Maybe Not Today: The Underrated Michael Curtiz

By  · Published on August 5th, 2014

Warner Bros.

1942’s Casablanca has repeatedly been canonized as the best film Hollywood ever made. Its iconic dialogue produced a bevy of quotable lines that sealed seated their seemingly eternal place in movie culture, and it’s damn near impossible to refer to Humphrey Bogart’s iconic career without bringing to mind his worn mug reminiscing to Dooley Wilson’s iteration of “As Time Goes By” in his empty bar’s depths of night. Never has Bogie been so tragically Bogie, or, for that matter, Bergman so classically Bergman, Rains so nobly Rains, Lorre so campily Lorre, and the film’s team of studio scribes so harmoniously in tune towards a pitch-perfect example of Hollywood narrative convention.

Given the vaunted reputation of Casablanca, it’s strange that the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, is so often obscured within observations of its notable ensemble, much less considered the film’s reigning auteur. Among all the beloved directors of Classical Hollywood – Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock – Curtiz is rarely included, often regarded on the relative margins as a talented director for hire, a perfect mirror to Casablanca itself: a stellar Hollywood product, but in a class altogether separate from, say, the previous year’s Citizen Kane.

But Curtiz’s diverse career (for classical Hollywood) as it manifested over several decades, across horror films and gangster pics and musicals, bears evidence not only of a capable Hollywood director-for-hire, but a behind-the-lens personality whose revisited worldview throughout his career is inseparable from his individual works.

Curtiz is most often recalled as a technical aesthete. Historian Aljean Harmetz refers to Curtiz’s approach to filmmaking as “an almost totally visual one.” A quote she cites from Curtiz seems to corroborate this claim, in which Curtiz downplays concern over substance for a preference in style by stating, “Who cares about character? I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

Certainly, Curtiz’s career provides ample evidence of his preoccupation with visual flare and easy viewing. Casablanca’s brisk pace, ever-moving camera, and unapologetic embrace of easy-to-read Hollywood techniques (the soft lighting of the flashbacks, for example) have made for a film that so frequently attracts that dreaded “timeless” label. Mildred Pierce’s noirish overtones allows Curtiz to engage in some of his most dynamic screen composition – perhaps not since Caligari have shadows been so canted and chiaroscuro lighting been so memorable. Even the ritually viewed, positively vanilla White Christmas has carnivalesque Technicolor song-and-dance numbers that challenge even Gene Kelly’s ventures into the surreal.

But unlike other canonized Hollywood auteurs, Curtiz’s style had neither a repeated signature (like Ford’s monument valley or Hawks’ rat-a-tat dialogue) or threatened the seamlessness of classical Hollywood narrative (like Hitchcock’s subversive themes or work with Salvador Dali on Spellbound). Curtiz’s style seems on its face to be executed on a film-by-film basis, in service of the cinematic task at hand. Perhaps this explains why Curtiz is never included with others in his ranks who found themselves on the pages of Cahiers du Cinema or interviewed by a reputable superfan in the form of a Truffaut or Bogdanovich.

But Curtiz himself need not be the end of any conversation about substance and theme in his works. Ford, after all, assessed his own career with the understated “I direct Westerns,” and Hawks resisted subversive interpretations of his works, like queer readings of Red River and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

According to Sidney Rosenzweig, who wrote the closest thing I could find to an auteurist reading of Curtiz’s filmography, the director’s confident and pronounced visual style serves the purpose of displaying the relationship his characters share to their environment. Specifically, it creates a sense of entrapment for a moral choice Curtiz’s characters are forced to make during the film.

Indeed, Curtiz’s characters are often faced with trenchant moral dilemmas, but they are rarely your conventionally heroic Hollywood protagonists. In fact, most of Curtiz’s characters are passive figures placed in a situation in which their formidable character is tested. They do not decisively mobilize their own fates or those of others, but are instead placed in scenarios in which they can no longer reside in their planned life of neutrality and passivity.

Sure, Casablanca’s Rick Blaine displays this transition most memorably, perfectly embodied by Bogart’s evolution from a leave-me-the-fuck-alone barman content with neutrality in a world tearing itself apart to his emergence as a self-sacrificing partisan looking at you, kid. But such dramatic shifts are available throughout Curtiz’s work.

In Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford’s title character’s pursuit of an American dream rarely afforded to midcentury single mothers is interrupted by a the arc of a villainous daughter for whom even a mother’s love cannot save. Reformed gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) of Angels with Dirty Faces helps at-risk young boys avoid a life of crime, but is guaranteed a tragic fate when he takes desperate measures to protect those who he most fears will become the social pariah he is. In King Creole, Danny Fisher (Elvis Presley) is content to live as an invisible but hotheaded young nightcrawler, but his climb to fame in the New Orleans nightclub scene forces him into a position in which he must choose to rise above or sink down into the corruption of his gangster employers. Young Man with a Horn’s Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) is perfectly content to live as an underappreciated trumpet player, but the glimmer of success and a complicated marriage force him into the tragic position of having to answer to why he isn’t “more.”

As a result, Curtiz’s films regularly invert the traditional model of the decisive Hollywood protagonist/hero. Far from the John Waynes and Henry Fondas of the studio system, Curtiz’s protagonists are rarely paragons of virtue, exercising American mores. Rather, they are (to the end of their films) radical individuals, persona non grata either invisible to or sneered at by others within the environments they occupy. They transform, by circumstances beyond their own control, from reclusive outcasts to self-actualized people – but never traditional heroes, for they would always refuse such a moniker, and they never rid themselves of their uniquely individualizing attitudes.

Curtiz’s protagonists are moral people not because they impose their will for some relative cultural “good,” but because they come out of hiding when needed, only to recede once again into their comfortable spaces on the shadows and margins. They recognize their limits as subjects within a larger social structure – the moral dilemma they inherit comes from their inability to secure the good fates of others or even themselves – but never expect forgiveness for their previous reclusiveness. It is their natural state of being.

The relatively few books written about Curtiz frequently place Casablanca most prominently in association with the director, thus situating the rest of Curtiz’s filmography as something of a constant and obvious, if perhaps unfair, point of comparison. But it’s the eternal force of Casablanca – its placement in film history as an ideal one-off convergence of Hollywood talents – that most obscures Curtiz’s career-long refusal to play by all of Hollywood’s rules of heroism. Only by looking past the most celebrated Hollywood movie of all time can Curtiz come into focus as something slightly more than a good ringleader of Hollywood products.