What struck me when I watched "Angels with dirty faces" the first film
I ever saw by Curtiz was the enormous pace and grace with which the film proceeded. The
sense I had that the camera was always at the right place at the right time;
seeing what I wanted to see. The elements that elevate this film are mostly attributed to its director.
The energy and apparent joy of film-making comes through in almost all his films;
even the routine ones; never pretentious,
but always trying to give the scene some style and grace; more working as a craftsman than an artist;
not looking for an oeuvre but open to all kinds of different projects, mostly trying to make
the best of what's been offered.
What always seemed unfair to me is that critics dismiss Curtiz
as a serious filmmaker just because of his vast amount of work and his willingness to take
on many diverse projects because he just loved the work. In any case what often is mistaken
for a style of a director is his lack of adventure or his lack of taking risks. There are also
directors who consciously tackle the same theme over and over simply because they had success the
first time around or they feel it will elevate their work. I think a true artist just does
what comes naturally and through his actions will grow a style and a theme that is more
dictated by his subconscious than it is a conscious effort.
Although certainly never trying to be groundbreaking he was a considerable influence on
future film-makers simply through the quality of his work. More a technical director than
an actors director; knowing full well that a film is much more than a recording of an actor's
1 Telling the story with visual means
use of camera movements
It seems to me that he is one of the few directors that accomplished
a sort of visual grammatic that is almost instinctual; a few examples of this visual style:
1 A slow ride of an establishing shot towards the characters at the start of a confrontation.
This gives an overall sense of tension and of the character's increasing emotional involvement.
It is this camera-style of continually tightening or widening the shots depending on the emotional
state of the characters that supports the actor's performance because it is fully in sinc
with what the actor is trying to communicate.
2 Starting a
shot (preferably at the start of a scene) with a close shot of the object that is the essence
of the scene and slowly widening to a medium or establishing shot; by which focusing
the audience attention and I guess in a way controlling the way in which the scene is cut
(a staff studio director at Warners had no control over the film in post-production)
Use of props and art-direction The art-direction is very important in his films and
seems to become more important by his fluent use of the camera that seems to accentuate the
environment and brings it to life somehow (making it more three-dimensional I guess); he worked
often with art-director Anton Grot who developed many set-pieces that seem to be looming as vultures
over their prey; for example the courtroom in Captain Blood; or the tomb-like mourning place
in the tower where Elizabeth awaits the execution of Essex.
The best example of the effective combination of such a set-piece and movement of camera
is the beginning of Mildred Pierce where Mildred walks towards the Santa-Monica pier to throw
herself into the sea. The camera tilts down, from an eagle-view of the pier where Mildred walks,
over a dark building with the cynical "Sea Food" on it, when the camera tilts
down and we are on eye-view with Mildred we see that the ceiling that looms over her
makes a dark sinister shape of a spread open jaw.
Shadows and lights
"The Sea Hawk: the shadow of Philip of Spain over the map of Europe as a
thread of his ambition to conquer and rule Europe (which was a disguised reference to Adolf Hitler in a time
when the U.S. still remained neutral) Here it is used in both a dramatic
and a symbolic way.
The use of the shadows of the two duelling men at the end of "the Sea Hawk" is purely stylistic.
Ofcourse in semi-noir films like The Unsuspected, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce he makes
intensive use of sharp contrasts of light and shadows. Look also for example at the many
execution scenes ( which is in itself worthy for critical research) in films like The Walking Dead, 20.000 Years in Sing Sing, Private Lives
of Elisabeth and Essex and Angels with Dirty Faces" .
Use of Composition
The airport-scene in Casablanca is probably gotten famous for the mise-en-scene
of the actors (in combination with the dialogue). Also "The Unsuspected" is a good example
of a film where the mise-en-scene is very rigorous.
2 The effective use of symbolism Symbolism plays a great part in many of his films and
is certainly a tool which many filmmakers use. But the way Curtiz uses symbolism seem to tighten
the narrative and help define characters or goals and not as in many other cases slow the
narrative down or are just unnecessary or too obscure.
The most stunning example of defining and introducing a character is the great banquet scene
in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" where the
camera slides through the castle hall and at the moment it reaches a dog tearing up a raw
piece of meat we hear a knight toasting Prince John; "All hail to Prince John".
The next shot is Prince John thanking his knights. This whole scene by the way with Robin Hood
defying and at the end escaping from the castle hall is
exemplary of his great visual flair and expert story-telling.
Many props as mirrors/ chessboards/ fire etc. are used in many diverse symbolic meanings.
Let's take for example the symbolic use of light as an
Making light as shedding light on the situation; In "Charge of the light Brigade"
when the brother tells Flynn that he has an affair with his girlfriend; the scene starts with
a closeshot of him making light in the room. The same we see in "The Sea Wolf" when
Humphrey van Weyden the first time enters the captains-cabin and sees all the different books in
there wich sheds a whole different light on captain Larssen.
Putting out light in "Yankee Doodle
Dandy" as a curtain that closes for the four Cohans. At Father's birthday just after father,
mother and sister tell Cagney that they want
to quit the lights go out suddenly because the birtday cake with the candles is brought in.
Light symbolizing a new beginning. The last shot in "Angels with dirty faces" where the
priest leads the kids out of the cellar into the light. Also the last shot of Mildred Pierce where
Mildred and ex-husband walk out of the police-station after being questioned all night
toward the morning light.
3 Clear and straightforward characterizations In a Curtiz-film the main characters
are usually introduced in the first in a very clear visual manner many times by showing their
actions before they are shown fully.
(-"Casablanca" Rick signing the checkbook (we first see his signing the check in close shot)
above his chessboard which he plays by himself; establishing him as a loner
who has to calculate his actions as a chess-player.
-"Life with Father" Clarence Day by shouting commands from
upstairs (we only see his shadow) and the first thing he does
when we see him is to correct the big living-room clock as to establish him as a controlling and
-"Private lives of Elisabeth and Essex" Essex coming back
after battle and parading proudly on his horse through the
streets where the people cheer him on and Elisabeth behind
a screen getting her shoe put on by a servant and complaining about Essex.
-In "The Sea Hawk" the character of Errol Flynn is introduced by one his crew who waits for his calm
commands looking up at Flynn who is out of the shot.
4 DosingThis mostly underrated gift of a director seems to me the most important;
when to do what and how much; to interchange
dramatic with lighter moments, not to linger, knowing when to tighten the performances
and when to let the actors go free; not many of Curtiz films
can be accused of being sentimental; (look for example at Mildred Pierce which could easily
have become a tear-jerker if he hadn't tightened the performances), knowing
the genre and thus adjusting use of camera and pace ( The movements of the camera are much
less showy in "Four Daughters" than in say "Captain Blood", the pace of "Captain Blood" is
slower than "Angels with dirty faces").
5 Sense of milieu An instinctual sense of the environment in which the story is set
and communicating that atmosphere. One of the most distinct qualities
he had as a director was to bring the audience into a different environment even when it
is a western vehicle with of all people Erroll Flyn. (Dodge City)
copyright Arjan; The Mystery of Michael Curtiz