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Casablanca Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 May 2007
Image Even though it’s just about the perfect example of Hollywood craftsmanship being elevated to true art, in a limited sense, there’s not much point in issuing films as old as “Casablanca” in high definition video. In those days, the resolution of film used for movies was much lower than it is now—older films will simply never be as crisp and sharp as movies from later periods. In this case, yes, the resolution is a little more detailed than in the relatively recent DVD of the movie, but if you already have that, there aren’t any strong arguments to be made in favor of replacing that standard-definition DVD with this one.

On the other hand, if you have a high-definition player and you don’t already include “Casablanca” in your collection, this edition is ideal. The print used is impeccably clean and clear; since it was a major studio film, it was given A-class treatment in all regards, and is a showcase for just how well-done a big studio film could be in 1942. The disc is laden with extras; there are two worthwhile commentary tracks by noted film scholars, one by Roger Ebert, the other by Rudy Behlmer. The movie is introduced by Bogart’s widow, Lauren Bacall, who also hosts the documentary (made for TV), “Bacall on Bogart.” She traces the history of this indelible star, and many of his coworkers and friends (including Richard Brooks and John Huston) have their say as well.

There’s also a documentary, “As Time Goes By,” about the making of the movie itself. This was also made for television, and long enough ago that several people who worked on the movie, including writer Julius Epstein, actor Dan Seymour and several behind-the-scenes set workers were still alive, and tell fascinating anecdotes. It’s now clear that “Casablanca,” which won the Best Picture Oscar, is one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies, since it has everything. It tells an interesting, deeply romantic story, and features a star pairing so absolutely perfect that it’s a bit of a shock to realize this is the only movie Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman made together. The rest of the cast couldn’t be better, either: Claude Rains as the coolly cynical police detective, Sydney Greenstreet as Bogart’s friendly café-owning rival, Conrad Veidt as the arrogant Nazi officer and Paul Henreid as Bogart’s rival for Bergman’s love. The cast is full of other delectable bits, as from Peter Lorre and S.Z. Sakall.

Many memorable lines pepper the film: “Here’s looking at you, kid;” “Round up the usual suspects;” “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling goes on at Rick’s’;” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship;” “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and what are probably the movie’s two most famous lines: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” and “We’ll always have Paris.” At least two movies take their titles from lines in “Casablanca,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Play It Again, Sam” (a line that’s not actually in “Casablanca,” but one which everyone assumes is there).

It’s so rich in classic Hollywood qualities that it can easily be watched over and over again; it’s the favorite movie of many people around the world, and it’s easy to see why. But what’s not so easy to understand is that it was almost an accidental classic. It was just another movie Warner Bros. churned out that year; Jack Warner was the head of the studio, but Hal Wallis was the head of production, and the greatness of “Casablanca” is due more to Wallis than to any other factor, including director Michael Curtiz.

The documentary “As Time Goes By” explains how some of the elements came together in a providential, unpredictable manner. At the end, after Bogart shoots Veidt (yeah, it’s a spoiler, but knowing that won’t spoil a thing), Rains—revealing his actually-on-the-right-side nature clearly—sends aides off to look for the killer, though he knows it was Bogart. The scene works because of a pair of telling glances exchanged by Rains and Bogart, but those were added after the scene was otherwise completed. And that great, memorable last line about a beautiful friendship was added after the film had otherwise been completed; Bogart was called back for a day’s worth of looping.

You’ll find a small handful of discarded scenes (Bogart meeting Henreid in jail) and outtakes, which, for those who know the film well, can be surprising, even disorienting. There’s a less-interesting segment with the children of Bogart and of Bergman, but the “Bogart on Bacall” documentary is outstanding, one of the best such treatments of a major Hollywood star.

It can easily be argued that Humphrey Bogart was THE major Hollywood star, though proponents of Cary Grant, John Wayne and Bette Davis have their own justified claims. After a kind of shakedown period in the 1930s, during which Warners tossed contract player Bogart into all kinds of movies—Westerns, a horror movie, even a hillbilly musical—he eventually settled into a position entirely his own: the jaded, nearly burned-out optimist, whose sparks of decency reignite. The message of “Casablanca”—there are ideals worth making sacrifices for—became the implicit message of many of Bogart’s films. He was the son of a New York society doctor, and grew up as a member of New York’s second-tier elite; he wasn’t a large man, he had a slight speech impediment (not a lisp, despite what you may hear elsewhere). But his haunted eyes that reveal all his variations of mood and emotion, his seamed face and general demeanor made him the perfect wounded idealist, the man who was well-described by Raymond Chandler: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” And Bogart, of course, played Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”

It reached a useful point for Bogart: when he played characters radically different from the one that had come to be his, he gained respect he might not have received had he been endlessly versatile. “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” featured Bogie in roles very much unlike Marlowe or “Casablanca”’s Rick Blaine—and he won great acclaim for both, and the Oscar for “African Queen.” (Why isn’t THAT on DVD??)

But “Casablanca” is almost certainly the movie most people aware of Bogart remember as his most famous, his best movie. Despite the near-pointlessness of a high-definition version, this DVD of “Casablanca” is nearly ideal—a great print of a great movie, plus many satisfying, useful extras.

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