Casablanca
Warner Bros. // Unrated // $59.98 // December 2, 2008
Review by David Cornelius | posted January 19, 2009
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This is it. The best movie ever made. "Casablanca."

Most of you have heard of how "Casablanca" was never destined for greatness; it was merely intended as just another wartime drama programmer from Warner Bros., a quickie vehicle for a few top stars. For director Michael Curtiz, this was one of three films he would release in 1942, produced at the same breakneck speed offered all his projects. The play on which it was adapted was considered a complete mess. Even the film's Best Picture Academy Award seemed a fluke; Oscar audiences gasped when it landed the top prize, expecting something more "prestigious" like "The Song of Bernadette" to win.

Rumors abound that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman hated the film when making it, or at least hated the experience of shooting an unfinished script. We complain today about blockbusters rushed into production without finished screenplays; "Casablanca" had its hurried script revisions churned out nightly, yet stands today as the finest example of airtight storytelling. Writers spend years trying to get the same intricate control over their stories. "Casablanca" got it right by accident.

Such magnificent results have often been hailed as a sign of how well the Hollywood studio system worked. Films could be churned out like cars on an assembly line but still be considered works of art. Egos could be held in check. Moguls who actually knew about filmmaking would care about what they offered the public. Efficiency equals greatness.

I don't buy it. The same system that gave us "Casablanca" also spent 1942 churning out two Andy Hardy movies and three Blondie pictures. MGM gave us eight of their dreaded "Our Gang" shorts. Don't even ask about the John Wayne's "Pittsburgh." Sure, 1942 was, overall, a terrific year for movies, and the studio system certainly has its plusses, but neither was perfect, and there's much more to "Casablanca" than unintentional workmanship and dumb luck.

It is instead a perfect storm of filmmaking talent. Curtiz, often viewed as a studio workhorse, understood the language of film and knew how to translate a story into a crowd pleaser without losing its soul in the process. The cast is a who's who of talent: Bogart and Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, S.Z. Sakall. Even the supporting players are in top form. The film is gorgeously shot by the legendary Arthur Edeson, with music by the incomparable Max Steiner.

And then there is the screenplay. That scrappy, rushed, unfinished screenplay. A rough collaboration between Howard Koch and the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip (with an uncredited Casey Robinson punching up a few key scenes and producer Hal Wallis penning the unforgettable final line), the script somehow stumbled into perfection. The screenplay is a work of poetry; it reads, separate from the viewing experience, with a wondrous lyricism, its unique rhythms and pithy dialogue and rich complexities building to one of the great dramas of any form.

The script's opening sequences are a fascinating combination of exposition efficiency and intentional withholding. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we're told everything we think we need to know - the murdered German couriers, the exit visas, the rounding up of the usual suspects, the excruciating impatience of being stuck in Casablanca, the importance of the plane to Lisbon, the colorful characters, "vultures, vultures everywhere," the arrival of Major Strasser, the impending arrest as a display of Vichy power. In such a short time, we know everything we need to know about the location and the subplots - yet we know nothing at all about the main story and characters.

The script doles this information slowly, guardedly, playfully. Captain Renault hints of the importance of Rick's Café ("everybody comes to Rick's"), and Strasser builds on such hints with his next line ("I have already heard about this café, and also about Mr. Rick himself"). We then cut to Rick's Café Américain, but our journey inside initially tells us more about Casablanca than Rick himself: refugees lament their wait, struggle to pawn jewelry, plan an expensive escape.

(There's a beauty in the latter exchange, as the man's insistence that the refugee must bring cash makes us wonder if this escape route is legit, or simply a con to relieve the refugee from his francs. The entire exchange lasts three lines, six sentences, and yet the script has painted a picture that's quite complex. The entire film is full of moments like this, side stories that do so much with so little, expanding the universe of the story without complicating it. Even the smallest characters are granted rich backstories.)

It takes a notably long time to get to Rick himself. First we see Carl, the maître d', explain to two women that Rick never drinks with customers - but even this exchange exists not to introduce us to Rick, but again reinforce the desperation of Casablanca, as we learn that the top banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef at the nightclub. (It's just a punchline, one of the script's many, but it's a punchline with purpose.) Finally, there is Rick, playing chess against himself, approving customers into his exclusive gambling room, and finally, reluctantly agreeing to hold onto the exit visas stolen by Ugarte, a slimy little man Rick openly loathes yet is willing to assist.

Much goes on in our first night at Rick's, but the more we see, the less we realize we know about Rick. When Victor Laszlo, the fugitive resistance leader, arrives at Rick's with wife Ilsa, the script has only prepped us for their own story, not how it ties in with Rick. We have already been told that Laszlo has escaped from the Nazis and plans to purchase Ugarte's letters of transit in order to flee to America, and we have already been told that Laszlo refuses to leave without his wife. First-time viewers are offered small revelations about Ilsa's past with Rick, and Rick tosses his own hints back, but those first-timers are left as deeply in the dark as Laszlo himself, who realizes the two have a history but must accept that there will be much more unsaid.

In his 1992 essay on the film, Roger Ebert describes how all this unspoken history allows the story to improve on repeat viewings. The first time we watch Sam reluctantly play "As Time Goes By," nudged on by Ilsa's nostalgia, Ebert writes, "the byplay between Ilsa and Sam has still to be decoded.... The next time we see it, every word between Ilsa and Sam, every nuance, every look or averted glance, has a poignant meaning. It is a good enough scene the first time we see it, but a great scene the second time."

The entire film unfolds like this. We are unaware of the reasons for Rick's cold cynicism, and later, we are unaware of Rick's final scheme - it's not until Rick points the gun at Renault and orders Laszlo on the plane that we discover that Rick wasn't really planning on stealing the girl. It's a grand revelation the first time around, but the next time we watch, we can spot all the clues, we can revel in all the rich subtext under every scene. There's so much that goes unsaid here, revealed only with the actors' eyes; we cannot understand these glances until our second time around.

Consider the scene where Rick sizes up Laszlo. Laszlo has already made Rick a generous offer to buy the exit visas, which Rick declined, still reeling from the heartache of Ilsa's return. Later, Laszlo makes Rick a second offer: if he will not sell him the letters of transit, Rick should use the visas himself to take Ilsa to freedom. The first time we watch this, we think Rick has found his golden opportunity. The second time, knowing of the noble sacrifice to come, we look in Rick's eyes and see him finally understanding. If Laszlo is willing to return to a concentration camp just to ensure his wife's safety, then maybe, just maybe, Laszlo is more deserving of Ilsa's love.

Many fans would disagree with Rick's assessment. Victor Laszlo has received a bad rap over the decades, viewed as something of a stiff, a clod, a heel, a Baxter. He seems too caught up in his own crusade to pay much attention to Ilsa, or so it seems. During their first night at Rick's, Laszlo excuses himself from Ilsa to meet with a member of the underground; later, she is left alone when he sneaks out to a resistance meeting. Henreid plays Laszlo as a rigid idealist - a stiff in the literal sense; watch him tense as the Nazis sing "Wacht am Rhein" - with his mind too often elsewhere.

But I'll argue that there's far more to Laszlo. He's constantly aware of his wife, as apparent in his body language whenever Rick is around. He later admits to Rick that he knows of Ilsa's feelings toward her former lover. His love for Ilsa runs deep; Rick knows this, explaining in his memorable farewell speech to Ilsa that she's what keeps him fighting.

If "Casablanca" is the story of a man's discovery of the power of sacrifice, Laszlo has Rick beat by a mile. It takes Rick the bulk of the film to put aside his bitterness and join the good fight, but Laszlo's been there all along. Before we meet him, he's already spent time in, and escaped from, multiple prison camps. He's willing to return to one if it will buy Ilsa's safety. He understands that love can keep him motivated, but that same love must sometimes be pushed aside to make room for bigger things. Long before Rick talks of how "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," Laszlo's already figured that out.

But then, that's what makes Rick such a more interesting character than Laszlo could ever be. We watch "Casablanca" to see Rick's transformation. There's something enthralling about his bitterness; cynics could take notes on how to be so cool in emotional withdrawal, while the heartbroken can take comfort in the poetic ache of Rick's inner pain. We warm to him with the Paris flashback, happy to learn he was not always so cold. We cheer when he lets that warmth slip slowly into his life, allowing the young couple to win big at roulette (yet refusing to accept his act as "a beautiful thing"). We smile along as Rick conceives of his final plan, and smile some more as Rick and Renault talk of Brazzaville and a beautiful friendship.

It's often been written that Rick's transformation is a metaphor for U.S. involvement in World War II. It certainly fits, with dialogue barely hiding the fact: even the conniving Ferrari tells Rick that "in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy." Twice Rick repeats that "I stick my neck out for nobody," and once Renault endorses the claim ("A wise foreign policy"), although neither seem to truly believe themselves. (Laszlo calls Rick's bluff: "You know how your sound, M'sieur Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.")

Standing next to this metaphor (which you can choose to enjoy or ignore) is a more up-front wartime message, the importance of sacrifice. Rick sacrifices his heart - and his café, and his safety - to join the resistance. Renault sacrifices the comfort of his corrupt office. Ilsa sacrifices one love for another. Laszlo's been sacrificing all along. All for the good fight.

But even without such messages, and countless other interpretations (some more questionable than others), "Casablanca" soars as ripping entertainment. It's a drama, a comedy, an adventure, a thriller, even, thanks to Sam and his band, a musical. It's a grand story superbly told, one that offers multiple subtextual layers but never requires them, invites interpretation but never demands it. This is everything coming together brilliantly, boldly, accidentally, to create something far and above the usual Hollywood experience.

This is the best movie ever made. "Casablanca."

The DVD

Warner Bros. delivers "Casablanca" for the third time on DVD (fourth if you count Warners' reissue of the original MGM disc), expanding upon their previous releases for the three-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition." The first two discs of this new set are identical in every way (minus new artwork) to the previous two-disc "Special Edition," which remains about as definitive a home video release of the film you'll ever find. This new set includes just one extra feature: the one-hour documentary "Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul." But there's also a wealth of trinkets and photos tucked away in the oversized box (which is itself a work of art, a decorative border laser-cut into the slipcover). Die-hard fans will be thrilled to add such knick-knacks to their collection.

The discs themselves come in a three-panel digipak, which slips nicely into a thick cardboard case. That case also holds a photo book, an envelope containing photos and other supplements, and a larger box to hold two larger trinkets, all discussed below. The case - which by itself is quite attractive - then fits into the elegant laser-cut slipcover. It's gorgeous packaging all the way.

Video & Audio

Being identical to the previous two-disc release, this new edition boasts the same 2003 remaster. Which is fine, because that transfer was splendid. Detail is crisp, and the black-and-white photography is better than I've ever seen it anywhere. (Granted, I haven't seen the hi-def transfers, but I'll say barring hi-def, this is as good as "Casablanca" gets.) Grain is absent, black levels are superb, contrast is perfect. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 format.

The soundtrack, presented Dolby mono, is equally magnificent, crisp and clean without any hiss or pops. All the music, all the dialogue, all the effects come through boldly, making me forget it's just a mono mix. A French mono dub is included, as are optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Extras

Disc One


The extras kick off with an "Introduction by Lauren Bacall" (2:06). Bacall hints at the film's legend, but, for the sake of new viewers, avoids spoilers.

The real thrill of Disc One is found in the two commentary tracks, one from Roger Ebert, one from film historian Rudy Behlmer. I love them both. Behlmer's notes provide a wonderful introduction to the movie's history; Ebert provides a more conversational tone when recounting additional information. Both tracks are essential listening.

"A Great Cast Is Worth Repeating" is a text-only set of production notes on how the giant cast kept reuniting in other productions. There's also a text-only list of cast and crew credits and two pages of the film's awards.

Two trailers for the film are featured: the first is the original 1942 trailer (2:17), the second (2:53) is for the 1992 re-release, which interestingly tries to sell the story to those who haven't seen it while celebrating it to those who have. Original trailers (8:30 total) for "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" are also included.

Disc Two

"As Time Goes By: The Children Remember" (6:47) offers interviews with Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindström (daughter of Ingrid Bergman), who present personal memories of their parents' experiences.

Two deleted scenes (1:40 total) are a real find, even if they're quite short and presented without audio. (Subtitles are provided, taken from the shooting script.) The first is a quick scene of Rick visiting Laszlo in jail, offering him the letters of transit. The second finds Sacha the bartender (labeled here as "Fydor") poisoning a German officer. Both scenes add little to the story and were wisely cut, but it's fun to see them.

A batch of outtakes (5:00 total), also without audio, reveal alternate and extended versions of a few scenes, plus a couple flubs.

"Scoring Stage Sessions" are eight audio-only recordings of alternate and final takes of several musical sequences: Dooley Wilson performs "Knock on Wood," "As Time Goes By," and "Dat's What Noah Done," and an orchestra plays two medleys of Steiner's score. Some of these appear to be the same audio tracks from the 1997 release of the soundtrack album.

Produced in 1988, "Bacall on Bogart" (1:23:23) finds Bacall recounting Bogie's life and career, including plenty of clips from all his finest works. A stirring tribute to one of Hollywood's brightest stars, this biography is a brilliant inclusion here.

"You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca" (34:38) has popped up on several home video releases, including every DVD release. As it should: it's the definitive take on the film, with interviews with surviving crew members, children of the cast, and film historians. Anyone interested in the film should stop here first.

Next up is an audio-only presentation of the Screen Guild Theater Radio Show's 1943 adaptation of the film, featuring Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid recreating their roles for a live studio audience.

The film's legacy led it to two television adaptations, as studios tried to figure out how to turn the story of Rick and Ilsa into a weekly adventure. Both tanked, for obvious reasons. Presented here is an edited-down version of "Who Holds Tomorrow?" (18:38), the pilot episode of the 1955 effort (created as part of the "Warner Bros. Presents" series), starring Charles McGraw as Rick. (It sure beats David Soul in the dreadful 1983 update.) The episode appropriates much from the film, but does it badly, before launching into a cheap Cold War melodrama.

"Carrotblanca" (8:04) is an oddity for Looney Tunes. In 1995, in something of a first step in reviving the franchise, Warner Bros. Feature Animation put together this parody cartoon, which casts Bugs Bunny as Rick, Yosemite Sam as Strasser, and (who else?) Pepe Le Pew as Renault. I'm still not sure what to make of it, with so many jokes relying on a knowledge of the film and so many others being just plain weird - Tweety doing a Peter Lorre impression? Rumor has it this was a test run for the animators, to see if they could pull off the characters the following year with "Space Jam." And that's what this short is, really: desperate "Space Jam"-era iffiness from the Looney Tunes gang.

"Production Research" (12:32) is a slideshow of memos, photos, and press releases from the studio vaults.

Disc Three

Everything above can be found on the 2003 two-disc Special Edition. We finally come to what's new with this Ultimate Collector's Edition: "Jack Warner: The Last Mogul" (57:38), a 1993 documentary by Gregory Orr, grandson to Warner. The biography follows Warner's rise and fall within the movie business, and while it spends much of its time lovingly celebrating his career, it also never shies from Warner's darker sides.

A promo for Warner Bros. Blu-ray Discs plays as the disc loads.

All extras are presented in an original 1.33:1 format.

Additional Extras

The "Casablanca Photo Book" is a lush, pocket-sized hardcover book containing several production photos, accompanied with production notes from Rudy Behlmer.

An envelope contains seven postcard-sized recreations of various posters for the film, three reproductions of lobby cards, a copy of a memo regarding Bogart's publicity, two inter-office memos on the movie's title and the possible casting of George Raft, and, best of them all, a reprint of the letters of transit, this one made out to Victor Laszlo.

In an unnecessarily large box, we find a passport holder and luggage tag, both featuring the "Casablanca" logo. I can't imagine ever using either, but they're cute doo-dads anyway.

Final Thoughts

The 2003 two-disc set was perfect in nearly every way, and casual fans will do fine to pick that one up, ignoring the double dip here. (You really don't need the Warner bio or the lobby cards.) But! It's such a tremendous package, capturing all the greatness of the two-disc set while piling on some attractive trinkets, that this, too, deserves a spot in the DVD Talk Collector Series. After all, it's the best movie ever made, delivered here in a ridiculously lavish set that celebrates the film gloriously. Here's looking at you, kid.


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