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DVD Review: Casablanca

By Glenn Abel

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photo Who better to provide commentary on the populist masterpiece "Casablanca" than Roger Ebert, the people's film reviewer?

Ebert genuflects to "Citizen Kane" as the greatest film of all time but makes it clear that "Casablanca" is the movie he'd take to the proverbial desert island. The 1942 film "still gets to me after 50 different viewings," the critic says with a bit of amazement.

Ebert's is hardly a minority opinion, considering the American Film Institute ranked "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" Nos. 1 and 2 in its survey of the greatest films of all time. Across seven decades, the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman starrer has emerged as Americans' default favorite movie.

"I don't think I have ever seen or heard of a negative review of 'Casablanca,' " Ebert says.

Warner Home Video's sensational new double-disc set (retail $26.99) reinforces the WWII-era classic with four-plus hours of bonus materials. Some extras are new, others are simply recycled from previous "Casablanca" videos. Most viewers won't care.

Fortunately, the DVD's focus is on entertainment, not academics. There's an awareness that most of us really don't need to be told again that the line "Play it again, Sam" isn't in the film.

Viewers can kick off their night in "Casablanca" with the Looney Toons spoof "Carrotblanca." Or they can check out the odd but snappy 1955 TV spinoff, starring tough guy Charles McGraw. Or turn off the TV for the radio adaptation from 1943, with Bogart and Bergman reprising their roles as Rick and Ilsa.

The star of the show is, of course, the show. The movie looks amazing at age 61, digitally scrubbed of almost all wear while somehow retaining a fair amount of contrast and original grain. The new transfer builds on the significant restoration work done for the 50th anniversary, returning to the original nitrate elements. (Warners proudly screened a 35mm version of the restoration Monday night during a 60th anniversary bash at New York's Lincoln Center.)

The DVD's 2.0 mono is muscular, with crisp and clear dialogue. Max Steiner's versatile music sounds lovely, with plenty of oomph reserved for the dramatic exclamation marks. But keep that remote control close at hand: The DVD's dynamic range gets to be a bit much, especially during the extras. Volume differences between several bonus features are downright jarring -- sloppy work if the review copy is typical of the run.

Ebert's commentary is the loudest track of them all, appropriate given his enthusiasm level. He's a terrific guy to watch the film with. (The critic also did the main commentary for WHV's recent "Citizen Kane" DVD.)

Ebert, like generations of men before him, seems captivated by Bergman. He spends a lot of time on how cinematographer Arthur Edeson achieved the Swedish actress' luminous look, almost always shooting her left profile to shed a few pounds. Pin lights were shot into her moist eyes as she looked up at Bogart, to otherworldly effect. "She paints his face with her eyes," Ebert points out.

(Bergman, in fact, thought she looked like "a milk maid" in the film. She had to play much of the part sitting down because she was 2 inches taller than Bogie.)

Ebert says one of things that elevated "Casablanca" above other studio potboilers of WWII was its incorporation of Hollywood's refugee community. Of the key roles, only a few went to U.S.-born actors. Stars of European film and stage worked cheap, giving lesser roles an unusual amount of realism and a high quality.

In the Rick's Cafe scene in which the crowd's singing of the French national anthem drowns out the Nazis, the emotions on the Warners set were real -- many of the actors and extras had just fled Hitler's legions. Ebert calls it one of the greatest scenes in movie history.

Ebert shoots down some of the myths about the film: Ronald Reagan was never seriously considered for the Bogart part; Bergman wasn't completely in the dark about which man her character would choose. Ebert notes the film's cheesy special effects and gaps in logic, saying they don't matter a bit -- and then goes on at length about the absurdity of the fabled "letters of transit."

Film historian and DVD regular Rudy Behlmer provides a second commentary track, chronicling the production through the detailed memos that studio chieftain Jack Warner demanded of his execs and filmmakers. Behlmer knows his stuff and dredges up plenty of good material, but the clerical approach wears a bit thin.

Two documentaries from the 1990s take a lighter approach to the film and its players.

Lauren Bacall hosts "Bacall on Bogart" (from 1998) and "You Must Remember This" (1992), lighting up the docus with a deft mix of high class and low profile.

The feature-length "Bogart" docu is outstanding, offering a wealth of clips from the tough guy's obscure early films. The cast of witnesses is outstanding: John Huston, Richard Brooks, Katharine Hepburn and Bergman all weigh in on their friend's art and legacy.

"He taught me how to live," Bacall says of her late husband. Regarding their support of left-wing causes during the red-baiting era, she says, "We were a really gutsy couple, the Bogarts."

The half-hour "You Must Remember This" is less successful but still worth watching. Henry Mancini covers the vital role music plays in the film, with popular songs of the day providing sly commentary on the action. "As Time Goes By" was almost cut from the film but was saved at the last minute.

The featurette helps sort out the complicated writing credits for the film, which begin with schoolteacher-playwright Murray Bennett and end with Hal B. Wallis, the producer and creative force behind the film, who had the final say with his immortal "beautiful friendship" line.

Julius Epstein, a great storyteller who wrote most of the film's wittiest lines with his twin brother, Philip, is well represented on both docus and elsewhere on the DVD extras.

Bacall introduces "Casablanca" in another recycled short on Disc 1, but it feels dated and in the way.

"The Children Remember," a new short, interviews Bogart's son and Bergman's daughters, all of whom seem to be experts on "Casablanca." "It still keeps my father alive," Stephen Bogart says. "It's her testament," Bergman's daughter Pia Lindstrom says.

An outtake, without audio but subtitled, shows Bogart's Rick Blaine visiting freedom fighter Victor Laszo in jail. Another shows a Nazi getting his at the bar.

Alternate takes of the film's popular songs feature Dooley Wilson in the studio singing "As Time Goes By" (the drummer didn't play piano in real life).

Other extras of note include a sheaf of fascinating studio memos written during production, original and rerelease trailers and a generous collection of production and publicity photos.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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