From the start, Warner Brothers has embraced Blu-ray technology, turning out some of the best transfers of new films available on the market. However, the studio has really excelled when it comes to dealing with their timeless classics. In the last four years, Warner has released pristine restorations of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, Ben-Hur and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory all featuring well deserved collectors packaging. On March 27, 2011 Warner will release Casablanca. Unlike the aforementioned titles, the studio has released this classic on Blu-ray before. First came the Ultimate Collector’s Edition in 2008, a rather nice looking box set loaded with memorabilia but dogged by a sub-par transfer and lossy audio. After that, a single disc edition without all the bells and whistles appeared. Predictably, when the studio announced this 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Giftset fans wondered if this would simply be a repackaging of the original 2008 release. In short, the answer is no. This is indeed the definite release we’ve been waiting for. Casablanca has never looked better…more on that later…
Based on the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Casablanca was still being cobbled together by four screenwriters when shooting started. Despite that inauspicious beginning, this story about love in a time of war is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Casablanca—a part of French Morocco—at the end of 1941, is full of European refugees hoping to obtain the proper documents to travel safely to America. Of course, the Vichy French and Nazi officials are aware of what’s going on, and do everything they can to keep people from fleeing Casablanca. The focal point of the city for foreigners is “Rick’s Cafe Americain” owned by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) an American ex-pat who doesn’t care about the people and their problems; his only concern is making a profit at the end of the day. He stays abovr the fray, and has a comfortable relationship with the local prefect of police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) which allows him to stay out of trouble.
However, Rick’s carefully constructed isolationism is thrown into disarray when he finds himself in possession of two letters of transit that were lifted from dead German couriers, letters which essentially grant whoever holds them free passage out of Casablanca. Obviously, these documents are priceless. When his long lost lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a leader in the resistance and concentration camp fugitive, come into his bar the same night things become complicated. Laszlo is looking for a way to flee Casablanca, and live to fight another day. Still bitter that Ilsa left him, Rick refuses to sell the transit papers at any price. In the face of reignited feelings for his old flame, Rick must make a choice: will he allow his bitterness to keep him in Casablanca, thus crippling the movement Laszlo represents, or does he go against his iconoclastic personality and help Ilsa and Laszlo escape?
Creating a new transfer from a fresh 4K scan, Warner has encoded Casablanca at 1080p using the AVC codec (1.37:1), resulting in a stunning final product. Gone is the digital noise reduction, blemishes and dirt. In its place is a stunning black and white film, sporting deep, rich, blacks, well balanced contrast, and fine detail.
While the 2008 Blu-ray release of Casablanca didn’t offer a lossless audio option, the new 70th Anniversary Limited Edition release comes to the table with a fine DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (1.0) track. There are no discernible hisses or pops to be heard, and dialogue is clear throughout. The musical score is appropriately loud, without ever once affecting the voices. This is simply the best Casablanca has ever sounded.
French and Spanish (both Castilian and Latin) Dolby Digital 1.0 tracks are included, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Casablanca comes packaged in an oversized rectangular box (11½ w x 8 h x 2 d) loaded with collectibles. Inside, you’ll find a 3-disc Digipak that contains two BD-50s and a standard DVD, a 62-page hardcover book with production notes and behind-the-scenes photos and drawings (11 w x 7½ h), a faux-leather keepsake box (4½ w x 4½ h x ½ d) with four drink coasters (4 inches in diameter), and a 21 x 15-inch 1942 French theatrical mini movie poster. There more than thirteen hours of special features spread across the set’s two Blu-ray discs, content making its Blu-ray debut.
- Audio Commentaries (Disc 1): Two commentaries are included, the first with film critic Roger Ebert and the second with historian Rudy Behlmer. Both are informed, and insightful. Well worth a listen.
- Introduction by Lauren Bacall (Disc 1, SD, 2 minutes): Bacall, Bogart’s widow, speaks to Casablanca‘s enduring appeal in this holdover from the 2003 SE DVD.
- Warner Night at the Movies (Disc 1, SD, 51 minutes): Looking for a more authentic 1940s experience? Watch Casablanca as opened with a Now, Voyager theatrical trailer, a vintage war-effort newsreel (!), “Vaudeville Days” (a history of Vaudeville short), and three Merrie Melodies cartoons (“The Bird Came C.O.D.” and “The Squakin’ Hawk” in SD, and “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” in HD). As an added touch, the feature film begins automatically at the end of the last cartoon when “Play All” is selected.
- Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart (Disc 1, SD, 83 minutes): Bacall returns to host this solid Bogart documentary, also leftover from the 2003 Special Edition DVD. It not only covers Bogart the actor and legend, but also on Bogie the man, as told by those who were closest to him.
- Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of (Disc 1, HD, 37 minutes): The first of the new Ultimate Edition’s exclusive features is this excellent documentary from director Gary Leva, which finds Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and other notable filmmakers, etc. discussing Curtiz, his life and work.
- Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic (Disc 1, HD, 35 minutes): Another newly produced documentary from Leva. Spielberg, Friedkin, Behlmer and others discuss the film and its history, production, performances, cinematography, music, cinematic innovations, costumes and more.
- You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca (Disc 1, SD, 35 minutes): Not as good as other material available here, er get more tributes to Casablanca.
- As Time Goes By: The Children Remember (Disc 1, SD, 7 minutes): Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom discuss their childhoods, family lives and their parents’ stardom.
- Audio-Only Content (Disc 1, 75 minutes): Also included is a “Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Broadcast” from 1943, a “VOX Pop Radio Broadcast” from 1947, and a series of “Scoring Stage Sessions” (featuring an alternate version of “Knock on Wood,” an alternate takes of “As Time Goes By, Parts One and Two,” a “Dat’s What Noah Done” outtake, and performances of “Rick Sees Isla” and “At La Belle Aurore.”
- Additional Footage (Disc 1, SD, 33 minutes): A small selection of deleted scenes (with subtitles but no audio), outtakes, “Who Holds Tomorrow” (a chintzy Casablanca television remake), and “Carrotblanca,” a Looney Tunes parody of the film, round out the first disc’s special features.
- Trailers (Disc 1, SD, 5 minutes): The film’s original theatrical trailer and theatrical re-release trailer are available as well.
- You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (Disc 2, SD, 289 minutes): The Ultimate Edition’s second Blu-ray disc kicks off with a sprawling five-hour documentary from director Richard Schickel and narrator Clint Eastwood which charts the course of the rise of Warner Bros. Chapters include “A Rising Power (1923-1937),” “War and Peace (1937-1949),” “Age of Anxiety (1950-1969),” “Starting Over (1970-1990)” and “A Living Tradition (1988-2008)”
- The Brothers Warner (Disc 2, HD, 94 minutes): “Meet Harry Warner and his brothers. Learn how they built Warner’s and broke apart as a family. For more information on this, check out my earlier review.
- Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul (Disc 2, SD, 58 minutes): Entertainer, stand-up comic, power player and movie mogul, Jack Warner loved being the boss..
- DVD Copy of the Film (Disc 3)