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Pick of the Week: Casablanca DVD

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Casablanca (1942) is beloved by a wide cross-section of Americans, and it's been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. This seems to me to be one of the relatively few films that is highly regarded by both cinéastes and the general public alike. Warner Home Video has released a two-disc Special Edition DVD set of this great classic that is loaded with extras, and it's one of the best DVD values I've seen so far: my copy was purchased at a store for $18.89.

Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and I can't think of any movie where the romantic leads have better screen chemistry. But Bogart and Bergman don't have to carry the acting all by themselves—they are memorably supported by Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Conrad Veidt. I think it matters that a lot of the Casablanca cast members, as well as director Michael Curtiz, were European-born. It seems to me that gives the movie, which is quite recognizable as a Hollywood studio product, the necessary international flavor.

I suppose everyone thinks they know the story in Casablanca, but I'll give a brief synopsis anyway. The central character is Rick Blaine (Bogart), an expatriate American who owns and operates a thriving nightclub/casino in French North Africa. When we first meet Rick, he has been in Casablanca for 18 months, having come there from Paris. On the night of December 2, 1941—five days before Japan bombs Pearl Harbor—he is stunned when a Norwegian woman named Ilsa Lund (Bergman) walks into his club, accompanied by a well-known Resistance leader, the Czechoslovakian Victor Laszlo (Henreid). We soon learn that Rick had thought Ilsa was the love of his life, but she dumped him in Paris in June, 1940, when the city fell to the Nazis. Rick quickly finds himself caught up in a chain of intertwined personal and political events that force him to make some fateful decisions.

Casablanca is a terrific love story, but I think its emotional punch ultimately comes from its World War II political backdrop. There’s something about the stream of refugees fleeing the Nazis that gives the romance added poignancy.

Every time I see the movie's bittersweet ending, I feel uplifted because of the personal sacrifices the characters make for the greater cause of democracies working together against totalitarianism.

Sixty years after the initial release of Casablanca, nearly every American can quote lines of the film's sparkling dialogue like "Here's looking at you, kid!", "Round up the usual suspects!", and half a dozen more. But what I realized when I recently viewed the movie on the new DVD was how well the shooting on sound stages was handled. The sets, the lighting, the camera angles, and the compositions were all done masterfully. On the other hand, the backgrounds in back lot shots occasionally look phony, but the tight plotting and interesting characters pull most viewers into the story so completely that they don't really notice.

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