By the time we arrive at Rick’s saloon, a certain atmosphere of paranoia, exoticism, and vivacity has been set—and then comes romance, in the form of piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) and his charming rendition of “It Had to Be You” as the camera makes a slow dolly toward him through the bustling crowd and wafts of cigarette smoke. It’s easy to fall into the rhythms of Casablanca, long before the appearance of the star-crossed lovers and their damaged idealism, or most of the great character actors who populate the world of Michael Curtiz’s film make their presence felt—such as Sydney Greenstreet’s bemusedly sinister Signor Ferrari and Peter Lorre’s nervously sweaty Ugarte.
The film has a peculiar magic to it, and because of its pace the richness of its sense of detail often goes unnoticed. Audiences make generalizations about Casablanca because of how all those little particulars add up. Film lovers discuss it with a starry look in their eyes, as if they were describing their first kiss or a lost love, because something in the film touches them, perhaps its theme of dignity and decency, of rediscovered idealism. Males are instinctively drawn to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick because he’s a man of integrity, while females dig him because he’s a man of mystery.
There’s also something else to Rick, and it’s visible in his hangdog face. When we first see him he’s playing chess by himself, and the light picks up on a small glimmer of spittle on his lips. Bogart was always a sputtering actor, which made him so great as a B-movie villain cowering for his life before getting shot to death by the hero. But his sudden stardom revealed something so human about him, so relatable. He seemed more like a real man than, say, the frequently idealized characters played by Errol Flynn. The fact that Bogart was a movie star says a lot about his particular charisma—the kind that’s earned by an actor who’s paid his dues and figured out who he is. Rick is his own man, and like those refugees at the start of the film who watch a plane fly above Casablanca, his life experience is written on his face.
Rick is first seen with his back turned to a local who’s had too much to drink. “Rick, where were you last night?” the man says, to which Rick replies, “That was so long ago, I don’t remember.” Even though there’s no overt sex in Casablanca, it’s implied almost constantly. When Rick orders his bartender to take a girl home in a cab, he asks him to come right back. In scenes Bogart shares with Claude Rains (as Captain Renaud), they talk about women as if they were pleasing baubles to be admired, then dropped. Renaud also fawns over his friend with the most extravagant, slightly ironic hero-worship, and in a classic line from the film, Rains’s classy, debonair captain tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund that if he were a woman, he’d also be in love with Rick.
It’s astonishing when Bergman materializes some 30 minutes into the film, after Lorre’s Ugarte has whimpered for his life and been shot dead, and Rick has proclaimed that he “sticks his neck out for no one” and came to Casablanca “for the waters.” The shot that first captures the glamorous Bergman doesn’t call attention to itself, or highlight her, and yet we can’t take our eyes off her. It’s strange, because the shot is very wide, the dress she wears is plain, and she looks nervous and hesitant. How can a woman be so luminous when she’s moving her face back and forth like a deer transfixed by car headlights? When the audience finally sees Ila in close-up, sitting at a table in the café with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), her face is somewhat round, her eyes are sharp, and her voice has a certain breathless quality. Bergman, like Bogart, captivate us because of that ineffable thing we call presence. We instantly understand Rick and Isla through the actors’ faces.
If audiences are to admire Rick and Bogart, then we’re meant to adore Ilsa and Bergman. Victor Laszlo is set up as a great freedom fighter, yet he feels more like an abstract idea or plot point, not unlike the letters of transit that allow people safe passage out of Casablanca. Ilsa, like Rick, is a full person, with vulnerability in her eyes and a magnetism to her presence that goes beyond gauzy lenses and classical three-point lighting. Naturally they’re drawn to one another. She has a lot of big moments in the film, but a lot of small ones too that are just as memorable, such as that tiny, mischievous gleam in her eyes when she asks Sam to play some of the old songs.
There are, of course, the close-ups when Rick and Ilsa see each other for the first time as Sam plays “As Time Goes By,” but there’s also the furtive glance they throw at one another for an instant, before their eyes flicker back to the table, as they sit chatting about precedents being broken with Victor and Renaud. Those are the times that Casablanca resonates not only as a great example of the films being made during the studio era, but also as a reminder of moments we’ve had ourselves. It’s a movie that inspires nostalgia.
Casablanca is about striving for something meaningful. It’s also a tale of sacrifice in the name of greater good, set in a mysterious world of shadows, booze, cigarette smoke, and memories. The love story at the center of the film allows its heroes to tap into something special within their selves, and if they lost it in Paris, somehow they got it back in Casablanca. The film is all of those things at once, but it’s also about these people, these faces, and all the little moments between them. It reminds me that when we’re in relationships, we learn more about who we are reflected in other people, and when we go to the movies, the great ones can do the same thing.
I don't think I've ever seen or heard a better version of Casablanca.
While the making of Casablanca has been covered to death in a wide variety of media, this box set might best be considered a one-stop compendium. After an introduction by Lauren Bacall, the first disc includes the movie with two audio commentaries, the first being an enthusiastic take on the film by Roger Ebert, who attempts a comprehensive analysis of why he considers this his "favorite" movie of all time (with Citizen Kane singled out as the "best" of all). Ebert doesn't just go for idle fan worship, instead specifically pointing out the sensitive lighting and "best angles" on Bergman's face, scene structure, the placement of key lines of dialogue, and the chemistry between not only the leads but the supporting cast. Ebert even takes the time to describe how much of the cast came from overseas, including the extras, which adds considerably to the feeling that we're not just watching stock casting. He delves into imperfections of the film, such as Henreid's performance; "We're supposed to like him," he admits, without ever being able to. He also dislikes one or two lines of Bogart's dialogue, which seem on the nose, and says he feels like a shot of a plane flying overhead looks fake. But these are quibbles, and the imperfections of the film allow Ebert to embrace and love the film all the more. In comparison, film historian Rudy Behlmer's commentary is positively academic, though it goes more into the making-of and a fountain of information on the cast, crew, and studio. Theatrical trailers round out the first disc.
The second disc contains additional scenes and outtakes, though the soundtrack is missing. They're worth a glance for curiosity, but it's doubtful they retain any interest in repeat viewing. The "Bacall on Bogart" documentary is mostly composed of enjoyable clips from many of Bogart's films, including several that are less well known. The clips show Bogart rise from a journeyman actor in bit roles, then a second-tier bad guy getting blown away by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, a few career curiosities including playing a Mexican bandit and an Irish horse trainer, and of course, his landmark starring roles in The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Big Sleep, The Caine Mutiny, and others. The documentary mostly allows the clips to speak for themselves, and Bacall's narration hits the right note of affection without being cloying. The retrospective "You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca" might be called "The Usual Suspects" instead, since anyone still alive associated with the film is brought out to reminisce and share their time-honored anecdotes. It's a short documentary, but covers the highlights of a fascinating case study in studio moviemaking.
A featurette entitled "As Time Goes By: The Children Remember" has Pia Lindstrom and Stephen Bogart talk about their mother and father, and the timelessness and importance of this film. Bergman considered the film pretty much just a job, and never the film she thought would live in cinema history because, Lindstom says, "The movie was made under difficult circumstances and nobody wanted to be there." Of course, the children are quick to point out that the fact that the script pages were arriving the day before shooting-or the day of-only added to the ambiguity of the performances. It's a puff piece, sure, but their stories are fun. Even more enjoyable is the inclusion of the parody cartoon Carrotblanca, starring Bugs Bunny, well cast as the wry, self-effacing Rick.
The magic of Casablanca was not recaptured in the 1955 Warner Bros. Presents TV Program "Who Holds Tomorrow?" starring Charles McGraw as Rick. Not only does the lead actor lack Bogart's one-of-a-kind charisma, but Rick's bar is evenly lit like a television studio, as opposed to the moody light-and-dark of the movie version. Also, the script is a leaden, tedious affair about cynical Rick warming his heart to help some refugees out of Casablanca. The rediscovered idealism doesn't feel as earned without the doomed love story, and furthermore you notice the scarcity of great character actors (Rains, Greenstreet, Lorre) who populate the movie. All in all, this hack TV job only serves to emphasize that the movie captured the proverbial lightning in a bottle. A 1943 radio broadcast of Casablanca features Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid in their movie roles, and feels redundant without the picture (the corny narration just doesn't cut it). The disappointing third disc offers a by-the-numbers documentary about studio mogul Jack L. Warner. Still, you can't beat the quantity of goodies available in this box set, including postcards, a booklet of images and anecdotes, and an elegant case that would look nice on anyone's bookshelf.
This handsomely packaged three-disc DVD box set is jam-packed with extras, meant to please fans and cinema history buffs alike.