Casablanca (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Barrie Maxwell
  • Review Date: Nov 04, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Casablanca (4K UHD Review)

Director

Michael Curtiz

Release Date(s)

1942 (November 8, 2022)

Studio(s)

Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: A

Casablanca (4K Ultra HD)

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Review

[Editor’s Note: When Casablanca first appeared on HD disc in 2007, our late friend and Classic Coming Attractions columnist Barrie Maxwell wrote a lengthy review here on The Digital Bits—one that, I believe, deserves to stand as our take for all time. Barrie’s enthusiasm shines through in every word, and I can’t think of a film that’s more deserving of it. So after my brief summary of the plot, you’ll find Barrie’s thoughts and I hope you enjoy them. And I’ll return afterwards to offer my own comments specific to Warner's new 4K Ultra HD release.]

CASABLANCA

In December of 1941, with Nazi forces spreading across the whole of Europe, the path for those who wish to escape the Third Reich’s growing influence leads south, across the Mediterranean, to the port city of Casablanca in French Morocco. It’s there that American ex-pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns a nightclub that’s popular with the locals, well-to-do refugees, Vichy French officials, and German officers alike. The club is allowed to operate because Blaine remains apolitical, a fact that serves the local French captain, Louis Renault (Claude Rains), very well indeed.

But things change quickly when Rick’s lost love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly appears in town with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a well-known Czech Resistance leader who’s highly sought by the Nazis. The couple hopes to escape by plane to America, where Victor might continue his work, but they require letters of transit that the local authorities will certainly not provide. As luck would have it, Rick’s recently come into possession of the very thing they need, but he’s still nursing a broken heart after his time with Ilsa in Paris. Matters grow even more complicated when the Germans shut down Rick’s club… and Ilsa reveals that she still loves him.

ABOUT THE FILM

“The stuff... that dreams are made of.”

Yes, that’s from another famous Warner Bros. film, but it’s hard not to think of Casablanca in such terms. After all, suppose you went to sleep and dreamt about the perfect movie. What might your dream include? Top stars (how about Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman)? Favourite character actors (maybe Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and S.Z. Sakall)? An intriguing foreign setting (North Africa—Morocco maybe)? An intelligent script with snappy, memorable dialogue—drama with a liberal dose of romance and a touch of comedy (the Epstein brothers have to figure in there, don’t they)? A pleasing musical score, rousing when needed, yet something hummable to remember the film with pleasure afterwards (Max Steiner perhaps)? Brisk, atmospheric direction drawing on good production values that emphasize both substance and style (could that be other than Warner Brothers, with perhaps Michael Curtiz at the directorial helm)? Is all that enough? Well, wake up! Doesn’t Casablanca sound more than a little familiar?

But enough of dreaming, let’s try to get a handle on the real thing. How often has someone asked: “What is it that’s so great about Casablanca?” People seem to realize that the film is special, but can’t articulate exactly why. Perhaps the reason for that lies in the embarrassment of riches that the film possesses. You just start to think about one aspect that’s so great, when that jogs your mind about another great thing, that in turn reminds you of... well, you get the idea. That’s certainly what happens to me when faced with the question of Casablanca’s reputation. Just what does the almost endless list of positive characteristics of Casablanca include? Well, go back to that dream and you’ve got a good chunk of it right there. But it’s more than just a list. Some films have comparable attributes, but for often-indefinable reasons, they fail to achieve greatness or they just don’t work at all. The whole is not greater—and may in fact be less than—the sum of the parts. That is emphatically not the case with Casablanca. It is the supreme example of that amalgam of art, commerce, and hard work, plus a dose of good luck, that defined Hollywood’s Golden Age and the factory approach to film production that was its hallmark.

Now there’s been a lot of nonsense written about Casablanca, including one suggestion that the film is a political allegory for the times (Rick as Roosevelt—after all, casa blanca is Spanish for white house) or another that it’s a repressed gay fantasy (wherein Rick rejects Ilsa, preferring instead an affair with another man, Louis Renault). These are typical of the sort of irrelevance that pervades the analysis of some academics, who seem to prefer the obscure to the straight-forward. No, Casablanca began simply as another typical Warner Brothers war-time project—a romantic melodrama intended to contribute to the war effort, based on “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” a play whose screen rights producer Hal Wallis had purchased. The scriptwriting process was almost worthy of a book in itself, as the script got lobbed back and forth repeatedly between Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein. Every lob, however, helped to sharpen it—tightening the dialogue and clarifying the characters’ relationships. Of course, some parts came more easily than others. Notoriously, the ending seemed unlikely ever to be satisfactory. The final path of each character never seemed seriously in question, but just exactly how and where to accomplish it was the problem. At one stage, the ending was to occur over a chess game at the café. It was only after numerous conversations between the three writers—with Wallis involved himself—that the ending we now know finally came to be.

With Casablanca, what we also have is a touch of serendipity to go with the appreciable amount of good planning. Case in point: How about George Raft and Ann Sheridan as Rick and Ilsa? Now, Raft was never seriously considered for the part of Rick, but he lobbied strongly for it, enough so that Jack Warner was prompted to write Hal Wallis about the idea. In this instance, though, Wallis had already made up his mind that the part was Bogart’s. Ilsa was a different matter. When Sheridan was first cast, there was no Ilsa; the character was an American known as Lois Meredith, and Sheridan’s bold, sassy style was thought appropriate for it. As the script changed and the character metamorphosed into the European heroine Ilsa, Wallis turned to the likes of Hedy Lamarr and Ingrid Bergman. Lamarr could not be pried out of MGM’s arms, so negotiations began with David O. Selznick to use Bergman whom he had under contract. In the end, an exchange involving Warner’s Olivia De Havilland allowed the use of Bergman in the Ilsa role. Even Casablanca’s director, Michael Curtiz, was far from the first choice. To be sure, Wallis sent the script to three Warner directors (Curtiz, Vincent Sherman, and William Keighley) for their comments, but his preference was William Wyler. For whatever reason, that prospect didn’t materialize (it’s not known whether Wyler even read the script) and Wyler was in the armed forces by the time production started on Casablanca. Vincent Sherman was excited about the project, but Wallis preferred to go with the more experienced Curtiz, with whom he’d had a long relationship and from whom he knew what to expect.

“What of it? I’m going to die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.”

“Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.”

“Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”

It is, of course, easy to talk about the top-billed cast members such as Humphrey Bogart—how the role of the cynical, world-weary Rick Blaine fit him like a glove and confirmed his star status after The Maltese Falcon (1941)—or Ingrid Bergman who played Ilsa Lund and did so convincingly despite worrying constantly during shooting that she had no clue where her character was headed, since the script ending never seemed to get finalized—or even Paul Henreid who, having just completed his best work to date in Now Voyager (1942) with Bette Davis, took on the somewhat thankless yet essential role of Ilsa’s husband, the freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. Several books have been written about these players and their roles in Casablanca. So, let’s turn instead to three talented supporting actors whose abilities are most emphatically on display in Casablanca: Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and S.Z. Sakall.

“You despise me, don’t you?”

“If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”

As Ugarte, Peter Lorre is at his whining, obsequious best. By 1942, Lorre was recognized as one of Warners’ prime supporting assets, particularly when teamed with Sydney Greenstreet. That was technically the case here, although the two have no scenes together. The Ugarte character is a critical one in Casablanca, as his stealing of the letters of transit is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s and sets in motion the events that follow. Ugarte is basically an unprincipled black marketeer whose only real interest in the letters is how much they’ll sell for. He does provide one of the first clues that Rick is someone in whom to put one’s faith, for he is willing to entrust the letters to Rick while he passes the evening entertaining himself in the bar. The Ugarte role seems to fit Lorre like a glove. The unlovely face with the protruding, sympathetic eyes seem the hallmark of a man who’s been unable to get society’s respect through honest means, so has sunk to dishonest ones to command some measure of power in the community. In his film characters, Lorre always seemed to be in search of acceptance by others. But just as in the cases of those characters, he never really seemed to get the level of respect in the industry that would have resulted in his landing the top parts his great skill—and the earlier promise of his work in Fritz Lang’s M (1931)—should have warranted. Despite that, what he did get, he managed to make as persuasive as anyone could. With Ugarte, despite limited screen time, he succeeds memorably, and for that we should be grateful.

“Well, Ricky. I’m very pleased with you. Now you’re beginning to live like a Frenchman.”

“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

If you’ve read reviews of mine before, you’re probably aware of the high regard I have for Claude Rains. To me, he was one of Warner Brothers’ crown jewels, adding a touch of class to virtually every film he was in, whether period piece or modern drama. After Rick and Ilsa, Louis Renault is probably the character in Casablanca that people most remember. (For some, he’s the first they think of.) With his moustache, a hint of a French accent in his cultured voice, and a twinkle in his eyes, Rains brings Louis majestically to life—patriotic yet prepared to blow with the prevailing wind, a man of his word yet open to a bribe, and sophisticated yet susceptible to sentiment. While building towards the film’s conclusion, when we find out where he really stands in the conflict, Rick has chosen to mask his feelings with a brooding cynicism. That fit Bogart’s acting persona. Louis has preferred the path of laughter and submissiveness, masked by an easy urbanity. That fit the adaptable Rains’ style. We like Louis so much that it’s a relief then to find that both he and Rick are really two of a kind, for that appeals to the realist in us. We like to see ourselves as embodying the good qualities, yet we’re sometimes weak and fall prey to temptation—just as Louis does. But in the end, we like to think that we’d do the right thing when everything’s on the line, just as Rick and Louis do. We might like to believe we’re most like Rick, but it’s more likely that we’re really like Louis, and so he in fact is the character that we most readily identify with. Without Rains’ adroit playing of Louis, that wouldn’t be the case.

“Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.”

“I have already given him the best, knowing that he is German and would take it anyway.”

People seldom talk about S.Z. Sakall when discussion turns to Casablanca and that’s a shame. Sakall, a Hungarian who had become popular in German films before being banned from working in Nazi Germany, arrived in America in 1939 and appeared in more than two dozen films in the 1940s. He plays the ever-present Carl, the head waiter at Rick’s Café Américain. Carl is a member of the official underground, but at the same time appears almost to be an unofficial guardian to all of the various refugees fleeing their home countries in hopes of escaping to America via Casablanca and Lisbon. For as they congregate at Rick’s, Carl seems to know them all and have a personal concern for each of their future fortunes.

No matter what role he played, Sakall seemed always like a big cuddly bear (Jack Warner even nicknamed him “Cuddles”), though in later roles he would become almost a caricature of himself. In Casablanca, his characteristic jowl-flapping was at a minimum and he was used throughout to provide relief from the drama. Consider such vignettes as the pickpocket who bumps into Carl causing him to pat his pockets quickly, or the drink shared with the elderly couple that proceeds to check their watches as they show off their newly-learnt English. Throughout, Sakall is a sheer delight.

“… (We) are speaking nothing but English now—so we should feel at home when we get to America... What watch?”

[Woman glances at her wristwatch] “Ten watch.”

“Such watch?”

“Er, you will get along beautifully in America.”

One of the other great strengths of Casablanca is its use of dozens of expatriate foreign actors who’d managed to make their way to Hollywood in the late 1930s and early ‘40s as their homelands in Europe came under Nazi influence. The authenticity this added to Casablanca’s atmosphere should not be underestimated. A problem Hollywood sometimes had with films of foreign setting was their unrealistic look and feel, partly due to the studio-bound nature of the filming and also because American players were typically cast as foreigners. While Casablanca was shot in the studio, its preponderance of interiors was greatly enhanced by its contingent of expats, who made the settings seem like international gathering places. It was more than just a look and sound though; the realistic atmosphere was borne of these individuals’ real-life experiences in Nazi camps and prisons, of being on the run, of fearing what might happen next, of hoping for a better future. There’s a sadness, though, in comparing the very small roles most of these individuals have in Casablanca to their actual importance in their home countries. Ilka Gruning, the woman who has the exchange of words with her husband over their watches, had run the second-most-important drama school in Berlin. Helmut Dantine, the young husband at the roulette table, was the leader of Vienna’s anti-Nazi youth movement. Marcel Dalio, the croupier at the same roulette table (“… well, a couple of thousand less than I thought there would be”), had starred in two classic French films for Jean Renoir—La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du Jeu (1939). These are but three examples of more than two-dozen such individuals that populate Casablanca.

When Casablanca was completed in early August 1942, Warner Bros. had six other movies in production and all but one were more expensive to make. Casablanca’s final cost was $1,039,000. In charge of production was Hal Wallis, who earlier that year had signed a contract with WB to make four pictures a year for the company. 1942 was, one could say, not a bad year for him; his productions included Desperate Journey, Now Voyager, Casablanca, Watch on the Rhine, Air Force, and Princess O’Rourke—all money-makers, two of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year (Casablanca and Watch on the Rhine). Casablanca was very much Wallis’s baby. He approved purchase of the play it was based on; he brought on the Epstein brothers to hone the script and contributed to it himself; he decided on Michael Curtiz for direction and regularly provided comments to Curtiz following screening of the dailies; he saw the film as a Bogart picture from the start; and he negotiated for Ingrid Bergman. In fact, he had his finger in virtually every part of the pie, and must be given a significant share of the credit for Casablanca’s success.

In Michael Curtiz, Wallis had a director whom he knew well and was comfortable with, even if Curtiz wasn’t his first choice for this particular film. The Hungarian-born Curtiz’s history with WB went back to 1926 when he had been recruited in Europe after a series of successful Austrian pictures. He would come to be a versatile workhorse director for the studio as well as being entrusted with most of its top stars and most prestigious films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, with James Cagney), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, with Bette Davis and Flynn), The Sea Wolf (1941, with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, with Cagney). Once assigned to Casablanca, Curtiz proceeded to ensure his own contributions to the finished product. Much of the casting of the minor parts appears to have been Curtiz’s doing and it seems unlikely that Bergman would finally have been selected to play Ilsa had Curtiz not been supportive. Curtiz’s most significant contribution, however, lay in the look and urgency he brought to so many scenes in the film—from the initial round-up of suspects that leads off the story, to our first look at Rick’s Café and its various characters, to Ugarte’s arrest, to the Paris railway station sequence in the rain, and (last but certainly not least) the scenes between Rick, Ilsa, and Victor at the airport. Curtiz also loved to use shadows and their movement to heighten the impact of scenes and this too is evident throughout Casablanca.

Take a look at those final scenes again and pay attention to the camera placement during Rick and Ilsa’s conversation—the use of two-shots and then close-ups of Rick and Ilsa over each other’s shoulders. Can anyone argue that this isn’t one of the romantic moments in cinema? Both actors are superb and Curtiz’s camera work makes the most of them. Seconds later, we have Rick’s explanation to Victor and again the same magical combination of actors at their best is delineated beautifully in Curtiz’s choice of frame composition and the use of shadows cast on the actors’ faces by their hats.

To a degree evident in few other dramatic films, the music of Casablanca has taken on a life of its own. The signature tune—“As Time Goes By” (originally written by one Herman Hupfeld for a now-forgotten 1931 Broadway show)—immediately evokes images of this film, as does one of its iconic lines of dialogue—“Play it, Sam.” However, the use of “As Time Goes By” almost didn’t happen, for Max Steiner (who wrote the score for Casablanca) didn’t particularly like the song.

Steiner was another WB workhorse that Wallis wanted for the film. Steiner had just finished a very successful score for Now Voyager, which would win him the 1942 Academy Award in the category. His approach was always to watch a particular film assigned to him a couple of times before commencing his work. This time, however, Steiner was stuck with working around the song “As Time Goes By”—Ingrid Bergman had already been filmed by Sam’s piano humming the first few bars of the song, and her hair had since been radically shortened for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Paramount). So Steiner made the best of it and proceeded to make the song the centerpiece of his score, a love theme for Rick and Ilsa that echoed throughout the film in different variations and stylings. Similar use is made of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise.” Both converge in the final airport scenes.

It’s sometimes been said that the music of Casablanca is almost a character in the film in itself, and there’s a great deal of merit in that suggestion. So many of the film’s greatest moments seem inseparable from the music. As you play them over in your mind’s eye, the music is automatically there too; much of Casablanca seems inconceivable without it.

Though not unanimously acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of its original release, Casablanca received very favourable reviews and went on to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director.

THE 80TH ANNIVERSARY 4K ULTRA HD RELEASE

Casablanca was shot by cinematographer Arthur Edeson—a Hollywood legend whose pedigree includes such classics as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Frankenstein (1931), and The Maltese Falcon (1941)—on 35 mm black and white film (specifically Eastman Plus-X 1231) using Mitchell BNC cameras with spherical lenses, and it was finished photochemically in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio typical of the period. The film was previously scanned and remastered in 4K for its 70th Anniversary appearance on Blu-ray Disc in 2012, but for this Ultra HD release Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging has completed a brand new 16-bit 4K scan and frame-by-frame digital remastering of the best-surviving nitrate film elements. The image was then carefully graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 alone is available on this disc) to enhance contrast and detail.

The result of these efforts is a gorgeous presentation that—while not certainly not perfect—represents the finest-ever experience of Casablanca on any home entertainment format to date. There’s a noticeable uptick in fine detailing over the 2012 Blu-ray, as well as greater refinement of surface textures. Better still, none of the obvious digital smoothing that plagued the original 2008 Blu-ray is apparent. As is often the case with films of this vintage, newsreel clips and internegative shots processed through an optical printer (to create titles and scene transitions) exhibit a step down in terms of clarity, but first-generation footage looks more pristine than ever. And while some may question the ability of HDR to enhance black and white imagery, the shadows here are deeply black while highlights have a luminous glow. Every shade of gray in between is more nuanced and natural looking. Photochemical grain is organic yet well controlled, rendering a highly-filmic appearance. There’s no sign of untoward digital manipulation. Simply put, the visual experience of Casablanca in full 4K is sublime.

The film’s sonic quality has been upgraded too, thanks to a new audio restoration designed to enhance the overall clarity and frequency response of the original theatrical mono mix. There’s a bit of analog hiss apparent in the background of dialogue scenes occasionally, but fans should appreciate a modesty-improved listening experience that’s faithful to a period viewing. The music in particular has a richer and more satisfying tonal quality here that’s pleasing to the ear. The original English mix is included in lossless 2.0 mono in DTS-HD Master Audio format. Additional 2.0 mono Dolby Digital tracks are available in French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Chinese, Latin Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, and Polish Voice-Over. Subtitle options include English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Mandarin, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian.

Warner’s new Ultra HD release is a 2-disc set that includes the film in 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray (the same disc released in 2012). Both discs include the following special features:

  • Introduction by Lauren Bacall (SD – 2:03)
  • Audio Commentary by Roger Ebert
  • Audio Commentary by Rudy Behlmer

To this, the Blu-ray adds the following:

  • Warner Night at the Movies
    • Now, Voyager Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:19)
    • Newsreel (SD – 4:36)
    • Vaudeville Days (SD – 20:18)
    • Merrie Melodies: The Bird Came C.O.D. (SD – 7:43)
    • Merrie Melodies: The Squawkin’ Hawk (SD – 6:41)
    • Merrie Melodies: The Dover Boys at Pimento University (HD – 8:58)
  • Behind the Story
    • Great Performances: Bacall on Bogart (SD – 83:27)
    • Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of (HD – 37:20)
    • Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic (HD – 34:59)
    • You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca (SD – 34:38)
    • As Time Goes By: The Children Remember (SD – 6:45)
  • Additional Footage
    • Deleted Scenes (SD – 1:40)
    • Outtakes (SD – 4:58)
    • Who Holds Tomorrow? (SD – 18:37)
    • Looney Tunes: Carrotblanca (SD – 8:02)
  • Audio
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: Knock on Wood Alternate Version (1:29)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: As Time Goes By, Part One – Alternate Take (:56)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: As Time Goes By, Part One – Film Version (:53)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: Rick Sess Ilsa (2:42)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: As Time Goes By, Part Two – Alternate Take (1:02)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: As Time Goes By, Part Two – Film Version (:59)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: At La Belle Aurore (4:51)
    • Scoring Stage Sessions: Dat’s What Noah Done – Outtake (2:26)
    • 4/26/43 – Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Broadcast (29:38)
    • 11/19/47 – Vox Pop Radio Broadcast (29:35)
  • Trailers
    • Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:16)
    • Re-release Trailer (SD – 2:52)

Some of these features represent legacy content carried over from the film’s original DVD release, while the rest were created for the 2008 and 2012 Blu-ray editions. Apart from the various Anniversary Edition paper goods and swag, the only disc-based content that’s missing here are a few poster and still galleries, as well as a trio of WB studio documentaries from the 2012 set (You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, The Brothers Warner, and Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul).

The audio commentaries included are quite entertaining, informative, and well worth your time, featuring film historian Rudy Behlmer and critic Roger Ebert respectively. Bacall on Bogart is the best of the documentaries, while A Tribute to Casablanca is specific to the making of the film itself. Who Holds Tomorrow? is a curiosity offering the premiere episode of a 1955 WB TV adaptation of Casablanca. You also get a smattering of deleted scenes, outtakes, audio recording alternate takes, a vintage radio special, a classic Looney Tunes homage cartoon, and the complete Warner Night at the Movies program for the film, allowing viewers to experience Casablanca as moviegoers in 1942 would have, complete with the original preview trailers, newsreels, and animated shorts. Nothing new has been created for this 4K package extras-wise, but everything you’d want to have from the pre-existing content is still here. Naturally, a Movies Anywhere Digital code is also included on a paper insert in the Amaray case.

It’s hard to imagine today the emotional impact Casablanca must have had on audiences in 1942, debuting as it did only a year after America’s entrance into World War II. Yet despite the film’s many obvious merits, it was only with Bogart’s death in 1957 that Casablanca came to be recognized as the classic it is. (The Bogart cult that surfaced on American college campuses in the late 1950s and early ‘60s seems to have provided the impetus for the film’s rediscovery and reassessment.) In the decades since, however, Casablanca’s ranking at or near the top of various “Best Films” lists has continued unabated. So it’s nice to see that historians and critics alike have finally caught up with what true film enthusiasts have known all along!

Casablanca is a masterpiece of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, and Warner’s new 4K Ultra HD release is a stunning and essential addition to the library of any self-respecting cinephile. Whether you’ve seen this film a hundred times or never before, it’s an experience that’s not to be missed.

- Barrie Maxwell with Bill Hunt

(You can read about Barrie and his life here on the original Digital Bits website.)

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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