Reviewed by Chris Kallemeyn
The classic Hollywood film Casablanca is a timeless movie masterpiece; one of a handful of great must see films. Sure it’s sometimes sappy and ultimately sentimental, but it’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, with a great cast working from an exciting script in the hands of one of the best directors of the era, Michael Curtiz. The film is an accurate reflection on how Americans want to see themselves, namely fiercely independent while holding onto strong moral beliefs and always selflessly doing the ‘right thing’ in the end. This sentiment is embodied in the film’s leading character, Richard “Rick” Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart as the cynical expatriate saloonkeeper in Vichy-controlled Casablanca during World War Two. Despite the unassuming appearance, Rick is actually a heroic fighter of fascists, smartly dressed in a white dinner jacket with hot babes vying for his attention. The ‘mysterious woman’ is the exotic Norwegian Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, whom broke Rick’s heart years ago and now returns into Rick’s life with her husband and part-time underground resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.
The plot all revolves around some letters of transit, which allow free passage through Nazi controlled Europe. All the characters want these letters for various reasons, with an amazing ensemble cast of usual suspects that you’d expect to find in a typical North African city, or at least according to Hollywood. There’s the French police chief Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) who wants the letters to gain prestige with the Germans, there’s the black market kingpin Senor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) who’s just in it for the money, and of course it wouldn’t be complete without Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) as the reliable Nazi antagonist. The best character of the bunch is Ugarte, played by the amazing Peter Lorre in his signature weasel-like performance as the man holding the goods everybody wants. Special mention also goes to Rick’s bar staff, including Dooley Wilson as the piano-playing compatriot Sam, and character actor S.Z. Sakall as the waiter Carl.
The film itself looks amazing, which is significant due to the film’s advanced age. The transfer is pristine, without any signs of scratches, dust or muddled contrast often associated with films from the thirties and forties. The original English mono audio track sounds great, but the optional French audio track hasn’t fared quite so well over the years. Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish. There are two audio commentaries; one by film critic Roger Ebert and the other by film historian Rudy Behlmer. While both are good, Ebert’s commentary is the better of the two, not only because it’s more scene-specific, but also because he tends to see the film from the perspective of the audience, as opposed to the more detached academic approach favored by Behlmer. Additional special features includes an introduction by Lauren Bacall and a gallery slideshow with text and pictures called A Great Cast Is Worth Repeating that explains the various films the stars were in together, interesting but nothing special. Trailers from other classic Warner Brothers film are included, but really the only trailer necessary here is the one for Casablanca itself.
Featurettes abound with this second disk, the best being You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca, a 30-minute documentary that does a good job of covering all aspects of the making of the film, with numerous interviews including the screenwriters Julius Epstein and Howard Koch. An exhaustive documentary on Humphrey Bogart narrated by his wife and frequent co-star Lauren Bacall is also included. Entitled Bacall on Bogart, this 90-minute documentary covers his life story with a great overview of all of Bogart’s wide ranging characters for this rather unlikely star, often typecast as a tough-guy, he could also easily handle romantic lead roles as well. The Children Remember is a six-minute series of interviews of the children of Bogart and Bergman reminiscing about their memories about their parents reminiscing about the making of the film. Confused? I’m not even sure why this is here. Deleted scenes and outtakes are also presented as very raw, unedited and without the audio but do include the subtitles of the dialog taken from the original script. Rarely does one ever see outtakes from a film this old, so I was glad to see these scenes even if the audio was lost. The soundtrack music is included here with eight audio tracks taken from the original studio recordings, mostly from the famous ‘As Time Goes By’ by Dooley Wilson but also instrumental versions as well. Three rather odd spin-off productions are also included, which are curious historical artifacts of how Hollywood always tries to milk a hit, but taken individually are rather lame. First is a Screen Guild Theater radio show from 1943 (audio only), second is a television pilot from 1955 entitled Who Holds Tomorrow, and the best and last is the 1995 animated Loony Tunes Carrotblanca featuring… well you can guess who. Finally, a ‘Production History Gallery’ is included, with memos and production reports but unfortunately the gallery doesn’t allow one to pause the images long enough to read anything.
Dubbed the ‘bonus disk’ due to the fact that this disk was added to the two-disk set released five years ago, it contains the excellent documentary Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul, detailing Jack Warner’s rise to prominence in Hollywood. Starting with the early successes of Rin-Tin-Tin movies, the Warner Brother’s pooled their profits together to build their own studio to produce a unique style of films that focused on gritty urban dramas about important social issues of the day. The doc focuses more on the youngest Warner brother Jack than the studio itself, but still manages to include clips from great WB movies and behind the scenes views of the Burbank back-lot. Made by Warner’s Grandson Gregory Orr, the doc makes use of interviews with classic Hollywood stars, vintage photos of the early Warner history contrasted with modern shots of the same scene and numerous office memos from the office of Jack himself.
But wait… there more! Yes this is dubbed as the ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’, so we’ve got more goodies to cover thus I’ll try to wrap this up as briefly as possible. The three disks are arrayed in a fold-out disk holder, there’s a slick 48-page hardcover ‘Photo Book’ that includes cast and set photos alongside trivia notes, and also an envelope that contains 10 poster/lobby card reproductions nicely printed on card stock along with 4 reproductions of WB memos/letters. Finally there’s a box within the box containing a passport holder and luggage tag that has the Casablanca logo pressed into the faux-leather material.
Released originally in 1942 just weeks after the Allies invaded North Africa, Casablanca went from just another Hollywood run-of-the-mill production to one of the most beloved classics of American cinema. The film still stands the test of time, providing an exciting film with an entertaining blend of action, romance and intrigue mixed with doses of idealism, redemption and self-sacrifice. It’s no wonder that that a film of this caliber would warrant yet another DVD release, but the central question here is: Is it worth the money? At this point my impulse is to rant about the never-ending series of Special/Director/Collector/Unrated versions that pop up over the years leading to consumer confusion, but this seems unavoidable. I do feel sorry for the die-hard Casablanca fans that bought the ‘Special Edition’ version five years ago, only to find this new ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’ release. In the final analysis, it’s this very small demographic of fan that would want to spend three times the cost for an extra documentary, some nifty poster cards and a luggage tag/passport collectable. The 2003 two-disk DVD release is essentially the same great-looking restored version, for a fraction of the cost.
Film Rating: A
Special Features: A