There’s an old joke about a woman who saw Hamlet for the first time and hated it. “It was all quotations!” she said. When a piece of art enters the culture so completely, it can be easy to lose what makes it great or important in the first place. Casual familiarity can make it seem dull, even when it is truly excellent.
Casablanca is considered one of the great Hollywood films of all time. Anyone growing up between the 1950s and the 2000s likely knows several lines and scenes from the film. Even if they haven’t watched it. I know I’ve seen it several times. I’d enjoy the familiarity of the more famous lines (“Round up the usual suspects.” “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”) But I already knew them before I saw the film. It felt a little like quotations.
For this viewing of the newly released 4K transfer, I tried to look at the film fresh. I tried to forget what I knew and watched it like any old studio movie, which might or might not be a classic.
What I found was a tough war story about cynicism and sacrifice. Casablanca, the city, is in Morocco and at the time of the story (~1941) is a part of a French protectorate. France is occupied by the German army at the time. Casablanca becomes a kind of purgatory for refugees trying to escape from the terrors of the Third Reich. Getting into Casablanca is a problem. Getting out, without letters of transit, is a bigger one.
So, when two Germans with special, unquestionable letters are killed, the local authorities take a special interest. They poke around all the local questionable characters, including bar own Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He has been running Rick’s Café Américain for a while, with its semi-hidden gambling and high-quality band.
Rick’s an American, and like America itself is neutral at the time. Neutral about everything – the war, the occupations, the company he keeps. About the letters of transit that come into his possession. The thief and murderer who stole them hides them with Rick. But when he tries to get them back, and is arrested, Rick stands by. He sticks his neck out for nobody.
Until freedom fighter Victor Laszlo comes to town, along with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Rick knew Isla in Paris, years before. They had a whirlwind romance and planned to escape the incoming German occupation together. Only Ilsa left him alone with a letter and a broken heart.
Laszlo, a wanted man, needs those letters of transit. Rick needs Ilsa. The Germans want Laszlo captured or dead. The local French police chief wants all his various minor corruptions to continue unabated. It’s a great little complex of conflicts, with Rick and Ilsa’s secret romance right at the heart.
Casablanca has a great story, but what’s more is that it has great scenes. Almost every single one has multiple threads going on at the same time. There are half a dozen tiny subplots that reveal the characters of the various players in subtle ways, while always moving the overall story forward.
Trying to watch the film while pretending I didn’t know all the outcomes, I found Rick to be a dark, mercurial character. His selfishness seems almost the complete and total definition of his character. Claude Rains’ Captain Renault I’d always seen as a comic, but his corruption is sincere and rather reprehensible. When a young married couple come to him for approval for an exit visa, it’s obvious his preferred form of payment would be access to the girl. It makes the film’s famous conclusion even more satisfactory.
This new 4K release is probably as good as Casablanca will ever look. At times it’s astounding in its clarity. There’s a very occasional shot that’s a little soft (though sometimes, as with Ingrid Bergman’s luminous close-ups, this might be intentional) but the sharpness and detail of this release gives the film new life.
Casablanca wasn’t a B-picture, not with its cast and production team, but it also wasn’t considered a tentpole film while it was being produced. Bogart hadn’t really played a romantic leading man. The property it was based on was an unproduced stage play. The screenplay wasn’t complete when filming began, and scenes were being written on the days they were shot. It’s an example of what the Hollywood studio system could do when it was firing on all cylinders. Everything looks good, every performance is committed and complete. The dialogue is witty but pointed, and not glib. And when it gets sentimental, Casablanca does so with big emotional payoffs.
Casablanca has been released on 4K UHD by Warner Brothers. The release includes a Blu-ray of the film as well. Extras on the 4K disc include an introduction to the film by Lauren Bacall, and two commentary tracks: one from Roger Ebert, and another from Rudy Behlmer.
The Blu-ray, which I believe is the same as from the 70th Anniversary collection released in 2012, contains those as well as several video extras: “Warner Night at the Movies” (51 min), a “authentic” ’40s movie-going experience with a trailer, newsreel, short film, and several cartoons; “Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart” (84 min), a documentary about Bogart’s life and work; “Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of” (38 min), a documentary on the film’s director; “Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic” (35 min), a documentary on the production and impact of the film;
“You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca “(35 min), a older documentary on the film; “As Time Goes By: The Children Remember” (7 min), Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom (Ingrid Bergman’s daughter) on being the children of famous stars; Deleted Scenes (2 min), with no audio; Outtakes (5 min); “Who Holds Tomorrow?” (19 min), a TV remake; “Looney Tunes: Carrotblanca” (8 min), a Looney Tunes parody made in the ’90s. Audio-only extras include numerous scoring stage sessions, (17 min); and two radio play versions of the film: “4/26/43 – Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Broadcast” (30 min) and “11/19/47 – Vox Pop Radio Broadcast” (30 min). Also, a pair of trailers.