Archive for Michael Curtiz

Warren William Weekends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2020 by dcairns

Fiona and I have been having Friday evening watch parties with friends… for some reason we’ve settled on Warren William as the centre of the cinematic universe. We started with the Lone Wolf series, to which we may return like a lone wolf to its vomit, but we moved on to GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 where he gets to play a fatuous character instead of just playing a regular character in a fatuous manner (I LOVE WW’s fatuousness) and thence on to his Perry Mason films, which are of a slightly higher standard than the Lone Wolves — less generic, more eccentric. Since Mason doesn’t have a regular comedy sidekick or any regular co-stars, he gets to more comedy himself and this is no bad thing. Though of course Eric Blore would always be welcome.

Speaking of casting irregularities, we wound up watching THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT which does NOT have WW in it. Riccardo Cortez who, like WW, had unsuccessfully played lead in a version of THE MALTESE FALCON, unsuccessfully plays lead here. He’d soon start directing films for Fox, not one of which is available even as an illegal download. That’s how good he was.

But the first film in our double-feature, THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE features a really ebullient turn by WW with professional sidekick Allen Jenkins backing him up, and strong support from character wizards like Olin Howland, Warren Hymer and Maya Methot. Michael Curtiz directs with a rocket up his arse and somebody’s just handed editor Terry Morse a shiny new optical printer so every scene ends with a zoom-in and blur effect FOR NO REASON. Morse later got the job of shoving another Perry Mason, Raymond Burr, into GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. Stick with me, kids, it’s not much fun but it’s educational.

GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 stars Michael Lanyard; Lady Fingers; Hattie ‘Mom’ Frink; Peggy Sawyer; Philip Marlowe; Scattergood Baines; Caterpillar; Kitty Foyle; Screwball; Sir Alfred MacGlennon Keith; Chico; Sgt. Dickens; Max Jacobs; Montague L. ‘Monty’ Brewster; Sermon; Helen St. James; and the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE stars Philo Vance; Doris Kane (Leo); Perry Mason; Vivian Rich; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Steve Wilson; Lt. of Detectives Dundy; Inez Cardoza; Angelface; Mr. Davis – Schoolteacher (twice); Judge Thatcher; Uranium Prospector (uncredited); Peter Blood; Zedorah Chapman; Aramis.

THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT stars Sam Spade; Tommy Thomas; Marie Donati; ‘Snoop’ Davis; Player Eating Bonnie’s Chicken (uncredited); Wild Bill Hickok; Colonel Skeffington; Sheriff Prettywillie; Mr. Waterbury; and Wax Figure (uncredited). Let’s face it, this wasn’t a stellar cast.

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by dcairns

So, seven and a bit years since I last watched CASABLANCA? Too long. We ran Karen Thomas’s fine documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood as a companion piece to the somewhat heavier Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland (since Hollywood apparently ran out of original titles decades ago, could not unwieldy compound words by the Next Big Thing?), and it uses CASABLANCA as a sort of fulcrum, tracing the stories of many of the film’s European participants. It made me want to see the Curtiz classic again, so we ran it.

Thoughts on character introductions, spun in the direction of the Classics for Comfort CMBA Spring Blogathon.

Bogie is introduced with a shot of his hand signing a cheque, next to a smoldering ashtray and a wineglass, then a delayed tilt up to his face once we’ve waited long enough to be curious. See also: Sean Connery’s very first appearance at the roulette wheel in DR. NO. But whereas Connery’s Bond is gambling because that’s the kind of somewhat louche character he is, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is working out a chess problem. So, while much action and dialogue is devoted to Rick’s persona as a cynical drunk who’s at heart a noble romantic, this first shot suggests that he has an analytical mind which can work out complex strategies in advance, anticipating his opponent’s moves and countering them. Exactly the skillset he deploys in the film’s dizzying third act, spinning yarns to manipulate Renault, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo (only the wily Renault successfully tricks him with his phone call to Major Strasser).

So, once again the late William Goldman’s criticisms of CASABLANCA’s opening ten minutes can be seen to be, at the very least, overstated: for all its ponderous narration and documentary montage (necessary, I think, to connect the 100% studio-bound romance with the real-world events playing out even as the movie was first screened), it’s a model of tight construction and artful foreshadowing.

The introduction of the other characters is equally cunning. It’s perfect that Strasser (Connie Veidt) arrives by plane, like Hitler at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. I think it’s the only time we see real sky in the film, and the plane’s landing in a matte-shot airfield with a painted city around it completes the transition from wartime reality to big sound stage (which may previously have had a sign painted on the roof diverting prospective Japanese bombers to the nearby Lockheed plant). And the arrival by plane at the start mirrors the departure at the end (but Strasser won’t be catching that flight).

There’s a fast tilt down from a matte painting, linked to a crane shot of the studio set — freeze-frame this, and the line between painting and reality (actually just a different kind of artifice) is shockingly obvious (I’ve drawn a line through it to highlight the dark fuzzy bar) but it’s impossible to spot at normal speed. It’s a microcosm of Curtiz’s line to screenwriter Howard Koch, telling him not to worry about plot illogicalities: “I make it go so fast no one notices.”

Claude Rains’ introduction as Renault is less dramatic: you might be fooled into thinking him a subsidiary character, like Basil Exposition. But his relaxed manner is an early clue to what an enjoyable and cunning presence he’s going to be.

Sam is introduced as we enter Rick’s. Dooley Wilson is treated with considerable respect by Rick and by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet): he’s evidently the big draw at the Cafe Americain. A shame that Ilsa will refer to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano” later. You can justify it by saying it’s the forties, but I actually question whether a Swedish character who’s never been to America would have thought of the middle-aged musician as a “boy.”

Peter Lorre’s Ugarte slides in the door with a nod to Bogie while other business is being attended to. Very casual-like. If we didn’t know him, he might be just another of the numerous bit-players already seen doing business at Rick’s (buying, selling, pickpocketing). And in fact he is just that, only he’s Peter Lorre and he’s bringing a MacGuffin that already cost two lives (Nazi lives, though, we’re shedding no tears). By his third shot, he’s lavishing us with twitchy, sweaty anxiety and making it seem jolly entertaining.

I note that there is no reason at all for Rick to accept the letters of transit from Ugarte. He doesn’t want them, he doesn’t like Ugarte and he’s not, at this stage, supposed to be interested in the resistance (and the letters have no connection to the resistance yet). It’s pure plot mechanics, puppeteering the cast in plain sight. Never mind: we want to know what happens next.

Greenstreet enters with a tracking shot that cuts through the throng, touching breast, lips and brow in a smooth salute to a Muslim associate, and takes his seat while Sam is singing: we get a musical interlude but also a bit of suspense as we wait to hear why this obviously significant figure has arrived. He tries to buy the cafe. Rick rejects his offer without hearing the price. He tries to buy Sam. “I don’t buy or sell human beings,” says Rick. “Too bad, that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity,” replies Greenstreet, typing himself as a swine but doing it with not just a twinkle (everyone twinkles at Rick’s) but with an adorable-repulsive wrinkling of the nose, as if he were Baby Spice.

Ilsa and Victor enter together in another, different tracking shot: classic Curtiz, gliding through a space at a slight angle to the action, with a tone of interesting local colour slipped in between subject and camera. 3D without glasses. Looking at all these entrances in one sequence, one is reminded, abstractly, that this was once a play (unproduced). But it never feels like one, since the space is broken up into so many different playing areas, which feel like scenes in themselves. The busy bit players are reminiscent of a much earlier phase of Warners movies, the pre-codes which often documented a particular area of American life, commerce or politics or transportation, and would often open with a flurry of tiny sketches establishing the life of the place.

Ilsa and Victor glide right past Sam, who is playing the bittersweet Plaisir D’Amour, an absurdly apposite choice if you stop to think about it. But you’re not that likely to stop. The art of story is the art of making the audience wait for what they want to see, but making them enjoy your delaying tactics too. So Bergman doesn’t immediately meet Bogie, she meets John Qualen. And then Claude Rains. And then Conrad Veidt. And then Dooley Wilson… and then there’s a really remarkable ten-second shot of Bergman just listening and thinking…

Bogie and Bergman’s eyes meet thirty-two minutes and ten seconds into CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA stars Samuel Spade; Dr. Constance Petersen; Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance; Dr. Jack Griffin aka The Invisible Man; Gwynplaine / Lord Clancharlie; Kasper Gutman; Joel Cairo; Felix Bassenak; Madeleine – l’attrice francaise; Gabe Tucker; Marsinah; Miser Stephens; Sylvanian Agitator; Der sterbene Homer; Danton; Aramis; Baron St. Fontanel; Nectenabus; Count Alexis Rakonin; Crunch; Lo Tinto; and Reinhard Heydrich.

For the Classics For Comfort Spring Blogathon, my five classics recommended for cosy viewing at this Difficult Time:

CASABLANCA

REAR WINDOW

THE SEVEN SAMURAI

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

LONESOME

Chosen because I could watch them anytime and they’d give me a glow.

His Third-to-Last Breath

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2019 by dcairns

It’s getting to be a tradition — watch a late Curtiz every December. Since Curtiz had such an extraordinarily long career (1912-1961!), he’s entitled to more late films than most people. This one is from 1960 — he would make three more and die in spring ’62.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL is from a play by Ferenc Molnar, frequent source for Lubitsch, Wilder, et al, so it allows Curtiz to visit Vienna, in sorta-kinda his native land (it was capital of Austria-Hungary when he was born in Budapest seventy-three years before).

Aaand the first joke is about senility, as an old geezer hears the Emperor referenced and rises, saluting. “Don’t try to get up,” says his somewhat younger wife, “We’ll only have to put you down again.”

I’ve been trying to locate the point where Curtiz’s films stop moving, become inert, dead things. The first half hour of this is relatively spritely, though there are markedly fewer of those elegant gliding tracking shots. But Sophia Loren, a nimble comedian as we all know, gets some laughs, blasting away with a rifle from the tower to which she’s been exiled for excess sexiness — no moping Rapunzel, she. At one point, the film makes it seem as if she’s shooting at a little girl, which made me chuckle.

Then John Gavin turns up in a jalopy — you expect the film is going to collapse into terminal petrification as he fixes the scenery with his gorgon’s gaze, but NO — even though there’s no Chinese white slavers on hand to shoot him full of curare, which generally brings out the best in him, he’s reasonably effective as a stuffy, repressed American interloper. Tiresomely virtuous, someone Loren can run rings around — a good, stiff foil for her moral flexibility.

But once the film decamps to Vienna, despite some terrific locations it heads rapidly into total sclerosis. Chevalier is on hand to provide some vespertine twinkle, but now the script requires both Gavin AND Loren to be priggish and petulant, and I got tired of both of them.

Look, Angela Lansbury!

So, Curtiz’s ability to keep a movie conscious arguably lasted until half an hour into this one, though there are decent moments in his HUCK FINN. I’m going to keep working my way back — I haven’t seen anything between this one and WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is so far the latest-period Curtiz I would rewatch for pleasure. But there are eight films in there, including several in b&w. Curtiz is generally best in b&w. It affects him like curare affects John Gavin — by subtracting something, it releases something else, and the result is entertainment.

The hats are very good in this one.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL stars Filumena Marturano; Prince Danilo; Sam Loomis; Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin; Aunt Alicia; Detective Moletti; Lisa Bolkonskaya; Aramis; and Queequeg.