Review Casablanca? What, are you kidding me? The #2 film on AFI's top 100 films in American cinema (and some people argue it should be #1), Casablanca has earned its exalted position in film history. It's got a bit of everything: some love, some suspense, some action, some romance, some Bogey, some Bergman, some noir, you name it. It's even got Nazis! What more could you ask for?
As the opening narration tells us, Casablanca was a last-ditch spot for refugees trying to escape the Nazi boot in World War II. The film takes place primarily at Rick's Cafe Americain (or American for us English speakers), run by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) himself. Rick seems content to not give the time of day to anyone, but that all changes when a Polish refugee (Paul Henreid) comes to town, accompanied by his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)...who happens to be Rick's ex-lover. Now Rick must decide between his old feelings and a larger loyalty that he thought he buried long ago.
Casablanca is the kind of movie that grabs you by the ears and screams "CLASSIC!" Everything in this film is iconic. Bogey's performance is probably his best, with his stony exterior slowly cracking as the film progresses. Ingrid Bergman is stunning, of course, but she also really gets the audience to feel her plight. Her performance puts us all in Rick's position, which makes his actions even more meaningful at the end.
And the supporting cast is a real treat. Paul Henreid, despite getting equal billing with Bogey and Bergman, is actually the weakest part of the film, especially when compared against such greats as Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. They create the background environment against which the main movie plays, making comments that inform the audience as much as themselves as to just what we're seeing on the screen. And, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam, singing the songs that make those lonely nights in Casablanca bearable. Heck, "As Time Goes By" is as iconic as any line in the movie, but Wilson never gets any credit for his work in the film. The opening of the song is even used in Warner Bros. current logo.
In the end, there's not much to add to Casablanca's sterling legacy. It's rightly considered a masterpiece, and it has the power to capture and enthrall generation after generation. Even though the plot is specific to World War II, its themes and emotions are timeless. As Roxy Music wrote about Humphrey Bogart in their song "2HB":
"Though memory fades/It lingers ever/Fade away never."
This is one film that will never fade away, even as time goes by.
The HD DVD:
I can't count how many times I've seen Casablanca on different formats. Film, cable, VHS, DVD, and now HD DVD. Of all of those home theater formats, the HD DVD comes the closest to replicating the experience of seeing it on film. It hurts to think of the amount of light Curtiz must have used to get the radiant glow on Bergman, but the results are nothing less than spectacular. This transfer brings out all the lustre and shine from the film print, but with barely any scratches or scuffs. This is the cleanest and clearest Casablanca has looked in years. Another winning HD transfer.
Warner Bros. wisely decided not to mess with a good thing and offers us the original mono track in Dolby Digital Plus. The track is crisp, clean, and perfectly suited to the material. Also offered are French and Spanish mono tracks.
For a few years now, Warner has been releasing classic films from their library on DVD with a wide range of extra features to complement them, resulting in lavish 2-disc special editions. This HD DVD of Casablanca carries over all of the extras from the DVD special edition, except now they're all on one disc! None of them are in HD, though.
We start things off with not one, but two commentaries. The first is from the world's most famous thumb, Roger Ebert, who is really a very knowledgable and intelligent critic. He goes into just about every detail you can think of about the film, from dissecting its mise-en-scene to trivia notes and his own personal thoughts and feelings about the film and its importance. An excellent companion guide to the film.
Considering how much Ebert touches upon in his commentary, it's surprising that historian Rudy Behlmer's commentary isn't utterly superfluous. On the contrary, it's almost a 180-degree turn from Ebert, as we get background information on the people involved in the film, including getting quotes from actual Warner Bros. office memos. While not quite as compelling as Ebert's track, this one still has a wealth of information and is worth hearing.
There's an introduction by Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart's partner in film and in life, and she also hosts two documentaries: "Bacall on Bogart" and "You Must Remember This - A Tribute to Casablanca." "Bacall on Bogart" was a 1988 PBS show dedicated to Bogart's entire career. Of course, it shows clips from Casablanca, but also The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, and many others. It's an excellent retrospective which ably chronicles the mystique of Bogey.
"You Must Remember This - A Tribute To Casablanca" is the main spoke of the extras wheel on the disc. The documentary starts in pre-production, and surveys the entire filmmaking process, detailing the censorship issues the film had, the backroom rewrites, and more. The documentary features interviews with screenwriters Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, aforementioned historian Rudy Behlmer, and many, many more. Even with the two commentaries providing so much information, this is still an essential supplement.
To go along with "You Must Remember This" are two deleted scenes, a wallop of a find for fans. Sadly, the audio elements of the scene have been lost, but subtitles are provided. After that are several outtakes that are nowhere near as interesting.
"As Time Goes By - The Children Remember" is an interesting take on Casablanca, seen from the view of Pia Lindstrom and Stephen Bogart, Ingrid Bergman's daughter and Humphrey Bogart's son, respectively. They reminisce about their parents and how this film affected their lives, as well as the general impact of the film itself. I noticed Warner likes to involve the children of stars when the stars have passed on, take a look at the inclusion of John Wayne's son on The Searchers DVD for another example.
"Who Holds Tomorrow?" was Warner Bros. attempt at adapting Casablanca for the small screen, and let's just say that the title is the best part about it. Luckily, what we get here is only an excerpt, but at 18 minutes, it's still too long. This features none of the actors from the original film.
Scoring session outtakes is a mix of Dooley Wilson performances and Max Steiner score sessions. If you're a fan of the film's music (and if you're not, what are you doing here?) this is a great way to get it all in one big, delicious chunk.
Back in the days before TV, radio adaptations of major motion pictures were not at all rare. But unless the film's star was a radio personality as well (think Orson Welles), it WAS rare to see the film's original cast do their voices in the adaptations. So it's a wonderful treat to get an adaptation with not just Bogey and Bergman, but Paul Henreid as well. While the adaptation lasts less than half an hour, it's still wonderful to hear, and imagine a time when this was the only way to relive the movies at home.
As with most of Warner's classic reissues, we get a Looney Tunes cartoon. Sadly, the one we get, "Carrotblanca," is not a vintage cartoon. It's a 1995 parody that is 99% not funny, the lone 1% being Tweety's brilliant impersonation of Peter Lorre. To make matters even worse, it's not even in high definition, even though we got two classic Looney Tunes in HD on The Adventures of Robin Hood. Very disappointing, and this is coming from a hardcore Looney Tunes fan.
If you have the time, and some courage, you might want to take a look at the Production Research Gallery. This section reproduces production documents, including memos from executives and other notes related to the film, shown through the progression of the production. There's a wealth of information in here, but you can get most of it from the commentaries or documentaries. This is recommended for people who want their evidence firsthand.
Finally, we get the theatrical trailer. All in all, this is a most impressive collection of supplements, with something to please newcomers and aficianados alike.
Are you still here? For heaven's sake, why? Get off your butt and go get Casablanca on HD DVD! Between a treasure trove of extras and superb picture, this edition won't be topped for some time. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.