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Casablanca is that happy American masterpiece which is also a solid melodrama for ordinary moviegoers. Michael Curtiz' direction is superb, and the witty script seems incapable of dating, even though it's about very topical events in 1941. 50 years later, seeing the never-changing faces of Casablanca's stars makes us feel younger instead of older. It's also the film that best represents the nostalgia of WW2 for 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 of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine puts the idea of idealistic patriotism into a credible personal context, as the expatriate Yankee tough guy shows us all the meaning of noble sacrifice.
Finally returned to the Warner stable (well, at least for distribution), Casablanca missed its 60th anniversary by a year but now constitutes a hefty two-disc special edition, the favored marketing format of the moment. Besides a buffed & polished new transfer of the feature, fans are given a variety of docus, outtakes, ephemera & documents to pore over.
Savant once compared Casablanca to the later The Third Man, to show the meaning of wartime idealism, and how it soured after a victory that was less than perfect. But this adaptation of a failed play called Everybody Comes to Ricks perfectly expresses a notion of America's place in the world that audiences would immediately accept. Some movies grab the public imagination because they present a desirable fantasy that hasn't yet found expression, and Casablanca became a shared communal experience. Many viewers who hadn't yet sorted out their feelings about what the war really meant, got 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 must have been running guns in Spain against the fascists 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 that separates good and bad, forces ethical choices, and clarifies a world of murky morals. Casablanca is a refugee town soaked in corruption and 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 refugee women. But charm is everything. The fact that Renault is funny, and especially that Rick likes him, allows us to accept the Frenchman's corruption as a fairly pleasant status quo.
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 accomodate to 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. So Renault's diplomatic neutrality is really a tightrope act.
The political and romantic problems roll into town all at once with the arrival of Laszlo and Lund. Laszo is a figurehead and a symbol more than a real man; the Nazis need him dead for what he represents, not what he can do personally. The sophistication of Casablanca is that it doesn't try to combine this kind of man with 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 main idea of the story is that the wartime interruption of his personal life is actually a positive catalyst that makes Rick 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. The 30s happily-ever-after fadeout is no longer a possibility, as the princess is married to someone else, and running off with her 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 be noble. Jaded tough guys like Rick and corrupt colonial policemen 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 is playing neutral waiting game: "I stick my neck out for nobody!". But the Germans don't seem to understand the positive power of good men, as it's only a matter of time before 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), ready to do something immoral for a good cause. Rick and Renault are perfectly willing to accept the fact that the only possible outcome might be Laszlo falling into Nazi hands. They're both good poker players, with Renault constantly testing Rick, looking for signs of patriotism. In Casablanca, Ilsa and Rick are the past, good mushy stuff that's great for romantic reveries but irrelevant to the present problems.
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 these two sharpies in charge, the tough-guy Yank and the sophisticated Frenchman, 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 script is so polished and clever, it never seems forced. Every bit player has 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 a constant 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 and closeup - Curtiz is always moving in from a wide shot to find a detail. The camera moves, pans and trucks, but we're hardly ever aware of it, just the fast-moving parade of events before us. Max Steiner's score and the many bits of source music tell us whether we're in a hazy nightclub, or experiencing a romantic flashback where raindrops falling on a Dear John letter are just as terrible as a city being overrun by enemy soldiers. The actors are so perfect in their roles, there's no question of anyone else even being perceivable as taking their places.
Gone With the Wind is somehow still the popular idea of the best American movie, with its sweep and grandiose quality, but Casablanca is smarter and more relevant to the American character. Citizen Kane is a cinematic marvel of what the screen can communicate, but it's ultimately a colder item. Everyone professes to like Kane, but do they experience it, or just tick off the lessons from film class? Casablanca is the perfect combination of romance, intrigue and idealism that feeds our hearts and brains at the same time, and it represents the unsure but brave spirit of the wartime years.
Warners' two-disc special edition of Casablanca presents the now-familiar combo of a polished transfer on disc one, followed by a fat selection of goodies on disc two.
The transfer is definitely one of those smart digital cleanup jobs. A choice negative element was dusted off ten years ago to get an improved image, but this transfer 'does things' digitally with the film restoration. Comparing it to the old MGM disc, we see a brighter image with more contrast, and considerably less grain. To me, it looks like the grain being eliminated is digital mottling, not the original film texture that many restoration experts say is a desirable aspect of the original look of the film. The new image is also rock-steady in the gate, where the old one drifts slightly. I've never seen a good original 35mm print of this picture, but the critics might have a historical case against the enhanced contrast - 1942 Warner films were in general a little greyer, and granier.
These fine points of video archeology won't mean much to the viewer, who will be dazzled by the quality here, even if they already have the older disc. Whatever digital voodoo is being applied to the image, there's little sign of collateral damage - no detail loss, no 'crunchy' transitions between dark and light objects on the screen. I compared two scenes on both editions, and if there's something bad happening here, well, it fooled me.
The extras on disc two do wonders with limited resources. The two commentaries are indispensible. I listened to most of Roger Ebert's and some of Rudy Behlmer, and their POV's are sufficiently different to justify two tracks. Next up is an older Lauren Bacall tribute to Bogart, a career doc called Bacall on Bogart, that's very entertaining. You Must Remember This, is an okay piece, but relies on lots of clips that become tedious if one's just seen the film (a big problem with many DVD docs). The Children Remember is fun to check out Bogart's son and Bergman's two daughters, even if what they have to say are mostly nostalgic observances. The rest of the extras are a wild grab-bag. The exhaustively-researched music cues are under-described in the disc menus, but are a great opportunity to enjoy Warners' powerhouse orchestra. Compare them to the limp track on the 1995 Bugs Bunny parody cartoon Carrotblanca, about which the less said the better. There's a fun radio reunion performance of the show, and a real oddity, a 1955 Warners attempt at a television version, starring gruff Charles McGraw of noir greats like The Narrow Margin. Several original cast members return in different roles. The show comes complete with a Gig Young intro and a commercial for a steam iron, but has no credits, so my best guess is that the leading lady is a pre-La Dolce Vita Anita Ekberg.Also new to the mix are several minutes of what are called deleted scenes and outtakes. These are slate-to-camera stop takes from several scenes in the film, without audio, and 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, as if every patron of Rick's had a real life and characters of their own. The outtakes don't add up to anything new - there's only one deleted scene of Rick visiting Laszlo in jail, that was probably made redundant by adjusting dialogue in scenes around it. The extras taper off with a selection of original correspondence, and then the usual photos and text extras. The rest of the goodies are listed below.
Movie fans already deluged with Casablanca may be able to resist, but this new disc set of the classic film will charm those who need to catch up with it, and dazzle viewers who've never seen the superlative wartime thriller. It's highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,