Many movies become popular. Some go on to classic status but for a few they ascend to the heights of becoming part of our culture. Films like this are far more than just movies they help define our humanity. Only a handful of films have made it to this exalted level; they are the purest form of the art of cinema. Every year people come up with lists of the best films ever made. One of the films that is always on such a grouping is ‘Casablanca’. Yes, it was made some sixty six years ago but it is as fresh and entertaining as the first day it was shown in theaters. Most movies target a narrow demographic but this one has universal appeal. The reason is simple; it is a masterpiece that perfectly blends a myriad of genres. It is a film about war that women will love. It is a romance that will emotionally involve the men in the audience. ‘Casablanca’ is the type of movie that will never go out of style. When it was being made no one knew that they were making history. It had a well known cast was expected to do well but no one could have dreamed that it would become a film of this stature. There have been many releases of this film on DVD but now Fox has released the definitive one. It is a special edition that lives up to the name. The film is also now available in both DVD and Blu-ray formats so it has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. You not only get the film, which is a deal enough, but there is a bonus disc that is crammed with extras that will take you back to the golden age of Hollywood. Few movies can be accurately described as perfect but this one certainly is. You cannot consider yourself a true devotee of cinema without having this film in your collection. It is something that you can watch over and over and never tire of it. This film is timeless and so few can truthfully say that.
The story is based on the play ‘Everybody Comes to Rick's’ by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The team responsible for brining it to the screen was Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Like most people involved in movies back then they all had a lot of experience. Julius Epstein previously wrote ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ as part of his long resume. Philip Epstein had among his credits pretty much the same films as his brother. Koch penned ‘Sergeant York’ and ‘The Sea Hawk’ along with many other scripts. While it takes the actors to deliver the dialogue you need a great team of writers to provide those words. In this case there are so many great lines that have gone on to becoming part of the vernacular that it is amazing. The lines that Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) comes up with are simply priceless. They demonstrate defiance for authority that will last forever. When asked by a Nazi why he came to Casablanca he responds ‘for the waters’. When it is explained that they are in the desert he just stares at the villain and states ‘I must have been misinformed’. Now that is attitude and although the actor gets the credit it has to be remembered who created those lines. Another aspect of a great screenplay exhibited here is how they handled the numerous sub plots. They form a tapestry that is wondrous to behold. It is set in World War II but there are no massive battles. Instead this is just the backdrop for one of the most enduring romances ever committed to film. Enriching the story is the theme of freedom. The French freedom fighters are opposing a tyrannical government out to enslave the world. There is hardly a time in history where this did not apply in one form or another.
Directing this film was Michael Curtiz. Like most directors working under the old studio system he had his share in most possible genres. While he helmed over one hundred and seventy films this was his biggest success. The film is paced impeccably. There is not a single moment that will not hold your attention. There is a McGuffin present in the movie that is classic. The letters of transit that everybody in the film is after doesn’t amount to a hill of beans to the audience. It is just a plot device that pushes the action forward but is of little real interest to the audience. Never in the history of cinema has a flashback been handled with such grace and style. It is seamlessly integrated into the plot and provides the necessary back story between the two leads. The way he crafts this movie is a textbook in how to make a film. The audience is taken on a ride through the exotic location of Casablanca watching a culture completely unknown to the audience. The undercurrents of the war are never far from your thoughts. You may not see a battle in progress but the viewers know it is out there killing people. The character of Rick is a cynic to be sure but underneath the gruff exterior is a man who cares about the current state of the world. He has to sacrifice the love of his life to help see the Nazis defeated.
Many movies have depended on the romantic triangle but none could muster anywhere near the emotional impact shown here. Rick had a brief but intense relationship with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). They parted ways in Paris on the day the Nazis occupied the city. When they meet in Rick’s Café Americana in Casablanca she is married to the famous Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Rick wants her back and Ilsa is still in love with him but she is needed by Laszlo and he has important work ahead of him. You always need a best friend and in this film he comes in the form of Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) the head of the local police of Casablanca and is corrupt but pleasant. He has to deal with the head of the Nazi force, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). The couple requires letters of transit to safely leave the town and the only ones around were stolen by petty thief Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Meanwhile Rick is offered a lot of money to sell his place to his competitor Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). He suspects that the much sought after letters have fallen into Rick’s hands and indeed they have. Initially Rick refuses to give them up but ultimately suppressing is longing for Ilsa and gives them to her. The final scene where they leave Rick behind along side Renault is so emotionally charged that if you don’t find a tear in your eye then you are not human.
With a film like this a studio cannot just expect to slap it in a DVD case and call it a day. This movie demands to get a truly special released and Fox has stepped up to the bat and knocked one over the fence. There are also many extras included here from additional content to imaginative collector’s items. This is one film that has to be in your home.