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.

A single boudoir scene of S&G contains enough sheer beauty to supply the town of Bedford for a year.

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.

It’s what I call an epic!

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?

17 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel”

  1. The boudoir scene: they just don’t make sets like that anymore. Curtiz: just received a copy of SEA WOLF pulled from TCM. It may well be my favorite of all his films.

  2. Oh, Sea Wolf is terrific. Those murky hull interiors!

    Time once again to nominate names Wolf Larsen and Death Larsen’s five unnamed brothers —
    1) Spit Larsen
    2) Grunt Larsen
    3) Bruise Larsen
    4) Measles Larsen
    5) Arson Larsen

  3. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a HUGE Curtiz fan. Towards the end of his life he became especially enchanted with the director. He claimed Curtiz’s subject was “anarchy” and planned to write about him as much as he did Sirk. Curtiz’s influence is quite apparent in RWF’s Veronika Voss

    If you want to know what a Fabulous Babe Walter Slezak was in his youth look no further than Carl Dreyer’s Mikael in which artist Benjamin Christiansen is besotted unto death with him — losing the enchanting youth to femme fatale Nora Gregor (later to make a larger mark on cinematic history in a little Renoir potboiler called The Rules of the Game.

  4. Cutiz’s career speaks for itself. I woudl however like to point out Stolen Holiday (1937). It’s the very first cinematic retelling of the Stavisky scandal with Claude Rains as the charming swindler and Kay Francis as his beloved.

    Alain Resnais with the help of (the recently late) Jorge Seprun, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer (in one of the greatest performances of his career) and Stephen Sondheim did the definitive film needless to say. But the Curtiz sure ain’t chopped liver.

  5. Oh, I’ll have to see that. Loved the Resnais.

    What’s interesting with Curtiz is that although we have many accounts that he was interested almost exclusively in the backgrounds of his films, he certainly conveys to the audience an intense interest in the dramatic foreground. One feeds into the other, seemingly.

  6. That’s clearly what hooked Fassbinder. In his late Curtiz-influenced films he put all sorts of teriffic things in the backgroudn — like Raul Gimenez and Udo Kier as dancing waiters in Lola.

  7. Lola’s an immaculately designed movie. Design, lighting, performance and composition all compliment one another, which is a Curtizian virtue.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Bring on the empty horses!

    Late Curtiz is also due for a re-appraisal. “The Scarlet Hour” (56) is some kind of strange masterpiece.

  9. Christopher Says:

    Could you imagine Curtiz springing a film like this or Noah’s Ark or an Intolerance or a Silent DeMille Ten Commandments on the Robin Hood-Dodge City-Casablanca generation? those question marks shooting up from audiences’s heads in the dark ala Felix the cat…”huh?”…..Those creative juices were really in overdrive in the silent era……I recently watched and thouroughly enjoyed 2 very early DeMille classics,Old Wives For New and The Whispering Chorus ,recommended for them that haven’t gotten around to them yet..

  10. Which includes me. I have both, but haven’t watched.

    The Egyptian I guess shows Curtiz returning to the super-epic mode. I think his mind was kind of going by then though.

    Right, I’m now pursuing copies of both The Scarlet Hour and Stolen Holiday. I definitely prefer him in b&w, but I enjoyed We’re No Angels, even if those acting styles really don’t mesh…

  11. I saw that when it came out. It was a delight of my childhood.

  12. I’m definitely building up to that one, and I’m very curious because I have no idea what I’ll think of it.

  13. Michael Says:

    Most likely Michael Curtiz’s paramount years were the 1930s and 1940s with those rousing Warner Brothers salute to Britannia adventure movies with Errol Flynn and of course, Casablanca. No matter how many times one has viewed these movies, they always encourage repeat viewing. That says a lot about Michael Curtiz movies.

  14. Those are certainly terrific. But his precodes, though self-consciously “minor”, are a blast, and then there’s Mildred Pierce.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    The definitive word on the early Curtiz…MANDALAY!

  16. Also Dr X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Female

  17. […] which I haven’t steeled myself to — echo silent works from his German period like SODOM UND GOMORRHA and DIE SKLAVENKONEGIN, which likewise brought out his more turgid side but which are a walk in the […]

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