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2011 was, unquestionably, a fantastic year for fans of classic cinema. Not only were we graced with the likes of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Citizen Kane, but the studios saw fit to give these timeless classics the pristine restorations and collectors packaging they deserved. Fortunately, 2012 is looking to be just as bountiful as Universal will unleash their iconic black and white monster films, while fans of the sprawling epic will finally see Sony's Lawrence of Arabia and Fox's Cleopatra bask in the glory of high definition for the first time (the latter of which was released in the UK earlier this year, and I can attest that the transfer is absolutely stunning). In the meantime though, it's Warner Brothers that will begin this new year of restored classics with what's touted to be the definitive version of Casablanca. However, the circumstances surrounding this release are somewhat different than the rest of the abovementioned titles, as Casablanca has already seen multiple Blu-ray releases in the past. First came the Ultimate Collector's Edition in 2008, which was basically a bulky box loaded with memorabilia and a subpar transfer that sported digital noise reduction, boosted contrast and lossy audio. In 2009, Best Buy gained temporary exclusivity rights to sell a single disc edition without all the bells and whistles, which eventually expired for a wide release in 2010. Given Warner's reputation of recycling the same transfer again and again, fans were skeptical that the studio would go all out and give this beloved film a transfer that was faithful to the source. Not only that, but they were concerned that the contents in the 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Giftset would be little more than bloat to fill a box, merely for the sake of driving up the MSRP. All those concerns were just, and the opening lyrics to the film's infamous tune, As Time Goes By, are perfectly suited for explaining why:
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension.
And the original release of Casablanca is a prime example of this. After all, its initial HD release came at the infancy of a new format, and the studios weren't exactly sure how to best serve the audience at home. Do they clean up the image so they can appeal to the folks that merely want a 'pretty' picture on their television screen, or do they provide justice to the source and present it as is? Well, over the years the online community have made their preference clear, and now that I've seen the latest release of Casablanca, it seems that the studio has finally listened - This is the definitive release we've been waiting for. In Hollywood, often times a kiss is just a kiss and a sigh is just a sigh, but if you speak loud enough, sometimes things will change for the better, as time goes by...
If for some reason or another you haven't seen Casablanca just yet and you're wondering what all the fuss is about, you really need to just sit down and watch the film. Maybe you're saying to yourself, "I heard it was a really good movie but, I don't know." If you're like me, you've probably read most of the popular reviews on the internet and just can't believe all the hype you've read is true, and I certainly can't blame you - This is the age of the internet and complete connectivity, after all. Anyone with so much as a cell phone can write their opinions online, and they often oversell their point whenever they do so. Thanks to internet bloggers, words like awesome, epic and classic have been transformed into meaningless euphemisms for 'cool'. But let me assure you that this film has earned the right to be called timeless and classic over the past 70 years, as Casablanca is just as engaging today as it was back in the day.
The film opens in the streets of Casablanca, and it isn't long before the stage is set - It's December of 1941, and the increasing tension of World War II is forcing refugees to leave their homes and settle down in a country that hasn't yet been torn apart by war. For the time frame in this film, that place is America, and Casablanca is the only city around they can hope to catch a plane out of. Of course, Vichy French and Nazi officials are aware of what's going on, so they perch in the city, doing everything in their power to ensure those who flee to Casablanca for tickets to the US of A, are never able to leave. With this understanding, the story quickly moves into Rick's Café Américain, where an American has set up a night club to capitalize on the troubles of the world. Casablanca might be loaded with desperate people who would give their left arm for an exit visa, as well as the war officials that make this 'free' city feel like a prison, but what does Rick care? If there's two things he makes perfectly clear to all of his customers, refugees and war officials alike, it's that he cares little for the problems of others, and he sticks his neck out for no one. No, Rick is a man that seemingly cares about one thing, and that's a profit at the end of the day.
Things change for Rick drastically one evening however, when he finds himself in possession of two letters of transit that were lifted from dead German couriers, letters which basically grant whoever holds them free passage out of Casablanca. Needless to say, these letters are priceless and would certainly sell for a large fortune... but matters are complicated when his ex-lover, Ilsa Lund, wanders into his club with Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance leader and fugitive from a Nazi concentration camp. Naturally, Laszlo is looking for a way to flee Casablanca as to live and fight another day, but when he asks Rick how much the letters of transit will sell for, Rick, still bitter that Ilsa deserted him long ago and rushed to the arms of another lover, is unwilling to sell at any price. The love triangle gets messy as the old flame tries to reignite, and Rick ultimately has to make a choice - Does he allow his bitterness to make them stay in Casablanca, essentially crippling the political movement Laszlo stands for, or does he go against his very nature and stick his neck out for the woman he loves, allowing them to escape?
Although a majority of the film takes place in Rick's cafe, which is only fitting considering the concept was originally meant for stage treatment, Casablanca juggles an overwhelming amount of pieces to a very intricate puzzle. Despite this however, Director Michael Curtiz pulled off nothing short of a miracle. The cinematography was inspiring, the main characters were captivating and even the supporting cast, which could mostly be considered main characters themselves, never felt like they were overburdening the film with their presence. The thing about Casablanca that impresses me the most however, is just how smooth its pacing is - The story is not merely told coherently, it's danced throughout the film's entire runtime like a graceful ballet. Why is this so surprising? Well, it's not because I have some bias against a 70 year old film - Although I'm only 30 years of age myself, I consider films from far before my time to be vastly superior to most of the modern work we're subjected to today. No, there's no 'generation gap' at play here. It is because despite the fact filming began with only half of a completed script, and eventually ran $75,000 over budget due to numerous production hiccups, Curtiz still produced a flawless work of art from beginning to end. That's the surprise. I mean, filming without a completed script usually spells doom for any project. After all, how is the director supposed to envision how story or character arcs should be presented if he doesn't know how things are going to pan out? Yet, Curtiz accomplished such a feat with Casablanca, a film that emerged as one of Hollywood's greatest 70 years ago and held that title ever since. This is, without question, a movie that's truly one in a million - Despite a host of problems, Casablanca defied the odds and earned respect for everything that happened on-screen and off, and has withstood the test of time without even so much as the blink of an eye.
Since I'm attempting to respectfully approach readers who might have missed out on this film due to some kind of generation gap concern, a common misconception that needs to be addressed is the acting, especially that of Humphrey Bogart. If you're around my age, chances are the only thing you know about Bogart is what countless parodies have shown you over the years - Impersonations have appeared on the likes of Get Smart, The Simpsons, Sesame Street, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Family Guy, The Brady Bunch, and even a bunch of television commercials - and those dreadful impressions all have the same thing in common - They make Bogart seem as if he were a monotone buffoon that had zero ability to emote even if his life depended on it. It's a shame that's how many people my age probably know, and will remember the name Humphrey Bogart, but all one has to do is see his masterful performance in Casablanca to know what he was truly capable of. Bogart's strength was that he had a minimalist acting technique. Most of the actors from his era overplayed their parts to a certain degree, more fitting for a play on stage by today's standards, but Bogart had a performance that was dialed back in comparison, and his portrayal as Rick in this film seems all the more real for it. His acting was powerful if not ahead of its time, as he relied on body language and facial features to tell far more than words ever could, and the scriptwriters of Casablanca (Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson) wrote Bogart's lines in such a way that he could tell his side of the story with such physical subtlety, as opposed to spitting endless monologues. Although every other member of the cast deserves to have a paragraph written about them, especially Ingrid Bergman who truly brought the best out of Bogart, there's nothing I could say in this review that hasn't already been said countless times before.
I will leave you with this however - There are good films, there are great films, and then there are the very few motion pictures that are truly timeless, unable to be touched or cheapened by changes in politics, fashion, pop culture, or technology. Yes, Hollywood may be able to make films that take place in multiple countries and have hundreds of millions of dollars in special effects, but are the films with outrageous price tags going to be remembered 30, 40, or even 50 years from now? In most cases, the answer is most certainly 'no'. Casablanca on the other hand, made its mark with minimalism despite a story that seemed complicated on paper. War was a major stage for this film, yet there's very little action. It has elaborate set design, but uses it for authenticity more than it does for wow factor. The numerous elements at play in the script are complicated, but with the excellent acting and direction, you wouldn't know it. This is the kind of film that earns its status as timeless. Forget the next review you read that claims Twilight is a romance for the ages. The sparkling vampire fad is already faltering, but Casablanca? Now that's a romance for the ages, and the 70 years it has captivated its audience is legitimate proof of that. Need I really say more?
Here's lookin' at you, kid - Did Warner Brothers recycle the same transfer they've been using since 2008, or did they grace you with a proper restoration?
Even though it was made clear that Warner Brothers knew how to properly restore a beloved classic in 2011, with nothing short of a brilliant transfer for Ben-Hur, the studio have stepped up to the plate once again to prove they finally get what film preservation on the format is all about. After making a new scan at 4k, the studio encoded Casablanca at 1080p using the AVC codec (1.37:1), and the final product is nothing short of fantastic.
Many of you will be ecstatic to hear that Warner have left well enough alone this time around in regards to digital noise reduction, and all the detail and grain that are inherent to the source have been flawlessly preserved. Owning the original 2008 release myself, I was able to A/B it with the 70th Anniversary transfer, and the difference is remarkable - Skin texturing used to look waxy, but now? There's a fair abundance of skin texturing, while hair and clothing get a noticeable boost as well during close-up shots. Edges are most definitely sharper all around, and there's not a single trace of edge enhancement to be seen. Not only that, but the wafts of smoke that are often seen in Rick's cafe do not reveal any sort of digital noise or banding. The encode here is truly pristine.
Furthermore, the contrast levels here are much more accurate than before. Why Warner boosted the contrast on the 2008 release I'll never know, but the end result was this - Although we could see more of the objects in the background, the lack of deep blacks robbed Casablanca of one very vital element - Atmosphere. The cinematography in this film is much like Humphrey Bogart's acting style - Simplistic yet powerful. Michael Curtiz really did everything he could to use darkness and shadows to set the tone in any given shot, and when that was eradicated in 2008, the film lost a lot of its potency. The 70th Anniversary Blu-ray corrects this though, and inky blacks once again blanket the intended parts of any given frame, restoring the primary mood setter of the film.
If there's a minor complaint in regards to the picture quality, it's that I feel like I may have seen better detail and clarity on the format from old black and white, perhaps on a release like Citizen Kane. Of course, I believe this has everything to do with the method in which the film was shot, something that was inherent to the source and not a fault of the transfer itself. Other than that, there's nothing to say about Casablanca's latest release, other than it's the video presentation everyone has been waiting for, and is most definitely the start of a beautiful friendship.
Despite the previous release blowing minds with the use of DNR in the video department, another major disappointment was the lack of lossless audio. This time however, Warner provides us with an immaculate DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track. That's right, not only did Warner finally provide us with lossless, but they replicated the original 1.0 sound experience without feeling as if they had to bastardize it into some horrible 5.1 mix. For a film that's 70 years old, you'll find no audible hiss, pops or distortion anywhere on the track. The musical score is appropriately loud without ever sounding like it's on the verge of going over the edge, and dialogue is always cleanly articulated and never sounds hollow or unnatural, a real surprise considering a majority of the film had been filmed on soundstages. Are the sound effects loud and boisterous? Is there any impressive LFE to speak of? No, and no, but for a film from 1942, that was never really in the cards to begin with, and fans of faithful film presentations will walk away happy from the release.
The first thing you'll notice when you receive this set, is that it comes in a nice rectangular box that's similar in size to the Ben-Hur set Warner put out in the fall of 2011. After removing a classy looking lid, you'll find yourself staring at a 70th Anniversary hardcover book. Beneath that is a full size replica of an old school Casablanca poster, and beneath that will be the case the film is stored in and a set of coasters you can use for your drinks.
When I first heard Casablanca was going to be re-released in a big set, I wasn't really happy about it. I was shouting what many others are echoing on the internet this very minute - "Give us a release without all the useless crap!" But honestly, this set is much more impressive in person, and you're just going to have to see it for yourself to believe it (or, you could watch my brief unboxing video above). Although the poster and coasters sound rather gimmicky on paper, they're actually pieces of memorabilia I really appreciate having. I really miss the old styling of promotional movie posters, and the coasters surprisingly came in a faux-leather case, which is something I didn't expect at all and was a very nice touch. Furthermore, the hardcover book is a gorgeous presentation that any fan of the film should own.
My only complaint about the packaging is that it really should have come with an outer sleeve to ensure the lid doesn't fall off the box when you stand it up, which is what started to happen to me as soon as I put it face out on my Blu-ray shelving next to the Ben-Hur set. Unfortunately I'll have to lay it down out of sight and won't be able to show off the beautiful set as a result, which is a true shame.
That being said, let's get down to what's actually included on the discs themselves:
-Audio Commentaries - Two commentaries have been provided on this release, and unlike other Blu-ray releases sporting multiple commentary tracks, these are actually top notch presentations from beginning to end. The first is with film critic Roger Ebert, whereas the other is by historian Rudy Behlmer. Being that Ebert and Behlmer are coming from completely different professional backgrounds, they're able to approach the film in their discussions with viewpoints that hardly ever overlap, and when they do their perspectives still manage to provide a wealth of information the other commentator didn't have at their disposal. Any fan of Casablanca, or classic film for that matter, would do themselves justice by listening to both of these tracks.
-Introduction by Lauren Bacall - Lauren Bacall isn't exactly an ideal candidate to introduce this particular film, but being that this was done just 60 years after the film was made, I appreciate the studio's effort to provide us with someone that was at least close with Humphrey Bogart and would honor him and one of his most iconic films ever made.
-Warner Night at the Movies - Now this is something I wish I remembered to check out before sitting down to watch the film, and if I had done so, I would have made sure to have a big bowl of popcorn to chow down on. What this feature does, is recreate the filmgoer experience in the 1940's - Before getting to the feature itself, you'll be able to watch trailers, newsreels, a Vaudeville short, and three Merrie Melodies cartoons. You can watch these features on their own, or select 'play all' to get the feature film to start immediately after, which is about the coolest experience on home video to date, especially for fans of classic cinema. The film geek inside of me is drowning in joy! Just make sure you allow yourself a bit of time if you want to go this route, as these features come to 51 minutes, and that's before the 149 minute film has a chance to even begin.
-Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart - This is a documentary on the life of Bogart, and nearly runs an hour and a half long. We get information that covers every aspect of his life, both in business and personal alike. If you're a fan of his work or merely a casual film fan, this is a documentary that shouldn't be missed. Bogart is one of the most unique performers of all time, and this supplement serves as a fitting tribute to him.
-Michael Curtiz - The Greatest Director You've Never Heard Of - Is it funny that I find the name of this 37 minute featurette to be so accurately named? Before I saw Casablanca for the first time a few years ago (I know, sad, right?), I never heard of Michael Curtiz before, yet after watching this particular masterpiece of his, I had a great deal of respect for him. It's for this reason that this supplement is so refreshing, as numerous modern filmmakers, including the likes of Spielberg and Friedkin, sit down to discuss the career of this underappreciated director.
-Casablanca - An Unlikely Classic - At 35 minutes in length, numerous people (again enlisting the likes of Spielberg and Friedkin) sit down to discuss the film's legacy, from inception, to production (music, costume, advertising, etc), to the effect the film had on the world after the fact. It's an interesting piece but don't expect any earth shattering revelations to be revealed here.
-You Must Remember This - A Tribute to Casablanca - Also 35 minutes in length, I have to say that this emulates the previous supplement in a number of ways. Although the previous featurette seemed to focus on the film's entire history, the fact that it had to use modern filmmakers and other modern names to fill in the blanks really made it seem like a tribute as well, so my patience was wearing pretty thin sitting through this.
-As Time Goes By - The Children Remember - Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom reminisce about their parents and childhoods. This is only 7 minutes in length, but it's a different angle that I wish we'd see on more classic releases.
-Audio Only Content - Included is - Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Broadcast (1943), VOX Pop Radio Broadcast (1947), Scoring Stage Sessions - Alternate versions/outtakes of eight of the film's musical numbers as performed by 'Sam's Dooley Wilson.
-Additional Footage - This section includes deleted scenes, outtakes, and Carrotblanca, a Looney Tunes parody of the film.
-Trailers - The film's original trailer is available, as well as the 1992 re-release trailer.
-You Must Remember This - The Warner Bros. Story - This is a whopping five hour documentary (yes, five hours), and covers the entire history of the Warner Bros. studio. I was expecting this to be rather dull, but it's broken into five parts, each of which has been carefully crafted and given a respectful presentation. Heck, it's even narrated by Clint Eastwood. This is a fascinating documentary, and although it's not something that's solely about Casablanca, it's still something I would highly recommend you take the time to watch.
-The Brothers Warner - An hour and a half in length, this documentary focuses solely on the actual Warner brothers themselves, and conveys to the audience at home their dreams and aspirations and how it translated into the big business studio we know Warner to be today.
Jack L. Warner - The Last Mogul - Just under an hour in length, it's a really nice documentary about this entertaining man but... enough is enough. Isn't this a Casablanca release, and not a 'Warner tooting their own horn' release?
Also included is a DVD copy of the film.
You must remember this - If you've been waiting years on end for Warner to give one of their most beloved classics a proper restoration, then consider your wait over. The new 4k scan looks absolutely pristine in this AVC encoded transfer, and for the first time ever, Warner has provided Casablanca fans with a lossless mono track that's faithful to the source. What more could one ask for? Oh, a classy boxed set and hours upon hours of extras? Warner has you covered. That being said, a couple of the items included in the boxed set are sure to be trivial for some consumers (the poster and the drink coaster), and some of the lengthy extras included are more about the history of the studio than Casablanca itself, so it's likely the WB wanted to find some way to bloat the contents in this set and drive up the price. That kind of rubs me the wrong way, but I'm not going to linger on the fact that the studio is trying to provide me with something that's still of some significance to film history. After all, this film is 70 years old and putting together a documentary with cast and crew just isn't in the cards anymore for obvious reasons. That being said, being able to recreate the filmgoer experience of the 1940's is worth the price of admission alone. DVDTalk Collector Series.
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!