Play it again: Casablanca and I, Claudius reissued
By Dennis Hartley
The Germans wore gray; you wore Blu
What is the best criterion for determining a “great” film? One is likely to elicit as many differing opinions as the number of folks one might ask; if we’re talking movies, subjectivity is the name of the game, and “all the world’s a critic”. However, in the last 120 years or so that the medium has existed, a handful of films have emerged that professional critics (you know, people who actually get paid to express their opinions) and movie audiences have reached a mutual consensus on proclaiming among the greatest of all time (at least since Eadweard Muybridge set his Horse in Motion in 1878). One of them is Michael Curtiz’s 1942 treatise on love, war and character, Casablanca, which is available in Warner’s new Blu-ray 70th Anniversary Limited Collector's Edition.
It certainly could be argued that Casablanca did not necessarily achieve its exalted status by design, but rather via a series of happy accidents. Warner Brothers bought the rights to a (then) unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s (written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) for $20,000, which at the time was considered an exorbitant investment for such an untested commodity. The script went through a disparate team of writers. Brothers Julius and Philip Epstein initially dropped out to work on another project, eventually returning to resume primary authorship (after much of replacement Howard Koch’s work was excised) and then they were joined by (non-credited) Casey Robinson for daily rewrites. Even producer Hal Wallis put his two cents worth in with last-minute lines (most notably, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”). Despite too many cooks, a now iconic (and infinitely quotable) script somehow emerged.
And would it have been the same film without the palpable onscreen chemistry generated by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story? Bogart, while certainly a rising star at the time, had not been previously considered as a romantic lead in Hollywood; the studio had some initial trepidation about his casting. Also, Curtiz was in actuality the ‘second choice’ director. Wallis had originally wanted (the unavailable) William Wyler. And perhaps most significantly, the film did not exactly set the world on fire upon its initial release; certainly no one was touting it as a “classic”.
And yet, for whatever the reason(s) may be, it is now considered as such; although it’s possible that it is in reality more “beloved” than “admired” (and there is a considerable difference between those two designations). For me, it’s a true “movie movie”…the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. In other words, it doesn’t have to “make sense” on every level, in order to make sense as a perfect entertainment. Whether it is 100% believable as a World War II adventure, or whether the characters are ultimately cardboard archetypes, or whether it looks like it was all filmed on a soundstage, or whether certain elements are un-PC (nee “dated”) really become moot issues in a “movie movie”. What matters to me is the romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?
As for this latest home video incarnation (preceded by several SD DVD editions/upgrades and one previous Blu-ray version) it is hands-down the cleanest and most gorgeous print of the film I have ever seen, with deep, rich blacks, crisp contrast with no visible artifacts or DNR. The transfer is 4K, which is a noticeable upgrade in quality from the previous Blu-ray (if you want to geek out). The mono audio is crystal clear and well-equalized; nicely highlighting Max Steiner’s rousing score. The hours of extras (which I haven’t had the time to completely plough through yet) are boggling. All of the features from the previous “ultimate” edition (yeah, I know-pure marketing) are carried over, plus two brand new entries. You will need to clear a little space; the fully loaded edition is in a bit of an oversized box for my liking (and I’m not sure I really needed the set of 4, erm, coasters they threw in there), but the hardback 62-page art production book is a nice bonus, as well as a full-size replica of the original movie poster. If you truly love the film, it’s worth the investment. Otherwise…we’ll always have Paris.
She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire
“Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again.”
Thirty-five years ago (best to my hazy recollection), I was living in a house in Fairbanks, Alaska with 4 or 5 (or was it 6 or 7?) of my friends. Being twenty something males, ragingly hormonal and easily sidetracked by shiny objects, it was a rare occasion when all the housemates would actually be congregated in one room for any extended period of time. But there was one thing that consistently brought us together. For about a three month period in the fall of 1977, every Sunday at 9pm, we would abruptly drop whatever we were doing (sfx: guitars, bongs, Frisbees, empty Heineken bottles and dog-eared Hunter Thompson paperbacks hitting the floor) and gather in a semi-circle around a 13-inch color TV (with rabbit ears) to rapturously watch I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theatre.
While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a snooze-inducing history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding U.S. viewers in thrall for its 12-week run. While it is quite possible that at the time, my friends and I were slightly more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of the writing, the wonder of the performances and historical complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to the realization that I think I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius.
It’s all there…the systemic greed and corruption of the ruling plutocracy, the raging hypocrisy, the grandstanding, glad-handing and the back-stabbing (in this case, both figurative and literal). Seriously, over the last 2000 years, not much has changed in the political arena (this election year in particular finds us tunic-deep in bread and circuses; by Jove, what a clown show). Although it’s merely a happy coincidence that a newly minted 35th Anniversary Edition of the series was released on DVD this week by Acorn Media, the timing couldn’t be more apt. I’ve been finding it particularly amusing the past few days to zip through the nightly network newscasts on the DVR, then immediately follow it up with an episode of I, Claudius so I can chuckle (or…weep) over the parallels.
Kawkinkydinks with the ongoing decline of the American empire notwithstanding, the series holds up remarkably well. In fact, it still kicks major gluteus maximus on most contemporary TV fare (including HBO and Showtime). What’s most impressive is what they were able to achieve with such austere production values; the writing and the acting is so strong that you barely notice that there are only several simple sets used throughout (compare with Starz’s visually striking but otherwise distressingly chuckle-headed Spartacus series). It’s hard to believe that Derek Jacobi was in his mid-30s when he took on the lead role; not only does he convincingly “age” from 20s to 60s, but subtly unveils the grace and intelligence that lies behind Claudius’s outwardly afflicted speech and physicality. Another standout in this marvelous cast is Sian Phillips, with her deliciously wicked performance as Livia (wife of Augustus) who will stoop to anything in order to achieve her political goals (Machiavelli’s subsequent work was doo-doo, by comparison). George Baker excels as her long-suffering son, Tiberius, as does Brian Blessed, playing Augustus. And John Hurt’s take on the mad Caligula is definitive, in my book. The new transfer on the Acorn release is excellent, making this DVD set well worth your denarius.