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If nothing else, you must remember this: Casablanca is a great movie. A winner of three Academy Awards (including best Picture of 1943), it is one of those rare delights that more than lives up to its status as a “classic”. Chosen as the number two American film of all-time by the American Film Institute, Warner Brothers has released the film in a slick, comprehensive two-disc special edition. Possibly one of the most quoted films of all-time, it is pure moviemaking magic. To this day, it remains an experience unlike any other in cinematic history.

Casablanca: Special Edition
Movie
It is 1941. Much of the world is embroiled in WWII. We are introduced to the northern African city of Casablanca, Morocco. Although the city is administered by the Vichy French government, the local police are eager to please the visiting Third Reich officers, since France is currently occupied by Germany, who have installed their own government in the country. The city serves as the last stop for European refugees. They travel from Marseilles, France to purchase illegal travel visas in the city, and from Casablanca fly onto to Lisbon, Portugal, where they make the last leg of their trip to America and freedom. The flashiest and most popular establishment in Casablanca is Rick’s Café Americain, frequented by clients of all political affiliations. It is a place to get good food, good music, and, if you fall in favor with the owner, a piece of some illegal gambling in the back room. The owner is Rick Blaine, an exiled, cynical American portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. Rick is a loner, a man who “sticks his neck out for nobody”. A no-nonsense person, he does what is always in his own best interests.

As the movie opens, a German courier carrying transit letters signed by Charles deGaulle has been killed. The killer of the courier entrusts the letters to Rick for safekeeping, and then is promptly apprehended by the French authorities as Rick stands by, refusing to interfere. What Rick does not know is the documents were meant for Victor Lazslo, the leader of the European underground who is attempting to get to America to continue his fight against the Nazis. Traveling with Victor is Ilsa Lund, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, a woman who has a history with Rick. They spent several days in Paris immediately before its German occupation. They had planned to leave Paris together, but when the time came, Ilsa jilted Rick, telling him in a letter that they cannot be together or ever see each other again. Rick, along with his employee and lounge-singer friend Sam, instead depart and make their way to Casablanca where they take up residence and open up the lounge. When Ilsa first enters Rick’s place, she recognizes Sam and asks him to play “the song”. At first reluctant, eventually he does, much to the anger of Rick who, upon hearing it, confronts Sam and it is then that he notices Ilsa and his entire world is thrown into turmoil. He loves her, and yet cannot forgive her for what she did to him in Paris.

Meanwhile, Victor Lazslo is continuing to be harassed by both German and French authorities. They are determined to prevent his leaving Casablanca, and will go to all measures to ensure he does not leave. If he had the transit documents which were intended for him and Rick now possesses, his escape would be assured. Will Rick give Victor the documents, will he hold them as revenge against Ilsa, or could he use them himself to leave Casablanca and start life anew?

Sam.....playing it again.
Video
It is not an exaggeration to say that this movie has never looked better. Since it was first released on DVD a few years ago, the film has gone through even more restoration and this set includes a new digital transfer. The result is a crisp presentation, with the darker shades even darker, the lighter shades even lighter, and the contrast between the two truly amazing. There is no dust visible at any point in the movie. When you compare the actual film with scenes that are included with the extras, you develop a much greater appreciation for the restoration and quality of the transfer.

For those interested in subtitles, they are very sharp and in no way detract from the enjoyment of the film.

Audio
As with the video, the audio in the transfer is crystal clear. All pops and hisses from earlier transfers have been eliminated. The dialogue is clear and the music in the movie is very rich in its presentation. Dooley Wilson’s rendition of “As Time Goes By” has never sounded so good.

Extras
The set is packed with extras. On the first disc, there is not one, but two separate feature-length audio commentaries. The first is by well-known film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert’s is by far the better of the two, as he often speaks to what has made the film endure for so many years. His anecdotes surrounding the film, and film making in general, offer an enjoyable way to experience the movie for those interested in a deeper appreciation of the film. Oftentimes lone commentary can turn to the mundane as it becomes more of a lecture, but Ebert pulls off his commentary in a winning way, never losing the viewers interest and only enhancing the film.

The second commentary is by noted film historian Rudy Behlmer. In contrast to Ebert’s, who speaks off the top of his head, Behlmer’s commentary is obviously scripted. It is truly the history of the film. It relates how an unproduced broadway play came to be made into this enormously successful film. While interesting in its own right, it does get somewhat tedious in its length and it is difficult to shake the feeling that you are in a film history class.

In addition to the commentaries, the movie disc offers a brief introduction by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, and both the original 1942 and 50th anniversary 1992 trailers.

The abundance of extras are on the supplemental disc, and they are overall very satisfying. There is a short featurette entitled “The Children Remember”, in which Humphrey Bogart’s son and Ingrid Bergman’s daughter reminisce about the making of the film. It is filled with tales of many of the writing challenges which were overcome-for instance, it was not until well after the movie had begun filming that it was decided how the movie would end. New dialogue was being written daily. In addition, Bergman was more interested in her next film than she was in Casablanca.

The next two sets of extras, while relatively short, do offer something for film completists. They are recent discoveries of deleted scenes and outtakes. While there is no audio on either, the deleted scenes do offer subtitles which are based on the original screenplay. A meeting between Rick and Victor is included, as is a scene where Fydor the bartender gives a German soldier a concoction of his own making, with disastrous results. The outtakes are discarded shots of scenes from the film, and it is difficult at times to tell why they are outtakes. Occasionally you can see Bogart as he speaks to the director or doesn’t like the drink he took a sip of, but mostly they are shots which technically didn’t work, a zoom that didn’t film quite right or a pan which could have gone better.

Here's looking at you...kid.
The Scoring Stage Session extra is one of the best pieces on the disc. It includes 8 tracks of recordings from the original scoring session. If you didn’t already appreciate Dooley Wilson, Sam from the film, these tracks should win you over. Although the audio includes far too many pops and hisses, the talent of Wilson comes through. It reminds you why his voice will forever be associated with “As Time Goes By”.  

The longest extra in the set is the feature “You Must Remember This – A Tribute to Casablanca” narrated by Bacall.  It offers a comprehensive look at the film – how it came to be made, how deals between various studios brought all the actors to the picture, and how it has continued to impact movie lovers of all ages. In addition, it reminds us that dialogue from the film has been some of the most quoted since it opened over 60 years ago. Whenever you hear, “Here’s looking at you kid”, “Round up all the usual suspects” and “Play it Sam”, among others, you have Casablanca to thank.

A 1943 radio adaptation of Casablanca, featuring the main actors is also included. A much scaled down version of the film’s script, even though it is only audio, it shows just how good their performances truly are.

The inclusion of a 1955 television episode of “Warner Brothers Presents” entitled “Who Holds Tomorrow?” reinforces the sterling performances of the movie’s actors. This was an attempt by Warner Brothers to bring some of their films to the small screen. It falls short on all accounts, as so many times productions which try to recapture the magic of a movie like Casablanca often do. Nevertheless, it is worth watching if only for it’s curiosity quotient.  

One extra which, although I enjoyed, found a bit baffling at its inclusion, was the Looney Tunes animated short “Carrotblanca”. It’s not that I don’t understand the obvious parody the short does of the film, it’s just that I feel that extras should always somehow enhance or improve upon the main feature. This is usually done through commentary on the film, deleted scenes or outtakes, featurettes on either the making of the film, the cast, the historical impact of the film or the culture in which the film was made. So many of the extras in this set do just that. This short does not. It did not improve my enjoyment of the film at all. Part of me felt that to include Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in the package of such a beloved film somehow almost seemed to be heretical.  

The start of a beautiful friendship?
Overall
It is not possible to overstate the importance of Casablanca in the history of film-making. Roger Ebert notes that it appears on more best film lists than any movie, including Citizen Kane because it appeals to both types of movie critics, those who like technically superior films and those who love movies that tell a great story. Casablanca does both. Bottom line, whether you are a fan of great movies or great DVDs, if you do not make Casablanca: Special Edition a permanent part of your collection you will regret it. Maybe not today... maybe not tomorrow... but soon, and for the rest of your life.


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