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Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Review)

15 Dec, 2008 By: John Latchem


$26.99 two-DVD set, $59.98 three-DVD set, $64.99 two-disc Blu-ray set
Rated ‘PG’ for mild violence.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet.

Is Casablanca one of the most overrated films of all time?

This is a question I often asked in discussing the film with various people. Some would agree. Most would look at me funny and ask if I were nuts.

I first saw the movie only about 10 years ago, as I was still developing my film palate in an environment gunked up by big budget blockbusters.

Thus, my first impressions focused on how the film has held up visually since it came out in 1942, though it obviously was constrained by the filmmaking techniques and mindset of the era. It doesn’t help that the equally influential Citizen Kane came out a year earlier but has aged better.

The new ultimate collector’s edition Blu-ray Disc provided the perfect opportunity to reassess that evaluation. Let me assure you that the film is of course an all-time classic. But consider: The direction, by Michael Curtiz, isn’t particularly distinct, and there some laughable rear-projection visual effects. Plus, the script relies on some gaping holes in plot and logic we are meant to overlook — namely, the validity of the “letters of transit” at the center of the story, and the relationships they affect.

I am not alone in these observations. Roger Ebert in his commentary track (included with the new DVD and Blu-ray) confirms nearly all of them. Yet he is of a generation that is more forgiving of such things, as movies were not taken as seriously back then as they are now.

That’s not to say movies are any better now, but Star Wars pretty much changed the game in 1977 and forever divided the generations.

Therefore, I must employ my  (now vast) knowledge of film history to put myself in the mindset of a 1942 audience (the Ebert commentary helps with this as well) so that I may see past these relatively minor quibbles.

That Casablanca is a tremendously historic film goes without saying. The wonderful screenplay (plot holes aside) is responsible for six quotes on the AFI top 100 list, more than any other film. What amazes me is that they were able to contain such a richly layered story within a 102-minute timeframe. The film’s influence on other works has added to its aura of greatness over the years.

The story is now legendary. Expatriate American Rick Blaine (Bogart), while running a nightclub in French territory in Africa during World War II, must decide how to help his former lover Ilsa (Bergman) and her husband, Laszlo (Henreid), a leader of the Free France movement against the Nazis. The chilly relationship between Ilsa and Laszlo is yet another drawback, undercutting the believability that Laszlo is reliant on her love, which is key to the climactic twist.  

I can imagine that were it made in today’s overly commercial Hollywood, Casablanca would present itself as a trilogy, beginning with Rick and Ilsa meeting in Paris, a second act in Casablanca, and a concluding chapter in which Rick’s adventures reunite him with Ilsa, who is all but ignored by the bureaucratic Laszlo as he rebuilds a postwar France. And thus one of history’s great unrequited love stories is at last consummated.

Such a happy ending would, of course, cheapen everything the original film stands for.

Casablanca looks beautiful in this new ultimate collector’s edition, demonstrating the potential for black-and-while classics on Blu-ray. I imagine watching this crystal-clear Blu-ray transfer, with its picture so bright and crisp, is as close to seeing the film as it appeared when it was fresh in theaters 66 years ago.

The ultimate collector’s edition has all the bonus material from the earlier releases, such as the behind-the-scenes retrospectives, a 1955 television adaptation, and the 1995 cartoon Carrotblanca, starring Bugs Bunny. There’s also deleted scenes (which lack audio), and alternate audio recordings of “As Time Goes By.” The boxed set also offers a booklet, poster cards, and a leather passport wallet and luggage tag. The ultimate collector’s edition also adds the documentary Jack Warner: The Last Mogul.

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