Critical Insights: Casablanca (Book review)

Edited by James Plath. Salem Press. April 2016. ISBN: 978-1-61925-876-1.

I stumbled upon the movie Casablanca one rainy winter afternoon in 1957. I was in seventh grade, my parents were away, so I decided to watch an old, 1942 movie on TV, a movie I had never heard of before, Casablanca. I didn’t know it had won an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. I didn’t know who Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, or any of the stars were. I didn’t know it was fast becoming the most-watched movie of all time on early TV. I only knew that when I finished it, I loved it. Then I came across it again a few years later in a college film class where I learned I wasn’t alone in my admiration for it. When I married in 1972, I took my wife to see it because she had never heard of it, and she, too, fell in love with the film. Since then I’ve owned it on Betamax tape, VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray. My wife and I have probably watched it fifty times or more since.

I mention this because no matter how many times I watch the film or read about it, I learn something new. So it was a decided pleasure to see that Professor of English James Plath of Illinois Wesleyan University had edited a critical edition of essays on the subject of what had become my favorite movie of all time. Critical Insights: Casablanca is more than a reference book; it’s an insightful, erudite, thoughtful, and entirely delightful volume, coming at the movie from over a dozen different angles from over a dozen different scholars, film buffs, film teachers, and film historians. Lots of “Professors” in here. Each of the essays uses a slew of reliable source materials, each essay fully annotated at the end. For anyone who loves the film as I do, who wants to learn more about its origins, its production, its stars, its themes, its producer, its director, its writers, its music, and its place in film history, Critical Insights: Casablanca is the ideal companion for a few long, studious winter nights or a few short, pleasant summer evenings.

Here’s a rundown on the essays and authors included in the book:

“On Casablanca” by James Plath
“Michael Curtiz: One of Hollywood’s Most Versatile Directors” by James Plath
“Tips of the Hat: The Critical Response to Casablanca” by Brennan M. Thomas
“Such Much? Casablanca, Hitler’s Refugees, and the Hollywood Screen” by Noah Isenberg
“Casablanca and Pop Culture’s Embrace” by Kathy Merlock Jackson
“Bogie Noir: Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon” by Li Zeng
“I Stick My Neck Out for Nobody: Rick Blaine’s Anti-heroism” by Erik Esckilsen
“Ilsa’s Sacrifice: Gender, History, and Casablanca’s Conversion Narrative” by Linda Mokdad
“Classical Hollywood, Race, and Casablanca” by Delia Malia Konzett
“Defining Classical Hollywood Narration in Casablanca” by Eric S. Faden
“Adlibbing Greatness: Casablanca’s Screenplay” by Kirk Honeycutt
“Here’s Looking at You . . . and You: The Actors’ Contributions” by Christopher S. Long
“This Crazy World: Cinematic Space and the Casualties of Casablanca” by Larrie Dudenhoeffer
“Beyond Hollywood: Casablanca as World Cinema” by Björn Nordfjörd
“The Undercut Auteur: Michael Curtiz and Casablanca’s Iconic Imagery, Motifs, and Symbols” by Michael O’Conner
“The Music of Casablanca” by James Plath
“Casablanca and the Search for an Auteur” by Paul Morrison

James Plath
Of course, with so many different perspectives on the film, you’re bound to run into a variety of writing styles and viewpoints, some of which you may agree with, some not; some of which you may find exhilarating, some of it perhaps boring. It isn’t as though you’re reading a single outlook on things from a single writer that you know. Thus, there will be times when you just have to say, no, I don’t agree with that; hell, no, that’s not right; or such-and-such author was too scholarly in his or her approach; or, yes, I’ve always thought that myself. It’s fun to read the diverse, often disparate angles people take on things, whether you concur or not. Then, too, you will find some overlap among the essays. They are all writing about just one film, after all, so there is bound to be some degree of repetition in the subjects covered. No matter; if you read the essays attentively and judge each on its own merits, you’ll enjoy yourself and pick up a wealth of information.

It’s hard to pick favorite essays among so many enlightening ones, but I think my own favorites were “Bogie Noir” by Li Zeng; “Here’s Looking at You . . . and You: The Actors’ Contributions” by Christopher S. Long; and, because of my interest in music, “The Music of Casablanca” by Professor Plath.

Why were these chapters favorites among so many fascinating ones? First, growing up as I did in the 1950’s, I had never heard of film noir until college. Then one of my film studies professors introduced the subject but never mentioned Bogart. In the present book, the author argues that not only was Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon the first noir film but that Casablanca exhibits classic elements of noir as well, especially in its use of atmosphere and setting. I can buy that. In terms of the characters in Casablanca, I’ve always thought they were the heart of the film, and I enjoyed Mr. Long’s illuminating takes on their motivations; besides which, Long’s writing is among the most eloquent yet easy to understand in the book. Finally, who could forget the music in the film. Plath calls attention to Max Steiner’s score and the film’s many songs, making Casablanca not quite a musical in the generally accepted sense but a musical movie, nonetheless. Reminds me of when I told a friend I thought the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a good musical, and he said “What?” He’d never even noticed the continuous music and songs in the film until I brought it to his attention, and then said “Oh, yeah. I guess you’re right.” Plath is right about Casablanca.  

No, you don’t have to be a Casablanca fanatic as I am to appreciate the book, nor do you have to be a scholar to find new insights into a great film. Sure, you could find much material like this on-line for free, but, then, you wouldn’t have it all in one place, nor would you find it so well organized into a coherent whole. You just have to have an open and inquisitive mind to appreciate the breadth of knowledge on display here. That you may find yourself being entertained along the way is like icing on the cake.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa