By VINCENT PIENAAR
Curtiz / Directed by Tamaz Yvan Topolanszky / 16
I can understand why there is such a disparity among critics about the movie Curtiz. On Rotten Tomatoes the experts are running about 50-50 with some saying what a bad movie it is, while others are saying it’s really great. But subtlety is a very dangerous route to take, particularly if a movie is going to end up on the small screen. The viewer who likes to pop some popcorn, check Facebook Messenger and pour a drink while the movie is chortling along in the background will hate this product. The shots are beautifully crafted and the oblique references to the original movie are outstanding, but it’s a nuanced dramatic presentation that requires dedicated watching.
Yes, this movie is as much about Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian director who made Casablanca, as it is about being on set while Casablanca is being filmed.
For the record, the movie, Curtiz (2018) was made by Hungarian director Tamás Yvan Topolánszky, who also co-wrote the script. The movie won the Grand Prix des Amériques at Montreal in 2018. The lead role is played by Ferenc Lengyel, opposite Evelin Dobos.
Casablanca (1942) was directed by Curtiz, based on a play called Everybody Comes To Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison which was never produced, and starred Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and of course, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.
The movie Curtiz brings homage to Casablanca, perhaps the most acclaimed movie of the 20th Century, but not obviously so. It does not indulge the viewer. Example: A man tells Curtiz, from behind a massive executive desk, that “this is not a romp through Sherwood Forest.” If is not explained that the man is movie mogul, Jack Warner, who named Warner Brothers after himself and his brother. Neither does it explain that Michael Curtiz made the famous movie about Robin Hood and in the process made a legend out of Alan Ladd. The viewer who doesn’t know this will simply hear another unexplained line of dialogue in a movie. The song played over the titles, Shadow Of A Man, sung by Flora Kiss, contains one single line that sounds disparate under the lyric, “You must remember this,” thrown in incidentally. But it doesn’t get explained that this is the opening lyric of As Time Goes By, the song which is such an integral part of Casablanca. The line, “We’ll always have Paris” in the song is tucked into the end titles. The two unnamed men bashing away at the typewriters in the studio remain unnamed, but they are Julius and Philip Epstein, who wrote most of the script. And there are many other instances to look out for while watching the film the second or third time.
Visually, the film does some creative things that might be considered annoying. Bogart and Bergmann are heard off-screen, and are only seen out of focus. The scene in Casablanca where Ilsa threatens Rick with a gun is alluded to here, but the camera focuses on the gun while Rick, in the background, is out of focus. Curtiz is seen at a window, the blinds casting striped shadows over his face, like Rick looking down from the window of Café Americain. The midgets who are employed to act as technicians on the three quarter-sized aircraft model is true to the making of the original – but is not explained in the film.
Perhaps it helps to know the original movie. Is it sacrilege to comparing it to standing in front of Anne Frank’s house? If you stand there wondering who Anne Frank was, the house will have little impact. It’s just another house, after all. Knowing the original movie well, is perhaps a prerequisite. (And believe me, watching Casablanca over and over soon becomes a labour of love.)
The film is in black and white (as is Casablanca), but while many scenes are recreated to reflect the original, many scenes are not. Almost the entire movie is made with unusual shots. It switches from tight close-ups (on, say, a cigarette butt) to high, very long shots (of say, an empty sound stage). A shot early in the film sets the mood, with the camera rotating endlessly around a dinner table, the dialogue coming as the faces appear in the shot. (It is probably a good idea to watch the movie with the Netflix sub-titles displayed.)
Curtiz, the film, does not claim to tell the true story of what happened on the set of Casablanca – and it doesn’t. A number of liberties are taken for the sake of the drama. For instance, in this movie enormous political pressure is placed on Curtiz to make a “patriotic” film, which probably wasn’t the case, but then maybe it did happen; Hollywood tends to hide things like that. In this movie, Curtiz comes up with the famous ending but this is probably not so; the Epstein brothers wrote the ending.
And if you get the reference, you’ll love the ending where Curtiz sits in the viewing room all by himself, watching the movie till the last bit of film runs over the sprocket, and then instructs the projectionist to: “Play it again.”