Casablanca is pretty much universally considered to be one of the greatest films ever—even the naysayers will admit it’s a good film. It’s surprising that Casablanca came out of an unproduced play, which the husband and wife team of writers Murray Burnett and Joan Allison sold to Warner Bros. for a record sum of 20 grand. But even though it had a basis in their play (“Everybody Comes to Rick’s”), it’s really the combined efforts of the screenwriters and the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, and of course the duo of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, that made it perhaps the premier example of Hollywood filmmaking at its best.
The film came out during the height of the Second World War, and it’s about the then very real world of expats in the shady underbelly of Casablanca in Northern Africa. Bogart is Rick Blaine, owner of the gin joint Rick’s, where the clientele includes Nazis, the French and various refugees from other Nazi-occupied countries. It’s revealed that he fought for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War but has taken a neutral stance in his bar on the current conflict. His life is turned upside down when a ghost from his past, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), appears with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who is the leader of Czech resistance. They have the Nazis on their tails, and only Rick can help them get the letters of transit that they need—but will he? She ran out on him in Paris and he still is bitter about it, but was there a good reason?
Casablanca is one of those films, like Citizen Kane (which came out the year previously), that completely deserve their reputations as Hollywood classics. Both also have in common that they are not film noirs per se, but exhibit profound influences from the genre, including the casting, the lighting, the storytelling and tone. Bogart is often the first actor you connect to film noir, especially his trademark trenchcoat, but with the exception of The Big Sleep, he rarely wore one: the popular image of Bogart in his trenchcoat is mostly from Casablanca. The character of Rick is also a perfect noir hero. As in the Shangri-Las once sang, “He is good bad, not evil.” Bogart actually played almost exclusively villains until he landed the role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which saved a career that at age 42 wasn’t looking too promising.
Michael Curtiz was the director behind Casablanca, and the title of the documentary about him is titled “The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of.” There is some truth to that, as he was a more workmanlike director than contemporaries like Howard Hawks or John Huston—although Hawks did work in every genre, he put his very unique stamp on the characterization, dialogue etc. Casablanca is such a beautifully designed film, especially the sets. The film was most certainly not shot in Paris or Casablanca, but because all of the film’s elements work it seems 100% believable, thanks to a sprinkle of movie magic.
Bogart perfectly plays the world-weary Rick and the fatalistic choice he eventually makes at the end. He may have done better work later on, but the one-two punch of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca made him one of, if not perhaps the, greatest leading men of all time. Some critics prefer Ingrid Bergman’s performances in her collaborations with Roberto Rossellini, but her radiant screen presence is most certainly felt here, just as it was in the Hitchcock thrillers she did soon after. It’s a perfect pairing of actor and actress: just by their presence, you know why they want each other but also why it can never work out. Curtiz was Hungarian, but of course knew the German expressionist films from the ’20s and ’30s, and the supporting cast includes Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre. Both were devout anti-Nazis who fled Germany, but because they were German, they often played Nazis on screen. Veidt is the only one who plays a Nazi here, though.
When it opened, Casablanca got overall positive reviews and ended up winning Best Film at the Oscars (perhaps the greatest film to ever get that honour), but it didn’t set the box office on fire. It was only over the years, through repertory and television showings, that it gained this immortal status as a benchmark of cinema.
This new release by Warner Bros. includes the latest restoration, which is 4K and looks stunning in every possible way. The extras are equally impressive, and include various documentaries on the film, the director, the stars and even a few on Warner Bros., plus another specifically on Jack L. Warner. The extras also include commentaries, an introduction by Bogie’s wife Lauren Bacall, and much more. The Blu-Ray release includes a DVD copy of the film and a nice fat 60-page booklet on the film as well.