Casablanca, the Ultimate Collector's Edition, on Blu-ray disc

by Jim Bray
December 17, 2008

It has been called the greatest movie ever made, and it's definitely on many people's lists of desert island discs.

And now, Casablanca has been re-introduced to the world in what Warner Brothers calls an Ultimate Collector's Edition, on both Blu-ray and DVD.

It's a compelling package that contains the movie, a second disc of extras and enough other "value-added" stuff thrown to sweeten the deal even more. And that's probably a good thing, since the movie has been released in various forms in years past.

Warners sent me the Blu-ray version to review. I had been dying to see whether a movie from 1942 could be improved enough by the transition to 1080p to make it worth purchasing anew. Now I have my answer. It can, indeed.

Casablanca has had such a profound effect on popular culture that many of its phrases and situations are now in everyday use (including at least one – "Play it again, Sam" – that was never actually uttered). It's probably the perfect movie as long as you ignore its cheesy special effects.

It is truly a timeless tale of lost love, love regained, love tossed away (well, kind of). It's also an adventure in honor and duty and it has a terrific sense of humor that flows from the marvelous screenplay. And it’s a movie that, despite being in black and white and “narrow screen” (4x3 full frame) with mono sound, works as well today as it did in 1942. Maybe better.

As everyone knows by now, Humphrey Bogart stars as cynical night club owner Rick Blaine, whose Café Americain in Casablanca, in unoccupied French Morocco, seems to be the hub of just about all activity in the city. Ingrid Bergman shines as Ilsa, the lover who dumped Rick in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation, thereby gifting him with the cynicism he wears on his sleeve as the movie opens. Paul Henreid is Victor Laslow, brave and charismatic leader of the underground resistance to the Nazis - and as we find out he’s also bound to Ilsa and her to him. Claude Rains has the most fun, and the best lines, as Louis Renaud, a poor corrupt public official with a sense of humor and an eye for young women.

Then there’s the rest of the main cast, including Sydney Greenstreet as a crime boss and owner of a competing night club, Peter Lorre as an oily, weasely small time hood with delusions of grandeur, and Conrad Veidt as the nasty Nazi Colonel who’s there to ensure that Laslow doesn’t spread his brand of hate (which to free people is a message of hope) beyond Casablanca. Each of these actors is perfectly cast and turns in a memorable performance.

I defy you to watch this movie and not be moved. From the scenes between Rick and Ilsa, and Laslow, to the incredibly powerful moment when the free French citizens of Casablanca drown out the Nazis in Rick’s saloon with an impromptu and heartfelt singing of the French national anthem, to the cinematography, and of course Max Steiner’s magnificent score, this is one heck of a cinematic achievement.

As they say, if you watch only one movie this year - make it this one. Well, okay, The Dark Knight's worth watching as well. And there are others. But you get the point.

The remastered DVD I reviewed a few years back was a good one, and included some welcome extras, but this new one really ups the ante. First of all, the digital remastering really suits the high definition 1080p Blu-ray format, resulting is a black and white picture that’s gloriously clean, with excellent contrast and detail and even some of that "depth", that 3D feeling you can get from superior Blu-ray discs. I couldn't find artifacts, dirt, scratches or any of the other bugaboos that video snobs hate so much. It's a gorgeous presentation, with video quality that does Casablanca and the home theater justice.

The movie isn’t widescreen, of course, so you'll have to live with "keyholing", black bars to each side of the picture, that’s better than cropping it artificially or otherwise painting a moustache onto this Mona Lisa.

Audio is another matter. It's presented in Dolby Digital mono, instead of having been remastered into a 5.1 surround track or, even better, one of the new high resolution formats such as Dolby TrueHD, but it didn't bother me. I'd have liked it to be a bit louder and more dynamic, but I can live with this current one (as if there's a choice!). The movie doesn't have a lot of audio effects that would lend itself to surround anyway (a couple of airplane scenes and some gunfire for the most part), though there would have been many chances to add some ambience during the scenes inside Rick's.

Then there are the extras.

CasablancaThe Blu-ray disc includes an introduction by Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s widow, as well as two commentaries, one by film critic Roger Ebert – who knows his movie stuff – and another by author-historian Rudy Behlmer.

And that's just the beginning. Warners throws Casablanca fans some real meat (even though, like the commentaries, a lot of it is ported over from previous releases). But they've managed to find some 12 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes (though they’re not the real meat and the outtakes are only worth watching to compare the picture quality with the restored video of the movie itself), and a short featurette "As Time Goes By: The Children Remember", which features memories from Stephen Bogart and Ingrid Bergman's daughter Pia Lindstrom.

My favorite stuff was a pair of Bacall-hosted documentaries: "You Must Remember This" and "Bacall on Bogart," both of which are fascinating looks at the film (in the first case) and the life and times of Humphrey Bogart (in the second case).

They’ve even included the premier episode from a 1955 Casablanca TV series (the horrors!), the Looney Tunes homage "Carrotblanca" (which isn’t bad, but which really needed Mel Blanc!), and audio features including "Screen Guild Players Radio Production" of the story and outtakes from the scoring sessions.

The bonus DVD (how old tech is that?) is "Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul". Produced by Warner's grandson, Gregory Orr, it's a look at the rise of the man who Julie Andrews thanked (as she accepted her Oscar for Mary Poppins) for making her award possible by not casting her in "My Fair Lady".

As if all this isn't enough, Warners also tosses in a set of cards that reproduce the original "one sheet" movie posters and they even give you a passport holder and luggage tag embossed with the film's logo, for those times when you just have to get the airport security people asking more questions.

It's a fully featured and very complete package (packed in a really annoying case that tends to fall into pieces once it's opened), but to be honest I'd have been happy with merely a single BD disc release of the film. It's the film that's most important, and with the outstanding presentation Warner Brothers has given this Blu-ray version, it would be more than adequate on its own.

The rest is gravy.

Casablanca, from Warner Home Video
102 min. full frame (1080p, 1.33:1), Dolby Digital mono
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Written by Julius P. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, directed by Michael Curtiz

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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