The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel
Strange, isn’t it, how little-seen the early work of Michael Curtiz is? Or perhaps not so much strange as symptomatic — the desire of the auteur movement to see filmmakers justify their seriousness by exploring recurring themes tends to exclude Curtiz, whose reputation is that of a guy mainly interested in shiny floors. There’s the sadism, which turns up frequently in the Errol Flynn movies and also in his on-set behaviour, but sadism and shiny floors are apparently not enough to build an auteur reputation.
Of course, CASABLANCA is revered, as are a number of other MC movies, including his pre-code work almost en masse. But much of that is credited to “the genius of the system” and the kind of film buffs who most often praise CASABLANCA are those who don’t care so much about directors. The fact that the film was shot without a clear ending in mind is used to suggest that great films just happen as freakish accidents. I don’t want to insult the movie gods by suggesting they don’t play a key role, but the skills of a director like Curtiz count for something too.
You will never in a million years guess who this is. Scroll to bottom of page to find out.
To embrace Curtiz as artist, you need to accept his concentration on the visual surface as his work as neither strength nor weakness, but simply fact: it’s the kind of filmmaker he was.
A ragged angel arrives to kick some ass.
And so to SODOM AND GOMORRAH, made in 1922 in Germany when Mike Curtiz was Mihaly Kertesz, even though he was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. It’s a historically very revealing work, and still quite enjoyable.
Since Curtiz’s Hollywood biblical spectacular NOAH’S ARK has just enjoyed an American DVD release, it’s interesting to compare it with the earlier silent epic. Like ARK, and DeMille’s first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, it folds its Old Testament folderol into a contemporary narrative designed to show the continuing relevance of the yarn. You need a mega-budget for this, as such continuing relevance may not be obvious unless you have a fortune to throw at it.
In S&G, we meet a sleazy oligarch, Georg Reimers, fresh from wiping out his competitors on the stock exchange, who throws a colossal orgiastic party (it’s pretty mild, really) to celebrate his engagement. His son arrives, with friendly priest Victor Varconi in tow, and immediately falls for dad’s betrothed (the interesting Lucy Doraine, real-life wife of Curtiz), who’s just provoked a suicide attempt by her former lover, a sculptor who’s been working on a statue of her entitled “Sodom” (secretly, I believe she may have been justified in calling it off on this basis alone).
As the events reach an anti-climax, the femme fatale takes a nap and has a dream in which she provokes one man to murder the other, is sentenced to hang, and then has another dream within the dream in which she’s in ancient Sodom. The dramatis personae of the modern movie are recast as biblical, or at least epic movie, personalities, with the priest as the destructive angel come to demolish the sinning cities (as in Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH, the second city of the title never actually shows up). Doraine finds herself playing, with Lynchian ease, both Lot’s wife and the Queen of Syria.
Apart from its seemingly influential narrative structure (I mean the embedded bible tale, not the loopy dream-within-a-dream bit) S&G looks forward to later German mega-productions like METROPOLIS, and even stuff like RAN where no direct influence is likely — check out the final destruction of the city, above.
Did this movie influence DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS, released the following year? Or was the idea of bible tales with modern bookends something in the air? At any rate, it’s useful to see a film like S&G, which fills in some blanks in film history, as well as being a peculiar and impressive piece of work in its own right.
Now, the answer to the mystery posed above —
Who’d have thought the slender, puppyish youth in S&G could be Walter Slezak?