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 post-production)
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 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 illustration here.
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 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 towards the morning light.

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 Essex.
-"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)

Go Back to start
The list of films

copyright Arjan; The Mystery of Michael Curtiz