The American Society of Cinematographers

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Casablanca (1942)
70th Anniversary Blu-ray Limited Edition
1.37: 1 (1080p High Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Warner Home Video, $64.99

Casablanca celebrated its 70th anniversary March 21, 2012, by playing on more than 400 multiplex screens across America, in some cases to capacity crowds. It is hard to imagine many other black-and-white classics from the golden age of Hollywood drawing such audiences, but as critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, there is something about Casablanca that makes it appeal to both film buffs and people who would ordinarily steer clear of anything made before Jurassic Park. While Citizen Kane remains more admired by filmmakers and scholars than audiences, and the social attitudes of Gone with the Wind calcify with age, Casablanca is evidently as vital and relevant to the mainstream as ever. It is one of those rare films loved in its own time by critics and audiences, and it has never stopped being a part of the national conversation.

The story itself is nothing out of the ordinary for a 1940s studio film: during World War II, jaded ex-freedom fighter Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is reunited with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the woman who broke his heart. He finds his heart and moral code thrust into chaos when the opportunity arises to help her husband (Paul Henreid), a great hero of the French resistance. The love triangle is played out against an exotic locale (almost entirely created on the Warner Bros. back lot) via a plot that has more than a few holes and implausible devices — the whole thing is structured around some flimsy business involving “letters of transit” that makes even the most outrageous of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins seem logical.

Yet the core issue of love versus duty transcends the superficial inconsistencies of the plot, with some help from studio-system serendipity, for this is one of those movies in which everything seems to have gone just right. Every element, from the casting to the production design to the razor-sharp dialogue (which was constantly being reworked throughout production), works together in perfect harmony, all under the firm control of director Michael Curtiz. In spite of more than 100 credits, including great films in virtually every genre, Curtiz remains as underrated as Casablanca itself is celebrated; unfairly ignored because his versatility meant his style would often change according to the demands of any given assignment, Curtiz remains, like fellow Warner Bros. contract directors Lloyd Bacon and William Keighley, a figure worthy of further study.

Like Curtiz, director of photography Arthur Edeson, ASC, was a man of such broad range he remains slightly underappreciated, with less name recognition than contemporaries like Gregg Toland, ASC, or Lee Garmes, ASC, yet Edeson was every bit the innovator Toland was. A founding member of the ASC, Edeson shot the first 70mm feature, Fox’s The Big Trail (1930), and photographed groundbreaking special-effects films, including The Lost World (1925) and the 1933 release The Invisible Man (one of several classic collaborations with director James Whale, for whom Edeson also shot Frankenstein). As comfortable with Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers (1922’s Robin Hood and 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad) as he was with somber war epics (1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front) and literate crime dramas (1941’s The Maltese Falcon), Edeson was a Hollywood craftsman beyond compare.

Yet even with more than 100 credits to his name, Edeson never surpassed his achievement in Casablanca. A virtual master class in cinematography, the film employs a sophisticated interplay of light and shadow to visually chart the shifting allegiances and passions of the protagonists. When Edeson employs the chiaroscuro of film noir, the patterns are both aesthetically pleasing and dramatically potent, trapping the characters and underlining their warring inner emotions. Yet Edeson also uses the darkness in the film’s most romantic moments, introducing a subtle shift of light into a flashback scene depicting Ilsa and Rick’s initial romance and then echoing the effect in later intimate moments between the two characters. Throughout the film, the portraiture is nothing short of stunning, with Bergman’s close-ups, in particular, serving as classic examples of Hollywood glamor photography. Just as Casablanca itself is part romance, part wartime action film and part screwball comedy, Edeson’s images incorporate just about every style of studio-era cinematography one could ask for — and the director of photography proves himself a master of all of them.     

His work gets the full high-definition treatment on the glorious new 70th-anniversary Blu-ray of Casablanca, which includes a flawless presentation of sound and picture taken from a new 4K restoration. In addition to the new transfer, the Blu-ray contains an indispensable new 37-minute documentary, Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of. The documentary, directed by Gary Leva, provides an excellent introduction to the career and style of Curtiz and includes terrific interviews with Curtiz aficionados Caleb Deschanel, ASC; Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin, among others. These same commentators appear in Leva’s other new featurette, the fascinating, 35-minute Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic, which traces the haphazard production history of the film and explores its visual and narrative construction with great insight. One big complaint about both of these documentaries though: none of the clips from the Curtiz films are presented in their original aspect ratios!

A plethora of extra features compiled from earlier Blu-ray, DVD and Laserdisc editions of Casablanca is included, notably, two top-notch commentary tracks, one by film historian Rudy Behlmer and the other by Ebert. Lauren Bacall supplies a brief introduction as well as the 83-minute meditation on Bogart Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart, in which she is joined by more than a dozen of Bogart’s collaborators and admirers in a lively overview of the actor’s life and work. Bacall also narrates the 34-minute You Must Remember This: a Tribute to Casablanca, which includes interviews with several key creative contributors to the film, as well as critics and historians, and which complements the Leva documentaries. The disc also includes six minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes as well as an 18-minute television adaptation of Casablanca and a six-minute piece featuring Bogart’s son Stephen and Bergman’s daughter Pia Lindstrom. As if this were not enough, there are several short subjects and trailers that allow the viewer to simulate a night out at the movies at the time of Casablanca’s release, as well as a pair of trailers for the film itself and two radio versions. Audio recordings of the scoring sessions for the movie round out the first Blu-ray in the set.

A second Blu-ray offers an even broader scholarly perspective, with three exhaustive documentaries on the Warner Bros. studio. The most comprehensive of these supplements is Richard Schickel’s exemplary You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, which clocks in at nearly five hours and provides a thorough examination of the studio’s history, aesthetics and politics. The two remaining documentaries, The Brothers Warner (94 minutes) and the hour-long Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul, approach the subject matter from a more personal angle as they are directed by Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, and Jack Warner’s grandson, Gregory Orr, respectively. These are both informative and revealing films, yet, like the new documentaries on the first disc, both contain numerous clips in the wrong aspect ratio. This gaffe aside, the massive package, which also contains a standard-definition DVD of the movie as well as a commemorative book and poster, is a must-have for Casablanca enthusiasts.

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