Warner Bros. gives Casablanca a facelift in Blu-ray with their release of the 70th anniversary of one of the most written about, talked about and well-loved American movie classics of all time. Good films leave a lasting mark, work their way into the social fabric of the world and surface time and time again in other places, people and things. Films possess the power to change the lexicon like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back”, or the Dudeisms of The Big Lebowski – films that employ unforgettable imagery that inspires and engages the perfect score for one of kind characters we think we know or hope we meet some day. Great films instill lasting joy, accomplish all that and more, touching the hearts and minds of future generations and thus the Hollywood circle of film-life is born, survives and lives on and on. For a film that consistently earns a place at the top of ‘best-of’ lists around the world, Casablanca captures a moment and holds it there, in our dreams and aspirations.
It seems almost silly to suggest any other recommendation than this. You shouldn’t think of this film as something you have to feel one way or the other about. Casablanca just is. When it was first screened in 1943, all those forever’s ago it was well received – as much a measure of what we’ve given up in hopeful idealism as relinquished in necessary loss. The film impressed many at first but not without the sharp sting of critics, such as The New Yorker that described it as “pretty tolerable”. A far cry from what the film would become over time, the perfect blend of melodrama and adventure, the nostalgia of black and white cinematography seemed destined to immortalize it as much as make it a timeless escape of the heart back when sacrifice and honor was a matter of principle, not a choice. Indeed Casablanca represents a forgotten era, as far away from today as it was in 1993 on its 50th anniversary, as much a look back as a way to think about the future. Casablanca continues without the least signs of wear, a stalwart of the immutable will of the spirit to overcome, to endure, and to exist without demand or scrutiny. In a film that stands the test of time as well as any other, an example of the subtle simplicity of character, story and sentiment, the film reminds us where we came from and hopefully one day where we might return.
While some transfers have been criticized for fixing too much or altering the look and feel of the original film, Casablanca is lovingly handled and well cared for through a state of the art transfer that includes a wealth of special features and bonus materials. The iconic images, movie one-liners, music and characters associated with this film are second only to the legendary cast and filmmakers who continue to be celebrated as the very best in motion picture history. Many have mentioned the lack of attention on director Michael Curtiz, an Academy-Award winning director who helmed more than fifty films in Europe and more than one hundred in the United States. The film titles for which he is responsible is shocking to consider, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and White Christmas. Curtiz was a master of the Hollywood machine of the times, perhaps the most prolific of film directors and for this he often blurred into the background. Curtiz’s career is definitely one worth revisiting if you haven’t already, impressive as much as entertaining. Casablanca is perhaps his crowning achievement after all, a film that earned 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture and is regularly heralded as a ‘timeless classic’ and is included on many of the top film lists of all time. Roger Ebert and film historian Rudy Behlmer discuss the film on 2 separate commentaries provided in the bonus materials that get at what makes the film so highly regarded. Warner Bros. story analyst Stephen Karnot called it “sophisticated hokum”, a contradiction if anything of opposites drawn together, forced apart with the result almost indefinable, certainly unusual. In a film that does not give us what we want in a time when we can’t get enough, it is interesting how much we still believe in the magic of possibility in a world of so much uncertainty.
Casablanca is a classic story of romance and adventure, of two people who have no business finding one another again cross paths and end up forever changed by the power of love. Casablanca holds up is because it is about these wounded characters and their everyday struggles with real circumstances and themselves, they make mistakes and are better for it and that speaks to our own brokenness that someday we’ll learn how to live better lives. Casablanca isn’t a war story any more than it is simply about romance, the interplay of minor characters through the central characters not only gives us a sense of the world but shows how Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) are held accountable to the world around them; make a mistake and you pay for it with your life, choose wisely and you get out with a few scars you’re going to spend a life time caressing. Most everyone talks about the ending of the movie as a hallmark achievement, as example of how modern films are bastard children that play to expectations and shortsighted objectives to make circles out of stories that should never arrive anywhere near closure. Closure is a word of modern making, it caters to solutions not real people and real times and that is perhaps the greatest achievement in Casablanca, that it doesn’t end well and deep down we’re better for it.
Blu-ray or not to Blu-ray?
There are plenty of review sites (Blu-ray.com) (Blu-ray.highdefdigest.com) that will dig deep into the technical specifics of the movie transfer to validate the new release. Most will explain the differences in picture clarity and black levels, the effect of lossless DTS-HD Master Audio on the overall viewing experience. Others will examine the transfer itself in absolutely painful minutiae, down to the 4K scan particulars that is all available for your pleasure should you seek it out. What is most important to know about this release is that your new home theater equipment is going to present it like never before so if you’re returning to a beloved classic you’ve spent a life time knowing, or this is as odd is it sounds your first time viewing it, you’re in for a look back at the height of cinema’s accomplishments when movies were not simply produced they were crafted.
Warner Home Video, a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc., invited me to join their exclusive Blu-ray Elite Movie Review Program and they sent me a complimentary copy of this movie for the purpose of review with special attention on the “Blu-ray Experience”. I received this video for free, but that does not sway this review or the reviews of other films that will follow.