas. Even so, how could the exit visas possibly be made part of a dossier if Rick was to use the exact same visas that very night to leave the country along with Ilsa?

One would suppose the travelers would be taking the visas with them, but even if they were to leave them behind with the authorities at the airport, the used visas would not be of much help to Renault, as Lazlo’s name would not be mentioned anywhere on them (the visas require the travelers’ name or signature – a point  repeatedly emphasized). This means, even if everything had gone according to the plan, Renault would have made an arrest on the basis of exit visas already used by others, evidence which is hardly incriminating and would if anything point to Lazlo’s innocence and not his guilt!

“So you see,” Hitchcock said famously, “a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

In other words: so what if a MacGuffin is not watertight?  It doesn’t have to be!


The exit visas are not the story of Casablanca; they just help bring it out. And boy do they bring out a great story!

As debates over nationalism have once again resurfaced in recent years, Casablanca reminds us that, far from being a self-serving cop out, true patriotism is defined by self-sacrifice and extending a helping hand. It also reminds us that - more often than we think - the only thing standing between evil and its designs is “little people,” like Rick, who, though neither blessed with an overabundance of courage nor self-sacrificial by disposition, rise to the occasion for the sake of the greater good, saying no to isolationism.

Cinema has never given us a better parable.


By way of a plot that makes no sense at all.

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