'Casablanca' is more than a classic. It is an institution. It contains so many famous lines, characters and scenes that even those who have never seen it feel like they have by sheer osmosis; it is that ingrained in our shared cinematic consciousness.
The iconic moments from Michael Curtiz's 1942 masterwork are what cineastes remember most -- "We'll always have Paris," "Here's looking at you, kid" -- but what continues to startle, sixty years on, is just how well constructed and eminently watchable 'Casablanca' is. Yes, the famous parts are justifiably classic examples of writing, directing, performance and editing, but check out all that lies between the film's obvious masterstrokes: Curtiz's subtle use of camera movement, the expressive melancholia of Max Steiner's musical score, Claude Rains' shady but lovable turn as Ingrid Bergman's would-be suitor -- these may not be the moments that continue to get spoofed on retrospective TV specials and American Express commercials, but they do confirm that it is impossible to imagine ever getting tired of watching 'Casablanca.'
Bergman and Humphrey Bogart deserve a lot of credit for the success of the film, for it is their indelible chemistry that continues to send hearts soaring six decades on. Never has emotional pathos and barely contained physical longing been so eloquently apparent. And when they have to say good-bye to each other at the end of the film? There is not a dry eye in the house.
But 'Casablanca' is more than just a movie; it is also a place, and a state of mind. Its misty, darkly-lit streets and haunted piano bars remain figments of our lost dreams, and glimmers of our future hopes. Bogart and Bergman have, despite changing tastes, fads and fashions, remained our romantic ideal, the perfect pair of lovers who must -- as fate decrees -- part for now, but perhaps not forever. It is one of those rare movie moments when all of the planets aligned perfectly, to capture the pure essence of human fragility, love and longing in a single, iconic shot. It may be a predictable choice for Best Movie of All-Time, but 'Casablanca' really is that good, that important and that seminal.
This HD DVD release of 'Casablanca' follows a painstaking, grade-A remaster standard def DVD reissue back in 2003. The results were glorious then, and they are glorious now -- this is the way we dream our favorite classics will look when they come to home video. It is also a transfer so superior that even if I could find anything to remotely nitpick about, it would be pretty useless.
'Casablanca' is presented in 1080p/VC-1 video and appropriately pillarboxed to the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The black and white image is wonderful. The source material has been meticulously cleaned up, and good luck finding a speck of dirt, dropouts or inconsistencies in contrast or black levels. The film has a nice, deep and rich look, with excellent smoothness across the entire grayscale. Sharpness is perhaps slightly "soft" by today's standards, but terrific for a film from 1942. I continue to marvel at how deep and detailed this film looks. Fine textures throughout are clearly visible -- I could make out indentations on the spine of a book, or see slight creases in the clean whites of Humphrey Bogart's tuxedo. I am also grateful Warner didn't over-tweak this one -- whites never bloom and at no point is the image overly contrasted in an effort to make the film look "newer" or "glossier." Instead, 'Casablanca' maintains a very natural, film-like look throughout. Without a doubt this is the finest black and white transfer I've seen on high-def, period, and up there with the best remasters ever created for the home theater environment.
For whatever reason, Warner did not create a new 5.1 remaster for 'Casablanca.' So what we get here is the rather unusual configuration of a Dolby Digital-Plus 1.0 mono soundtrack. Of course, 'Casablanca' is largely dialogue driven, so it likely would not have benefited as greatly from a whiz-bang surround mix as, say, another classic like 'King Kong.' In any case, what we do get here is very nicely cleaned up.
In all honestly, there is not much to say about the soundtrack. The source elements have been well preserved. High-end is smooth with no distortion and little of the harshness you'd expect from a film this old. Mid-range is somewhat spacious, though still sounds flat, as you would expect, compared to a modern mix. Low end also lacks any real heft. Again, since this is a mono track, there is zero envelopment or presence to the mix. But on purely technical terms, 'Casablanca' sounds about as good is it probably could.
The 2003 standard-def DVD reissue of 'Casablanca' came loaded with extras, and all of those goodies have been ported over or this HD DVD release -- I still consider it a wonder that so much value-added material and the feature film can all fit on a single disc. And for a classic whose primary contributors are almost all deceased, it is mighty impressive that Warner was able to create such a fine package.
After a predictably sappy if heartfelt introduction by Lauren Bacall (aka Mrs. Humphrey Bogart), the majority of the rest of the extras are exemplary. Two separate audio commentaries tracks (the first by Roger Ebert, and the second by historian Rudy Behlmer) excel by virtue of the passion and knowledge of both participants. Behlmer's, however, may be the more engaging discussion, as his ability to dissect even the smallest details is almost awe-inspiring -- it is hard to imagine someone who had no connection with the production of a film knowing so much about how it was made. Ebert, as always, is animated about a film he is passionate about and offers a more all-encompassing perspective on 'Casablanca's impact and influence, as well as a compelling argument for why it should be considered one of Hollywood's all-time classics.
Up next are the video-based supplements, all in 480p, full-screen video. Leading the pack are three generally strong documentaries. "Bacall on Bogart" is the best of the bunch, an extensive 90-minute discussion with the legendary actress, who reminisces on Bogie and how he made his trek from lowly Broadway character actor to Hollywood legend. "A Tribute to 'Casablanca'" is a shorter 30-minute television special originally produced for Turner Classic Movies that examines in brisk but comprehensive fashion the film's legacy, and features a wealth of lovely recollections from various historians and collaborators. Finally, a third featurette, "The Children Remember," is a bit lacking. The offspring of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom, talk about what the film meant to them growing up, and how it has affected their lives since. Unfortunately, genuine insight into the real Bogart and Bergman is painfully slight.
A variety of unique extras round out the set. There are two deleted scenes and a montage of outtakes -- all pretty scrappy in quality and without sound, an audio-only Screen Guild Theater Radio Show version of the film in which Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid reprise their roles, and a total of eight audio-only "Scoring Stage Sessions." A bit weirder is the surreal 18-minute condensation of a Warner Brothers made-for-television update of 'Casablanca' set in the Cold War, entitled "Who Holds Tomorrow?" -- this one you just have to see to believe.
The extras continue with an extensive "Production Research" gallery containing memos, rare documents, still photos and publicity materials; 18 minutes of 'Casablanca'-inspired Looney Tunes cartoon shorts; and finally, the film's original and re-release theatrical trailers. Whew.
'Casablanca' is a true classic, and perhaps the first of its kind to hit the next-gen formats. This HD DVD release is an absolute winner -- a stunning remaster and tons of extras make this a must-own for anyone even remotely interested in what cinema is all about. This is one to add to your collection simply because, well, don't you have to?
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.