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Warners premieres Casablanca on Blu-ray in the best-looking B&W restoration and video encoding this reviewer has seen; it was a beauty on HD-DVD and looks fantastic here. For its Ultimate Collector's Edition Warners has carried over a full roster of extras from earlier discs, and added a few more.
Casablanca is that happy American masterpiece which is also a solid melodrama for ordinary moviegoers. Michael Curtiz' direction is superb and the witty script has never dated, even though it's about topical events of 1941. Fifty years later the unchanging faces of Bogart and Bergman make us feel younger instead of older.
Casablanca is also the film that best represents the nostalgia of WW2 for the millions of Americans who lived through it. The story is removed from combat but captures all the emotions of the day -- the sense that the world is on the brink and that Time has been compressed into an all-important romantic Now. The moral dilemma faced by Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine puts the notion of idealistic patriotism into a credible personal context, as the expatriate Yankee tough guy defines the meaning of noble sacrifice.
Savant once compared Casablanca to the later The Third Man to show the souring of wartime idealism after a victory that was less than perfect. But this adaptation of a failed play called Everybody Comes to Ricks expresses a positive notion of America's place in the world. Casablanca became a shared communal experience by presenting a desirable fantasy that hadn't yet found expression. Many viewers who hadn't sorted out their feelings about what the war really meant, found their lasting interpretation here.
Rick Blaine is the enigmatic American, a tough guy hero with a shady past who secretly fights for liberal causes. One gets the feeling he ran guns against the fascists in Spain to atone for his euphemistic crimes back home: stealing the company funds, running off with the minister's wife, killing somebody. Whatever they were, Rick's sins will be washed away by his noble and valiant acts.
The war in Casablanca is like a litmus test. It separates good and bad, forces ethical choices and clarifies a world of murky morals. Refugee town Casablanca is a cynic's delight. Louis Renault is hilariously corrupt, the representative of every suave continental sharpie from the 30s, now using his position and influence for apparent petty ends -- amassing wealth and extorting favors from pretty female refugees. But charm is everything. The fact that Renault is funny, and especially that Rick likes him, allows us to accept the Frenchman as a fairly pleasant rogue.
In the chaos of Casablanca, Renault's attitude makes sense. He has Nazi overseers to please and a swarming population of trapped refugees to contend with. He's in an impossible political bind, required to accommodate Major Strasser while keeping order in a town ready to explode. For among the ordinary refugees are desperate criminals like Ugarte (Peter Lorre) and a sizeable resistance presence. Renault's diplomatic neutrality is really a tightrope act.
Political and romantic problems roll into town all at once with the arrival of Laszlo and Lund. Laszo is more of a symbol than a real man; the Nazis need him dead for what he represents, not what he can do personally. Casablanca wisely doesn't try to make Laszlo into an action hero. The Laszlos need to be kept somewhere safe where their inspiration can give hope to freedom fighters. The Ricks and Renaults need to set aside their personal lives and join the side of right. Most ordinary analysis of the movie sticks with Rick's romantic crisis, but the real idea here is that the wartime interruption of Rick's personal life is actually a positive catalyst that makes him choose militant activism over a private retreat.
Casablanca stands at a crossroads of moral sophistication in American movies. The hero's background and motives are shady, in keeping with the coming dark trend of film noir. Because the princess is married to someone else, the 30s happily-ever-after fadeout is no longer a possibility. Running off with Ilsa would mean abandoning a fight that can no longer be ignored. Casablanca is almost utopian in its view of humanity -- when the going gets tough, people can become noble. Jaded tough guys like Rick and colonial profiteers like Renault eventually draw a line and fight back.
The film is often offered as a microcosm of WW2 just before Pearl Harbor: France is on her knees, forced to acquiesce to German power. Nazi influence and criminality is running wild in Europe while America plays a neutral waiting game: "I stick my neck out for nobody!" But the Germans don't seem to understand that it's only a matter of time before even selfish cynics will unite to oppose them.
What distinguishes Casablanca from other Wartime potboilers is the feeling that unpredictable personal choices are what make the difference. The bittersweet happy ending didn't have to turn out as it did. Laszlo's presence inspires the local resistance, and Strasser's closing of the nightclubs forces Rick's hand. Ilsa is ready to sleep with Rick (or maybe she does), willing to do something immoral for a good cause. Laszlo is so committed to anti-fascism, he's willing to see his wife sleep with Rick if it helps his political aims. Rick and Renault are both good poker players, with Renault constantly testing Rick, looking for signs of patriotism. In Casablanca, Ilsa and Rick's past is the mushy stuff that's great for romantic reveries but irrelevant to the present problems. Saving the world is more important than personal feelings, or even personal morality.
The film is really a political romance between Rick and Renault, as they circle and test one other to see who's worthy and who's not. When it comes time to act, their combined cool saves the day. Each makes a dramatic choice to step away from their cynical detachment and take a stand. With the tough-guy Yank and the sophisticated Frenchman in charge, we know there's hope for the future.
That's just one interpretation of Casablanca that sits side by side with several others within one of the most perfectly crafted movies Hollywood ever made. The polished, clever script gives every bit player a memorable line or two, even a pair of senior citizens learning English in anticipation of reaching America.
Fake airplane models and clunky matte paintings mean nothing when the visual atmosphere of every scene is so exact, and the direction maintains our interest in at least 20 speaking players. Watch the camera and you'll see that there's often little distinction between a master shot and a close-up -- Curtiz is always moving in from a wide shot to find a detail. The camera moves, pans and trucks, but we're aware only of the fast-moving parade of events before us. Max Steiner's music score and the many bits of source music tell us whether we're in a hazy nightclub, or experiencing a romantic flashback. Raindrops falling on a Dear John letter are just as terrible as a city being overrun by enemy soldiers. The actors are so well suited to their roles, we can't perceive of anyone else taking their places.
The grandiose Gone With the Wind was once the popular idea of the best American movie but Casablanca is smarter and more relevant to the American character. Citizen Kane is a cinematic marvel but it's ultimately a colder item. Casablanca feeds our hearts and brains at the same time. It remains our best representation of the unsure but brave spirit of the wartime years.
Warners' Blu-ray Ultimate Collector's Edition of Casablanca collects extras going back twenty years -- I still have my 1992 50th Anniversary promotional keepsake, an official Casablanca Fez!
The Ultimate Blu-ray package is a fancy white item that opens like a perfume box. Inside are two lighter boxes. One contains an official passport holder and luggage tag, and the second ten mini posters and lobby cards, and a reproduction of a vintage Warners in-house publicity memo dictating an image switch for Humphrey Bogart from gangster to leading man. The note ends with the magic phrase, "I know I can count on you", which as we all know means "Your job is on the line if this doesn't work."
Next are a mail-in poster offer and a hardbound photo book with incidental text by Rudy Behlmer, followed by the folding disc holder. The Blu-ray transfer on the first disc is simply sensational, a B&W HD wonder that revives the 'silver screen' look of original nitrate prints. Highlights glint, various fabrics reveal different textures and Ingrid Bergman's eyes look brighter and more alive. And to think that for decades we watched this film in lo-res TV transmissions of murky 16mm prints.
Only one scene is slightly lower in quality. When Rick has his midnight drunk scene and Ilsa shows up at his door, the contrast and grain go up quite a bit. It's probably safe to say that the superior original element for this scene was either damaged, or became separated and lost. The pristine look returns after a minute or two.
Almost all of the video extras are the same as on the 2003 DVD release. The two excellent commentaries by Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer are still in place. Then comes an older Lauren Bacall tribute to Bogart and an entertaining career doc called Bacall on Bogart. You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca is good but relies too much on film clips. Bogart's son and Bergman's two daughters offer nostalgic observances in The Children Remember. A selection of music cues are now accompanied by better descriptions in the disc menu, and are a great opportunity to enjoy Warners' powerhouse orchestra. The 1995 Bugs Bunny parody cartoon Carrotblanca still isn't very funny. A radio performance of the show is offered along with a 1955 attempt at a television version starring gruff Charles McGraw of The Narrow Margin and a pre-La dolce vita Anita Ekberg. The show comes complete with a Gig Young intro and a commercial for a steam iron, but has no credits. The rather sloppily updated story has Rick Blaine quietly helping the U.S. consulate receive a Soviet defector!
Also back are a selection of deleted scenes and outtakes. These silent slate-to-camera stop takes demonstrate just how exactingly rehearsed and executed the average shot was for the show. They're particularly useful in observing the extras' action, which is just as precise as that of the leads. The outtakes don't add up to anything new, but one deleted scene of Rick visiting Laszlo in jail was probably made redundant by adjusting dialogue in scenes around it. Finally comes a selection of original correspondence -- rather small and difficult to read, actually.
The second disc is a standard DVD presentation of Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul, a rather loose docu by Gregory Orr, Warner's grandson. A history of the studio from the family's origins in Poland, the show suffers from a lack of a unifying thesis beyond saying what a fun guy Jack Warner was. All the while we see evidence to the contrary, as Warner was a tyrant who owned both the production and exhibition sides of the business and held tight control over cheap labor. Warner decorated himself with military rank during the war, dumped his first wife, cooperated with the witch hunters of HUAAC and conspired to cut his own brother out of the business. For compensation, the docu offers clips from his studio's greatest successes. I suppose that if Warner had been a nice guy, a lot of movie history might have never happened.
Warners is offering a two-disc DVD of Casablanca but as yet no slimmed down Blu-ray release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casablanca Blu-ray rates:
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