Tuesday, June 5

Blu-Ray Review: Casablanca 70th Anniversary Edition

[Note: I've been accepted into Warner Bros' new Blu-Ray Elite program, wherein they send discs to various film bloggers for review. I will mark any review for a disc I've received as having come from this program (and Warner Bros) for the sake of full disclosure. This will not affect my critical opinion of the movies nor their technical specifications.]


Casablanca is one of the great sacred cows of cinema, a troubled production that famously rose out of the mire of its collision of writing input and incessant revision to become, as others tell it, the best-written film of all time. It's easy to see why people love it: its swirling, sad romance plays on the awesome talent of some of Hollywood's best actors. Its script, so argued-over and incessantly altered, emerges an almost elemental tale of desperate, futile love. Its setting is also a delight, revolving around a hideout dive that serves as a ménagerie of types waiting for their turn to escape the Nazis, idly gambling for the money to buy their freedom. It's a place where the owner of the second-largest bank in Amsterdam learns that the owner of the first-largest is serving there as a pastry chef.

There truly isn't anything out of place in the movie. Curtiz's classical style is tasteful and restrained, beautiful and non-insistent. The dialogue, finely honed to precision sharpness, is funny and agonizing in equal measure. The actors, a delicious hodgepodge of international backgrounds, play off each other beautifully. The whole package is solid, solid in a way it has no right to be, and it's a testament to Curtiz's skill that he could corral a host of writers and a cast culled from all-around to make such a unified whole.

And yet, I don't connect strongly to the film. Curtiz no doubt just wanted to get all of the elements together into something that worked, but cohesion trumps impact in this movie. It hits all its marks so neatly that the messy emotions it is supposed to reflect are never truly conjured. And as great as the actors are, no one is at their best. Take Bogart and Bergman: this was a crucial picture for both, establishing them as major stars and making the rest of their careers possible. Still, it's hard not to prefer what they did with the clout this movie gave them: Bogart lacks the bottomless menace of his performances in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place, while Bergman isn't half so tragic a love triangle focal point as she would be in Hitchcock's Notorious and Under Capricorn.

But then, both are held back by the biggest flaw of the movie, the unnecessary, distracting flashbacks. These serve no more purpose than padding to a story given significant enough weight by the pain etched in Bogie and Bergman's faces in the present. Rick's grim stupor, his bitter refusal to involve himself in the world, and Bergman's weary fear work perfectly well on the strength of the performers. To see the unspoken pasts they so effortlessly conjure between each other slightly grates. And don't get me started on the shamelessness of the gauzy close-ups on Bergman, which try too hard by half and counter the beauty and multifaceted cleverness of Curtiz's trademark use of shadow.

Still, the film is a terrific showcase for Curtiz's talents, some of the most underrated in classic Hollywood, and its mash-up of noir, romance and topical war drama works better than it has any right to. It gets bonus points for its routine, implicit criticisms of the American reluctance to join the war, embodied in Rick's dispassionate personal isolation but hinted at throughout. When the hunted journalist/Czech resistance fighter Lászlo refuses to cooperate with Conrad Veidt's Nazi officer, he makes reference to having already withstood much more persuasive interrogation tactics in a concentration camp. It's strange to think that this film, a hit upon release and an enduring snapshot of America's entry into the war, also dismantles the conventional wisdom that people didn't really know what was going on in those camps until they started being liberated.


Warner's original Casablanca Blu-Ray looked terrific, the sturdy compositions never crisper. But this new disc, struck from a 4K restoration, manages to improve upon an already great transfer. The image is darker yet retains more information, working better in motion than my old Casablanca Blu-Ray. It's not a stunning upgrade, but that's because the last edition already took care of most of the work. Compare this to an older DVD version, maybe even an un-retouched 35mm print, and it would likely be revelatory. The real draw, though, is a lossless audio track sorely missing from the last release. The track faithfully reproduces the original mono, making the endless parade of quotable lines crisper than ever.


I received only the single-disc version of this release, so I cannot comment on many of the extras included in the full 70th Anniversary package. Nevertheless, even the one disc is packed with goodies, including:

-Two commentary tracks, one by film historian Rudy Behlmer, the other by Roger Ebert. Both are well-considered tracks, though I prefer Ebert's for his more engaging delivery. I don't share his abiding love for the film, but his enthusiasm is infectious.
-Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart brings in Mrs. Bogie, as well as friends and colleagues, to extoll her husband's many virtues. It's a bit dry, and Bacall speaks more like an admirer than a lover, but it's a decent introduction for those who might not be familiar with one of Hollywood's most iconic actors.
-Warner Night at the Movies offers an approximation of seeing Casablanca in 1942, complete with an old-school preview, a newsreel and some cartoons before launching into the film (if you hit "Play All." The most quaint feature on the set, but also my favorite.
-Michael Curtiz: The Best Director You've Never Heard Of is a new addition, a 40-minute featurette that tries to do justice to an unfairly neglected director by overcompensating. Curtiz was truly a gifted craftsman with an impressively eclectic corpus, but when William Friedkin calls him the best filmmaker to ever work in America, it's hard not to roll one's eyes. Nevertheless, this is a fine overview peppered with amusing anecdotes and insights into his autocratic style, as well as a host of film clips that seem like the work of four different careers instead of just one.
-Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic is another new feature, rounding up the same usual suspects from the previous extra to really emphasize that this is a good movie. Unfortunately, there's so much overlap between this, the broader Curtiz overview of the aforementioned mini-doc, and the commentary tracks (especially Behlmer's notes, as he's one of the talking heads).
-You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca features older talking heads and therefore more input by those at least somewhat involved in the film, but at this point it's becoming clear that you really can spend too much time detailing the film's production.
-As Time Goes By: The Children Remember is six minutes of cotton candy spinning into wisps, with one each of Bogie and Bergman's children offering reminiscences of the film and their parents' careers.
-Assorted material, including outtakes, a Looney Tunes parody, and audio-only extras like radio broadcasts.

Bottom Line

Those who are still holding onto the DVD have better reason than ever to upgrade, even to this single-disc version. For those who already own the previous Blu-Ray, whether to upgrade depends chiefly on how you feel about the film. Those who believe earnestly in the consensus opinion of the film's placement in the pantheon will need little prodding to get this new version. For everyone else, though, the more-than-acceptable picture quality of the last release will suffice. Nevertheless, this disc is highly recommended.