on April 13, 2012
First, I'm not reviewing the movie, which in and of itself is worth 10 stars. Yes, it follows "Citizen Kane" as the second-best movie of all time. But it's probably the best overall and most enjoyable movie ever made. So enough about what we already know...
Second, with a couple of exceptions, I'm not really reviewing the quality, quantity, or variety of extras in this special edition as a reason to purchase or not to purchase this movie. It's got some cool souvenirs, extras, etc. Some of the extras I watched appear to have been re-mastered vs. the 2008/2009 edition they were in. In that edition, the extras look as though they were poorly upscaled from the DVD version. The extras on this edition seem to be of better quality, and the menus are a bit more refined.
What I am reviewing is the quality of this transfer vs. the 2008/2009 Blu-Ray edition of the movie. Sadly, I think the 2008/2009 edition is superior, both for the video and the audio. Let me start by saying I watched all versions on an HDTV and on a newer 1920x1080 Dell laptop with the appropriate player software. For the heck of it, I also took an HD recording off TCM, as well as a TCM standard DVD because I could not really believe what I was seeing, or rather, not seeing, with this edition. The problem with this edition is that the contrast/gamma is off. Way off, at least on my monitors, relative to the 2008/2009 edition Blu-Ray and DVD, and the TCM HD airing. While the other versions seem to have no problem with grays, this edition contains too much black. I had to create a custom setting on my monitor to expand the gamma. When I went back to other shows, they were far too bright and washed out, so I don't think it's in my monitor or laptop. And yes, I can watch the TCM edition on my laptop via SageTV. This leads me to believe one of two things is going on - either "Casablanca" has been transferred incorrectly all along, and this edition finally got it right, or this edition has a problem with its transfer. I think it's the latter. The gamma is just plain too low. Things are either too black, lost in the shadows, or too white. The good news is, relative to the 2008/2009 Blu Ray edition, the resolution appears even higher and more detailed. The grain of the film is so apparent it almost hurts your eyes, in a good way. Needless to say, either edition beats the TCM HD airing in that department, as one would expect with the lower bitrate of satellite TV. Obviously, they also beat the standard DVD, but not by as much as one might think. I take issue with the contrast/gamma so much because of the important use of shadow, both with the characters' faces and costumes, and with the backgrounds, to convey emotional states and atmosphere. It's not solely because the detailing on someone's top or sleeve gets lost due poor contrast/gamma, although that is almost as bad.
The other issue is the audio. It's not that I expect surround; I never did from any edition. The problem is that the movie starts out loud and then gets softer. It's the same with dialogue normalization engaged or disengaged in my players/monitors. I was hoping that since the movie was in mono, and not being listened to with the expectation of a surround-sound festival, that I could correct the steadily-dropping level by using normalization and not destroy dynamic range that was never there to begin with. Unfortunately, that did not help either. Again, neither the 2008/2009 blu Ray or TCM DVD editions, or the TCM HD airing suffered from this, so I don't think it's my systems' fault.
Am I saying not to buy this movie? No, I am not. Casablanca is hands-down my favorite movie. But at $45 for this edition, I think one should be prepared for what one might or might not get. Maybe it's my monitor and laptop. I doubt it's both, especially with three other versions to compare it to. If you think I may be right, rent the last release and watch them both and decide for yourself.
As to the extras, the ones I have watched so far look as though they have been at least re-scanned in HD, even if their aspect ratios are not right when showing clips of the movie within them. I also recommend listening to Ebert's commentary at least one time while viewing the movie. He makes some great points about the composition of the movie itself and offers some compelling arguments against the popular "Casablanca" urban legends such as Bergman's alleged confusion about not knowing the eventual outcome of her character (aside from the order of the shooting, as an actress she had to know all along that her character could never go off with Bogart's character since her character was married and the film censors of the time would never have allowed her character to leave her husband for another single man in the movie). Details such as those might cause you to look further into the fascinating story of how this movie came to be so highly regarded, when in reality no one at the time expected it to be anythig more than one of the 50 or so movies Warner Brothers would make that year.
Just for the heck of it, I purchased a used HD DVD copy as well. My above criticisms against this 70th. Edition would also stand as compared to the HD-DVD transfer. It also has much better contrast/gamma, but I still have to give a slight edge to the 70th. Edition for the detail. As I stated earlier, the resolution of the 70th. Edition is so good at revealing the grain of the film that it almost hurts to look at it.