“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
The American Film Institute voted “Casablanca” the second-best American film ever made. “Entertainment Weekly” gave it the number three spot among their “100 Greatest Movies.” At the time of this writing, the user ratings at the Internet Movie Database ranked it number nineteen in the site’s “Top 250 Movies of All-Time.” And a scientifically formulated and rigorously administered survey of both the Wife-O-Meter and myself placed the film squarely at number one. What more can a person say about a movie that defines the word “classic”?
Is it any wonder, then, that the folks at Warner Bros. have re-released the film numerous times, first to theaters, then to videotape, DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray? For this “70th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD Combo” edition, they have outdone themselves, providing not only a handsome, numbered gift-box set with a slew of new bonus materials, they have even remastered the film from an all-new 4K scan and given it a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
The accolades, the awards, the adulation, and all the tender, loving care are not bad for a film that almost never was. After all, when Warner Bros. made it in 1942, they considered it just another back-lot studio melodrama. The studio had been churning out these things by the boatload every year, using their usual stable of contract players. With a script that writers were reworking daily and a plot that mystified everyone on the set, it’s a wonder the studio ever finished the film, let alone its becoming one of the most famous movies ever made.
When did I first come to it? Well, it wasn’t in 1942, I can tell you that. But it wasn’t all that long afterwards. I remember it was a rainy Saturday afternoon in the mid 1950s; I was a kid, my parents were away, I was bored, and I was looking for something to watch on one of our three black-and-white television channels. I turned on “Casablanca” about ten minutes into the picture. I had never seen it before nor even heard of it; what I saw was an old, fuzzy, B&W film interrupted by a multitude of commercials. But I stuck with it for over two hours, fascinated by something that would normally have left me cold–the romance! I had no idea how popular the movie was, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, nor how much more popular it would become on TV, eventually attaining the status of most-often broadcast film in history. I only knew I loved it.
So, what’s the attraction? Why does “Casablanca” consistently show up in the public’s and critics’ lists of all-time great films? I suspect it’s all about the characters, the atmosphere, the music, and the dialogue as much as anything else. Sure, it’s a riveting love story, but without the colorful cast, exotic locale, and memorable lines, it would probably be just another potboiler, which, as I said, is about what its producers initially expected it to be. But the picture took on a life of its own as filming and rewrites continued, eventually emerging as the classic every movie buff knows by heart.
Based on an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the film moves effortlessly from scene to scene under the guidance of veteran director Michael Curtiz. The main character is, of course, Richard Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. He’s a hard-bitten, world-weary cynic, thirty-seven, single, the owner of Rick’s Cafe Americain, a night club-casino in Casablanca, French Morocco, just before America’s entry into World War II. He is the quintessential antihero, a man who proclaims, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” At least that’s his philosophy until old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up. Then all bets are off as Rick turns back into a noble and caring human being.
On a trivia note, Jack Warner had originally pushed for George Raft to play the lead, but producer Hal Wallis insisted upon Bogart. Raft would later say he turned down the role because he didn’t want to perform with an actress then unknown in America (“I don’t want to star opposite some unknown Swedish broad”). That’s OK. The year before, he had turned down the role of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” saying the movie wasn’t important enough, and he didn’t trust a first-time director (John Huston). Isn’t it reassuring to know you’re not the only one who makes mistakes? Serendipitous for us, though.
Add to the mix Rick’s ever-faithful piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson, who had to fake his piano playing); Ilsa’s war-hero, resistance-fighter husband, the ultra-suave, ultra-gullible Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid); a weaselly thief named Ugarte (Peter Lorre); a conniving black-marketeer, “the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca,” Senor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet); a lovable headwaiter, Carl (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall); a magnificently evil villain, Major Heinrich Strasser of the German Third Reich (Conrad Veidt); and a Prefect of Police, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), more sympathetic to himself than to the Germans who occupy his city. What you get is an ensemble cast that is unquestionably among the best ever assembled. More serendipity: The studio had entertained thoughts of using, among others, either Ronald Reagan or Joseph Cotten for the part of Laszlo; Hedy Lamarr or Ann Sheridan for Ilsa; Clarence Muse or Lena Horne for Sam; and Otto Preminger for Major Strasser (well, OK, Preminger might have worked).
But let’s not forget director Michael Curtiz, a staple of the Warner Brothers’ factory. Temperamental though he was, Curtiz created some the studio’s most-notable films. To name just a few besides “Casablanca,” there were “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938), “The Sea Hawk” (1940), “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), “Mildred Pierce” (1945), “Life With Father” (1947), “Jim Thorpe: All American” (1951), “White Christmas” (1954), “The Egyptian” (1954), “We’re No Angels” (1955), and “The Comancheros” (1961). Today, with directors elevated to the level of outright stars, Curtiz may be the most overlooked filmmaker in the history of Hollywood. And he made “Casablanca” almost entirely on a Warner Brothers soundstage!
Then there’s the script. There probably isn’t another film with so many noteworthy lines. No wonder Woody Allen’s character in “Play It Again, Sam” had every word memorized and would recite the dialogue along with the actors. Try this: Randomly fast forward to any spot in the movie and listen to the conversation. I’m betting you’ll find a famous quotation. Here are some examples:
Ugarte: “You despise me, don’t you?”
Rick: “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”
Ugarte: “Rick, think of all the poor devils who can’t meet Renault’s price. I get it for them for half. Is that so…parasitic?”
Rick: “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”
Ugarte: “You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”
Yvonne: “Where were you last night?”
Rick: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”
Yvonne: “Will I see you tonight?”
Rick: “I never make plans that far ahead.”
Captain Renault: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?”
Rick: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
Renault: “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.”
Rick: “I was misinformed.”
(Never mind that Casablanca is a major seaport; Hollywood was never big on geography.)
Ilsa: “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”
Sam: “I don’t know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.”
Ilsa: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'”
Rick: “You know what I want to hear.”
Sam: “No, I don’t.”
Rick: “You played it for her, you can play it for me!”
Sam: “Well, I don’t think I can remember….”
Rick: “If she can stand it, I can! Play it!”
Rick: “How can you close me up. On what grounds?
Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here.”
Croupier: “Your winnings, sir.”
Renault: “Oh, thank you very much.”
Rick: “Not so fast, Louie. …And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.”
Renault: “That is my least vulnerable spot.”
Rick: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. … Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Renault: “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
I could go on, easily, but you get the idea. Remarkable, considering that writers Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson were handing the cast new lines on a daily basis.
Finally, there’s the music. As well as music director Max Steiner’s famous background score, there are at least six different tunes with lyrics involved, including “As Time Goes On,” which is so indelibly associated with the picture. Originally written a decade earlier in 1931, “As Time Goes By” at first did not meet with Steiner’s approval, and he objected to it so strenuously that he almost got it excised from the film. Fortunately, circumstances dictated the song remain, and the universe preserved its proper order.
“Casablanca” holds up as well today as it did over seven decades ago, its antihero eventually everyone’s ultimate hero, its dialogue some of the best ever written, its cast superb, its atmosphere and ambiance extraordinary, its romance mesmerizing. The combination is irresistible, and the film is perfect.
For this 70th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, Warner video engineers provide a new MPEG-4/AVC remaster taken from an all-new 4K scan. Using a dual-layer BD50, the new, 1.37:1 ratio transfer points up the film’s B&W contrasts vividly, with object delineation sharper than ever. Even the natural print grain looks good, giving the movie a strong, lifelike texture. Yes, it’s black-and-white, which may annoy some younger folk, but it’s possibly the best-looking black-and-white you liable to see on Blu-ray. It glows with a crystalline beauty, the blacks deep, the whites gleaming. Trust me, you’ll like it.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
WB had used Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural on their previous Blu-ray edition and before that Dolby Digital Plus on the HD DVD. While they sounded pretty good in both cases, the movie now sounds better than ever using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s still monaural, naturally, yet the dialogue is clean, smooth, and well focused. There is practically no background noise, and even though the frequency extremes are not what they might be in a modern movie, the dynamic range and overall tautness and impact are impressive for a seventy-year-old film.
Disc one of this three-disc “70th Anniversary Edition” contains the feature film in high def and a ton of extras, some of them new, many of them found on earlier editions. First among the extras, there’s a two-minute introduction by Lauren Bacall, followed by two separate audio commentaries, the first with film critic Roger Ebert and the second with film historian Rudy Behlmer. If you want to know practically everything there is to know about the film, listen to both commentaries.
Next, we get a “Warner Night at the Movies,” featuring the kind of movie fare that audiences might have seen in 1942. These include a trailer for the film “Now Voyager”; a newsreel of the day; a twenty-minute short subject, “Vaudeville Days”; and three Merrie Melodies, Technicolor cartoons: “The Bird Came C.O.D.,” “The Squawkin’ Hawk,” and “The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall.” After those items is the documentary “Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart,” eighty-three minutes with Lauren Bacall, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Brooks, Alister Cooke, and Julius J. Epstein.
Next up, we find a pair of 2011 documentaries: “Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of,” thirty-seven minutes with many of today’s top filmmakers, critics, and film historians paying respects to the director; and “Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic,” thirty-five minutes, again with the participation of filmmakers, critics and historians.
After all of that, there are a number of items found on previous editions of the movie. These include the six-minute featurette “As Time Goes By: The Children Remember,” containing reminiscences by the stars’ children; “You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca,” thirty-five minutes, containing loads of information on the movie’s production as remembered by many of the writers and filmmakers who were actually there; two minutes of deleted scenes, without sound; and about five minutes worth of outtakes, again without sound but containing some cute goofs. Then, there is one of my favorite extras, a Bug Bunny cartoon, “Carrotblanca,” that features the whole stable of WB animated characters in a sidesplitting send-up of the movie. Additionally, you’ll find a 1956 television adaptation, “Who Holds Tomorrow?,” based on the movie, about eighteen minutes; a series of audio-only scoring-stage sessions of music from the film, about fifteen minutes; an original theatrical trailer and a re-release trailer for the movie; and two audio-only radio broadcasts of “Casablanca.”
Concluding the extras on disc one are thirty-two scene selections; English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish subtitles; and English and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is also a Blu-ray, and it contains three documentaries. The first is “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story,” a mammoth, five-part, nearly five-hour series that covers the history of the studio from 1927 to 2008. The second documentary is “The Brothers Warner,” an eighty-four minute history of the brothers who founded and ran the studio for so many years. And the third is “Jack L. Warner: the Last Mogul,” a fifty-seven minute biography of the studio chief, with comments from authors, film historians, and surviving relatives.
Disc three in the set is a DVD containing a standard-definition version of the movie. The three discs come housed in a foldout Digipak case, suitable for placing on your shelf along with other discs in your collection if you don’t want to keep it in the double-wide gift box that encloses the Digipak and the rest of the extras.
In addition to the three discs, the set includes several bonus collectibles. These include a sixty-page, hardbound production art book; a reproduction of the original 1942 film poster; and four nifty drink coasters from “Rick’s Cafe Americain” in a keepsake box. Very nice.
As Ms. Bacall says in her introduction to the movie, “The lure of ‘Casablanca’ lies in its romance, intrigue, and mystery.” But mostly, I think, its appeal is in its romance; not only the love story, but the romance of adventure, exotic places, colorful characters, and clever repartee. “Casablanca” is a movie for the ages, and its new high-definition remastering and lossless sound should keep it that way for a very long time to come.
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”