"It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die," but it looks so much better in 4K UHD with HDR. Just in time for its 80th anniversary, Casablanca gets an ultra high-def makeover and wows us once again. The brand-new transfer struck from a 4K 16bit scan of the best-surviving nitrate elements must be seen to be believed, and along with newly remastered audio and almost all the extras from the previous home video releases, this edition of director Michael Curtiz's masterwork ranks higher than any other. As time goes by, Casablanca just gets better and better, and this fantastic disc from Warner Home Video honors this immortal and iconic classic to the hilt. Must Own.
"You must remember this..."
Do we ever. Countless movies are unforgettable and make indelible impressions upon us, but without flash or fanfare Casablanca has etched itself into our collective consciousness like few other films. No matter how many times we see it, it always feels fresh. The dialogue sparkles, the spot-on performances never lose their luster, and the artistry and emotions remain as potent as when the picture first premiered 80 years ago. As the song says, the fundamental things apply, and this Best Picture Oscar winner just might be the best example of basic, nuts-and-bolts Hollywood moviemaking to date.
Casablanca's success might have been a surprise back in 1942, but contrary to popular belief, director Michael Curtiz's film didn't earn its lofty place in cinema history by accident. Although stories abound concerning unfinished scripts, on-the-set rewrites, and a confused leading lady who didn't know which leading man she'd end up with until the final day of shooting, the creative forces behind this iconic motion picture always knew exactly what they wanted. True, no one involved ever purposely set out to make an era-defining classic, but the production of Casablanca was far from the disorganized mess Hollywood raconteurs still purport it to be.
The finished film, of course, speaks for itself. Over the years, many movies have sought to imitate Casablanca's unique and subtle blend of mystery, romance, intrigue, light comedy, and topical events, but the formula has never been successfully duplicated. And it's pretty safe to say it never will be.
Great films start with great scripts, and Casablanca is no exception. The screenplay is sheer perfection. The old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth doesn't apply here, as at least half a dozen writers made notable contributions, but twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch got the credit and took home the well-deserved Oscar.
The story of cynical café owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and those pesky letters of transit, all set against the exotic locale of refugee-ridden Casablanca at the height of World War II, may not seem all that special at first glance, but when trimmed with bright dialogue, layers of conflicting emotions, and the urgency of global crisis, it suddenly adopts a more appealing and substantive slant. A generous sprinkling of humor relieves tension and humanizes the characters while providing Casablanca with more quotable lines per capita than any other film in history. "Round up the usual suspects," "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "Play it, Sam," "Here's looking at you, kid," "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," "You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can!"...the list goes on and on. (If I had more room, I'd include a half-dozen multi-character exchanges. It's killing me that I can't.)
Of course, what would Casablanca be without Bogart and Bergman? Both act with sincerity and conviction and underplay to great effect. After all these years, their intense chemistry hasn't waned (it's debatable whether it's ever been equaled), and despite their legendary status, it's still possible to divorce their personas from their parts. One of the wonderful things about Casablanca is how completely Bogart and Bergman disappear inside Rick and Ilsa - a rare example of how the right roles can overshadow even the most recognizable actors.
The peerless supporting cast also earns hearty praise and adds immense color and texture to the action. Without Claude Rains (who nearly steals the film with his sardonic wit), Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson, and a host of other accomplished players, Casablanca would sacrifice a sizable portion of its entertainment value. All create memorable characters and maximize their limited screen time.
Sadly, director Michael Curtiz often gets lost in the shuffle, but if one person is responsible for Casablanca's brilliance, it's him. A tireless Warner Bros workhorse who helmed dozens of classics over a half-century career, Curtiz masterfully paces the film, packing chunks of vital information into brief, seemingly incidental scenes. Through quick vignettes and reaction shots he also conveys both emotion and atmosphere, setting the stage for and enhancing the intimate drama of Rick, Ilsa, and Victor. Subplots abound, but Curtiz's tight, economical style interweaves them without wasting film or breaking the primary story's mesmerizing spell. Casablanca would be nothing without his vision, artistry, and keen sense of what makes a top-flight motion picture, and his exemplary efforts were also justly rewarded with an Oscar.
It's rare when a movie's underlying themes mesh so perfectly with its presentation, but it's that elusive symbiosis that makes Casablanca an unforgettable film. Far more than a romantic wartime melodrama, the movie integrates potent ideas into its framework that subtly heighten the emotional material. Issues of redemption, self-sacrifice, duty, and the rediscovery of personal and political ideals all swirl about the story, hammering home the point that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Few films of the period possessed the courage to put forth such a viewpoint, and it resonated - and still resonates (boy, does it ever!) - with audiences worldwide. Which is just one small reason why Casablanca will never go out of style and never lose its relevance.
Here's looking at you, kid...over and over and over.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Casablanca arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. (I'm still trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the head-scratching cover art depicting a younger-looking Bogart in a black tuxedo. The star's youthful appearance coupled with the fact that nowhere in Casablanca does Bogart don a black tuxedo has sparked speculation the image is from another movie. [If pressed, I would hazard a guess it's from 1939's The Roaring Twenties.] It's possible the photo could have been taken from an early costume test, but if you compare it to the smaller picture of Bogart and Bergman below the title, the differences in Bogart's facial features are quite pronounced, making it difficult to believe the two photos are from the same time period. If indeed the image is not from Casablanca, it's astounding such an error could have slipped through so many quality-control checks, especially considering the film's iconic nature, the wealth of easily identifiable photos from the film, and the online outrage that erupted instantly upon the cover art's release.) A 1080p Blu-ray disc (the exact same one from the 2012 70th anniversary edition) and leaflet containing the Movies Anywhere digital code are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I've seen every home video incarnation of Casablanca dating all the way back to the VHS days, and this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR outclasses every other rendering. I expected to be wowed and I was. Warner Home Video always takes meticulous care with its classics catalogue, but the pressure to deliver on one of its crown jewels must have been enormous. The studio rose to the task and the result is a consistently dazzling effort that's more vibrant, lush, and detailed than any previous rendering.
The Warner press release states, "The new Casablanca 4K Ultra High-Definition image was restored and remastered from a 2022 4K 16bit film scan of the best-surviving nitrate film elements. The 4K-scanned digital image went through an extensive digital restoration process to clean and repair the picture for an unprecedented and pristine ultra-high-resolution presentation. The restored images were then graded in High Dynamic Range..." From the instant the main titles roll, the boost in clarity and contrast is evident, and the elevated quality continues through the superimposed images and topographical map that comprise the prologue, the furor in the streets as the usual suspects are rounded up, and on through the rest of the film.
The exterior scenes on the Casablanca streets are a revelation. Several shots are so vivid, they look almost like 3D. Incredible depth adds immediacy and makes Rick's Café Américain feel bigger and more bustling. Details pop. The medals and embroidered patches on Renault's uniform, the glass etchings in the numerous Tiffany lamps, the driving rain in the train station scene, swirling cigarette smoke, the delicate lace sold by a street vendor, the contours of Ilsa's sparkling jeweled earrings and brooch, and the rough textures of stuccoed walls are only some of the elements that grab attention. Equally sharp close-ups highlight the puffiness and crow's feet around Bogart's eyes, Bergman's silky complexion and the stray tears that occasionally dot it, the rubbery folds of S.Z. Sakall's face, Peter Lorre's oily skin and bulging eyes, and the mustaches of Rains and Conrad Veidt.
You might think all the enhancements would lend Casablanca an artificial, processed look, but they don't. Still beautifully film-like, the transfer honors Arthur Edeson's Oscar-nominated cinematography that strikingly manipulates light and shadow. Ultra high definition almost always accentuates grain in vintage films, but it's nicely graded here to present the most organic picture possible. Some scenes are softer than others and exhibit a bit more texture, but that's because a complete original camera negative of Casablanca no longer exists. The use of multiple sources often results in occasional image quality fluctuations, and though the shifts in tone here are noticeable, they're never glaring.
High definition - and especially ultra high definition - also call attention to the era's primitive special effects, which blend into the frame better in lower resolution. When Warner remastered Casablanca for DVD back in 2003, the establishing matte painting of the Casablanca "skyline" looked laughably fake, as did the miniature plane taxiing on the airport runway. They look even more so in 4K UHD, but that's a minuscule price to pay for the bounty of riches this transfer gives us in return.
Speaking of rich, how about those black levels? Lusciously inky, they seduce us into the torment and intrigue that course through the film. The deep charcoal tone when Bogart writes "OK Rick" on a receipt, the darkness that practically engulfs him as he broods in the desolate bar after Ilsa's surprising reappearance, and accents like his black bowties and jet-black hair are just a few examples. On the flip side are brilliant, well-defined whites, like the gleaming neon in the Rick's Café Américain sign. You can practically feel the weave of Rick's white dinner jacket and silky texture of Ilsa's elegant white gown in her first scene, but the pièce de résistance is the outfit Ilsa wears at the bazaar...a black-and-white striped sweater under a V-necked white dress with a white hat. It fairly leaps off the screen and exemplifies the pitch-perfect contrast between the two shades. Shadow delineation is also first-rate. Even during the murkiest scenes, details are still distinct.
The spotless source material is the icing on the cake of this sublime presentation. We've waited quite a while for Casablanca to make its 4K UHD debut, and this superlative effort ensures we'll be watching this immortal classic over and over again for a long time to come.
Long overdue for a complete remastering, the Casablanca audio finally gets one here. According to the press release, "The original theatrical mono audio has also been newly restored as well, providing a richer and broader frequency response than previously possible." The improvements are instantly evident. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track sounds richer and bolder than any of its predecessors, and the entire presentation feels more expansive. The heightened fidelity and tonal depth enable Max Steiner's Oscar-nominated score to easily fill the room, and the track's expansive dynamic range handles the music's soaring highs and weighty lows with ease. Dooley Wilson's vocals exude more fullness and the memorable "La Marseillaise" sequence wields more impact than ever before. At higher volume levels and during scenes of intense aural activity, the track stresses a bit, but at normal levels it remains rock solid.
Because of the music's more assertive presence both in the foreground and background, it competes ever so slightly with the priceless dialogue. Rest assured, all the brilliant exchanges are clear and easy to comprehend, but I would have preferred a touch more dialogue prioritization. Subtle effects like clinking glasses, the rustling of papers, the din of the cafe, and background band music are wonderfully crisp, and sonic accents such as gunfire, rumbling airplane engines, sirens, and a policeman's whistle more palpably punctuate the action. Though the track is free of any pops and crackles, some faint surface noise is still evident during a couple of isolated quiet scenes.
Minor nitpicks notwithstanding (we must remember the track is 80 years old), this is by far the best Casablanca has ever sounded, and anyone who adores this iconic classic will be quite pleased with this remastered track.
Warner does not add any new supplements to this 4K UHD release, but with previous editions of Casablanca containing such a rich treasure trove of extras, who can blame them? Thankfully, most - but not all - of those quality special features have been ported over to this new release, with the bulk of material residing on the accompanying Blu-ray disc. (Only the Lauren Bacall introduction and two commentary tracks reside on the 4K UHD disc.) The three lengthy documentaries about the history of Warner Bros and studio chief Jack L. Warner included on the 2012 70th anniversary Blu-ray release do not appear here, nor does the comprehensive collection of studio memos, production stills, and promotional materials that was included on the 2008 Blu-ray release, so if that content is important to you, as well as all the swag enclosed in both those collectible editions, you'll want to hang onto those releases.
Introduction by Lauren Bacall (SD, 2 minutes) - The legendary actress and Bogart's widow supplies a brief yet reverent introduction to the film.
Audio Commentary with Roger Ebert - The esteemed late film critic provides an animated scene-specific commentary that analyzes both on-screen elements - the carefully constructed lighting, intricate shadow placement, positioning of actors, and finer points of cinematography - and the day-to-day production process. Along the way, Ebert tosses in such tidbits as Bergman's height advantage over Bogart and how the film disguises it, the significance of several throwaway lines, the origin of "Here's looking at you, kid," and the historical inaccuracy of the letters of transit. He also dissects various sequences, touches upon censorship issues, and notes the very early anti-Nazi leanings of the Warner Bros studio. In addition, Ebert points out a glaring continuity error that I never noticed (and won't divulge) and calls the competitive singing of "Watch on the Rhine" and "La Marseillaise" "one of the great dramatic, emotional scenes in motion picture history." Of the two commentary tracks included on the disc, Ebert's is the most compelling, but Rudy Behlmer's is great, too.
Audio Commentary with Rudy Behlmer - Long regarded as the classic era's foremost Warner Bros authority, Behlmer takes us inside the studio and into Casablanca's many nooks and crannies. Mostly non-scene-specific and delivered in a nuts-and-bolts, just-the-facts-m'am style, the track offers extensive background on Everybody Comes to Rick's, the original play upon which Casablanca is based, as well as more thorough examinations of cast and crew careers. Behlmer, who passed away in 2019 at age 92, quotes extensively from interoffice studio memos (a commentary highlight), discusses how a parade of uncredited writers beefed up and refined the screenplay, and mentions how various war restrictions affected shooting. A bit dry at times and featuring a few annoying gaps, the track still relays a wealth of information that only enhances our appreciation for this legendary film.
Warner Night at the Movies (SD and HD, 51 minutes) - This compilation of a trailer, newsreel, short subject, and a trio of cartoons recreates what it might have been like if you went to see Casablanca in a theater upon its initial release in 1942. The lineup is as follows: a trailer for the Bette Davis blockbuster Now, Voyager, a newsreel with updates about World War II, a two-reel musical short called Vaudeville Days, and three Merrie Melodies cartoons (The Bird Came C.O.D., The Squawkin' Hawk, and The Dover Boys at Pimento University). The material can be accessed individually or by pressing "Play All." If you use the "Play All" function, Casablanca will begin automatically after the last cartoon.
Documentary: Bacall on Bogart (SD, 83 minutes) - This 1988 PBS tribute, part of the Great Performances series, is the best kind of Hollywood documentary - heavy on the film clips, with a sharp focus on Bogart's acting and professional contributions. Hosted with charming wit and sincerity by Lauren Bacall, this substantive film chronicles Bogie's quarter century in Hollywood and inspires renewed appreciation for his immense talent. Featuring extensive sequences on The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, among many other classics, this worthwhile film is also enhanced by family home movies and a brief look at Bogart's resistance to McCarthyism.
Documentary: "Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of" (HD, 37 minutes) - Directors William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg, film historian Rudy Behlmer, Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode, and others examine Curtiz's career, his style and technique, poor treatment of actors, butchering of the English language, fervid patriotism, and personal life in this celebratory piece from 2011. Clips from such Curtiz classics as Noah's Ark, Doctor X, Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, and, of course, Casablanca augment their remarks.
Documentary: "Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic" (HD, 35 minutes) - All the participants from the Curtiz documentary and some other cinema experts provide an in-depth look at the production of Casablanca, the craftsmen behind it, its topical nature, and the film's style, sets, music, photography, costumes, editing, and legacy. This is another top-notch 2011 documentary that's certainly worth your time.
Documentary: "You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca" (SD, 35 minutes) - This 1992 documentary narrated by Lauren Bacall chronicles every aspect of the film's production - the evolution of the screenplay, the use of "As Time Goes By," casting, censorship issues, and the eleventh hour creation of the film's ending. Screenwriters Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, original playwright Murray Burnett, historians Rudy Behlmer and Ronald Haver, composer Henry Mancini, and Bergman's daughter Pia Lindstrom, among others, offer wonderful insights and anecdotes.
Featurette: "As Time Goes By: The Children Remember" (HD, 7 minutes) - Stephen Bogart and Bergman's oldest daughter Pia Lindstrom discuss the film's mystique and how their parents reacted to Casablanca's tremendous audience response. Both relate a few production stories and marvel at how a "throwaway" melodrama became a timeless classic.
Vintage TV Clip: Who Holds Tomorrow? (SD, 18 minutes) - This excerpt from the premiere episode of a 10-week Casablanca television series that aired on ABC-TV in 1955 stars a wooden Charles McGraw as Rick in a new, updated story transpiring in the familiar Café Américain. Acting across the board is stilted and stiff, with Gig Young's introduction to the episode and a dated GE iron commercial offering more entertainment value than the show itself. A few incidents of dropout and distortion mar the audio presentation, but the video quality is surprisingly crisp and clean.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 2 minutes) - Of special note to Casablanca fans is the inclusion of two excised scenes. Sadly, the audio no longer exists, but subtitles taken from the screenplay run beneath the images instead - a clever substitution. The first scene shows Rick visiting Laszlo in jail and offering to sell him the letters of transit for 100,000 francs. In the second, a German officer gulps a kamikaze cocktail mixed by bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) and passes out on the spot.
Outtakes (HD, 6 minutes) - Several silent outtakes are more difficult to follow, and interesting only from a production standpoint. Seeing the material is a treat, but the lack of audio hampers our understanding of the flubs and technical gaffes that ruined the various shots.
Looney Tunes Cartoon: Carrotblanca (HD, 8 minutes) - On the lighter side, this 1995 Warner cartoon mercilessly spoofs the film with a gallery of Looney Tunes characters. Daffy Duck, as Sam, sings a hilariously violent "Knock on Wood," Bugs Bunny makes an appropriately suave Rick, but Tweety Bird steals the show with his dead-on impersonation of Peter Lorre's Ugarte. Bright, vivid colors and a multi-channel audio track really light up this fun diversion.
Scoring Stage Sessions - Eight audio tracks of both alternate and final takes of such Dooley Wilson numbers as "Knock On Wood," "As Time Goes By," and the unused "Dat's What Noah Done" are included here, as well as Max Steiner instrumentals.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (22 minutes) - Rarely did all of a film's stars recreate their roles for a radio rehash, but Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid nevertheless joined forces for an April 26, 1943 broadcast reunion. The Screen Guild Players version of Casablanca trims the story down to a lean 22 minutes (!), but the trio of actors tries their best to weave a romantic, emotional mood despite the truncated story. Intermittent coughing from the studio audience lends the broadcast an interesting theatrical feel.
Vintage Radio Broadcast: Vox Pop (60 minutes) - A precursor of sorts to This Is Your Life, this episode of the ABC Radio series broadcast on November 19, 1947 salutes director Michael Curtiz through light-hearted reminiscences from several of his colleagues, including Warner Bros studio chief Jack L. Warner and actors Jack Carson and Joan Crawford.
Trailers (HD, 5 minutes) - Both the film's original trailer and 50th anniversary re-release preview are included.
If you thought Casablanca could never look or sound any better, think again. With a brand-new HDR transfer struck from a 4K 16bit scan of the best-surviving nitrate elements and newly remastered audio, this 4K UHD presentation instantly eclipses every other home video release of director Michael Curtiz's immortal classic (despite its head-scratching cover art). Warner sweetens the deal by importing almost all the bountiful extras from the two previous Blu-ray releases and including both a 1080p Blu-ray and digital copy. Just like moonlight and love songs, Casablanca is never out of date, and this fantastic disc ensures it never will be. Must Own.