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Movie Review – CASABLANCA, or: When Flaws Can't Hide a Masterpiece

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Why is Casablanca considered a masterpiece?

It certainly can’t be because of its plotting. “So, there’s this American expat running a bar in WWII-era Casablanca.  And he’s got something shady in his past, which means he doesn’t ally himself with either the Axis or the Allies.  Well, that’s not entirely true; he does seem to like a French police inspector a whole lot.  And he’s an alcoholic who takes advantage of the local women.  But then the expat’s ex-girlfriend suddenly shows up, and she needs these letters of transit to escape the Nazis and reach America, since apparently these documents override German bullets.  Did I mention that her husband is an Allied Resistance hero?  And that she dumped the expat many years ago because her presumed-dead husband was actually very much not-dead?  This is the reason most filmmakers like to have a completed shooting script before entering production.

Why is Casablanca considered a masterpiece?

It certainly can’t be because of its leads’ combined attractivity.  Ingrid Bergman (Said Expat’s Ex-Girlfriend) is certainly lovely, so much so that she makes Humphrey Bogart (Said Expat) look even more like a hobo.  With his haggard features and lisping uncertainty, Bogie seems more like a day-player in a gangster movie than a romantic lead.  Dig it: he couldn’t even physically compare with Bergman—she was quite a bit taller than him, and in certain scenes, director Michael Curtiz had to hide the difference by having him walk on platforms or sit on large pillows (that weren’t attached to Sydney Greenstreet’s backside, I might add).

Why is Casablanca considered a masterpiece?

It certainly can’t be because of its logistical coherance; not much makes sense from moment-to-moment.  I’ve always had a problem with the letters of transit—why would it matter if Paul Henreid’s resistence leader had them or not?  Seriously, if you’re a criminal trying to evade the Nazis, and you get your hands on any piece of paper, you better hope it leaves a mean paper cut because—as I noted before—those bastards will shoot you on sight.

Furthermore, how is Henreid able to walk around Casablanca, in full view of Nazi officers who know his face/are familiar with his actions, and not get arrested?  Scenes between him and Conrad Veidt’s head Nazi play like every first act confrontation between James Bond and his villain of the week; every exchange is a thinly veiled, “I know who you are.”  “Oh really?  Then do something about it.”  “In good time,” and I’m wondering why more people aren’t dead.  But even the little stuff doesn’t make sense; on his wonderful commentary track, Roger Ebert points out that the pervasive search lights scanning the city only track crowded places—a bar, a bazaar—where a criminal could hide in plain sight.  Looks atmospheric; makes no sense.

Repeat: why is Casablanca considered a masterpiece?

Because even if you are aware of all these flaws (and more!), you do not care.  The movie sweeps you up.  Maybe it’s Curtiz’s effortless direction, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch’s witty dialogue, or the cavalcade of wonderful performances (Lorre and Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, S.K. Sakall, and the great Claude Rains, who steals every scene he’s in as Rick’s policeman confidante), but Casablanca illustrates the salesman’s ultimate maxim: if you believe in it, then others will, too.  Everyone keeps the machine moving so confidently that you never question the pieces that don’t fit.  You buy the Nazi threat, even if it’s vague and less-than intimidating.  You want Henreid to help the Allies, even though he’s as charismatic as a wet blanket’s boring cousin.  You want Bogart to man up and do the right thing, even if the right thing is no solution at all.

And man, you want him and Bergman to reconnect.  Bogart may be sweaty and uncomfortable, but you never doubt the chemistry between him and Bergman (special effects at their finest).  You swoon when they’re together.  You despair when they’re apart.

You care when you shouldn’t.  That’s a hallmark of a great movie.

Warner has given the film a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are astounding.  The textures are sharper, the image depth is greater, yet a pleasing sheen of grain respects the original source materials.  The best Casablanca has ever looked—even the old Blu-ray looks artificial slick by comparison.  The monaural soundtrack is free of hisses and pops and digital manipulation; again, perfection.

As for bonuses….well, see you yourself.  We get a quick introduction by Lauren Bacall; audio commentaries from film critic Roger Ebert and film historian Rudy Behlmer; the Warner Night at the Movies viewing mode that plays a Now, Voyager theatrical trailer, a vintage newsreel, the “Vaudeville Days” short, and three Merrie Melodies cartoons before the feature film; four behind-the-scenes featurettes (Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of, Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic, You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca, and As Time Goes By: The Children Remember); seventy-five minutes of audio-only content, including a 1943 “Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Broadcast,” a 1947 “VOX Pop Radio Broadcast,” and five alternate “Scoring Stage Sessions”; deleted scenes; outtakes; “Who Holds Tomorrow” Casablanca television remake; “Carrotblanca” Looney Tunes short; theatrical and theatrical re-release trailers; the five-hour-long You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story documentary detailing the studio’s history; and three additional movie-length documentaries (The Brothers Warner, Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart, and Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul).

All told, that’s over twelve hours of supplements, and all of it is substantive and well produced.

Casablanca is alchemy; it takes harsh elements and turns them into magic.  One of cinema’s treasures, and this Blu-ray represents a triumph for Warner Home Entertainment: the picture and sound are flawless, with the most comprehensive bonus supplements package that I have ever seen.  The price point is high ($45.00), but it’s money well spent—this is the definitive home media edition of Casablanca.

Own the Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on March 27th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

–Note: Click HERE for the film’s official Facebook page.