The apex of Hollywood's Golden Era studio system assembly line film factory, which for personal reasons I usually put at around 1935-1950, was an unparalleled melding of art and commerce that, despite its workaday ambience, managed to actually craft actual lasting works of Art with a capital A. The funny thing is, looking back on this splendiferous time from the vantage point of 60-70 years or so, it was the chaotic productions that sometimes outlived their more mannered, controlled counterparts, and there was probably no more chaotic production on the Warner lot in those days than Casablanca, a film that famously had script pages being delivered daily as scenes were about to be shot. But in one of the great serendipities of film history, Casablanca rose above the tumult of its production history and became one of the all-time classics of filmdom, probably beloved by more people than even Citizen Kane, which was the only film to top it on AFI's all-time greatest 100 films list. It's the film that most casual film lovers still associate Bogie and Bergman with the most (to Bergman's eternal consternation and Bogie's evident delight), and has given us at least two enduring catchphrases (one actually from the film, one transmogrified from the original), "Here's looking at you, kid" and "Play it again, Sam." Now Casablanca arrives on Blu-ray in an Ultimate Collectors box that provides some interesting, if not overwhelming, extras, while presenting the film in its sharpest appearance on home video yet.
Need I really spend much time summarizing Casablanca's plot? Hasn't it become one of those shared cultural experiences that has seemed to seep into everyone's collective unconscious? We have Rick (Humphrey Bogart), expatriate American owner of a sort of shady Casablanca nightclub where refugee freedom fighters Victor (Paul Heinreid) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) show up, trying to escape the Nazi encroachment of northern Africa. It turns out Rick and Ilsa were an item in years past, setting up a romantic triangle which plays out against several subplots of intrigue featuring a Vichy captain (Claude Rains) and several shady nightclub regulars including then-recent Maltese Falcon alums Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The film is simply a marvel of cross-genre plotting, with a purportedly romantic major element wafting in and out of a wartime thriller scenario that isn't very subtle about its themes of those who fight valiantly for freedom and those who have at least temporarily given up their nobler ideals to make do (and a few bucks) with the powers that be. What Casablanca lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in a torrent of top flight acting that provides one standout moment after another for every player in the film, from the top-billed to the day players.
Some people claim that Bogart wasn't really an actor of note, that he played himself over and over, and while that may be true to an extent (as it is with virtually all of the great Golden Era superstars--they were, after all, types in the formal sense), all anyone needs to do to see the depth of Bogart's technique is watch the two snippets of him reacting to Ilsa's appearance at two different points in Casablanca. In the first, more famous scene, when Sam has dared to play "As Time Goes By," Bogart rushes over, enraged, looks up, sees Ilsa, and a quick succession of emotions passes over his face, everything from surprise to fleeting happiness to surly contempt. Later, when Ilsa steals away from Victor and comes back to Rick's club in the dark of night, after Rick has been consoling himself with a good deal of drink, you get another master class in minimalism as Bogart lets another parade of emotions surface, all again in quick succession. These are simply two brief moments indicative of the power of Bogart's thinking about this role.
Bergman of course is incredibly lovely in a somewhat underwritten role (Ilsa had started as Lois in the original play on which Casablanca was based, and had only fairly recently transformed into a foreign character in a sort of funny series of events tied to one of the screenwriter's infatuations with a Russian ballerina with acting ambitions, something covered in Rudy Behlmer's excellent commentary). Among the most preternaturally chaste stars of that era, despite the tempestuous undercurrents that swirl about in most of her performances (and which of course led to her "downfall" years later vis a vis her affair with Rossellini), Bergman manages to make Ilsa totally sympathetic despite the fact that the character is, after all, rather duplicitous to both of the men with whom she's involved. In another actress' hands, the sometimes maudlin elements of Ilsa's character are instead admirably underplayed--just a hint of a tear here and there--making Ilsa seem, like Bergman herself actually, resilient above all of the emotional turmoil that's playing out underneath.
The supporting cast of Casablanca is simply a marvel from top to bottom. Will there ever be another "house band" (so to speak) like the studio system had on tap back then? While Heinreid does excellent work in his basically thankless role, it's Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre that add just the perfect amounts of slightly seedy color to the proceedings, painting the moral ambiguities of desperate World War II survivors-at-any-cost with absolutely superb character work. The interplay between Rains and Bogart especially is the stuff of legend. Rick and Renaud are two world weary men who have seen it all, know they're both caught in untenable positions, and are out to save their own hides first. The fact that they both end up becoming more or less honorable is handled in a couple of exceptionally well written closing scenes (by the Epstein brothers, who claimed the denouement descended upon them simultaneously during a Beverly Hills drive one afternoon) that Rains and Bogart play magnificently.
Director Michael Curtiz is of course one of the all time legends of the Warner lot, a director who managed to last and prosper over a quarter century in a studio system that chewed up and spat out stars and directors alike without a second thought. Curtiz' fractured English and various other eccentricities made him one of the more colorful directors of this period, something he put to good use in an astoundingly wide array of genres. Casablanca is directorial perfection under Curtiz' filmic baton, with such Warner utility production crew as DP Arthur Edeson and composer Max Steiner working at the top of their game. This is one of the most lushly lit mid-40s Warner films, with some breathtaking plays of light and shadow, ably mimicking its characters' emotional states of mind. Curtiz brings the film a palpable feeling of time and place, rather remarkable when you realize it was a Warner backlot affair.
Some films which have maintained a classic status for decades actually seem kind of creaky when viewed from the vantage point of our jaded modern sensibilities (Duel in the Sun springs instantly to mind, but I'm sure you all have examples of your own). Casablanca, despite its omnipresence in our lives for 66 years now, remains largely as fresh and invigorating now as it must have been then, truly an astounding feat in the annals of film history. A near perfect blend of writing, performance and direction, played out against the backdrop of a studio film mill working at the top of its form, Casablanca remains probably the most easily accessible and downright entertaining classic of the Classic (capital C) Era. It may not have the intellectual fortitude and technical innovations of Citizen Kane, but it has an undeniably visceral impact on virtually everyone who sees it, whether it be for the first time or the fortieth. To which I paraphrase, "Play the Blu-ray again, Sam."
New to this Blu-ray are a supplementary DVD (not a Blu-ray) featuring a wonderful, if short (only about an hour) documentary on Jack Warner made by his grandson. This great piece features a lot of home video as well as some very funny reminiscences by various Warners and stars who knew the head honcho well. The massive boxed set also comes with a host of supplementary non-disc material, including a neat little hardback book full of photos and production facts, an envelope containing reproductions of one sheets and various production correspondence, and (in the overkill department) a box containing a passport holder and luggage tag.
The entire package is housed in a nice sturdy oversized box with a nice slipcase. My only complaint is the heavily glued cover cardboard fold around (with UPC codes, etc.), which was extremely hard to remove without damaging the box itself.