DVD - Image A+ Sound A Extras A
BD (Ultimate Collector's Edition) - Image A- Sound B+ Extras A
BD (70th Anniversary Edition) - Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains
screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
directed by Michael Curtiz
by Walter Chaw Whenever I watch Casablanca (and there's a lot of pressure that comes with watching Casablanca (the chorus from Freaks rings in my head: "One of us, one of us, we accept you, one of us")), I'm stricken by what the film would have been had Orson Welles or John Huston (or even Billy Wilder--Rick is, of course, the prototypical Wilder outsider) sat at the helm instead of the madly prolific Michael Curtiz. Schooled in German Expressionism, Curtiz, by the time of Casablanca, had lost much of anything like a distinctive visual style, and on this film, a troubled production from the start, there's a lack of imagination to the direction that contributes, at least in part, to the way that Casablanca just sort of sits there for long stretches. For all of its magnificent performances (Claude Rains, best here or in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious; Peter Lorre, a personal favourite; and let's not forget Sydney Greenstreet), Casablanca is curiously sterile: its politics are topical, but its love story is passionate by dint of history rather than proximate ardour. Ingrid Bergman arguably gave off more heat in Victor Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and inarguably did so in Gregory Ratoff's Intermezzo. Casablanca is legendary, and that forgives a lot of its blemishes.
The film is one of entrances and exits: Rick (Bogart), signing a check "OK Rick" as his cue; Ilsa, on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid); and Renault (Rains), welcoming two Nazi officers as they deplane. Then, of course, there's the beginning of a beautiful friendship after a series of shattering sacrifices against the backdrop of a sweeping war. It's also a film of exoticism, with the Warner backlot flooded by ethnic extras while the patrons of Rick's Café Américain are shown in a long pan as refugees from every nationality. Considering the time of world that saw mass displacement and immigration, there's a poignancy to it that resonates, something that gives Casablanca a feeling of apocalyptic melancholy that's probably its claim to enduring fame. Wars come and go, but that sense of cascading entropy is eternal. It's an idea carried by the scene where Ilsa asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play "As Time Goes By"--the tentative interplay between Wilson and Bergman is heartbreaking, speaking of a sort of sadness that is all the backstory Rick and Ilsa need. It's a shame that a romantic montage of Rick and Ilsa's life in Paris ("Here's looking at you, kid") dutifully provides a little saccharine backstory, anyway.
For the uninitiated few, Rick is an American living in Vichy France-controlled French Morocco. A scoundrel who won't risk his comfort for any cause, he has a shady past and from out of it strolls the incandescent Ilsa. Unfortunately, she's attached to a wanted freedom fighter (Victor) and needs the help of her former lover to escape the clutches of the evil Nazis. What works about Casablanca is its feeling of scope and its importance not only to the history of film, but to world history--a line referring to everyone being asleep all over America is poignant because at the time of its writing, the United States had yet to enter the war.
The mystique is bigger than the film, in other words: the intervening decades and tons of fawning scholarship have combined to craft an idol of something that, viewed with an un-jaundiced eye, seems less than completely involving. Accordingly, the legends and myths behind the scenes are mainly ones of cliffhanging near-misses (Ronald Reagan-as-Rick just a ploy for the studio to keep war-bound stars in the public eye); the story of Casablanca is a story of great timing and choices made under duress (composer Max Steiner intended to jettison "As Time Goes By," but Bergman had already cut her hair for her next role, making re-shoots impractical). That it is perhaps the most adored film in history is both a recommendation and a caveat. For my money, I prefer Notorious, which has almost the same central cast (just sub Cary Grant for Bogie), a similar timeline, a similar central triangle, and a real director with a unique vision. There's real heat, too, in its story of love lost and found.
Warner reissues Casablanca in one of its showcase "Two-Disc Special Edition"s that give Criterion a run for its money. The fullscreen presentation, touted as an "All-New Digital Transfer" on the back cover, is astonishing, reminding a great deal of Warner's Citizen Kane DVD in definitiveness. Indeed, Roger Ebert does commentary duty here as he did for the Welles: personal in his style, Ebert bemoans the modern audience for believing that Star Wars was the beginning of the movies--an interesting pan given his lasting, indefensible affection for Lucas and his failure to address the fact that "I stick my neck out for nobody" Rick, discovered in a cantina in the middle of a den of scum and villainy, is the prototype for Han Solo. That being said, Ebert's Casablanca commentary is less incisive than the work he did for Kane, and either recording falls short of his exceptional yakker for the DVD of Alex Proyas' Dark City. Fans of Casablanca, however, will find themselves the nodding choir to Ebert's preacher. A second commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer provides backstage gossip (something he does with more verve on Notorious)--the studio ought to have consolidated Behlmer's dry anecdotes and Ebert's homey rambling into one strong track. The picture also boasts of fine Dolby 1.0 mono sound and is preceded a warm introduction by Lauren Bacall. Original and reissue trailers round out the first platter.
Disc Two begins with David Heeley's 1988 PBS documentary Bacall on Bogart (83 mins.), which, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre's John Huston retrospective, offers an overview of one of the film's central figures in a style since ground out by A&E's "Biography" series. "The Children Remember" is a 7-minute interlude featuring Stephen Bogart making the misstatement that Casablanca is the only of his father's works that has remained current, while the very beautiful Pia Lindstrom (one of Bergman's daughters) says that Ingrid never really thought much of the film, herself. Two deleted scenes sans audio (but subtitled from the original shooting script) are extremely brief but fascinating for the completist; same goes for a collection of outtakes that are likewise without audio but this time not subtitled. Eight "Scoring Stage Sessions" feature audio-only alternate takes of mainly Dooley Wilson's performances from the film. "You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca", a 34-minute documentary produced for an earlier release of Casablanca, is just what it sounds like: a love note to the picture, narrated again by Bacall. Lindstrom appears as a talking head herein, listed, puzzlingly, as "Film Critic" though not also as Bergman's daughter. A 1943 Screen Guild Theater-produced radio show, a trove of production notes, an excerpt from a 1955 television adaptation called "Who Holds Tomorrow", and a genuinely awful "new" Looney Tunes riff called Carrotblanca (8 mins.) finish off the keepsake presentation--all of it encapsulated in a tri-fold digipak and slipcase. Originally published: February 11, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION
by Bill Chambers Overhyped or genuinely revelatory? Truthfully, the long-awaited Blu-ray release of Casablanca falls somewhere in-between. Thing is, like so many black-and-white movies shot in the Academy ratio (particularly those helped along by high-profile digital restorations), Casablanca already seems remarkably HiDef-like on DVD. Outside the razor-sharp opening credits and daylight exteriors, one would be hard-pressed to immediately notice the actual upgrade to HD (1080p) without an A/B assist--but such a comparison does yield rather eye-opening results. For instance, the picture turns out to have been cropped on all four sides in standard-def, and the increased definition brings out details like the penlight reflections in the eyes of actors blessed with glamour shots, or the textural flavours of the invariably starchy wardrobes. But with Paramount going to the trouble of re-encoding some pretty lame titles for Blu-ray, I have to say that, considering Casablanca's status as a designated classic, I'm a little disappointed that Warner went back to the well by recycling the VC-1 compression that was used for the film's HD-DVD release; and perhaps it's the power of suggestion, but prior knowledge of that fact left me with the nagging feeling that the image could be better. There's just something ineffably dupey about it at times (no, I'm not crying DVNR), and the grain, such as it is, occasionally suggests video noise. Audio, by the way, is still the same old same-old: DD 1.0 mono. Sounds good, too.
Casablanca is available on the format exclusively--for now, at least--in an Ultimate Collector's Edition that ports over the special features of the DVD in 480i while wastefully devoting a second, SD platter to Gregory Orr's 58-minute TV special "Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul". Orr, the grandson of the eponymous studio head, emits a strained spontaneity in his presumably self-conducted interviews, yet the piece on the whole is much more irreverent than I expected from not just a family member, but also something on the Warner label. Orr doesn't flinch from Warner's womanizing, workaholism, and chronic mistreatment of his illustrious brothers, though for all that his portrait comes across as caricature and doesn't really give a human dimension to Warner's legacy. The oversize-jewelry-box packaging's loose-leaf extras include: a lovely, hardbound photo book; a novelty passport holder and matching luggage tag; ten lobby-card reproductions; and four fascinating examples of interoffice correspondence on the production ("Sell Bogart romantically. Sell him as a great actor. Let us see if within the next two or three months we cannot have the country flooded with Bogart art...").
THE BLU-RAY DISC - 70TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
by Bill Chambers As I recall, Warner's 2008 Blu-ray release of Casablanca was met with mild disappointment because the transfer's general dearth of grain suggested that DVNR had monkeyed with the detail of the image, which wasn't as crisp as anticipated. If nothing else, the much-ballyhooed 4k rescan of Casablanca for its inevitable 70th Anniversary Edition proves that the film is inherently soft when not determinedly gauzy, though the 1.37:1, 1080p presentation has richer contrast than before and looks more natural as well, owing to a newfound veneer of grain. (Restoration guru Robert A. Harris called it a "patina" before I could.) The audio has been remastered in 1.0 DTS-HD MA, and the lossless encoding does seem to boost the low end and to improve the fidelity of Max Steiner's score.
This is surprisingly the first release of Casablanca to utilize the studio's patented "Warner Night at the Movies" feature, a simulacrum of the moviegoing experience circa 1943. By launching it, you'll be treated to a standard-def trailer for Now, Voyager, a vintage 5-minute newsreel (SD) with footage reminiscent of the second-unit stuff in Casablanca, the educational, nostalgic short Vaudeville Days (21 mins., SD), and three Chuck Jones cartoons: the slight but charming The Bird Came C.O.D. (7 mins., SD), one of Jones's few showbiz-related shorts; The Squawkin' Hawk (7 mins., SD), a pre-Foghorn Leghorn outing for Henery Hawk; and The Dover Boys at Pimento University (9 mins.), one of a comically-high number of Looney Tunes I'm tempted to call Jones's masterpiece and seen here in glorious HD. Also exclusive to this disc are two Gary Leva featurettes that "round up the usual suspects"--film historians Rudy Behlmer, Alan K. Rode, and Kati Marton; artistes William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, Caleb Deschanel (from who Zooey gets her eyes), Carol Littleton, and others; and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.--to rhapsodize about Casablanca and its director, respectively, via "Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic" (35 mins., HD) and "Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of" (37 mins., HD).
The increasingly demented Friedkin contributes the most uproarious soundbites, such as this gem: "I've stood in front of the Mona Lisa for 45 minutes or an hour at a time, and I could look at Ingrid Bergman for much longer." Not that I disagree with him on principle. Unlisted screenwriter Casey Robinson is given the lion's share of credit for the success of Casablanca as a love story in what amounts to a digest version of the recycled Behlmer and Ebert commentaries, while the Curtiz doc basically states, and restates, that however irascible Curtiz was, you can't argue with his range, work ethic, or cinematographic instincts. I like Deschanel's assessment of a dolly move towards Bogart's face that incorporates hesitation before making the final push-in that will facilitate the Paris flashback. I like, too, the fake screenplay that provides transitions in "Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic," with its Preston Sturges-y names like J. Hawthorne Culpepper. Strangely, I didn't work up an appetite for Curtiz's filmography watching "Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of." Whether that's the fault of Leva or Curtiz, it's difficult to say.
Disc Two warehouses a couple of orphaned documentaries that will be familiar to TCM subscribers. The Richard SchICKel-helmed--and thus Clint Eastwood-narrated--You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (289 mins., SD) is a clips-bloated slog through the studio's history up to 2008, while the considerably leaner The Brothers Warner (94 mins., HD) makes for a nice companion piece to "Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul," likewise (still) on board. Returning from various VHS and DVD issues over the years is, well, everything. The oversize 70th Anniversary packaging swaps the trinkets of the UCE--the passport holder, luggage tags, lobby cards, and hardbound book--for a set of cork drink coasters, a miniature reprint of the movie's French poster, and a different hardbound book. (Speaking of coasters, the third platter in this three-disc bundle is actually a DVD copy of Casablanca.) Worth a double-dip? Only if you're a superfan or obsessive-compulsive, in my humble opinion. Originally published: March 26, 2012.