Casablanca features near the top of almost everybody's 'ten greatest' lists - of everybody who has seen it, that is. And how fantastic if you've come this far in life without seeing it... you have the cinema treat of treats in store.
This is, quite simply, the greatest American motion picture. Forget the over-praised Citizen Kane with its deliberately 'great' notions and ham acting. Put to one side (for the moment at least) the sublime American musicals such as Singin' in the Rain or Top Hat. Forget Star Wars - there's no contest.
Casablanca was an accidental masterpiece. The script wasn't even finished when shooting started. The cast was made up of second-choices. Humphrey Bogart instead of George Raft. Ingrid Bergman instead of Anne Sheridan. And the cast worked under huge difficulties - Ingrid Bergman for instance, not knowing how the film would end, didn't know whether she should act as if she really loved Humphrey Bogart or not. To the end of her days, this great actress regarded Casablanca as one of her least favourite movies. She simply could not understand why people loved it so.
People love it because it is romantic. It's also very cool and very hip. Very serious and stirring, and also very very funny, with some of the greatest dialogue ever written for the screen, care of the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip.
It has one of the great scores, courtesy of Max Steiner. And it boasts one of cinema's classic songs, As Time Goes By, which in fact had been written for a film made ten years earlier, 1931's Everybody's Welcome.
Above all, it has a wondrous cast whose special appeal grows with every passing year. There is of course the immaculately perfect casting of Humphrey Bogart as the seemingly cynical bar proprietor Rick, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, his romantic foil.
Throw in such great character-actors as the suave Englishman Claude Rains as the opportunist Vichy police chief, Peter Lorre (long one of my very favourite actors) as the shady Ugarte, and add the quintessential fat-man Sydney Greenstreet and the sinister Conrad Veidt (whose recording of The Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay eclipses all others), and we have a series of cameo roles we can nowadays only marvel at. Paul Heinreid plays the Resistance hero who has been staying one step ahead of the Gestapo since his escape from a concentration camp - his is a thankless role. He is there just to move the plot along, while the spotlight falls on just about everyone else.
I've forgotten to mention Dooley Wilson, the Black American who plays Rick's friend and confidante Sam. In one of the most memorable sequences in the movie, he performs (and later reprises) As Time Goes By, giving us the only version of this song which matters, eclipsing even the later versions by Billie Holiday and, much later, Bryan Ferry.
Casablanca just gets better and better with every viewing. I guess I've seen it at least a score of times by now. It's a movie which demands being seen once a year, every year. The accidental artistry of the piece, its magical mix of romance and humour and drama, just grows apace.
It's not even as if this is the best work by the actors. Humphrey Bogart's greatest role, I think, was as the dissolute riverboat captain in The African Queen. And I think the archetypal Ingrid Bergman can be seen in the two Hitchcock movies, Spellbound and Notorious. But what incredible synergy between Bogart and Bergman. And how wonderful the interplay between them and the other actors.
Director Michael Curtiz works unobtrusively, in a way that suggests the film is directing itself. No auteur-at-work here. And the camerawork and the immaculate lighting - the atmosphere generated by the music and the script, which alternates from snappy wit to in-your-face sincerity - the whole thing is sheer magic.
This is my third edition of Casablanca. I thought the first Region 1 edition was pretty good - as good, if not a tad better, than the best video I'd seen.
The second edition was as good as the big-screen revivals I'd seen. The same density of tones, the velvety blacks, the clarity.
But this new transfer is noticeably better than that high achievement. This is equal to the very best transfer Warners has done to date, of any material, and that includes their Citizen Kane and Three Little Words. There is luscious beauty in the tones and subtle lighting of this black-and-white movie, and this crystal-clear transfer brings out every glistening, luminuous detail. There isn't the absolute contrast of earlier editions; this transfer possesses subtle gradations of tone the other editions could only hint at.
There is no film-grain evident, which disturbs some absolute cineastes - but this is perfection, in a class of its own. It is sheer perfection.