Ilsa Lund: Let’s see, the last time we met…
Rick Blaine: Was La Belle Aurore.
Ilsa: How nice, you remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
Getting off the train at Tangier’s railway station on a fine African morning, there’s one question playing on my mind, which none of the pushy cabbies can answer. Where can I find Casablanca?
On any world map, the alluring port city of Casablanca features prominently on the Moroccan Atlantic Coast. And it looked exotic in black-and-white in the cinematic classic Casablanca (1942), but the truth is that not only was the film not made in that city, it wasn’t shot anywhere near Morocco. Warner Brothers’ studios in California was the physical location for the movie in which Humphrey Bogart played Rick Blaine, the jaded owner of nightclub Café Américain. To save resources, sets were recycled from other movies except for the crucial one—Rick’s nightclub was purpose-built to look like a Moroccan bar. And I’ve come across persistent rumours that its inspiration was actually not in the French-influenced town of Casablanca at all, but supposedly in the spy zone, Tangier.
Tracing the origins of the nightclub, I learn the original script was a failed play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s conceived by American teacher Murray Burnett, who journeyed through pre-war Europe in the late 1930s. The year before the World War, Burnett was on the French Riviera and popped into La Belle Aurore, a nightclub overlooking the Mediterranean, somewhere in the Antibes-St Tropez area.
La Belle Aurore’s patrons were a crazy mix of locals, Nazis, refugees headed for Tangier, and a black pianist playing jazz—he apparently even hammered out “As Times Go By” while the party animals appeared to be in denial of the upcoming war. Burnett said to himself, “What a setting for a play.” But to make it even more interesting, he changed the location to Morocco, across the Mediterranean, though there’s no record of him crossing over there. (To muddle up things more, the script features a nightclub by the name of La Belle Aurore—but in Paris.)
At the time, a consortium of European countries with strategic interests in the region had turned Tangier into a demilitarised international zone. While Casablanca was a commercial port far from Europe, it was here (within the sight of Gibraltar) that all the world’s restive refugees, dipsomaniac diplomats and tattling talents were mongering rumours at the city’s café-bars and gambling dens. That’s the atmosphere that permeates the film.
Consider the number of celluloid thrillers set here, that put the city’s name prominent in titles such as Flight to Tangier, Man from Tangier, Tangier Incident, and Espionage in Tangier. There are a couple of scenes in James Bond flicks too; in Spectre (2015) 007 visits a fictive Tangier hotel called L’Americain in an obvious homage. Tangier was even the backdrop for Bollywood spy picture Agent Vinod (2012), starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor.
Half a dozen bars in the city have been alleged to be the original Rick’s by self-appointed experts. Topping the list is Dean’s on 2 Rue d’Amerique-du-Sud; both the bar’s name and street location are suggestive of Rick’s Café Américain. Its charismatic owner Dean opened his eponymous piano bar in 1937, just a year before Burnett’s trip. Sitting across the street from the British consulate, it used to be crammed to the rafters with spies, smugglers and subversives. The book on the bar’s colourful history even bears the giveaway title Everybody Comes to Dean’s.
I find that it downed its shutters in 2015 and the sign outside has been stolen by some relic hunter. The near-mythical barkeeper Dean was even more enigmatic than the film’s Rick: it seems nobody even knew his full name, because when I eventually discover his cracked tombstone in the nearby graveyard of St Andrew’s Church (50 Rue d’Angleterre), it simply states: ‘DEAN. Missed by all and sundry. Died February 1963.’ There’s not even a year of birth.
Other plausible candidates include the bar at Vox, Africa’s biggest cinema in the 1930s and well-known hangout of spies, but only its sign is left hanging on the gable of Pension Café Fuentes (Petit Socco). Another was Guitta’s (110 Rue Sidi Bouabid), a tavern which remained unchanged since the 1950s until it had to close down recently when a mosque was built opposite to it; next on my list are the long gone Salon de Thé, and the extant Café de Paris (across from the French consulate), which no longer offers alcoholic drinks, but serves a great café au lait which I sip on while trying to think of how to uncover the authentic Rick’s.
The final contender in my notebook, which gazillions of websites claim was the model for Rick’s, is Caid’s, the bar at luxury hotel El Minzah (85 Rue de La Liberté), where everybody from Ian Fleming to Winston Churchill used to stay. So, I put on a clean shirt and splash cologne on my undies. Supposedly furnished with mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture and stained-glass lanterns, its décor is said to be the influence for many Arab-style sets in Hollywood over the years—including Rick’s. The staff, I hear, believe that Casablanca was actually shot on location at the Minzah, originally a 1930s Arab mansion owned by a Greek-American millionaire who was kidnapped by bandits from the nearby mountains. Its bar seems to be named after Harry ‘Caid’ Maclean, a Scotsman who also got kidnapped for ransom by the same hillbilly gang. The cocktails are supposedly best in town. There’s a piano too.
Perfectly in sync with what in the screenplay is described as ‘an expensive and chic nightclub which definitely possesses an air of sophistication and intrigue,’ but the doors are firmly shut and I hear the noise of renovation work. Due to some disagreement between the present foreign owner and Moroccan royals, this colonial relic closed just a year back, I’m told. Goodbye to Caid’s then.
With no likely suspect left, nothing holds me back in Tangier. I do some final desultory sightseeing. Despite its dull name the American Legation Museum (8 Rue d’Amerique; entry MAD20/Rs150), turns out to be thought-provoking with its Cold War memorabilia. On the wall sits a vintage poster of a dashing 1940s’ lady surrounded by uniformed dandies, bearing the warning: “Keep mum, she’s not so dumb! Careless talk costs lives.” Next to it, there’s an incongruous poster for Rick’s Café, Casablanca. It looks freshly printed. It even offers a street address: 248 Rue Sour Jdid. Could it be that there really is such a place after all?
As I alight at Casa Port, the harbourside railway station, I remind myself not to hike up expectations—the film was total Hollywood hokum. Not a single Moroccan in the cast and the only actor to have set foot in Casablanca was Dooley Wilson, who played Sam. Then again, he didn’t know how to play the piano to save his life, he was a professional drummer.
Nonetheless, in the old French Quarters of Casablanca, I come across plenty of derelict bars, cabaret halls, belly dancing clubs and what have you that might well be the settings of films. If I were a director, I would look no further, though they seem more suitable for some French noir motion-picture. Which seems to be why, in order to provide tourists with a Hollywood style gin joint to call their own, an eccentric American diplomat-turned-entrepreneur built a replica of Café Américain in a 1930s mansion. As I walk in circles without being able to find Rick’s Café, locals in the other more genuine cafés reinforce my apprehensions of a Disneyland-like experience, as they offer directions: “Looking for the tourist place? Go that way.”
Well-heeled foreigners tuck into T-bone steaks, the decor consists of a 1930s piano, knickknacks, potted palms, antique-looking lamps, velvet curtains and movie memorabilia—fully fitting the bill. Apparently, this is the handiwork of late American interior decorator Bill Willis, who, moving to Marrakech in the 1960s, became the go-to man for restoring Moroccan mansions into luxury destinations.
Downstairs a pianist who may or may not answer to the name Sam, plays “As Time Goes By” again and again, while in the tiny upstairs bar the film runs on an eternal loop. From a bored fez-clad bartender I finally manage to order a proper gin martini and then I sink into a heavy leather armchair next to the screen where Bogart, drinking and thinking of Ingrid Bergman, quips, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The bar’s crowded with an Indian tour group guzzling the mandatory Casablanca beers that cost three or four times what they do in regular bars.
I walk back through the old town, stopping for a cold beer in each of the many dives adjoining the old French market and think that the Hollywood version of a Moroccan bar is somewhat idealised. If there had been a Rick’s in reality, it hardly looked like a Hollywood set—but more like the real pubs where nut sellers walk in hawking, where black and white Egyptian music clips evoke nostalgia on TV screens. One such honky-tonk place even has an almost correct name: Café Rich Bar (corner of Place Aknoul and Rue Driss Lahrizi), a cheap saloon where a beer sets me back by only MAD15/Rs110.
Bar-hopping about a block away from it, I discover Le Sphinx (corner of Rue Bouchaib and Rue Mohammed
El Quorri) which has a suitably secretive name and sits aptly across from one of Morocco’s beautiful art deco cinemas, Rialto. Unlike the basic watering holes, there’s a menu from which I order tagine poisson (MAD60/Rs450), the spicy fish gravy that comes in a steaming conical dish, with which I have a bottle of white set on my table in an ice-brimming cooler.
Hmm, I’m starting to feel like an extra in some exotic espionage flick. Am I finally at Rick’s? Well, somehow it doesn’t matter anymore, because the very last bar on the trail grants me the vibe I was looking for. “Here’s looking at me,”
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).