Blu-ray reissue: Casablanca ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 31, 2012)

Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition – Warner

What is the best criterion for determining a “great” film? One is likely to elicit as many differing opinions as the number of folks one might ask; if we’re talking movies, subjectivity is the name of the game, and “all the world’s a critic”.

It’s safe to say that one film moviegoers and critics alike generally regard as a “classic”  is Michael Curtiz’s 1942 treatise on love, war and character, Casablanca, which is now available in Warner’s new Blu-ray 70th anniversary limited collector’s edition.

It certainly could be argued that the film did not necessarily achieve its exalted status by design, but rather via a series of happy accidents. Warner Brothers bought the rights to a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s (written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) for $20,000, which at the time was considered an exorbitant investment for such an untested commodity (no one had yet staged a production). The script went through a disparate team of writers.

Brothers Julius and Philip Epstein initially dropped out to work on another project, eventually returning to resume primary authorship (after much of replacement Howard Koch’s work was excised) and then they were joined by (non-credited) Casey Robinson for daily rewrites. Even producer Hal Wallis put his two cents worth in with last-minute lines (most notably, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”).

And would it have been the same film without the screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story? Bogart, while certainly a rising star at the time, had not been previously considered as a romantic lead in Hollywood; the studio had trepidation about his casting. Also, Curtiz was not the first choice as director (Wallis originally wanted William Wyler). Most significantly, the film did not set the world on fire upon initial release; no one was touting it as a “classic”.

And yet, for whatever the reason(s) may be, it is now considered as such. For me, it is a textbook “movie movie” …cinematic comfort food, if you will. In other words, I don’t require it to make sense on every level. Whether it’s 100% believable as a World War II adventure, or whether the characters are cardboard archetypes, or whether it looks like it was filmed on a sound stage …all moot issues in a true “movie movie”.

What does matter to me about this film is the romance, intrigue, selfless sacrifice, Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” ever, that goodbye at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about it?

As for this latest home video incarnation (preceded by several SD DVD editions/upgrades and one previous Blu-ray version) it is the most gorgeous print of the film I have ever seen, with deep, rich blacks, crisp contrast with no visible artifacts or DNR. The transfer is 4K, which is a noticeable upgrade in quality from the previous Blu-ray (if you want to geek out). The mono audio is crystal clear and well-equalized; nicely highlighting Max Steiner’s rousing score. The hours of extras are boggling. All of the features from the previous “ultimate” edition  are carried over, plus two  new entries.

On the down side, you will need to clear a little space; the fully loaded edition is in a bit of an over-sized box for my liking (and I’m not sure I really needed the set of 4 coasters they threw in there), but the hardback 62-page art production book is a nice bonus, as well as a full-size replica of the original movie poster. If you truly love the film, it’s worth the investment. Otherwise…we’ll always have Paris.

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