Like a lot of movie buffs, I can’t quite recall how many times I’ve seen Casablanca. It’s probably between four and six, not including a handful of partial viewings here and there. It’s never been super-important to me, unlike The Magnificent Ambersons or Floating Clouds, but I’ve always liked it well enough. During this most recent viewing, I tried to look at it head-on, to contextualize and define “what it is” using any one of a number of frames: what other movies were like in the 1940s, what the standard of production was during wartime, what else I’ve seen of Michael Curtiz’s body of work, the surprising similarities between this film and Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, and so on. It seems very clear now, examining the film broadly and specifically, that the producers at Warner Bros. weren’t just out to make any old wartime quickie, even if the fortuitousness of the intervening years has raised the film to the highest station of classic cinema. In fact, in spite of the mountains of anecdotal data regarding its sheer unlikelihood (from “based on an unproduced play” to “Bergman and Bogart didn’t think it was going to amount to much” and beyond), the movie they were looking to make, legend and all, was Casablanca, a perpetual-motion machine that holds itself up as mythic and movie-magically enchanting right out of the gate.
Through the Curtiz lens, it’s not at all uninteresting as “cinema,” however hard cinephiles who would prefer to celebrate Hawks, Welles, Mizoguchi, Ford, and others buck against its anointed status. Curtiz had a terrific sense of images that teemed with busy movement, intersecting lines, bustling crowds, but also deep spaces and an overall sense of momentum. Look at the largely forgotten Kid Galahad, which seems to have been directed on roller skates. Or his countless pre-Code melodramas, such as The Kennel Murder Case or Female, limitless in their visual invention and era-defining razzmatazz. This is all present and accounted for in Casablanca, which illustrates, above all, that while Curtiz may not be one of the truly great directors, we haven’t fully assessed his considerable value as an auteur either.
Then, as an entertainment: Casablanca is nothing short of—well, it’s a little short of perfect. It’s got such a weird script, essentially gilding the bastard offspring of Grand Hotel (wisecracking no-accounts orbit a besieged way station) with the powerhouse prestige of Jack Warner’s pockets, however deep they could go during the wartime belt-tightening. The story of the cynical man (Bogart), tested by desperate, serendipitous circumstances and made malleable by the catalytic arrival of an old flame, eventually emerging as a (never less than badass) symbol of “sacrifice for the greater good,” is all a lot less interesting than the crackle and pop, the sheer city-ness, of the film’s first few reels. Once Major Strasser orders Captain Renault to order Rick’s cafe to be shut down, once we get those last great moments (“Shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”), the film empties itself of most of its fascinating character actors, its very lifeblood. The will-they-won’t-they of the home stretch is pretty wobbly—and said wobbliness is never more apparent than Ilsa’s incredulity-straining decision that Rick is the guy she can’t live without.
Of course, the questionable physics of the third act’s romantic-mechanics, leading as it does to the most famous movie scene of all time, is held up as a paragon for subsequent generations of aspiring screenwriters, but it feels more strictly necessary than emotionally true. You tend not to want to start pulling that thread, which follows to the idea that Ilsa is a little short on personality overall, especially when compared to the rogues’ gallery that preceded her. In two years’ time, Hawks (and writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner) would practically spoof the comparatively funereal wind-up of Casablanca’s legendary last chapter, taking it in about three dress sizes and setting it to music you could boogie to.
Although Arthur Edeson was nominated for the Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography (in a field of nine other competing films, The Song of Bernadette took the statuette), the visual aspect of Casablanca is one of the few that isn’t generally inflated to unwieldy, mythic proportions. Roger Ebert, one of the film’s longstanding and most high-profile advocates, frequently points out that there are few, if any, Memorable Shots. Here’s evidence for Edeson’s defense counsel: Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray reveals plenty of platinum shimmer in this putative “job of work,” making a terrific display of Curtiz’s exemplary deep spaces. The high-definition transfer is brilliantly moderate in its management of contrast, as Curtiz’s inky blacks and bright whites were deployed generously but discreetly—expressionism under the guise of soundstage verisimilitude. As the film is the crown jewel of Warner’s home-video department, the sound has never really been in danger of falling into neglect, but the uncompressed DTS monaural track is still noteworthy for its crystal clarity and resonance.
The “70th Anniversary” set is quite an impressive doorstop, in weight and density—like something to house ceremonial pistols. Inside is a small coffee table-style book of storyboards and other booklet-grade material. There’s a poster, and a wallet
embossed with the words “Bad Mother Fucker” that contains four complimentary drink coasters. The three discs consist of the following: the Blu-ray, which contains the film, plus nearly all the supplements, save for a few feature-length docs, which are on the second disc. The third disc is the DVD copy, an inexplicable inclusion that might as well be a gift certificate for a free rental at Blockbuster. As usual, Warner Home Video distinguishes itself not just with the quantity of extras, but also the quality. There are two terrific commentary tracks (one by Ebert, the other by film historian Rudy Behlmer), as well as one of their great “Warner Night at the Movies” kits that includes newsreels, short subjects, and a cartoon. There is, of course, lots more: in-depth featurettes and feature-length docs. The standout for me is the Curtiz profile, whose talking heads, including Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich, proclaim him as terribly underrated (which is true) and one of the greatest of all directors (which isn’t).
Warner’s mega-classic arrives, on a sedan chair, with an alabaster high-definition transfer. Don’t drop it on your foot.