By Sherry Lipp

Article first published as Casablanca – 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition on Blogcritics.

The 1942 classic Casablanca is now available on Blu-ray as a 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Set. The set is quite impressive, consisting of a restored transfer of the film, several feature-length documentaries and a wide array of special features. Included in the numbered box are a reproduction poster, a 62-page hardcover book, and a set of Casablanca-themed coasters. The deluxe treatment is fitting for a film held in such high regard. The film is considered by many to be one of the greatest romances, if not one of the greatest films of all time. Personally I would not call Casablanca a romance, but I would call it a love story. Thematically, the story rises above its basic elements. It’s not just about the love between a man and woman, but about sacrifice and believing in something greater than oneself. Therein lays the appeal of Casablanca.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate running a nightclub in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Rick’s popular Café Américain is a hiding place from the war. There are refugees trying to get to America. Vichy French and Third Reich German soldiers congregate at the bar. These people wouldn’t likely have freely associated with each other, but they do at Rick’s café . Set just prior to the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Casablanca is a kind of way station for people seeking exit visas to America. America is still seen as the place of great escape, and enemies of the Nazi’s are desperate to get there. Blaine claims to be neutral, serving both Axis military and the refugees. He says he “doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone,” he’s just looking to make a buck.

Blaine is content with the status quo until his ex-girlfriend, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his club. Lund, it turns out, is married to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a well-known Nazi resistor who has escaped three concentration camps. The Nazi’s are eager to capture Laszlo because he has information on resistance leaders throughout Europe. Blaine is torn by his anger of Lund’s betrayal of him, as well as his love for her. It’s a classic love triangle heightened by the extraordinary circumstances of their situation. Blaine possesses transit papers that will allow Laszlo and Lund to escape. Blaine is faced with the moral dilemma of helping himself or helping Laszlo. One action is for one man, while the other is for a greater good. 

Casablanca asks a question that many can relate to. Why does doing the right thing always require some sort of personal sacrifice? Why can’t the right thing fit with our greatest desires? I’m not going to say Casablanca spends a lot of time waxing philosophical about it, because it doesn’t. Despite the serious circumstances, Casablanca is fairly lighthearted and even comedic at times. The whole setting almost has a fairy tale-like quality to it. The disparate cast of characters wandering through Rick’s Café Américain offers differing views on the world around them that would never have been brought together otherwise. Love, duplicity, and moral dilemma are the ageless elements that help Casablanca transcend time to remain one of the most beloved movies of all time.

The latest Blu-ray release of Casablanca improves upon even the excellent 2008 high definition release. It’s hard to imagine a 70-year-old film looking any better. This new 1080p transfer boasts a razor sharp image, for the most part. The deliberately soft-focus shots, mostly close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, probably look as good as can be expected given the way they were originally filmed. The black & white cinematography looks especially rich, with greater definition in the various shades of gray than was seen in the 2008 Blu-ray. The audio also improves upon the earlier version, with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. The various audio elements are crisp and free of distortion. The dialogue is strong and intelligible. It’s a simple track, but presented very well.

Extra features are extensive on this box set, which includes two Blu-ray discs and a DVD of the movie. The first Blu-ray, which contains the feature film, has two audio commentaries, one by film historian Rudy Behlmer and the other by film critic Roger Ebert. Each track amounts to a history and analysis of the film. Both are very listenable. A selection of documentaries is included. “Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart,” hosted by Lauren Bacall, runs about 80 minutes and offers a good overview of Bogart’s career (this appeared on an earlier DVD edition). New to this release is the half-hour “Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of,” which fills us in on the career of Casablanca’s director. Also new is “Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic,” another half-hour featurette that examines the enduring legacy of the film.

Another section of the features is billed as “Warner Night at the Movies,” which tries to recreate the experience of seeing Casablanca theatrically in the ‘40s. The series of short subjects runs a total of about 50 minutes, but each piece can be accessed individually. Vintage pieces include a newsreel, a short documentary about vaudeville, and three Merrie Melodies cartoons. The “Additional Footage” section includes a few silent deleted scenes and some silent outtakes (the audio for these selections has been lost). A short television production from 1955, Who Holds Tomorrow?, is included. The program was a quasi-remake of Casablanca, starring Charles McGraw as Rick Blaine. A ‘90s-era Bugs Bunny cartoon parody, Carrotblanca, turns up as well.

Audio-only features include a 1943 radio adaptation of Casablanca which plays more like a synopsis as it crams the film’s story into just over 20 minutes. On the plus side, Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid are present as their onscreen characters. “Scoring Sessions” has several minutes of alternate music cues. Vox Pop is another radio program, this one aired in 1947, that is sort of an audio documentary about Warner Bros. studios involving Casablanca director Michael Curtiz.

The second Blu-ray disc contains several lengthy documentaries that focus on the history of Warner Bros. rather than Casablanca specifically. The main one, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, is nearly five hours long, divided into five chronologically-sequenced sections that cover the entire history of the movie studio. The Brothers Warner tells the story of Jack, Harry, Sam, and Albert Warner – the men who founded the legendary movie studio. This piece is one hour and 34 minutes long and packs in a lot of interesting info. Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul is an hour-long documentary that takes a closer look Jack Warner’s 45 year career as a Warner Bros. executive. Obviously this disc takes a serious time commitment, especially the marathon You Must Remember This, but it really is an informative and exhaustive look the history of the studio.

The spectacularly restored feature film, along with a truly epic selection of extra features, makes Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition an absolute must-have for fans of classic cinema.
Chaz Lipp

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