PRINT February 1992



HAVING GOTTEN THROUGH the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor relatively unscathed, we can enjoy a bit more than three years before the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. In the interim, there’s Casablanca.

For Americans, Casablanca is World War II. Put in production a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl, the movie is set days, perhaps hours, even moments, before it. “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” wonders Humphrey Bogart’s ineffable Rick. “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Made with 20-20 hindsight—replete with references to Rick’s “isolationism” and “foreign policy,” and ending with the romantic sacrifice he makes to rejoin the antifascist fight Casablanca suggests that if the American people were caught napping by the Japanese wake-up call, they were still a snoozing giant.

Nor was Rick born yesterday. This American hero is no simple do-gooder (although his instincts, of course, are to do good) but a man with a past (played by an actor only recently known for gangster roles), a wounded lover (burned by previous foreign entanglements). A premature antifascist, a glamorous loner, not to mention an existentialiste avant la lettre, Monsieur Rick brags that he never makes plans. The reluctant-hero type familiar from westerns, he runs a saloon in a corrupt frontier town, and in the end only shoots the Nazi villain because the arrogant fool went for his gun.

Despite the heartless quota policy that prevented all but a fortunate few from escaping Hitler to America, Casablanca shows this country or at least Hollywood—as the universal refuge. Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson (“the boy who is playing the piano,” someone calls him) are just about the only real Americans in the cast—another version of Huck and Jim. The rest are all foreigners. Brits like Claude Rains (Renault) and Sydney Green-street (Ferrari), glib con artists both, are lucky to be spending the war in Culver City. True, Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) did make a movie in the Reich, but most of the supporting cast is made up of actual refugees from fascism: Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), Marcel Dallo (the croupier), S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (the waiter), Curt Bois (the pickpocket). And then there’s Conrad Veidt as the villainous Nazi, playing out his own version of Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler by climaxing a career that began with the role of Cesare the somnambulist. (That Lorre, Sakall, and director Michael Curtiz were all born in Hungary can’t of itself account for Casablanca’s popularity in that country, where, I’m told, it is traditionally telecast on New Year’s Eve; this casbah is universal.)

If any Hollywood movie exemplifies the “genius of the system,” it is surely Casablanca—a film whose success was founded on as many varieties of luck as types of skill. (“It seems that destiny has taken a hand,” sez Rick.) The magical erotic chemistry between Bogart and Bergman is underscored by the supposedly haphazard way in which the movie was cast: the original stars were to have been Hedy Lamarr & George Raft—or was it Ann Sheridan & Ronald Reagan?

Fetishized as a perfect script (a six-hour “autopsy” is the culmination of Robert McKee’s celebrated three-day screenwriting course), Casablanca was based on an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, already rejected by several studios. Jack Warner eventually bought the property as a potential second Algiers (itself a remake of the international French hit Pépé le Moko). Rewritten many times, Casablanca was virtually made up as its makers went along. (“Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast no one notices,” Curtiz assured screenwriter Howard Koch). The movie careened toward its denouement without any ending: Ingrid Bergman didn’t know with which man she was supposed to be in love.

Casablanca’s punch line was still being debated in November of 1942, when an Anglo-American force landed in North Africa and took—yes!—Casablanca. (Someday, commanding officer Dwight D. Eisenhower would be elected to occupy the big casa blanca in Washington). Three weeks later, Warner Bros. achieved the “scoop of the film year” (New York Daily Mirror) when it opened Casablanca on Broadway. The film was an immediate hit, one of Warner’s greatest, with a record run on Broadway and fantastic word of mouth—“the kind of picture that no one wants to admit not having seen” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle). Lightning struck again in January 1943: Casablanca went into general release just as Roosevelt and Churchill met for their first wartime summit in . . .Casablanca. Jack Warner wanted to change the ending yet again to refer to the meeting.

Scarcely unappreciated, Casablanca won Oscars for Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It’s been estimated that Warner remade the film five times before World War II ended; clones appeared intermittently throughout the ’40s and beyond—the formula reaching its nadir in Hong Kong (1951), with Ronald Reagan finally getting to play the cynical American adventurer with the secret heart of gold. Although a Casablanca TV series (elevating Marcel Dalio from croupier to Renault) barely lasted the 1955–56 season, within a half dozen years the original film would be enshrined in revival houses across America as a sacred relic.

By the early ’60s, fifteen years before the cult took hold for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (another compendium of mass-media cliché and romantic wisdom, In this case pertaining to post-Elvis Anglo-American youth culture), an annual Bogart festival in Cambridge, Mass., had attracted national attention for the fanatical precision with which spectators would cue Casablanca’s action, bellowing “I stick my neck out for no one” or “Here’s looking at you, kid” along with Bogie. Of course Casablanca itself encourages this sort of audience involvement. Dooley Wilson’s first number is the carefree call-and-response “Knock on Wood”; Paul Henreid’s stirring rendition of the Marseillaise is said to have brought the movie’s original audiences to their feet—at least in some neighborhoods of New York. The fundamental things apply: Americans run nightclubs, Nazis shut them down.

Casablanca has been polled by TV Guide as the most popular movie on television and by the American Film Institute as one of Hollywood’s three greatest films, beaten out only by Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane. It has continued to haunt movies through the three decades since its discovery by Cambridge cineasts—problematic years for Americans abroad (though a sequence from it was optimistically embedded in Warner’s Viet-era flag-waver First to Fight). At some point Hollywood jumped from the production of imitation Casablancas to the fetishization of the film itself, scattering pieces of it as metamovie through various projects. Thus if Casablanca itself was the Casablanca of 1961—let’s call the designated cult film “Casablanca”—you might argue Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie as the Casablanca of 1971 but for Woody Allen’s half-nerdy, half-swinging version of “Casablanca”, Play It Again, Sam. And In 1981 Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark knowingly reshuffled elements of Casablanca and “Casablanca”, heralding America’s reborn ’80s confidence and self-absorption. Perhaps each generation gets the Casablanca remake it deserves. Sydney Pollack’s quickly forgotten Havana (1990)—which proposed Robert Redford as the cynical expatriate and Lina Olin as the Swedish dame of mystery, transposing Casablanca to Cuba on the eve of the Castro revolution—is redolent of our current confusion and decline.

At once urgent and nostalgic, alternating cynicism and sentimentality, Casablanca is a B-movie Grand Hotel, a film noir western, a few bits of newsreel stock footage, and an exotic set populated by gallant, glamorous creatures in stylish headgear. Mixing genres with mad abandon, it became a cult film precisely because, as Umberto Eco wrote in an essay that has itself become a cult object, “It is not one movie. It is ‘movies.’”1 Hollywood movies, that is, with a soupçon of the romantic French cinema of the late ’30s thrown in: the Marseillaise and “As Time Goes By.” Casablanca is the culture of the West, our civilization, attitudes, anthems, everything we were fighting for in World War II—including the right to be left alone. The flashback history lesson equating the fall of France with Ilsa jilting Rick is scarcely effaced by his assertion that the troubles of three people don’t amount to “a hill of beans.” On the contrary. By elevating this triangle to cosmic heights, Casablanca made the war worth fighting. The political was the personal.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his essays from the ’80s, was recently published by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


1. Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” 1984, in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, p. 208.

A shorter version of this column is included in the anniversary edition of Casablanca: Script and Legend, to be published this spring by Overlook Press, New York.