The Mad Genius
Diaghilev, properly understood.
Curtiz puts a right interpretation on the works of the Ballets Russes as expressions of Diaghilev’s genius, even Petrushka, and that includes Nijinsky. The fine line is there in a comic dialogue between John Barrymore and Charles Butterworth, who proposes a ballet scenario. Diaghilev (he has another name here) in his cups cannot believe “that there should be any human being living who is such a stupid ass.”
Much of this is taken stock of by Herbert Ross in Nijinsky, he notes that even the composer thought little of the choreography for Le Sacre du printemps.
Curtiz’ style is subjugated to the theme entirely, and severely. Scarcely a critic from Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times to Halliwell and Time Out Film Guide was aware of it, their disappointment is plain.
The refuge of a flat on Rue St. Eleuthère might have come to the notice of Beckett, the moviegoer.
Fellini has the maestro’s anecdote at the start of 8½.
The Case of the Curious Bride
From the great serene city of dignified mien, Los Angeles, Mason on holiday in San Francisco, a brisk town where he ventures crabe à la Bordeaux at Luigi’s in toque and tunic, “a noble experiment”.
The husband that was, a wooden Indian exhumed on grand jury instructions, for the bride’s information.
Warner Brothers taking its tip from Nugent’s New York Times review of Crosland’s The Case of the Howling Dog joins the Clue Club.
The Hungarian master Curtiz knows exactly what he’s doing, several things at once just like his hero, Perry Mason en route to China full of approbation.
“My mouth tastes like the whole Chinese army marched through it last night.”
“Possibly that explains the beaded bag on your highboy.”
The coroner says, “one of the greatest in the world,” Mason, as cooks go.
The late husband wants dough, now that she’s married rich, so who killed him?
Mason has an office in San Francisco.
“Hey Toots, who won the Lasky-Spumoni fight?”
Nugent in the New York Times hemmed and hawed (“it may not be moral, but it makes for entertainment”) and then he came clean, “the pace is swift, the solution well-hidden, the comedy good and—but isn’t that enough?”
TV Guide says no more, “good entertainment.”
“Smoothish”, says Halliwell’s Film Guide.
“If it’s a toothpick ya want I got one.”
The corpse had done it as a regular thing, “he’ll be quickly executed for the gal he disreputed on that dark and stormy night” (“Midnight Follies” at the Irving Theatre, “Burlesque De Luxe”).
The soundtrack pays off at the Balboa Hotel, ambience of the room, noise of traffic below from the fire escape.
In short, the badger game.
A very elegant turnabout on the structure of the preceding film.
A succession of images. Dr. Blood ministering to the revolt against James II, the plotters at the Assizes, then in a slave ship bound for Port Royal, the tortures there, the Governor’s gout.
The Spanish pirates sacking the town, the escape of the British, their seizure of the pirate ship and destruction of the pirates.
The British pirates, their brief alliance with a French captain.
The return to Port Royal, a commission from William III, the defeat of the French.
Captain Blood, Governor of Jamaica.
Four’s a Crowd
The newspaperman and the newspaperwoman, the publisher and the plutocrat’s granddaughter.
The pairs don’t mix, which is part of the comedy and makes the title.
The newspaperman gets the plutocrat by exposure and PR, bad press and good advice (found a medical institute, for example). This is not as simple as it sounds, which is the rest of the comedy.
Errol Flynn, Rosalind Russell, Patric Knowles, Olivia de Havilland, in order.
A lot of virtuosity in the filming conveys the intricacy of the satire, which begins with the newspaper closing because the publisher’s board of directors say it must, financially.
The Golden Spike puts a buffalo waller on the map, it rises to a million-dollar cattle hub and falls victim to a fourflusher with a gang of backshooters.
The last of it is the murder of a newspaper editor (“Dodge City Star, a Journal of Literature and News”).
A new sheriff cleans up the town.
The image front and back is the railroad crossing the plains.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Maxwell Anderson has had his fame, he held the Broadway stage before we were born, and we read him in school. That his fame means nothing to him you may well believe, but that it rises from the dead with this film in full prophetic force, you may find hard to swallow, but it is so.
Curtiz, to be sure, knows exactly what he is doing here, calmly staging a spectacle that originated in the theater and that, like Ford in Mister Roberts, he wants to convey in that aspect to some degree at least, and we may be glad he did. It’s a fine tribute to Broadway that such a fine tragedy should have trodden the boards there.
How fine is fine? Bette Davis seizes the entire screen, she will not let it go for an instant, she is thunder and lightning in this, and it is only in keeping with the character she is portraying in the screenplay as written (it may be that nothing quite like her performance was seen before Citizen Kane).
The film is composed of three broad elements. The South is a prison camp where men dig tunnels, the West is a gold trove to finance the war, John Murrell the bandito attacks the North and wants the gold.
Such an understanding completely eluded the critics, who were more or less charitable (Variety) and emunctory (New York Times).
Many of the qualities in Dodge City are reassembled in this surrealistic sequel, opulently filmed on Southwest locations.
Santa Fe Trail
The celebrated subject of Brigham Bishop’s poem is delicately painted amid the cream of antebellum U.S. cavalry.
According to legend, Conestoga wagons were taken up by whirlwinds and deposited in places such as Colorady (out of Old Kaintuck). The literal-minded have some little difficulty with Santa Fe Trail, between the Hollywood lore on one side and the dramatic representation of history on the other. Mostly, however, it’s about George A. Custer being in it. When John Brown went on his rampage and was put down by Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, why would you add Custer?
The answer should seem pretty obvious for at least one reason, the other being a gallant symmetry to match the other side of John Brown’s face. Curtiz’ chiaroscuro drives all this like a well-laden prairie schooner, or the winds of history revealing a transcontinental railroad through the dust.
The fall of France is the one blinding, stultifying shock that informs the whole picture. Defeat and despair are its only tongue, there is the stolid accommodation to a new regime, and then the fog lifts, the ice breaks just enough to perceive, after the initial total horror, that Victor Laszlo is not dead but in a concentration camp from which he escapes, that France is fallen but not dead, that there is a possibility of resistance.
That is the entire movement of the film, its artistic representation. Captain Renault sums up the situation as William L. Shirer detailed and explained it decades later, Renault was with the Americans “when they ‘blundered’ into Berlin in 1918,” now, as Signor Ferrari says, “the Germans have outlawed miracles”.
The unique force and brilliance come from this one central aspect, the rapidity of editing and camera movement catch the ripples of the shock wave as it extends across a turgid world.
No other film conveys the infirmity of existence at that time, the wobbly tightrope with its “shocking falls”, against which a solidity of crime appears here and there like rocks in a boiling sea, Renault’s Prefecture of Police, Major Strasser’s diplomatic agency, Rick’s Café Américain, the Blue Parrot. Life has been corroded and broken down to the black market in human lives a mere twenty years after the war to end all wars, the armistice has been a truce, the Second Thirty Years War has simply resumed.
And it is Curtiz who has the technique and the art to encompass the event, who keeps the film en pointe at every moment in his magnificent compositions that often resemble visible waves ahead of design elements later in the Forties, who always finds the brilliant truth, the shadow of Rick with its back to Renault, a Free Frenchman’s flight and death below Pétain’s slogan (repeated by Sturges in The Great Escape), the prefiguration of Lara, the Arc de Triomphe remembered by Milestone, the dramatic rapidity rather than Hitchcockian terseness.
Just as the fall of Paris meant for the Nazis an end to all the modern world’s ills and wrongheadedness, Casablanca answers more effectively even than the American reporter who broadcast from Europe that “freedom of mind” was the bane of the Reich, which daring Renault always points out as the Third.
The screenwriters, the actors, the producer, the composer, all have lent themselves heroically to the task, and the result is such a scene as Ilsa’s diminutive entrance at the darkened Café Américain, a bright figure in the background announced by a single chord in one of Max Steiner’s nimblest scores.
Passage to Marseille
Five prisoners escape from Devil’s Island to fight for France. They are all one, a journalist who accused Daladier for signing the Munich Pact and who is therefore a murderer in a lover’s quarrel, a pickpocket and safecracker of the truth (La Vérité Française is his newspaper), a countryman disputing his government’s policies, and a coward who has fled the fight to marry and live.
The return is arduous and dangerous. The Nazis have occupied France, the men join the Free French forces in England for bombing raids over Berlin.
The structure is almost entirely in flashback for the same reason that the journalist dies in a two-thousand-plane raid, to state what’s past and look to the certain victory ahead.
This structure so confused Bosley Crowther that he felt there must be a mistake, Passage to Marseille was “well-intentioned” in his view.
This is very much a sequel to Casablanca, the “beautiful friendship” is a fighting camaraderie, the journalist is convinced after the Fall that France is dead as Victor Laszlo was thought to be dead, in the concentration camp he escaped from.
The beauty of an interlude in 1938-39, when the journalist is first married and ignores the world, ends with an arrest for murder. The signature of Curtiz’ mastery is a single shot of a French pilot watching a colleague land with “two engines out and limited controls”, the pilot casts his eyes upward for a quick calculation of the chances.
A great work of the Hungarian cinema, showing who was boss on the disputed Casablanca set, and dismissing forever the picture of Curtiz as a studio hack on whom the Muse descended once and once only, as if by accident.
Life with Father
A High and Low Church comedy, with very many highly intricate and ramified complications, all of which Curtiz is at great pains to coordinate within a handful of settings and with as little ado as possible.
“The greatest athlete in the past half-century” might have been a college football coach when he left school, and again after the V Olympiad, but for circumstances.
Curtiz has very useful help from Welles (Citizen Kane) and Keaton (College) and Lloyd (The Freshman).
Various themes and indications turn up in Mulligan’s Fear Strikes Out, Mann’s The Outsider, and Richardson’s the loneliness of the long distance runner.
The New York Times saw “a disturbingly standard history” that “follows the pattern set by previous sports sagas”, Halliwell’s Film Guide much the same.
Young Man with a Horn
The polished and complete effective analysis is a close study in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.
The intensive labors on every single shot and scene are the perfect harbingers of a great masterpiece the theme of which is practically that of Shaffer’s Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman) in a rendering by Curtiz.
Variety, “topnotch scripting job... direction misses no bets”. Leonard Maltin, “effective drama”. Time Out, “plays typically fast and loose”. TV Guide, “suffers from excessive melodrama, but boasts several fine performances and plenty of enjoyable jazz.”
The Breaking Point
Virtue is praised and starves, crime does not pay, take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
Thus the argument, in three acts, from Hemingway.
“A credit to all concerned” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).
“Has faded into the celluloid woodwork” (Time Out Film Guide).
Halliwell’s Film Guide finds it “adequate if slightly humdrum”.
Force of Arms
The WAC who won’t with a front-line soldier in Italy, they marry, he “plays it safe” and bungles San Pietro, then to redress his wrong he goes all in at Veletri and is missing.
The slow going of the campaign is thus indicated, she searches for him and finds him in Rome, just out of a prison camp.
The hospital interlude is especially a reflection on A Farewell to Arms, Halliwell notes this.
The twist is the happy ending, l’amour c’est la mort.
Trouble Along the Way
A subtle, comical film built up out of a single joke (the “Hail Mary” play), as L’Année Dernière à Marienbad was built up out of “haven’t we met somewhere before?” The first thirty minutes or so isolate under pressure a pure religious essence and a pure football essence, and then they’re brought into chemical combination, as you might say. Wayne’s poolroom recital of football’s history is cause to regret his never having played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh (a lapse redeemed by Lee Marvin).
It opens on a snowbound village which is revealed to be a painted backdrop as the camera cranes out from a trestle stage in a bombed-out city over the heads of helmeted soldiers. This shot is essentially repeated at the close in a sequence of three backdrops, one representing the ruins of the bombed-out city from which soldiers in dress uniform file out into the audience, followed by a plain flat for a number on civilian life, then a Christmas tree for the reprise of the title number also sung in the opening scene, and then the set reveals a snowbound landscape outside, and the camera cranes out over the audience of soldiers and their families.
The transition occurs on the train from Florida to Vermont, when a picture representing winter activities in New England inspires a song about snow, and the landscape on arrival reveals there isn’t any.
“It must be wonderful in Vermont this time of year,” says an overdressed newcomer, “all that underwear,” which is picked up by Emma at the Columbia Inn, “we’re using the ski tow to hang the wash on.” The troupers put on their smash Broadway show titled Playing Around, introducing what Robert Frost calls “a little color and music” with a sardonic homage to the minstrel shows of yore and a satire of somber artiness contrasted with the vigor of dancing.
The dramatic crux is an attack on the worst features of show business, the remorseless exploitation of suffering for commercial profit and publicity. “We’ll tear their hearts out” is the cry, and the somber dancers accompany a somber torch song in rebuke of it.
But it’s all a misunderstanding put right in time for the performance. Curtiz’ single best invention occurs in the “Choreography” number where the bleakness is interrupted by Vera-Ellen’s legs (between a pink dance skirt and a pair of matching shoes) descending into frame and tapping one foot at a time, first right, then left.
Curtiz displays a virtuosic, picturesque use of the back lot here, and gives a view of Louisiana to boot, shadows and lowlands.
The Man in the Net
The artist in the wilderness, badly reviewed in New York, it might be Curtiz himself, who killed the missus unhappily rusticated?
Not even her lover, whom she was blackmailing on tape, but his crooked businessman of a father, lest she spoil a marriage lucrative for the firm.
The artist nowhere, his works destroyed, literally, his only friends children, emblems of the future, and a certain lady.
One Richard W. Nason had a haughty disregard for this, on behalf of the New York Times. “The melodramatic aspects of the tale are old stuff,” quotha, and on that same day went Koster’s The Naked Maja to shreds and ribbons, too. Halliwell of Halliwell’s Film Guide is equally adept at mincing everything but words, “extremely tedious and inept”.
A Breath of Scandal
The most acute, active analysis is by Losey in Accident.
Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz is closely akin to this Molnar by Curtiz, so there is Lubitsch (with Chevalier).
Bosley Crowther in the New York Times was so far from having any idea what it was all about that he raged, “an utterly foolish lot of nothing... absolute twaddle,” which is famously what John Simon said about Losey’s film.
The wantonly destructive Austrian princess, engaged by command to a Prussian prince, meets a Pittsburgh mining engineer seeking bauxite for aluminum, so there is Boetticher (East of Sumatra).
Francis of Assisi
A prophetic film, in that Dolores Hart in fact became a nun, the church at Assisi fell down, and Curtiz is rather a saint himself tortured on the rack of such criticism as Professor Sarris’s, which holds that among his films “none of the later ones are even worth seeing,” and while such a censure is kinder than Stanley Kauffman’s pronouncement on Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “if I were Pope, I would burn it,” and far less harmful than the Vatican’s ban on Godard’s Hail Mary, still it must be allowed that for a saint the flames of an auto da fe might after all amount to no more than a tickle.
Rossellini seems to have been the first to grasp this about Francis of Assisi, that it is swift, sure and subtle, and the result is Augustine of Hippo. It was generally Curtiz’ fate to labor in the vineyard unesteemed, like Tennyson at Oxford. “If I were you,” said the dean of dons during the ceremony, “I wouldn’t publish that poem,” to which the Poet Laureate replied, “if it comes to that, Master, the port you served at lunch was beastly.”
Now, Curtiz goes to another difficulty even than in the absurdly excellent King Creole by filming on location in color. One may be wrong, but one is likely under the impression that this was held to be an economy on his part. It’s odd that Professor Sarris denies him credit in an artistic sense for Casablanca, when here too is a monumentally pointed script of which every other line is quotable. It is perfectly suited to the story, matched excellently well by the articulate direction encompassing sets, locations, costumes and settings, a precisely calibrated treatment of the actors within it all, and no nonsense about the subject interfering in the slightest with its presentation on the screen.
In fact, Curtiz is so good at directing films that they tend to glide right by with nothing to hold on to. There are two sticking points here, almost unnoticeable, in an otherwise flawless film. The twelve monks of the first Franciscan order are walking along a hilly road to see the Pope in Rome, and the soundtrack has them appear to be singing Mario Nascimbene’s thoughtfully developed and Resphigian theme. This is almost silly, suggesting as it does The Wizard of Oz and the seven dwarves, but as the camera pans on their progress you see past the thin line of trees behind them across a valley to a small Italian town on the next hill in the background, looking as it must have looked from such a vantage. The other instance is much simpler, Cecil Kellaway playing a cardinal is filmed descending a slope to the Assisi church, and this tricky tracking shot cannot avoid the slightest of bumps (but then, his shoe pinches him).
An attentive style repays the observer with no frame wasted. Kellaway, Finlay Currie as the Pope, and Pedro Armendariz as the Sultan give magnificent turns in the clipped perfection that typifies Curtiz’ style. Stuart Whitman as the warlike rival, Hart as the beloved no infidel, and Bradford Dillman as the saint are so admirably balanced a trinity as to suggest a mastery that has become finer over the years.
There are a hundred considerations in Francis of Assisi, but one should think the stigmata were sufficient here. Curtiz plays this as the signature of a position, not for any dramatic effect. Earlier, two Saracens patrol the desert on foot, each with a cheetah on a leash, they’re set loose on peripatetic Francis and the punchline occurs in Columbo’s “How to Dial a Murder” (where the cats are Doberman Pinschers).
All the complexities, one feels sure, of the Franciscan teaching are addressed in the calm radiance of the screenplay revolving like a jewel, and many of the harder points require much elucidation. The nature of the approach is to distribute such a load structurally, so that weighty matter is dramatically presented as perceived and gradually then resolved as character development. Perception and reception are together a continual source of rhythm in a diffuse cinematic blossoming, to borrow a term from Duchamp, and the major theme of the piece. The building of a church begins a vocation that ends on a more metaphorical note.
Every Poe finds his Baudelaire, but if you don’t want to wait, here’s Theodore Roosevelt’s education out West.
Your Comanche warrior is a rattlesnake you spot at once. The comanchero supplies him with liquor and arms for raids on the articulate.
Thus the critical situation (Crowther thought this film made no sense and wasn’t meant to, for fun).