Saturday, March 23, 2013

CASABLANCA: 70th Anniversary Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

It’s a little bit difficult to assess Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) without a myriad of superlatives immediately coming to mind. Masterpiece just happens to be one such moniker foisted on the movie – justly, most would agree, overrated some might say. Yet Casablanca has proven the rarest of movie treasures. It only seems to grow more nuanced and fascinating with age. Many movies maintain their classic status, appreciated as great works of art – exemplars attesting to a level of craftsmanship both in front of and behind the camera from the period in which they were made. One admires the precision in the exercise, or picks out iconic bits of acting, cinematography, memorable quotations that continue to resonate as truly outstanding accomplishments in and of themselves.
But rarely does a movie – any movie – endure so comprehensively to hold our collective fascination as Casablanca so obviously does. It was a project born from a never heard of – un-produced - play ‘Everybody Comes To Rick’s’, and made under the workmanlike precision of a film factory at its zenith; quite simply just one of 52 projects slated for the coming year. It went through various and constant permutations from script to casting, with daily chaos more the norm than the exception on the set. And yet, from this maelstrom emerged a movie as rare as a four leaf clover and more ravishingly dramatic than any bird of paradise.
Casablanca today is a movie that has not only resisted changing audience tastes. It has miraculously given us the illusion to have changed with the times along the way, remaining as fresh and as vital in our collective movie-going experience as it must have played for audiences back in 1942/43. True, the war is no longer with us; gratefully too, neither are the Nazis. But the precepts in this morality play go far beyond mere uniforms or timelines. One need not have been born prior to, at the height of, or even in the immediate postwar aftermath of American prosperity to fully appreciate the plight of these characters in their romanticized quest for freedom.
Sheer eloquence aside, Casablanca taps into a basic human fundamental to achieve greatness against seemingly insurmountable odds. It plays to our strengths, our dreams, our desires and yes, even our fears; a tenuous balancing act within the context of the traditional romantic melodrama. Yet, it never allows sentiment to get in the way of a good story or permit its cynicism to degrade our appreciation for life, liberty and the pursuit of even greater happiness not all of our characters achieve.  In the penultimate moment, Rick sends his true love off with her husband, knowing that in doing so he has contributed more than his fair share of sacrifices as part of the war effort.
But does he send Ilsa on her way to satisfy a magnanimous urge, or simply because – after their brief renewal of passion inside his suite above the saloon – he’s suddenly realized that, while ‘they’ll always have Paris’, the sex wasn’t as good as he remembered? We’re never quite sure; not of Rick nor Ilsa’s ulterior motives; she, dewy-eyed but smiling as she boards the plane with Victor Laslo; he, departing with the prefect of police, whom he almost shot but now regards as a trustworthy compatriot at ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’. It is these moral ambiguities, at the very heart of the tale that continue to resonate and inform our appreciation of Casablanca as a very high-functioning bona fide work of cinema art.
No one film can ever satisfy everyone’s opinion as being ‘the greatest of all time’. But if a decision must be made then Curtiz’s wartime melodrama is undeniably as worthy as any contender. Playwright Murray Burnett’s original, as reconstituted in the screenplay by Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein plays fast and loose with its assortment of unsavory characters, their past indiscretions and current scheming - all in an attempt to escape Nazi occupation on a plane bound for Lisbon.  In retrospect, it all seems to fit together so neatly. But at the time pre-production began there was great confusion and chaos behind the scenes. For years rumors have abounded Ronald Reagan and George Raft were first considered for the role of Rick; the hard-bitten realist/saloon keeper who comes face to face with the girl he thought he had finally flushed from his system back in Paris. In reality neither Reagan nor Raft were ever notified as forerunners for the part. As for Humphrey Bogart? Well, Bogart had been a Warner contract player for more than a decade, largely relegated to second string status as a thug muscle on the lam, who usually died in gangster pictures starring Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney.
In many ways Casablanca was Bogart's graduation from this ‘murderer's row’. If he had not proven amiable as a leading man there is little to suggest Bogart’s career would have survived the folly. He was hardly Hollywood's ideal of the romantic figure and well past the prime age of then twenty-something heartthrobs readily adored by female fans. Yet, Bogart is every bit the sensual lady's man in Casablanca; his cynical dispatch of lovers, friends and foes alike and his bitter, careworn inner torment oozing irresistibility. And Bogart intuitively does something rather miraculous in the part. He doesn’t try to be charming, though he so obviously is, and he even reacts in ways that, as played by any other actor of his ilk, would have branded the character of Richard Blaine as a boorish and disgustingly cynical reprobate.
When Bogart’s Rick callously dumps casual French flame, Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), telling her that he “never thinks that far ahead” when asked if she will see him tomorrow night, his averted glance and nonchalant attitude is hardly misconstrued as bastardly or even uncaring. When Rick refuses to help a panic stricken Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in his escape from the authorities, knowing that his incarceration will likely – and eventually does – lead to Ugarte’s ‘accidental’ death/murder, we are instantly more likely to align our sympathies with Rick’s necessity to remain above the fray in order to keep his café open.  Bogart’s Rick may not be pure of heart. In fact, Rick frequently illustrates through his actions that, as Mae West once astutely proclaimed, ‘goodness has nothing to do with it’. But when one stops to assess the character for who and what he is, the likely reaction from audiences is both warm and affectionate – not for the character as written, but rather, as performed by Bogart.   
Casablanca was shot under a tight deadline. The process was anything but smooth. Convinced that her husband might be having an affair with his co-star Bogart's first wife, Mayo Methot kept close watch on the set, causing Bogart to be overtly aloof toward Ingrid Bergman. The actress would later comment, "I kissed him but I never knew him." Yet, that tension seems only to have enhanced each actor’s performance. Together, Bogart and Bergman are the quintessential war torn lovers - destined to be apart even though, as the audience, we come to realize they ought to remain together. Bergman, on loan from David O. Selznick, is a knockout as the jaded lover/devoted wife who will not emotionally forsake her bond of marriage yet cannot maintain her physical fidelity in it.
Bergman, who never quite knew which man her character would eventually wind up with, plays Ilsa’s affections right down the middle and the result is a portrait of a woman so haunted by her past, suddenly caught up to her, and so germane in her devotion to the husband she once thought dead, but rediscovered anew, that we instantly bear the brunt of her conflicted sins. Ilsa Lund is not a woman scorned, a femme fatale, or a conniving seductress. Nor is she the virginal goddess Rick deflowered back in Paris before the occupation. Rather, she remains a striking creature of habit whose faiths and passions have begun to erode the very essence of who and where her loyalties lay. To carry off this formidable challenge requires an actress not only of incredible agility and dexterity within her acting craft, but also the inner understanding of that liquidity with which any fully-rounded woman of experience’s heart infrequently operates, especially when she is in love.     
As rewrites arrived almost daily to the set Bogart and his co-stars grew more impatient and uneasy about the last act. Would Isla Lund go away with Victor Laslo or remain behind with the man she truly loved - Richard Blane? The Epstein brothers could not decide. As filming progressed, establishing a resolution to this romantic conflict became more immediate. In a moment of sheer brilliance - or perhaps mere exhaustion for a conclusion – any conclusion to their story - the Epsteins suddenly turned to one another and simultaneously spoke the same line of dialogue - "Round up the usual suspects!" : an inspired bit of creativity. For those who have never seen Casablanca (as it must be stated there are probably still many…to misquote Ugarte - "Poor devils!") our story opens with Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) arriving in Casablanca to oversee the capture of Senior Ugarte (Peter Lorre); the man who murdered two German couriers in the unoccupied dessert. Strasser is first greeted by French Prefect of Police, Louie Renault (the magnificent Claude Rains), whose roving eye is frequently focused on the desperation of very young and equally attractive refugee girls seeking letters of transit to immigrate to America.
At the start of the film Louie and Rick are fair-weather friends; Rick allowing Louie to win at his illegal casino to keep from interfering in the daily operations of his cafe. Rick's Cafe Americain is, in fact, at the hub of the black market where everything from diamonds to human cargo is traded to the highest bidder. The lucrativeness of this hotbed is hardly wasted on the unscrupulous Senior Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet); a slave trader who also owns the seedy ‘Blue Parrot’ bar just down the street. Nor is Louie entirely convinced that Rick's stoic cynicism is anything more than mere smokescreen masking a more mysterious reason as to why Rick had to leave America. "I like to think that you killed a man," Louie tells him, "It's the romantic in me!" To any and all inquiries, however, Rick remains silent. When Louie informs him that he plans to arrest Ugarte (Peter Lorre) for the murder of the couriers, Rick's response is "I stick my neck out for nobody." Ugarte is arrested after a shootout at the cafe and later 'dies' of wounds inflicted by his Nazi captors. But Strasser has a Nazi dossier on Rick that illustrates his previous pattern for providing aid and assistance to enemies of the Third Reich.
Enter the luminous Ilsa Lund (Bergman) on the arm of freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Described by Louie as the most beautiful woman to ever visit Casablanca, Ilsa's mere presence in the café is enough to send shockwaves of contempt through Rick. After the café closes for the night Rick quietly gets drunk while his piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson) looks on. The halcyon haze from this binge generates a memorable flashback. We see Rick and Ilsa at the height of their passionate rendezvous in Paris before the occupation. On the eve that Ilsa is supposed to meet Rick at the train station she instead sends him a cryptic letter, telling him that they can never be together. Understanding that Rick's life is in danger if he stays behind, Sam coaxes him onto the last train out of France. Rick awakens from his stupor in the wee hours of the morning to discover Ilsa in his doorway. She attempts to explain herself but Rick cannot see beyond his own bitterness and jealousy. He admonishes Ilsa, driving her out with dark, cold words. The next day Victor asks Rick if he will sell Ugarte's letters of transit to him. But Rick denies the request by telling Victor to ask his wife instead.
Ilsa confesses to her husband the more superficial details about her affair with Rick, then quietly sneaks off to beg - then threaten - Rick for the letters herself. After some romantic friction, the two rekindle the sparks of their passion and Ilsa informs Rick that she can no longer resist him. She will do whatever he says. Rick asks Ilsa to bring Victor to the café after hours the following night where he says he intends to hand over the letters of transit only to him to escape while keeping Ilsa for himself. However, when Victor and Ilsa arrive at the café they find a preening Louie Renault ready to arrest Victor as part of a conspiracy for the murder of the two German couriers. In a moment of inspired brilliance, Rick double crosses Louie, holding him at gun point while he forces his signature on Ilsa and Victor's safe passage documents. Rick then tells Louie to telephone the airport radio tower to confirm their reservations, forewarning that his gun is aimed directly at Louie’s heart “That is my least vulnerable spot!” Louie declares. Instead, Louie calls Strasser instead with a cryptic message, thereby alerting him of Ilsa and Victor’s plan of escape.
Rick, Victor, Ilsa and Louie arrive at the airport where Rick explains to Ilsa in private how their love would never endure his forcing her to separate from her husband. She is getting on that plane with Victor while Rick stays behind to make sure their takeoff is successful. As the plane begins to taxi the runway Strasser arrives and is killed by Rick in a shootout. Louie, who now has the opportunity to arrest Rick for the murder, instead informs his officers to "Round up the usual suspects." Louie tells Rick that it will be best if he goes away for a while, adding his own intentions to accompany him. "Louie," Rick exclaims before the two men fade into the night fog for parts unknown, "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship!"  And so it has been between the film and moviegoers everywhere for the past 70 years. Anyway one chooses to analyze it Casablanca remains a milestone. Under Michael Curtiz’s unerring direction Casablanca emerges as the most adroit, romantic and satisfyingly stylish film of the 1940s and a perfect entertainment besides!
In retrospect, Dooley Wilson’s Sam is the film's most remarkable character. At a time when black performers were considered little more than servants or comic relief Sam is neither, but in fact, Rick's equal, and at times even his salvation. It is Sam who first encourages Ilsa to leave his employer alone; Sam, who saves Rick from certain Nazi capture at the train depot in Paris; Sam, who looks after Rick after he has succumbed to drunken self-pity and despair. It goes without saying that Bogart and Bergman are at the top of their game. Their screen chemistry is, to quote another Bogart classic, 'the stuff that dreams are made of'. As the audience, we yearn for reconciliation between Ilsa and Rick in the first act, are glad when they evolve their relationship into its illicit détente at the beginning of the third act, and then have our hearts torn asunder in the final reel. In that arc of human emotion and conflict we also become disillusioned romantics, just like Rick – even as we recognize that the ending of the story is just as it should be. That's an extraordinary cinematic achievement.
Casablanca frequently hovers in the top five on most critics’ ‘greatest movies of all time’ lists. It is also one of the most oft' misquoted movies in film history. For the record, Rick never says “Play it again, Sam,” but rather, “Play it. If she can stand it, I can.” After viewing Casablanca in excess of 100 times throughout the course of my lifetime I have to say that I still consider it the greatest movie ever made, if for no better reason, than because it continues to generate a perennial freshness each time I watch it. The film has not dated. In fact, it continues to hold me spellbound in the dark. Hence, Casablanca remains that rarity among film art, or as playwright Murray Burnett wisely assessed of a true classic some time ago, it is, "true yesterday, true today and true tomorrow." So, Sam, play it. Not for old time's sake, but again and again... for all time's sake!
Casablanca was one of Warner Home Video's early 'Ultimate Edition' Blu-Rays with a very crisp, yet slightly homogenized image harvest. For the film's 70th anniversary, Warner has rethought its mastering efforts to create a brand new, arguably 'more film-like' presentation in 1080p. Yet, I'm not entirely certain I appreciate the efforts. First and foremost, I should point out that there is nothing wrong with this new minting. But by direct comparison to the aforementioned 'Ultimate Edition', this 70th Anniversary transfer is much darker, with more film grain. That’s a good thing. But I’m not particularly satisfied by the loss of finer details due mostly to the overall darkness of the image. Arguably, this is how Casablanca looked when audiences saw it back in 1942. But is this how audiences in 2012 want to enjoy it? Ah, now that remains open for discussion. There’s no fault in this 1080p transfer. We have excellent tonality in the gray scale. Close ups are the most impressive and age related artifacts are virtually non-existent. The DTS mono audio is as bombastic as ever. Doing a direct comparison between the UE and 70th I can't say that I detected any noticeable sonic differences and/or improvements. Where the 70th Anniversary excels is in its extra features.
Some 13 hours of archival and newly produced featurettes have been assembled on all things 'Casablanca' and Warner Bros. First up is You Must Remember This – the making of Casablanca – a definitive look at the making of the film made for its 50th anniversary home video release back in the 1980s. This is followed by Bacall on Bogart – a marvelous retrospective of Bogie – the man, the actor and his career. Then there's Carrotblanca – the Bugs Bunny cartoon spoof, and, of course, the original pilot for a 1950s television series that proved a colossal flop. We also get 'As Time Goes By: The Children Remember; a loving tribute from Stephen Bogart and Pia Linstrom. There are also audio and video outtakes, deleted scenes, interviews and expert audio commentaries from Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer - all previously made available as part of the UE.
Regrettably, Warner continues to pay these extras little mind in terms of image quality. All are in 480i and many are in rough shape from a visual standpoint. Warner's Night at the Movies recreates the experience of going to the cinema circa 1943 with trailers for Now Voyager – a superb Bette Davis movie which we ought to have long had in hi-def but still don’t!!!, plus vintage newsreels and Merry Melodies cartoons.
Casalbanca: An Unlikely Classic is a new featurette with contemporary filmmakers affectionately waxing about the film's enduring magic and appeal. We also get the 1947 radio broadcast of the film and Max Steiner's scoring sessions that provide some fascinating alternative takes of the songs and tracks best remembered in the film. But perhaps the best new extra in this set is Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of : a very entertaining, if somewhat brief, look at Curtiz' miraculous career at WB and elsewhere. Fans will eat this one up. Three feature length documentaries round out this very comprehensive compendium of extras. Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul, and The Brothers Warner both critique the creative family that gave us one of the most celebrated film studios in the world. And finally there's You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story. Though hardly as comprehensive as MGM: When The Lion Roars - at five hours, Richard Schickel's tribute to the studio and its enduring cinema classics is a must have documentary that spans the entire history of Warner Brothers.
Like all of WB's oversized box sets, this one comes with its assortment of tangible extras too: a 62 page book that is heavy on photos but light on text, four drink coasters in a faux leather box and reproduction of the 1942 French poster. Bottom line: this is Casablanca. Even without all the hoopla and extras it is still a film that belongs on everyone's top shelf, right next to Ben-Hur, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Citizen Kane, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Godfather and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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