Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Curtiz: The Man Behind Casablanca

It was banned in neutral Ireland, because it portrayed the National Socialists and the Vichy collaborators unfavorably, but for the rest of the world, Casablanca was an instant classic. It spawned two very short-lived TV series adaptations, but no filmmaker has dared remake such an iconic film. However, success was far from certain during its hectic production. Jewish-Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz wrestles with his personal demons and interference from multiple quarters as he struggles to complete the beloved movie in Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s mostly English-language Hungarian film Curtiz, which starts streaming today on Netflix.

Curtiz was born Mano Kaminer in Budapest, but he Hungarianized his name to Mihaly Kertesz and then anglicized it to Michael Curtiz when he arrived in America. When he started directing films for Warner Brothers, he already had a reputation as a master filmmaker from his European work—which his ego and casting couch proclivities reflected.

Casablanca is one of about a dozen films in-production on the Warner lot, but it is the only film the Office of War Information is interested in. That means Curtiz must endure constant demands and feedback from Mr. Johnson, a government bureaucrat consulting on the project. Jack Warner makes it pretty clear Curtiz is on his own, but he is still expected to make another hit. To further complicate matters, the director’s estranged daughter Kitty has taken a studio job as a way of worming her way back into his life. Curtiz and the screenwriters Philip & Julius Epstein cannot even settle on a decent ending. His only ally on the production is legendary producer Hal B. Wallis, but Curtiz does his best to alienate him with his diva-like behavior.

Topolanszky and co-screenwriter Zsuzsanna Bak rather shrewdly chose which of the Hollywood legends associated with Casablanca to portray on film and which to only show in shadows or out of focus. Both Jozsef Gyabronka and Christopher Krieg are really terrific as S.Z. Sakall (Curtiz’s fellow Hungarian émigré, who played Carl) and Conrad Veidt (who played Maj. Strasser), respectively. Frankly, Krieg’s turn as Veidt might just change the way you see Casablanca, which is meant as a very high compliment. The only other cast-member who gets legitimate screen time in Curtiz is Oscar Reyes portraying Dooley Wilson, but he is not much of a factor in the behind-the-scenes story.

The rest of the ensemble is also quite strong, fortunately including Ferenc Lengyel, who is appropriately imperious yet complex as the man himself. Scott Alexander Young’s Wallis also gives the film a conscious and a dry wit. Declan Hannigan similarly deserves credit for humanizing Johnson, at least until Topolanszky & Bak suddenly and problematically decide to dehumanize in an ill-advised narrative left-turn.

Still, Zoltan Devenyi’s glorious black-and-white cinematography, punctuated by brief crimson red overlays when there is shooting on the set, always saves the day. You can tell from one look this is a film that was made by people who love classic cinema and the golden age of Hollywood[land].

As a film, Curtiz is far from perfect. It is a little too determined to critique American patriotic fervor and it is not always faithful to the history of Casablanca, completely cutting co-screenwriter Howard Koch out of the picture. Nevertheless, the exquisite look and perfectly cast ensemble make it engaging to watch. Recommended on balance, Curtiz is now streaming on Netflix.