x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Why Bogart and Bergman's Casablanca still matters for the city

Film fan, novelist and resident Tahir Shah discovers why Morocco's largest city is still the perfect setting for Casablanca the film, 70 years after it was made in the back lots of a Hollywood studio.

Casablanca was the first city to be designed from the air by the French, and Boulevard Mohamed V has some of the most magnificent Art Deco buildings in existence. Zacarias Garcia for The National.
Casablanca was the first city to be designed from the air by the French, and Boulevard Mohamed V has some of the most magnificent Art Deco buildings in existence. Zacarias Garcia for The National.

Close your eyes and you can picture it: a flask shaking cocktails at the bar, a roulette wheel spinning fast, the last chips tossed down onto red and black numbers on the baize, laughter, conversation, plenty of cigar smoke and, at the piano, Sam gently playing As Time Goes By.

It could only be Rick's Café Americain, and it could only be Casablanca.

As timeless as any creation to have ever come out of Tinseltown, and as celebrated as any movie born there, Casablanca is often regarded by screen aficionados as the most perfect film of all time.

And, this month it's celebrating a big birthday - its 70th.

A love story set against a backdrop of war, it's a film packed to the gunnels with intrigue, danger and rip-roaring suspense. Seven decades later it may be famous for being famous, but it's a crème de la crème classic, albeit an unlikely one.

Set in the days just before the Allied landings, when Morocco was struggling under the grip of Vichy France, Casablanca was a place of danger and of sanctuary. It was from there that European refugees sought safe passage and freedom to the New World - at least in the movie, it was.

For anyone out there who's never seen the film (as if there's anyone on the planet who hasn't), Casablanca tells the tale of the washed-up American nightclub owner Rick Blaine, portrayed by a sullen and rather lugubrious Humphrey Bogart. The proprietor of an animated speakeasy, in which all manner of low- and high-life characters while away their time, Bogart is entrusted with two letters of transit - travel documents worth their weight in gold.

Throw into the fray Rick's ex-love, played by Hollywood pin-up Ingrid Bergman, a couple of murders, some Nazis, and a ton of conspiracy, and you have a brew that defied even the harshest critics. It was as though MGM had hit the jackpot, not least of all because the subject matter was right on cue for the moment.

With the Allied invasion of North Africa - Operation Torch - headline news, Casablanca was a name already on everyone's lips. Taking shrewd advantage of the coincidence, MGM's moguls brought forward the initial release date to late November 1942, thereby maximising their publicity. And then there were the accolades.

Casablanca had a clean run at the Oscars with eight nominations, taking home three in all, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Bogart and Bergman were fêted internationally, and found themselves household names the world over. As they did so, the most memorable lines of the movie, like "Play it, Sam", slipped into the annals of Hollywood history, and into American culture as well.

The strange thing about Casablanca is that on the surface it has very little to do with the real Casablanca at all. Shot almost entirely on Warner's lot in Burbank, California, the sets were largely pieced together from existing leftover stock, having been given an exotic North African flavour, peppered with extras decked out in costume.

There's a rumour - one of so many surrounding the film - that Ronald Reagan was first considered for Bogart's role, and that Rick's Café was based on the salon of the old Hotel Minzah in Tangier. Although, more certain is the fact that during filming none of the actors or crew ever set foot on Moroccan soil.

When, as a Casablanca enthusiast myself, I moved to the city almost a decade ago, I started digging into the folklore and the reality of the movie I hold so dear. It didn't take long before I realised that the Bogart and Bergman characters, not to mention Rick's Café Americain, were figments of Hollywood's communal imagination. After all, Casablanca is essentially a French city, constructed in the first half of the last century as an expression of French colonial might.

But, as the years have drifted by, I have come to see that, in Casablanca, nothing is quite what it seems. Slip beneath the European facades and there's a labyrinth of intrigue and mystery, a sense that the city I have come to know and love is in a bizarre way straight out of movie fiction. There's irony in the fact that it's taken Casablanca decades - seven to be exact - to get the well-heeled, worn-in feel of the city depicted by Hollywood.

Explore the backstreets of old Casablanca, the byways that lie off Boulevard Mohammed V, the main drag, and you slip into a realm that's gritty, mysterious and alive with all manner of enticing characters. Squint a little into the syrupy winter light, and you find yourself sucked back in time to a Casablanca right off the Warner back lot.

There's nothing quite so enthusing or magical as the underbelly of a multilayered metropolis, and few cities I know can compare with Casablanca. Take a right turn behind the old stock exchange, a grand old Art Deco marvel which rises up like a greying iceberg, and you find yourself at the magnificent Cinema Rialto. With the sweeping curved lines of the Roaring Twenties, it's a little shabby, but more atmospheric than almost any other building I know. The highlight of my life was to stumble inside and find Casablanca playing there.

A stone's throw away is the glorious Petit Poucet, a restaurant once patronised by Edith Piaf, Albert Camus and Antoine de St Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. Faded grandeur is the order of the day, and style that's not so much as impressive from the outside in, as much as from the inside out. I love to while away the hours there, with an old friend or two, over meals that never quite end.

And, I love to stroll through the twisting, turning streets of Derb Omar, imagining warehouses packed to the rafters with contraband and stowaways; or to think of the rowdy gambling dens and bars secreted away perhaps in the shadows behind the warehouses and the stores.

The roulette wheels may not be turning any longer, that is if they ever were, but there are bars aplenty, the kind that I'm sure would have been patronised by Bogart if he had ever really come to town.

Go down a little farther and you get to the old residential quarter of Mers Sultan. All the buildings are pure Art Deco, each one a marvel in its own right, and each a little more ramshackle than the last.

Near to the Café Champs-Elysées, itself laid out in the form an ocean liner, is Bar Atomic, one of Casablanca's most immortal and underrated haunts. Dating back to the 1940s, when anything "atomic" was cutting edge and cool, it gives grit-filled realism a whole new meaning.

Studio shots of Hollywood icons cover the walls, and sawdust hides the granite on the floor. There are original wooden refrigerators humming behind the bar, vintage advertisements, and a line-up of characters right out of Rick's, although a little the worse for wear.

Last week when I popped in with a friend, the barman saw me motion to the framed picture of Bogart, cigarette smouldering in his hand. He tapped a knuckle to the counter.

"He came here once or twice."

"When was that?" I asked.

"All those years ago, when they were filming Casablanca in town."

"But it was shot in America," I said. "I know all about it because I'm the movie's biggest fan."

The barman stroked his hands together. He smiled. "Don't believe the rumours," he replied.

 

If you go

 

The flight

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers nine-hour return flights from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca from Dh2,600 return, including taxes

The hotel

A double room at Hotel Le Doge (www.hotelledoge.com) costs from 1,167 Moroccan dirhams (Dh493) per night, including taxes

Tahir Shah's new novel, Casablanca Blues, is due out at the end of January.