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The beloved Bogart/Bergman romance hits Blu-ray (again) - is this the high-def edition of the classic we've been waiting for, or just another excuse to double-dip....?
Warner / 102 Minutes / 1942 / Rated PG / Street Date: March 27, 2012
Casablanca's very familiar story takes place in unoccupied France during the Second World War. The Nazis are in Paris. A puppet government has been set up in Vichy. In French Morocco, refugees fleeing the brutal Nazi conquerors stream into Casablanca hoping to bribe or buy their ways to sanctuary in America. The most popular nightspot in town is Cafe Americain, owned and run by an expatriate American, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). He projects an image of selfish self-interest, forsaking allegiances to maintain the strict neutrality of a businessman who wants to stay in business. No less self-serving is Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), prefect of police and friend, but a friend who seems uncomfortably cooperative with the Nazi overlords.
Having fled Paris as the Germans approached, deserted by the love of his life, Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman), Blaine was not prepared when she walks into his gin joint. And he certainly didn’t want to see her on the arm of another man, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), an underground leader of the French Resistance. They, too, are fleeing the Nazis. Laszlo wishes to escape to safety so that he may continue his work unimpeded. The Nazis are aware of his presence in Casablanca and wish to detain him there, neutralizing his influence.
The means to escape takes the form of letters of transit, stolen from the bodies of two murdered German officers by Guillermo Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The letters might be considered a Hitchcockian Macguffin, but they’re more than that. A Macguffin is a distraction, a mechanism to provoke the story the filmmaker wants to tell: Here they play a vital role. Like the stolen plans for the Death Star, they will provide the means for the film’s resolution.
It's tricky to attempt to place Casablanca in any particular genre. It is foremost a love story of two people with bitter regrets who come to terms with their feelings. It is an action piece that, for its time, is typically anti-Nazi. And it’s laced with humor, from Blaine’s sardonic comments to Renault’s sarcastic wit. Made in a decade when motion picture studios were cranking out fifty films each year, this was considered just another flick by the filmmakers, the players, and Warner Bros.
But like that statistically valid cliché - if you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of an infinite number of typewriters all the world’s past and future works of literature will ultimately be typed out - the odds favored the production of a few exceptional films within that vast output. This does not diminish in any way the talents and instincts of the featured actors and the behind-the-scenes artists; it simply indicates that, once in a while, magic happens.
Casablanca is wonderfully economical. Each scene drives the story forward, revealing the characters, exposing psychological baggage, creating conflicts on several levels that must be resolved by film’s end. Its screenplay is a delightful balance of melodrama, drama, action, and humor; none seem out of place. The casting is a synergistic delight.
Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine has wrapped himself in a hard, cynical shell to hide his soft center of sentimentality and vulnerability. Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund Laszlo is believably conflicted, an emotional wreck being pulled apart by her love for two men, one based on passion and the other on a deep respect and admiration. How many can resist tearing up as her eyes glisten with moisture?
Claude Rains’ Captain Louis Renault is playfully corrupt, flexible in his allegiances until his innate goodness overcomes his avarice and lechery. Sydney Greenstreet is still the man who likes to do business with a man who likes to do business - his Signor Ferrari is merely a cameo, but his presence is most welcome. Another cameo is by Peter Lorre, seen all too briefly as the slimy Guillermo Ugarte.
That some of the other characters fall somewhat flat, like Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo, an underground leader with no charisma, or are borderline caricatures, like Conrad Veidt’s Major Heinrich Strasser, the arrogant Nazi officer everyone loves to hate, must be ignored (as do the obviously artificial special effects).
Casablanca is simply too good a film, and minor flaws are gladly forgiven.
But this is the third time the film has received a Blu-ray release. Has Warner gotten it right with this Ultimate Collector's Edition?