Judge Dennis Prince lays down a stern warning: the first person to quip, "play it again, Sam" will be charged with contempt of the highest order. He's not kidding.
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 (Blu-ray) 70th Anniversary Edition (published April 5th, 2012), 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.
"Play it once, Sam, for old time's sake."
"I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa."
"Play it, Sam—play As Time Goes By…"
"It seems incredible now, but every major studio made a picture a week,
fifty pictures a year. When we were shooting Casablanca, it was just one
of the fifty."
Just one of fifty? Hardly.
Facts of the Case
Casablanca is a city of desperation. Located in a tenuously controlled French Morroco, its future is uncertain as the Nazis march forward to claim more territory. Equally uncertain are the futures of the people who flock to Casablanca, a mix of refugees desperate to escape the German invasion and avoid possible internment in the Nazi concentration camps and the thieves who would exploit their hopes. The perpetual activity of Casablanca centers around an oasis of sorts, Rick's Café Amercain, run by the outwardly stoic American expatriate, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). "I stick my neck out for nobody," Rick asserts, insisting on remaining neutral on all matters, political or personal. He's aware of the activity that takes place nightly in his upscale café and gambling club—from clandestine arrangements for passage to routine cheating and thievery—but he takes no stance except to keep the drinks flowing, the roulette wheel spinning, and trusty Sam (Dooley Wilson) busy entertaining the crowd from his similarly neutral piano bench. While those who have know Rick have never understood the cause of his unfailingly detached nature, that becomes all to clear when the French Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried), enters the club with his stunning wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). As Sam plays a song from a romantic past, Rick is unprepared to see Ilsa again, a confrontation that stirs up conflicting emotions of passion and betrayal. And while Rick's good friend, Prefect of Police Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains), is busy tempering German officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), it seems Rick will have to choose sides. The unwitting possessor of two letters of transit, Rick finds that he can either enable Laszlo to escape Casablanca and continue his fight against the Nazi movement or dare to rekindle a relationship with Ilsa and leave Casablanca forever.
With so much having already been said and written about Casablanca, it seems superfluous to add anything further. Nonetheless, a viewing of the film in this age of filmmaking proves that is should still be considered requisite material to anyone who is serious about learning the elements of narrative, characterization, and how the language of film can effectively command attention.
At its base, Casablanca might be deemed a simple story that takes place in a very contained stage. Adapted from an un-produced stage play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," the picture retains a very play-like quality in that the action takes place in the sorts of confines that suggest a stage setting. With this established, the story is allowed to focus on its characters and their intertwining needs, motivations, and desires—and this is where Casablanca is hardly a simple story. The characters, from top to bottom, are in perpetual conflict. Not only do they affront and antagonize one another, but they also grapple with their individual internal conflicts that drive their behaviors in one direction while they clearly would prefer to take opposite action. The entire film is saturated in this conflict, most obvious that of the invading Nazis, and this serves the narrative well in that it provides the catalyst for the characters to unleash their own emotions, be they driven by instincts of altruism, attraction, or apathy. Nobody comes out of Casablanca unchanged though, and, in the end, even we, the viewers, must make our own personal sacrifice—we regretfully admit that the effort Laszlo champions is ultimately more important than the uplifting romantic relationship that Ilsa and Rick might enjoy ("Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor."). Perhaps for this reason—the film's incredible ability to engage us and confront us with an internal conflict similar to the characters on the screen—the film retains its "required viewing" stature.
Casablanca is propelled by its stellar cast. A veteran ensemble if ever there was one, each brings the perfect ingredients to the stage and proceeds to dazzle us with impeccable interplay. Bogart is at his absolute finest, especially when viewing the film amid the often-distorted pop culture references that misrepresent the actor and his performance. As Rick, Bogart isn't so much the chiseled and immovable rock—the consummate tough guy—as some may believe. Rather, he's perhaps the most vulnerable character on the screen (next to Bergman's Ilsa), a man emotionally scarred by the presumed deception of a woman he loved with every ounce of his being. Bogart conveys virtual pages of exposition with his very glance, able to communicate an incredible amount of backstory to we who have stumbled into his café to witness the goings on.
Bergman is likewise precise and effective as Ilsa, a woman who is torn between two men and her own sense of what is the right thing to do despite emotions that scream to her to reconsider. She is likewise torn and emotionally tattered, conveying her plight visually as she interacts between Rick and Laszlo. Essentially, Ilsa is the girl caught in between and becomes the unwitting pivot point to the men and their missions.
Laszlo is a hero, upright, undeterred, and completely committed, body and soul, to the Resistance movement he spearheads. Although he might appear as inhumanly rigid and incapable of emotional passion, it is his unfailing allegiance that propels him forward in the face of his oppressors. This serves to further drive the indecision in Ilsa, she who sees Laszlo as the true hero he is yet alternately would like to recoil from the danger he represents, opting for the seemingly freewheeling romance she enjoyed with Rick back in Paris.
The supporting characters are nothing less than superb. Claude Rains as Capt. Renault provides the lion's share of the biting -often-scathing—humor that keeps us at full attention. His banter with Rick is excellent as the two communicate "between the lines," so to speak. Rains appear to truly revel in the role, much to our benefit. Conrad Veidt is snakelike in the role of Maj. Strasser, an official that would like nothing more than to poison and prevent any opposition to his task. He also engages in verbal exchange with Renault and the two joust from their respective though not mutually respected positions. And, Peter Lorre's Ugarte fills a short-lived but critical role in the narrative, responsible for delivering the highly contested letters of transit. Lorre is perfect in the role since we immediately detect him as a sort of vermin that is destined to become snared in a trap of some sort. He ultimately becomes a plaything that both Renault and Strasser exploit for their own apparent amusement. Of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam makes for an excellent companion to Rick whereas the calculating conniving of Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari, proprietor of the Blue Parrot club, embodies yet another presence of the underhanded element that Rick must fend off regularly.
In Casablanca, Director Michael Curtiz also excels at what so many filmmakers today foolishly disregard—he involves his viewers. His compositions are highly detailed, impeccably managed, and are arranged in a way that we feel we've been made privy to the goings on. During most scenes in Rick's Café, on the streets of Casablanca, or elsewhere, Curtiz makes good use of foreground elements, either peering through an archway or looking just over the shoulder of individuals whose backs are turned to us. In this way, he gives us a feeling that we're onlookers ourselves, luckily within earshot of the verbal repartee yet thankfully just out of sight to prevent our being unwittingly accosted or otherwise confronted by the desperate characters that populate the scenes. In this way, we're given that desirable fly-on-the-wall access and are equally affected by the thick tension that permeates each situation. Of course, Arthur Edeson's cinematography and excellent use of light and shadow works as a practical character as well, further entangling us in the proceedings and deftly communicating so much more than the dialogue alone could ever convey.
Given the significance of Casablanca, both within Warner's own historic past as well as within the realm of film appreciation in general, it's fitting to find this classic presented in the HD-DVD format. Although it has been presented in numerous home video releases in numerous formats, this might just be the one that delivers the best film-like experience yet. The image, culled from the 2003 special edition restoration, looks stunning and even crisper than the standard definition predecessor. Detail pops here in a way I've never seen before (not even when looking at an actual print in film class). Having been satisfied with soft presentations of the past, the impact of this HD DVD rendition must be seen to be believed. Granted, it is expectedly contained by the limits of the source material itself, yet the clarity and contrast presented this time around is quite captivating. Details within the dark spaces suddenly spring forth, providing us a renewed look at the production. And, given this is a narrative driven picture and not one that relied on clumsy effects or fancy set design, there's little to distract us as far as revelation of cut-rate movie trickery (although the matte cityscape at the film's opening looks mighty flat, if one were to nit-pick such things). The audio comes by way of the impressive Dolby Digital-Plus 1.0 Mono track. All elements are clear and presented with good separation despite the confines of the single channel. Thankfully, Warner's wisely chose not to "fabricate" a 5.1 mix, much to purists' delight.
As for extras, this release features the bevy of bonuses that graced the 2003 two-disc edition, beginning with two excellent commentary tracks, one with respected film critic Roger Ebert and the other with film historian Rudy Behlmer. Ebert's track makes for easy listening as he speaks continually of the film's history, the actors' contributions and accomplishments, and the significance of the production among critics. Appropriately, Ebert does curtail his comments during iconic sequences, speaking of their importance once the scene is complete. His most prescient and appreciated observation, early in the screening, comes when he notes that film history for today's viewers likely begins with Star Wars. It's a lament of sorts as he acknowledges that many who consider themselves among the "film faithful" may be completely unfamiliar with Casablanca. His obvious reverence for this picture is one borne out of the film's remarkable staying power and not because he's some old-fashioned critic from days gone by. His commentary, then, supports the fact that modern audiences will benefit from a viewing of the picture, giving credence that modern-day bombast does not a good picture make. Behlmer, on the other hand, provides the more encyclopedic observations, quoting generously from actual Warner Brothers documents and other references to provide even more detail than offered by Ebert. If you aspire to be a student of the film, then this track makes for excellent study material. As a pair, the two commentaries work well to explain and further reinforce the impact and importance of Casablanca.
Beyond the commentaries, the remaining extras are handy thanks to the menu that is accessible as the film is in progress. These begin with the 86-minute featurette, Bacall on Bogart, a 1988 docu-piece in which the celebrated actress and occasional Bogart co-star traces the life and legacy of Hollywood's notable tough guy. Next up is the secondary documentary, You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca. This 34-minute piece, narrated by Lauren Bacall, traces the production itself and touches on matters of casting, screenwriting, and reception. As done on the 2003 special edition DVD, Bacall's original introduction to this documentary has been extracted to serve as an introduction to the feature film on the disc. Up next is a trim featurette, the 6:45-minute As Time Goes By: The Children Remember in which son Stephen Bogart and daughter to Ingrid Bergman, Pia Lindstrom, reminisce slightly over their parents' work (but unfortunately the bulk of their comments talk more to the classic status of the film itself and barely about Bogart and Bergman directly). Then, you'll find a still gallery, Production Research, which provides images of numerous original Warner Brothers documents related to the film. Two theatrical trailers follow, both presented in Academy Ratio, one heralding the original release and another announcing the 1992 theatrical re-release in conjunction with the film's 50th anniversary. There are six minutes of silent deleted scenes and outtakes, an 18-minute television adaptation from the first episode of 1955's Warner Brothers Presents series, and a 1995 Looney Tunes nod, Carrotblanca. Rounding out the extras are eight scoring stage sessions and the interesting 29-minute audio presentation of the 1943 radio adaptation, that which reunited Bogart, Bergman, and Henried to reprise their original roles for the listening audience.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's practically inconceivable to cite any motion picture as a "perfect film" and Casablanca certainly isn't without its own flaws. From obvious miniature shots to pale matte paintings to changing interior layouts that serve a camera's path despite their physical impossibility, this highly revered picture has its share of warts.
Some have sneered that Casablanca is chock full of logic gaps and unexplained details, most notably how such a wanted man as Victor Laszlo can walk freely amid the pursuing Capt. Renault and Maj. Strasser. Then, some ponder the lack of explanation over what Rick was doing in Paris when he encountered Ilsa. Taken out of context, these could appear as absolute deal-breakers to the narrative at hand yet given the overall excellence of the performances and the production itself, these matters fade away in comparison to the taught drama at hand.
Without a doubt, Casablanca is a true cinematic classic, one that never tires, never wavers, and is never supplanted. Despite the technical prowess of modern filmmaking and the purported sophistication of modern film audiences, the fact remains that Casablanca is a compelling film experience that has rarely been equaled. It's a film that inspires budding filmmakers and one that entrances serious film students. It weaves
Most importantly, a visit to Casablanca is more necessary than ever as film enthusiasts are too frequently left disappointed by the product that finds its way onto the screens they so faithfully view. A careful look at this film (and I'd recommend several looks, at the least) reminds us of the "language of film" and how it should be spoken in order to achieve its intention—and live up to its promises. For filmgoers who are left wanting after viewing current motion pictures—though not entirely sure why—an understanding of Casablanca provides the answers to what makes a film work and doesn't.
"Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Film Critic Roger Ebert
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