In CASABLANCA the world is a movie set (with a few newsreel cutaways) and America is shown as the universal refuge -- or at least Hollywood is. Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson are just about the only Americans in the cast (another version of Huck and Jim). The rest are all foreigners -- Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet -- lucky to be spending the war in Culver City. Most of these were even actual refugees from fascism -- Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio, S.Z. Sakall, Curt Bois, and, of course, Conrad Veidt as the villainous Nazi, playing out his own version of 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 the movie'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 almost as many types of skill as varieties of luck. (It's ironic that aspiring screenwriters take CASABLANCA's script as a text; rewritten many times, the film was virtually made up as its makers went along.) Mixing genres with wild abandon, CASABLANCA became a cult film precisely because as Umberto Eco put it, "it is not one movie. It is movies." All Hollywood movies that is, with a soupçon of the French cinema of the late '30's. In other words, CASABLANCA was the culture of the West, everything we were fighting for in World War II, brought together in one neat package.

It is because CASABLANCA is "movies" that it continues to haunt Hollywood. The film was replicated throughout the '40s and into the Cold War -- reaching its nadir with the 1951 Hong Kong in which Ronald Reagan (once, according to a Warner Bros. press release, a candidate for the original cast) plays the cynical American adventurer with the secret heart of gold. Ten years later, CASABLANCA was enshrined in revival houses across America as a sacred relic, not to mention an audience-participation precursor of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Like CASABLANCA, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a compendium of mass media cliché and romantic wisdom -- in this case pertaining to post-Elvis Anglo-American youth culture.) If CASABLANCA itself was the CASABLANCA of 1961 (call this now designated cult film "CASABLANCA"), the next decade was, of course, a problematic one for Americans abroad: You might argue Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie as the CASABLANCA of 1971, if not for Woody Allen's half-nerdy, half-swinging refetishization of "CASABLANCA," Play it Again, Sam.

Perhaps each generation gets the CASABLANCA remake it deserves. Steven Spileberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) -- which, in a self-conscious attempt to be "movies," knowingly reshuffled elements of CASABLANCA and "CASABLANCA" -- heralded America's reborn confidence and self-absorption. Sidney Pollack's quickly-forgotten Havana (1990) -- which proposed Robert Redford as the cynical expatriate and Lena Olin as the Swedish dame of mystery, transporting CASABLANCA to the Pearl of the Antilles on the eve of the Castro revolution -- is redolent of our current confusion and decline.