The script landed with a resounding thud at Warner Bros. the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story’s WWII setting was timely, but there wasn’t an ending yet (it was still undecided who would get the girl), and the movie was just one of 50 in Warner’s crowded pipeline at the time. Yet somehow it managed to get a green light. The reliably bland Ronald Reagan was considered for the lead, then George Raft, with ”Oomph Girl” Ann Sheridan floated as the love interest. In other words, this forgettable little project carried all the telltale signs of becoming just another disposable feature that would run for a few weeks and then be swept away like the stray popcorn kernels and Lucky Strike butts littering theater floors. Instead, it became the greatest Hollywood love story ever made. Now out in a deluxe three-disc Blu-ray gift set to celebrate its 70th anniversary, Casablanca (1942, PG, 1 hr., 42 mins.) remains the most glittering achievement of Tinseltown’s golden age. As Michael Curtiz’s film opens, a stentorian narrator announces that Hitler is on the march. The war has reached the most remote corners of the globe, including the French Moroccan city of the title, where desperate refugees wait (”and wait…and wait…”) for their chance to scurry to Lisbon, then to the freedom of the New World.
At the center of this dusty desert way station is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine. He’s the dapper American expat and hard-boiled proprietor of Rick’s Café Américain — a late-night oasis where the sorrows of the dispossessed momentarily vanish at the bottom of a highball glass, and gambling is permitted with a nod and a wink by Claude Rains’ Parisian pushover, Captain Renault. Rick is a lone wolf (”I stick my neck out for nobody”), and there’s an unspoken tragedy in his past eating at him. But what? Enter Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, the woman who broke his heart back in Paris, running off the day the Nazis invaded. (”I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue,” he tells her.) Underneath his hard exterior, Rick has the soft, chewy center of a romantic. The third player in this doomed love triangle is Paul Henreid’s stoic resistance fighter, Victor Laszlo — an idealist so suave you can understand why Ilsa’s torn. Rick wants Ilsa, Ilsa wants Rick and Victor, and Victor, well, he just wants to give the Nazis hell. Will Rick help Ilsa and Victor get out of Casablanca for a cause bigger than himself and, in the process, lose the only woman he’s ever loved…again? Or will he fight for Ilsa to stay? All these intrigues may sound soapy and melodramatic to modern moviegoers who have never seen Casablanca. But trust me, they’re not — they feel like life and death, thanks to Bogart’s haunted performance. And if you have seen the film, odds are it didn’t look like this.
The new Blu-ray transfer has been given a fresh, 4K-scan face-lift (for all you nerds scoring at home). Its black-and-white compositions, cloaked in shadows and fog courtesy of ace cinematographer Arthur Edeson, have never been more breathtaking. As for this behemoth of a box set’s EXTRAS, let’s just say that you may want to clear some space on your calendar, because there are more than 14 hours of them. Many are holdovers from previous DVD incarnations, such as solid commentaries from Roger Ebert and film historian Rudy Behlmer, vintage newsreels, a bunch of deleted scenes, and the Looney Tunes cartoon Carrotblanca. There are also two new top-notch featurettes. The exhaustive soup-to-nuts making-of documentary ”Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic” charts the film’s roadblock-laden path to the screen via interviews with such notables as Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin; and ”Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of” makes a strong case for why the man behind Casablanca (as well as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce) deserves to be a household name. If all that isn’t enough, or if the many hours spent in Rick’s Café just make you thirsty for a cocktail, there’s a handful of trinkets and tchotchkes that will turn your living room into your own Casablanca-themed gin joint: some nifty commemorative coasters, a 60-page coffee-table book with behind-the-scenes photos and production notes, and a frameworthy replica of the film’s 1942 French poster. Here’s looking at you, kid. A