One of the main purposes of putting up this site is because Curtiz is
usually being dismissed as a craftsman and I feel there has not been
any serious study of his stylistic or thematic efforts.
Critics seem to shy away because
of his vast amount of films. It doesn't seem fair to me
that because a man wants to make films so passionately that he
accepts the most diverse and even inferior projects he should not be
judged by his better work. 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.
In any case what often is mistaken for a style of an artist is simply
his lack of adventure or the fact that he is not taking risks.
There are also those who consciously tackle the same themes 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 does what comes naturally and through his actions develops
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 performances.
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 Starting a scene with a close shot of the object that is
essential for the scene and slowly widening to a medium or
establishing shot; by which focusing the audience's 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
2 A slow move/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 shot depending on the emotional
state of the characters that supports the actor's performance because
it is fully in synch with what the actor/actress is trying to
communicate. He often prefers to to go from for example a wide to
a medium-shot not by an edit but by moving the camera in; this
accentuates the environment and brings it to life somehow.
(making it more three-dimensional)
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; he often worked 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 in itself is worthy for critical research
because it seems to point towards a common theme) in films like The
Walking Dead, 20.000 Years in Sing Sing, Santa Fe Trail, Private Lives
of Elisabeth and Essex and Angels with Dirty Faces".
Use of Composition
The airport-scene in Casablanca is probably gotten famous because of
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 Prince John and at the end escaping
from the castle hall is exemplary of his great visual flair and
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 because it's the first time he gets a better
understanding of what sort of man captain Larssen is.
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 above them because the birtday cake with the candles is
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 towards the morning
3 Clear and straightforward characterizations In a
Curtiz-film the main characters are usually introduced first in a
very clear visual manner, many times showing their
actions before they are shown fully. A few examples:
-"Casablanca"; Rick signing the checkbook (we first see his signing
the check (with his first name) in close shot)
above his chessboard which he plays by himself; establishing him as a
loner who calculates his actions carefully (as a chess-player would).
-"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 conservative character.
-"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
-"The Sea Hawk"; the character of Errol Flynn is introduced by one of
his crew who waits for his calm commands, looking up at Flynn who is
out of the shot.
4 When to do what?This mostly underrated ability 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 in other hands),
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 Errol Flynn. (Dodge City)
copyright Arjan; The Mystery of Michael Curtiz