Casablanca 2 Disc SE Review
Casablanca is not a classic work of art and it’s doubtful that anyone would mistake it for one. It’s melodramatic, unlikely and sentimental, one of hundreds of similar films which were produced by the studios for a wartime audience hungry for entertainment. On the face of it, there’s no particular reason why this one film should be remembered above the similar studio product of the time. Yet, anyone who has watched it is unlikely to disagree that Casablanca is a great movie and it seems to be a film in which, for whatever reasons, everything gels together, and the alchemy which Hollywood was occasionally capable of employing worked like a charm; turning a ragbag of familiar elements into cinematic gold.
It should have been terrible. Based on an unproduced Broadway play, "Everybody Comes To Rick's", it was pieced together by at least four writers and was still being written when shooting started. The play, although it contained many of the situations in the film, is forgettable, as anyone who saw the 1990s London production with Leslie Grantham will testify. The director, Michael Curtiz, was inconsistent and irascible, a Hungarian who enjoyed the role of master in his domain and whose fractured English resulted in some great stories – my favourite being when he supposedly said to David Niven, “You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing. Well I tell you, I know fuck all !!”. The casting was uncertain - at one point, according to studio gossip and press releases, it looked like the casting might have involved George Raft and Hedy Lamarr or, god help us, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. Warners were constantly concerned about the project, which was not only more political than they would have liked, but also had a downer of an ending. It seemed as if they would be lucky if it even made money, let alone achieve any notable success. You only have to look a later Curtiz film with many of the same case, Passage To Marseilles to see how thin the line is between success and failure – despite its occasional virtues, and the fact that a mediocre 1940s film generally looks better than a mediocre 2000s one, the later film never quite works and comes across as second-rate pulp.
The storyline isn’t particularly inspiring. The film takes place in Casablanca, a part of French Morocco, in 1942. The place is filled with European refugees, who flock in the hope of finding the elusive documents which will enable them to travel to safety in North America. The focal point of the city for foreigners is "Rick's Cafe Americain" owned by Rick Blaine (Bogart) a seemingly cynical American ex-pat. His policy is to stay uninvolved, and he has a comfortable relationship with the local prefect of police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) which enables him to stay well away from trouble. However, Rick's careful isolationism is thrown into turmoil when he accidentally comes into the possession of some stolen German travel documents. His personal scruples are tested when Victor Laszlo (Henreid) arrives. Laszlo is a leader of the Czech Resistance, whose life is in danger unless he can leave. A simple dilemma for Rick ? Well, think again, because Laszlo has brought along his beautiful wife, Ilsa (Bergman), the woman with whom Rick had a passionate affair in Paris some years earlier. To make matters worse, Major Strasser (Veidt) of the Third Reich has arrived to establish a Nazi presence in Casablanca, and he has his sights set on returning Laszlo to the concentration camp from which he escaped.
Spoilers ahead – if you haven’t seen the film then you might want to do down to the review of the disc
It goes without saying that the film, despite all the omens, works brilliantly. But it’s worth considering why it works so well. I think it all begins in the writing. As I’ve said, the narrative isn’t anything very unusual, with strong echoes of Graham Greene – Rick would fit very well into one of Greene’s hellhole at the end of the world novels and his move from isolationism to commitment in a classic Greene character arc. But the screenwriting is a model of wit and intelligence. The four men who deserve the lions share of the credit are the Epstein Brothers, Howard Koch and Casey Robinson, all Warner contract writers. It’s hard to say exactly who did what – Koch and the Epsteins had a long-running and acrimonious disagreement about this – but from their various records, I think that Koch probably fleshed out the relationships, Robinson worked on the love story and the Epsteins provided the crackling dialogue. In a sense, it’s probably fair to say that without the Epsteins, there would be no Casablanca in the form that we know it. That’s not to diminish the other contributions, but I think it’s principally the dialogue that makes the film so memorable. It’s a cliche to say that the verbal fireworks have now entered everyday speech, but it’s true. Okay, we know that Bogart never says “Play it again Sam” but that doesn’t really matter because we all know what scene is being referred to. More to the point, it’s what he does say that is so great: “I don’t stick my neck out for nobody”, “My interest in whether Victor Laszlo stays or goes is a purely sporting one”, “I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue”, “You played it for her, now play it for me...if she can stand it I can stand it. Play it !”, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and of course, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The lesser known lines are often brilliant too – has there ever been a better description of romantic humiliation than “A guy standin’ on a train with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out” ? If you see the film with an audience who are even vaguely familiar with it then it’s like a mass karaoke contest. I can’t think of another film from the period which is even half as quotable - The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep come close but don’t quite make it, although I’m very fond of regaling my long-suffering friends with “I dislike a close mouthed man. I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
However, all the verbal fireworks in the world wouldn’t ignite without the right actors to light the blue touchpaper. The casting of Casablanca, with one single exception, is perfect. The exception, which I might as well name upfront, is Paul Henreid. Pauline Kael once said that the part of Laszlo typecast him as “a stiff” and I think she’s right. Henreid was never the most exciting of actors but he’s all wrong for the part of a magnetic, brilliant resistance leader. When Ilsa goes off with him at the end, you feel rather sorry for her because they have no chemistry whatsoever – and this is the man she’s meant to love and admire. Henreid is a similar drag on the previous years Now Voyager - Bette Davis was unimpressed and suggested an alternative ending in which she would become happily married to Claude Rains. But Henreid is the only actor out of place. Everyone else is having the time of their lives. In the tiny role of Ugate, Peter Lorre is peerlessly repellent, and his long-time screen partner Sidney Greenstreet has fun in a fez as the deeply corrupt owner of a rival club. There are lovely bits from the likes of S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall and Conrad Veidt has a nice line in civilised menace as Strasser. In the pivotal role of Sam, Rick’s best friend and crooner of the unforgettable “As Time Goes By”, Dooley Wilson is enormously likeable even if it’s obvious that he can’t play the piano. Interestingly, for a film of the period, no mention is made of his race, nor, despite playing a subservient character, is he demeaned in the way that, for example, Willie Best is in The Ghost Chasers.
The three central roles – I like to sideline Laszlo as a plot necessity – are the heart of the film. As Renault, Claude Rains is, quite simply, perfection. Rains, who became a star in middle age playing The Invisible Man, was one of the foundations of the Warner stock company and was reliable even when, as in Deception the film was falling apart around him. He flourished in a mixture of important supporting roles in major films and leading roles in minor films and his performance as Renault is probably his very best. Renault is not a particularly likeable character – he’s corrupt, womanising and two-faced – but Rains makes him irresistible. It’s little touches that make the difference; a sly sideways glance, a vocal mannerism, the way he dashes to the mirror to check his appearance before one of his potential female conquests arrives to screw her way to a visa. He also gets some great lines – “I blow with the wind, and at the moment the prevailing wind happens to be blowing from Vichy” is particularly nice, not forgetting “Round up the usual suspects” – and some clever comic situations. It’s obvious that he and Bogart got on very well and their scenes together have a great deal of relaxed charm.
In the pivotal role of Ilsa, Ingrid Bergman is as radiantly beautiful as legend reports and she gives a beautifully poised performance which, on a second viewing, is packed with little tics and worried glances that reveal the conflict of loyalties within Ilsa’s heart. Her lack of chemistry with Henreid is cruelly revealed when contrasted with her scenes with Bogart. They spark together and the Paris scenes are deliciously suggestive of their erotic relationship without spelling it out. Bergman was never very fond of Casablanca - for which she was loaned out by David O’Selznick in exchange for Olivia De Havilland – but it’s one of her most likeable performances, certainly superior to her ‘great lady’ turns in slop like Anastasia and the truly horrible Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Bergman suffers beautifully, as Hitchcock revealed in Notorious, and she brings a surprisingly intense sense of loss and sadness to a film which is otherwise rather melodramatic.
But the star of the film is Humphrey Bogart. I could write several thousand words on how Bogart was the greatest film star of the 1940s, surpassing even John Wayne in my estimation, but I will content myself by observing that no other actor could have played Rick and got away with it. The character is a cliche – self loathing, cynical tough guy with a heart of pure mush – but Bogart makes it fly. His way with a good line of dialogue is unbeatable but what I like is the way he suggests hidden depths without going soft on us. Even at the end, in that classic speech where he demonstrates his essential decency, there’s a steely matter-of-fact quality which stops it from seeming sentimental claptrap. Bogart is also the most deliciously laidback guy on the planet, turning “Here’s looking at you kid” into something so cool it’s below freezing. Bogart handles the character arc – heartbroken and cynical to idealistic and selfless – with enough authority to make it seem halfway probable and he does it without letting us know what he’s up to. Let’s face it, the man is untouchable – it’s not just Jean-Paul Belmondo who wants to be Bogie, we all do. It’s maybe not Bogart’s best performance – that would certainly be his extraordinary work as Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of Sierra Madre - but it sums up what makes him such a great star.
I think Casablanca speaks to us in some deep part of ourselves by appealing to our better natures. It’s about courage, selflessness, love and friendship and the ways in which all of these things are challenged by historical circumstance. It’s also got perhaps the greatest ending of any film ever made, full of bittersweet heroism that still gets to me. All these factors are just as relevant now as it was in the dark days of the early 1940s and that helps to explain why the film doesn’t seem particularly dated. True, it’s got some pretty mediocre process work – although no more so than many other films of the time – and some slightly unfortunate plotting – why would Laszlo be allowed to walk about in Vichy-controlled Casablanca ? But the pacing of the film is fast enough for us not to have time to worry about such doubts. Michael Curtiz was not a particularly distinguished director in the ways that we normally rate such things. His shots are functional rather than imaginative and he worked on such a range of subjects that it’s hard to find any particular style that unifies his work. But he was a master of this kind of material, pushing the narrative forward relentlessly without sacrificing character or humour. He also works brilliantly with his DP, Arthur Edeson, and the use of shadows and carefully placed light sources is a lesson in how to tell a story visually. The shooting of Ingrid Bergman, all gauze and soft focus, is Hollywood at its most awestruck at beauty. Curtiz was certainly no auteur, even in the broadest sense of the term, but he was, at his best, a highly competent and professional filmmaker who knew how to get the best out of his material. Perhaps this is what unifies his best work - The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Sea Hawk, Mildred Pierce and Casablanca are all fine examples of a director who knows exactly what he is doing and has the resources to do it well.
Casablanca seems, sixty years on, to sum up the virtues of the studio system at its zenith. For Bogart, Curtiz and the Epsteins, it was just another assignment but by some happy accident, everything fell into place. If you were feeling very grumpy, you might observe that Max Steiner’s music is sometimes pure syrup or that Paul Henreid makes an average tailor’s dummy look animated. But the gods were smiling on the production – surely they must have been, if only for the scuppering of the decision to replace “As Time Goes By” with a Steiner composition because of Bergman’s hair having been cut – and potential dross was turned into something genuinely precious. I don’t think we could make Casablanca any more. The stars of today don’t quite have the glamour, writers are too fond of over-explication and bad jokes, directors are a little too keen to show off. We have great films now, of course, great in ways that studio films of the 1940s could never have imagined. But we couldn’t have Casablanca. Whether what we’ve lost is compensated for in what we’ve gained is an interesting question. But I have to admit, everytime I see that opening Don Siegel montage and hear the narration, or when I see Dooley Wilson lifting his head to sing “As Time Goes By” while the gorgeous Bergman sits enraptured, I really do wonder.
Casablanca was originally released in the UK back in 2000. It was a mediocre presentation with quite a bit of print damage and a strange foggy texturing that became distracting. This new Special Edition is a vast improvement on every level and is unlikely to disappoint anyone. Certainly, if you’ve never seen the film before, then this really is the way to do it.
The quality of the picture is absolutely stunning. Considering that the film is now sixty years old, this is an extraordinary achievement and well up to the usual standard of Warners’ restorations of old movies. It’s presented in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in glorious black and white. I don’t want to labour the point with superlatives but I’ve never seen the film look as good as this, even in the 1992 cinema reissue print. Contrast is superb, shadow detail is beautifully sharp and there is plenty of detail without the spectre of edge enhancement. No damage is visible at all, there are no obvious artefacting problems and there’s just enough grain to make the image look natural without too much texturing - Warners have clearly learned their lesson after the notorious unfortunate lapse on the Region 1 edition of Citizen Kane.
The soundtrack is equally good. Thankfully, no bright spark in the audio department has decided that we need a 5.1 or DTS mix of this track and the mono soundtrack is perfect. Fidelity is good, dialogue is clear and there is no hiss or distortion. I think this is a model of how a pre-1953 film should be presented and I see no reason not to give full marks to both picture and sound.
There are plenty of good extras to get your teeth into here. On the first disc, the highlights are the two commentaries. The first one, by critic Roger Ebert, is sometimes a bit too fond of explaining what’s happening in the film, but Ebert is an engaging speaker who knows how to keep our attention and points out some interesting things that I hadn’t noticed before. The second one, by American film historian Rudy Behlmer, is a very entertaining collection of facts about the production which I found very interesting. Behlmer is an enthusiastic and fast talker and he covers an awful lot of ground. This is a track for the dedicated Casablanca fan rather than the casual viewer, but it’s a very good one. I learned things I didn’t know, even after reading the excellent book “Round Up The Usual Suspects”.
The first disc also contains an introduction to the film by Lauren Bacall and four trailers. We get the original trailer for Casablanca, a delicious period piece, and the 1992 reissue trailer with voiceover man making his presence felt. There are also trails for The Adventures of Robin Hood and Sierra Madre, both discs well worth picking up. The quality of all these trailers is excellent. There are also some talent profiles.
Most of the extras are on the second disc. By far the best is the ninety minute documentary “Bacall On Bogie” which is an affectionate and entertaining run through Bogart’s career narrated by his wife Lauren Bacall. Lots of great clips and some interesting interview footage with the likes of John Huston, Julius J.Epstein and Peter Bogdanovich. The picture quality varies wildly and the clips from Casablanca do much to demonstrate the quality of the restoration presented on the first disc. The narration is sometimes a bit sugary but Bogie’s talent shines through and there are some lovely moments, such as his appearance on a 1951 Ed Sullivan show.
Also present on the disc is the mid-1990s documentary on the making of the film, “You Must Remember This”. Although this is an efficient run through of the production, it’s too brief to be particularly revealing and quite unnecessary considering the quality of the commentary tracks. I also find Lauren Bacall’s narration quite banal in places. However, it’s worth watching just for the delectably grumpy comments of Julius J.Epstein, an irresistible curmudgeon. Both this documentary and “Bacall On Bogie” are presented in fullscreen format with optional English subtitles.
A briefer featurette is the somewhat baffling “The Children Remember”, a short and not particularly interesting series of interview snippets with the children of Bogart and Bergman. Two deleted scenes are included, neither of which has sound. However, it's worth seeing them anyway and they are subtitled. Outtakes are what you'd expect, again without sound. There are also 8 scoring sessions included, six of them with Dooley Wilson and two of parts of the score. The highlight here is "Dat's What Noah Done" which isn't included in the film.
Click 'More' at the bottom of the first page of extras and you'll find four more substantial features. The 1943 Screen Guild Theatre radio version of the film is included in full. This stars Bogart, Bergman and Henreid and is absolutely fascinating for the way it truncates the story but keeps most of the famous moments. There is also the first episode of a 1950s TV version of the film which is likely to leave you aghast with horror how awful it is. Wonderful advertising moments in this too, with 'Chesterfield' cigarettes promoted relentlessly, the cigarette that puts a smile in your smoking. This is presented in fullscreen and mono and has been beautifully restored. I should point out that it only runs 17 minutes rather than the full hour as originally transmitted, not that this is likely to upset too many people.
"Carrotblanca" is a 1995 Looney Tunes tribute to the film which is disappointing for a number of reasons. The jokes aren't bad but the voices sound all wrong, there is none of the sharp wit that the cartoons used to have and it comes over as one joke stretched out. However, the picture quality is superb.
Finally, we get a 12 minute featurette which is a compilation of original memos and letters about the making of the film. Absolutely riveting for fans and a good insight into how films were made back in the days of the studio system.
All in all, this is a superb DVD which is essential viewing for anyone who loves movies. If you’ve never seen Casablanca then what are you waiting for ? If you have, then this gorgeous DVD release will be extremely welcome. Unreservedly recommended,