Judge Jim Thomas sticks his neck out for nobody. He will, however, stick out his foot to trip you.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), Casablanca (published September 26th, 2000), Casablanca: Special Edition (published August 18th, 2003), Casablanca (HD DVD) (published December 18th, 2006), Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition (published December 10th, 2008), Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Best Picture Winners (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…she walked into his.
Compared to many classics, Casablanca has had pretty good fortune in the home video market. Instead of having a middling to crappy initial release followed by several special editions that take advantage of advances in restoration, Casablanca started out with a pretty decent DVD release—followed by several special editions that took advantage of advances in restoration. The last such edition, in 2008, was laughingly referred to as Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition, and marked the title's first foray into Blu-ray. That edition was based on the 2006 HD-DVD restoration, which cleaned things up a bit too much, as there was extensive—some say excessive—DNR use. Now, Warner Bros. brings us, courtesy of the latest advances in restoration and mastering, of course, Casablanca (Blu-ray) 70th Anniversary Edition. Do the fundamental things still apply, or should this release be dropped in a bin and kicked away like a bottle of Vichy water?
Facts of the Case
In the early days of World War II, cynical nightclub/casino owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon) whiles the days away in Casablanca, watching an endless parade of European refugees stream through, desperate to escape Nazi persecution. A local crook named Ugarte (Peter Lorre, The Comedy of Terror) asks him to hold some stolen travel permits—"Get Out of Casablanca Free" cards, if you will—for a few hours. During those few hours, Ugarte goes and gets himself killed, and now Rick is in possession of the most precious thing in Casablanca—a means of escape.
Meanwhile, Rick's friend, Captain Renault (Claude Rains, The Invisible Man), the head of the local police, warns him that a new refugee is in town—Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid, Now, Voyager), a leader in the French Resistance, someone whom the Nazis desperately want to keep in Casablanca. Renault fears that Rick's latent patriotism might lead him to assist Laszlo, but as Rick so eloquently puts it, "I stick my neck out for nobody." Reassured, Renault returns to his usual routine of cheerfully extorting money (and other favors) from those seeking to flee to America.
However, there is one person for whom Rick just might stick his neck out—and she's about to walk into his bar.
Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose and one of the world's foremost expert in semiotics, has noted that by all rights, Casablanca, as loaded with clichés and stock characters as it is, has no business working at all, let alone work at the highest levels of film—and he's right. Even the various screenwriters acknowledged that they were writing hokum. Think about it: the Nazis don't need an excuse to arrest Laszlo, or to simply put a bullet in his head, for that matter. Eco notes that at some point, you get so many clichés that they stop being cliché, instead creating their own reality. Here's another way of looking at it. The point of a cliché, a stock character, or a genre plot is that you know what to expect. Casablanca is by turns a war movie, a romance, a thriller, a comedy. Each genre has its own rules and expectations; by incorporating so many genres and clichés, Casablanca transcends them, so that it's no longer predictable.
Even the characters are caught up in the genre confusion, uncertain of what part they're playing. Ilsa tries to become a noir femme fatale, using sex to get her way, but she's not ruthless enough. Rick has been the bitter, jilted lover; once he and Ilsa have reconciled, Rick looks as though he's assumed the role of Sydney Carton, sacrificing himself for his true love. However, Rick's pulling a fast one on everybody—foreshadowed by our first glimpse of him, seated by himself playing chess. Like a good chess player, he's always one step ahead of everybody else. Then the movie pulls a fast one on us by suddenly changing from romance to patriotism; Rick's renewed faith in himself restores the faith of those around him. Rick, Ilsa, even Louis—they all discover—and accept—who they truly are, which is one of the reasons Rick and Ilsa's separation is so moving; they are at once meant for each other and not meant for each other. If you want to get cheeky, even Major Strasser gains a new role—just not quite in the way he imagined. When he's gunned down by Rick, Strasser becomes a hero—just like the two couriers killed by Ugarte, of whom Rick observes: "They got a lucky break. Yesterday they were just two German clerks. Today they're the Honored Dead."
Another reason that the various clichés work is that the actors play it straight without any self-consciousness or parody. The film turned Bogart into a romantic lead and made a star of Bergman. Claude Rains is note-perfect as the wry, corrupt police officer who turns out to suffer from the very patriotism that he accuses Rick of having. Sam could have easily become a painful caricature, but Dooley Wilson infuses the part with genuine warmth and affection.
The plot—subplots and flashback included—races through the 102-minute runtime. That's what director Michael Curtiz brought to the table: a narrative efficiency that elicits honest emotion without resorting to melodrama. Every time the story is in a position to go maudlin, the scene changes or someone cracks a joke (Rains in particular gets some magnificent lines). If you review the opening sequence, the one that leads up to the Free French sympathizer being shot in the market, one is struck by how quickly, in under two minutes, Casablanca is established as a place of distant hopes and desperate measures.
Warner Bros. stepped up to the plate on the technical side of things. The newly restored print, scanned at 4k and using the MPEG-4 AVC codec, is a wonder.
(Note: screenshots have been resized. In both pairs, the first image is from the Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray); the second image is from this edition.)
Blacks are deeper, allowing for greater variation in the gray spectrum—critical for a movie in which almost everyone exists in a moral middle ground. Shadows are more pronounced, more ominous. The grain is also more pronounced—and that's not a bad thing. The overall result is a richer image, one with greater depth—most notably seen in several of the scenes in Rick's bar. The darker images also enhance the movie's noir sensibilities, lending an aura of foreboding to the proceedings. The last thing that you expect from a noir is a happy—or at least uplifting—ending, so when Rick pulls a gun on Louis, there's more of a palpable sense that it's about to hit the fan. It is, in short, a wonderful restoration, easily outstripping the earlier editions.
The DTS-HD audio track is also solid. Yes, it's still mono, but it's good mono. The nuances in the dialogue come through—the little things: The resonance of Sidney Greenstreet's voice, Bogart's rasp (his offhand delivery of "Are my eyes really brown?" kills me. Every. Freaking. Time.), the playfulness in Claude Rains' voice. One of striking aspects of the audio in this edition is the dynamic range. At the beginning of the film, when all the refugees look up to see the departing plane to Lisbon, the plane comes straight at the camera, and the engine gets so loud that you have to fight the urge to go outside and look up.
You get all the extras from the 2008 Blu-ray, in particular the commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, outtakes, retrospectives, a number of Casablanca-inspired cartoons, etc. New to the set is "Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of," a retrospective of Curtiz's career which will leave you wondering why Curtiz isn't ranked up there with Huston, Ford, or Scorsese. Seriously: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas. Oh, and Casablanca. Yeah, he had some serious game.
The second Blu-ray disc has a broader scope: It brings over a documentary on Jack Warner from the earlier release, but also includes "The Brothers Warner," and You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, a three-part documentary put together by film historian Richard Schickel in 2008 to commemorate Warner Bros. eighty-fifth anniversary. Clocking in at almost five hours, it's a fairly comprehensive, fascinating look at the evolution of the studio. Casablanca is but a small part of the larger story, but the film does recount the 1943 Academy Awards, when Jack Warner famously snubbed producer Hal Wallis by racing to the podium to accept Casablanca's Best Picture award, with members of the Warner clan blocking Wallis' way. For Wallis, who had made virtually every important decision on the film, it was a devastating insult, and he left Warner Bros. immediately thereafter. Finally, the movie is also included on a DVD.
In addition to the various discs, there's a mini-replica of the theatrical poster, a hardcover booklet (pretty, but fluff), and a set of four coasters featuring the logos of the movie, Rick's Café Americain, The Blue Parrot, and La Belle Aurore. They look nice, but they're basically pressed cardboard, so they're not particularly functional—which is a shame, because good quality coasters from Rick's would be a treat for any movie buff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oh, okay. I'll pick on the commentaries. Both Ebert and Behlmer address the story that Ingrid Bergman didn't know how the movie was supposed to end, noting that all the drafts of the script show that the ending was in place from the very beginning. With all due respect, they're both missing the point. Bergman may have known who she'd be with when the credits rolled, but that doesn't mean that she knew which one she truly loved. By forcing her to play it both ways, the filmmakers stumbled on the secret to the movie's success. If Ilsa loves only Laszlo, then it's really not that big a deal, and Rick's not really making much of a sacrifice. If she only loves Rick, then Rick is consigning her to an empty life, which is borderline cruel on his part. Only with her truly loving both men can there be any kind of emotional balance in the conclusion.
The fact that that's the best I can do for a rebuttal speaks volumes about the movie and the disc.
Warner Bros. brings us a superior edition of one of the most beloved films of all time. The MSRP of $65 might give potential upgraders pause; fortunately, street prices are closer to $45. Still, you might consider waiting for a disc-only edition, as none of the extra material in the set warrants "must have" consideration. Yeah, I'm still kinda bummed about the coasters.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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