Warner Bros. // 1942 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 18th, 2003
"I stick my neck out for nobody." -- Rick Blaine
In his audio commentary in this DVD package, Roger Ebert says he's never seen a negative review of Casablanca. Let me just say up front, I won't be establishing any new precedents.
It's the early days of World War II and displaced Europeans fleeing Nazi aggression flood into Casablanca in French Morocco, seeking passage to America. Many never make it out of the city. A cynical American expatriate named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns one of the city's hot spots, a nightclub and under-the-table casino called Rick's Café Americaine.
One evening, a crook named Ugarte (Peter Lorre, M) asks Rick to keep two letters of transit, stolen from murdered German couriers, safe until heat from the local Vichy authorities dies down. The letters, better than exit visas, represent easy exit from Casablanca. Rick, who sticks his neck out for nobody, takes the letters and suffers no crisis of conscience when Ugarte is subsequently arrested by the representative of the Vichy government, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines, The Invisible Man), a scoundrel much like Rick.
Destiny takes a hand when Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid, Now, Voyager), a leader in the French Resistance, arrives in Casablanca, freshly sprung from a German concentration camp. In tow is his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman, Notorious). Ilsa, coincidentally, shares a secret with Rick: during Laszlo's stay in the concentration camp, at a time with she'd heard news he was dead, she'd taken up an affair with Rick in Paris, just before German tanks rolled into the city.
Also arriving in Casablanca, is Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, The Thief of Baghdad), a Nazi officer sent by the Third Reich to ensure Laszlo never leaves the French colony. Rick must use all his wit and wile to stay one step ahead of Strasser and Renault, keep the letters of transit safely hidden, deal with the rush of emotion caused by Ilsa's unexpected return to his life, and decide whether he will try to win her back and use the letters to escape Casablanca, or ensure Laszlo escapes, effectively ending his cynical neutrality in the world's conflict and taking an open stand against the Nazis.
Casablanca is as inexplicable as it is indelible: a Hollywood studio picture from the 1940s without the genius direction of a Welles or Hitchcock or John Huston isn't supposed to be this good. It shouldn't be possible. As a matter of fact, it's difficult to get a firm grasp on why Casablanca's so damned good. It's a mutt of a film that should fall apart under the weight of its own genre-melding: part romance, part drama, part melodrama, part actioner, part comedy, part political polemic; the film's as sentimental as it is cynical, eliciting tears and laughs in equal measure, seamlessly combining Hollywood hokum with searing earnestness. Its magic is born of the tenuous balance of all these competing sensibilities. They somehow fell into place in their proper proportions, creating a concoction so delightful it has to be seen to be believed. Casablanca isn't filmmaking; it's alchemy.
The creative force behind the film wasn't an auteur, a cinematic genius. It was producer Hal B. Wallis. Sure, Michael Curtiz directed the film, and directors normally get the lion's share of credit or blame, but Curtiz was a technically proficient, visually expressive director who had little patience for the minutiae of storytelling, could barely speak English, and never rose above the level of journeyman. He was an ideal director in the producer-controlled studio system of Hollywood's past, a system best suited to cranking out vast quantities of formulaic product, neatly tied up with happy endings (and, indeed, he directed a laundry list of top-notch studio films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce to name just a few). But Casablanca was Wallis' show, and he seemingly made all the mistakes we gripe about Hollywood producers making. He hired a gaggle of writers to fiddle with the script, the Epstein brothers (Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace) providing the crisp dialogue and humor, Howard Koch (Sergeant York) strengthening the drama, Casey Robinson (Now, Voyager) punching up the romance; he micromanaged every aspect of the production, firing off inter-office memos about everything from shooting delays to the lighting in Rick's Café to making sure Bogart didn't wear a hat in too many scenes; he cobbled together the cast, cutting deals with David O. Selznick to get Ingrid Bergman, and with MGM to get Paul Henreid; he rushed the release of the film when real Nazis entered the real Casablanca and the name of the city was fresh on the minds of the American movie-going public. This is not how good films are supposed to be made, let alone great ones. But Casablanca is great. I'm hard pressed to think of a film more fun to watch, more engrossing. It's perhaps the crown jewel of Hollywood's golden era. Yet its appeal is difficult to explain because it's full of moments that would normally play as quaint nonsense from a bygone era.
Ask yourself this: could you honestly watch Rick's climactic speech to Ilsa, all that junk about the problems of "three little people" not amounting "to a hill of beans in this crazy world," without rolling your eyes, clutching your stomach, and gritting your teeth to stifle your gag reflex if it were in any movie but Casablanca? What about this film makes us accept it? Why is it just about anyone with a passing interest in film can recite that cheesy speech verbatim? I mean, sure, it's easy to see why Grandma would like it -- times were simpler back then, right? But I'm a cynical bastard living in cynical times, so how come I fall for that tripe every time I see it? The answer is complicated -- it's got everything to do with Bogart, and Rick Blaine, and Blaine's relationship with Louis Renault, and how that relationship acts as ballast to his relationship with Ilsa. By the time we find ourselves in that airport hangar at the end of the film, the witty repartee between Rick and Louis has established Rick as a thoroughly modern man, a guy who'd function just as well in 2003 as he did in 1942, cynical, intelligent, resourceful as hell. This isn't some sentimental fop in a fedora reciting those words. The comic cynicism sells the sentimentality, in the same way the sentimentality ultimately prevents our hero from wallowing in solipsism. It's an impossibly perfect balance of opposites, and what blows my mind is that the delicacy of that balance wasn't planned from the beginning. The Rick-Louis relationship is brainchild of those demented twins, Philip and Julius Epstein; the Rick-Ilsa relationship is all Casey Robinson. These three guys weren't working together to create this complex unity of opposites. Wallis' micro-management created it: paper-pushing as the path to great art. I'm left aghast.
One of the film's more obvious assets is its cast. When watching the film now, so many years after its production, it serves us well to remember none of the actors were top-tier stars when Wallis chose them for their roles. Sure, Bogart and Bergman were already famous, but Casablanca made them stars. Each is so perfect in the movie, it's impossible to imagine anyone else. Another reason the film's more anachronistic pieces of dialogue are accepted by modern audiences is how effectively the two leads use their eyes and faces. They sell us, pure and simple.
As if Bogart and Bergman weren't enough, the movie also boasts a jaw-dropping array of talented character actors. Claude Raines is brilliant, wry and caustic and hilarious. Peter Lorre's brief appearance as Ugarte adds immeasurable texture to the film, as does Sydney Greenstreet's (The Maltese Falcon) turn as Ferrari, proprietor of the The Blue Parrot nightclub: Casablanca is a microcosm inhabited by seedy, calculating men, who like and distrust each other, a challenging environment even for men as quick-witted as Rick and Renault. And Dooley Wilson, as Rick's best friend and the piano player at the Café, adds a warm humanity that counterbalances the cold self-interest of the other characters. The ability of these actors to play scenes with wildly different tones while deftly handling loads of subtext is a large part of the reason Casablanca plays like an integrated whole instead of a patchwork film trying to accomplish too much in its scant 102 minute running time; it's also why it feels so modern even though it's 60 years old.
This two-disc Special Edition is Warner Brothers' second release of the film on DVD (and the third release overall, counting the discontinued MGM disc). This is the one to own. The 2000 release already had a spiffy transfer, but this new remaster is head-and-shoulders above it. Like Warner's two-disc release of Citizen Kane, this set makes Casablanca look like it was shot last year. The full screen, black-and-white image is detailed and balanced, sporting excellent shadow detail, a subtle gray scale, and barely a flaw from the source elements. Just compare it to excerpts of the film in the documentaries on disc two, taken from previous video masters (made after the major restoration performed on the original elements in 1992), and you'll just about faint from bliss.
The original English language soundtrack is presented in 2.0 mono, and is clean and crackle-free. It's perfect for what it is. A French language option is also included, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
The set is packed to the gills with extras. Combined, they provide a scholarly overview of the film's production and its significance in cinema history; reflections on its cultural impact; and a repository for press and advertising material. One could hardly ask for more.
Disc One serves up two feature-length audio commentaries, the first by film critic Roger Ebert, the second by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Ebert's commentary is much like the track he did for Citizen Kane: detailed information about the film's production, cast, and crew tempered with his obvious passion for this great work of cinema. Behlmer's (familiar to DVD aficionados from his commentary on the Criterion Collection release of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious) track is more formal. Much of it consists of him reading Warner Bros. inter-office memos concerning the film's production. The two tracks make excellent companion pieces. Even when they cover the same ground, they do it in different contexts so it doesn't grate or bore.
Among the extras on the set's second disc is Bacall on Bogart, an 86-minute documentary produced in 1988 that covers Bogart's entire career from his earliest roles as clean adolescents to his gangster tough guys, and his emergence as a superstar. Bacall, who narrates, also offers a fair amount of insight into their marriage and family life. Other talking heads in the feature include Alistair Cooke, Peter Bogdanovich, Julius Epstein, Ingrid Bergman, and Katharine Hepburn.
As Time Goes By: The Children Remember is a seven-minute featurette in which Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindström (Ingrid Bergman's daughter) reminisce about their parents and the lasting importance of Casablanca. I mention it here mainly because some of the advanced specs on the Special Edition had indicated Isabella Rossellini was also featured. She isn't. No big deal, really, but I thought it worth noting.
Other features include deleted and alternate scenes. There are two scenes in all that run a total of two minutes. There is no sound, but the scenes are subtitled from the original script. These are the same two scenes that appeared for the first time during the end credit sequence of You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca, the 35-minute documentary that was the main supplement of the 2000 single-disc release. That documentary is also included in this set, so there's really no point hanging on to that old release. Yes, this Special Edition is a double-dip, but it's also the last Casablanca you'll ever need, and it's well worth the added expense.
"Scoring Stage Sessions" is an audio feature: eight recordings of songs to be used in the film. Four of the takes are of Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By." One is "Dat's What Noah Done," a song left out of the final film.
A 1943 radio adaptation of Casablanca is offered, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid in the roles they made famous. There's also a 1955 television adaptation that is beautifully preserved but lacking in substance (the best thing about it is the vintage commercials for General Electric and Chesterfield Cigarettes). Carrotblanca, a 1995 Looney Tunes homage, basically sucks but the picture quality is stunning and sound is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.
Tucked away at the very end of the list of extras is something with the nondescript title, "Production Research." Probably some lame, text-based production notes, right? Wrong. It's a 12-minute featurette that displays samples of the actual inter-office communications, production memos, pre-production photos, press releases, dated script pages, and call sheets that were the source materials for the Special Edition's documentaries as well as for Ebert's and Behlmer's commentary tracks. It's one of the most substantive extras provided.
Take a look at the "Distinguishing Marks" section of this review for a complete list of extra features. Let me just say, I don't think you'll be left wanting more.
[Editor's Note: Alert reader Scott Gardner notes that the 1955 television adaptation is the premiere episode of a television series, and that it has been truncated from its original one-hour time slot to 18 minutes on the DVD. Also, he notes that the introduction to "You Must Remember This" has been removed and placed at the beginning of the feature as its introduction.]
All charges against this Special Edition of Casablanca are dismissed. It's easily one of the DVD releases of the year.
Anyone who doesn't add this to his or her collection is guilty. If you already own Warner's previous DVD release of Casablanca, sell it on eBay, use it as a coaster, use it to prop up the short leg on that old coffee table. This new two-disc release is not to be missed: it's a superlative treatment of one of Hollywood's greatest classics.
Court's in recess.
Review content copyright © 2003 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2003 Winner: #4
* Top 100 Films: #68
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Audio Commentary by Film Critic Roger Ebert
* Audio Commentary by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
* Introduction by Lauren Bacall
* A Great Cast is Worth Repeating
* Cast and Crew
* Theatrical Trailer
* Re-Release Trailer
* As Time Goes By: The Children Remember
* Deleted and Alternate Scenes
* Scoring Stage Sessions
* Bacall on Bogart
* You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca
* Screen Guild Theater Radio Adaptation -- 1943
* Television Adaptation: 1995 Who Holds Tomorrow
* Production Research
* Other Legendary Titles Available from Warner Home Video