Friday, 31 October 2014

The romantic expressionism of Michael Curtiz

A couple of years ago I was switching from one channel to another on the TV. On one channel there was a film showing. I did not recognise it, and since I had not seen it from the start I did not watch it for very long, only a few minutes. But I guessed that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, and to satisfy my vanity I had a look in a TV Guide later. It was indeed a film I had not seen and it was directed by Curtiz. I recognised his style almost immediately. Perhaps no filmmaker ever had such an infatuation with shadows, and few have been able to equal his expressive use of camera movement, mise-en-scène and lighting to make the images glow and dazzle. He had a remarkably dynamic style and I have always thought that Gunnar Fischer and Ingmar Bergman were visually influenced by Curtiz. Curtiz and Marcel Carné. It is not just the initials Curtiz and Carné have in common; Curtiz, like Carné (working with Jacques Prévert), was also something of a romantic, making his shadow play enhance the often doomed love affairs, or even the tentatively successful. James Agee once wrote that Curtiz "has always seemed like Franz Murnau under onions". I assume he meant F.W. Murnau, and I do not exactly understand "under onions" but although it is not perhaps a compliment he did notice Curtiz's expressionist style.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

All of the films are not like this, he was too uneven and had many bad days but when he was inspired, which was often enough, he could make anything come alive and shine. His work in the late 30s and early 40s is usually singled out for praise, when he made films such as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942), but it was there before and it was still there in his last films, at least as late as 1958, when he made The Proud Rebel, in which almost every single interior shot is a masterpiece. The story is not much, but it looks better than practically any other film you might see, and might be the most visually stimulating colour film Curtiz ever made. It was shot by Ted McCord, who worked with Curtiz several times in the later years. Perhaps the finest film they made together is Breaking Point (1950), a film that also has one of the saddest and greatest ending I know.

Breaking Point

The Proud Rebel could very well be the title for most of Curtiz's best films, it was one of his favourite themes. But themes are not all that important with Curtiz, style is what matters here. The producers and writers often complained that he did not care for the story but was only interested in compositions, and actors complained that he was not interested in them either. But there are many great performances in his films, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, James Cagney and Claude Rains for example, and Olivia de Havilland is marvellous in The Proud Rebel, much older than she was in Captain Blood or Robin Hood, and a better actress. What is more is a general warmth that fill his best films, which also help make them rise above their often humdrum stories. While We're No Angels (1955) is rather uninspired visually, a rare failure in that respect, it too is rescued by its warmth and charm. A better film, also filled with warmth, is Life With Father (1947), so well-directed it should be mandatory at film schools. Beyond the acting and the lighting there are three things worth studying: the use of mirrors, the use of space (which parts of the house are used and for what purposes) and how people move in that space between scenes.

Life With Father. Who but Curtiz would shoot a discussion between husband and wife this way?

It is conventional wisdom to consider Casablanca a happy coincident yet it is really a typical Curtiz-film when he is inspired. The combination of wit, romance and cynicism is intoxicating and a lot of it comes from writers Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, but after being attacked and expanded upon by Curtiz's forceful personality and camera it became something else. In addition, Curtiz was Hungarian (with a large but rather unknown European body of work), and he lost family members in the Holocaust, so the subject of the film was probably close to him.


Although not his best, the film in which his visual creativity reigned particularly free was The Unsuspected (1947), a convoluted story about greed, jealously and murder told with extraordinary boldness. It was also the first film produced by Curtiz's own (short-lived) company Michael Curtiz Productions. The cinematographer was Woody Bredell and Curtiz made it together with his wife Bess Meredyth, who worked on the script. She often did that but The Unsuspected is one of the few times she got a screen credit.

A useful compare and contrast study can be made between Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. In the 1930s Curtiz was one of the top directors at Warner Bros. (together with Mervyn LeRoy and Roy Del Ruth) and Walsh came to Warner in 1939. They made (superficially) similar films, and often with James Cagney, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, yet they were also very different, with Walsh being the more complete and more interesting filmmaker, and less uneven. They differ in style too, Walsh's visuals are nowhere near as expressionistic and energetic as Curtiz. Walsh had a more naturalistic style, with a few exceptions. A typical Curtiz image is claustrophobic but a typical Walsh image is open and boundless. But whereas Curtiz's style is more energetic than Walsh's, Walsh's characters are more energetic than Curtiz's, always on the move. Walsh also had a clearly defined and consistent outlook on life in his films. But even though Walsh is the greater artist, Curtiz is good enough.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Context, conspiracies and subtext creep (part 2)

Some time ago I read an article about vampire movies and why they are so successful among teenagers now. The answer, according to the article, is that the vampire movies allow the teenagers to process their fear of terrorists, and that the vampire craze is a result of 9/11.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke to a film scholar friend who had had an article about recent developments in TV genres rejected because the article did not contextualise contemporary TV genres with references to 9/11 (or words to that effect). I remembered also when Down With Love (Peyton Reed 2003) came out and I was asked the question "Why is this coming now?" meaning, what does it say about contemporary gender roles that Down With Love is being released now. (My non-too serious reply was something about "feminism light")

That was three examples of the attempts to "explain" why something is popular and what something is "really" about that are so popular among film scholars and journalists. But these arguments are rarely substantiated by anything solid. It was not the case that teenagers who liked vampire movies had been interviewed about how they felt about terrorists. It was just taken for granted, as such things so often are. Teenagers might like vampire movies for any number of reasons, it might be because they are scary, or sexy, or thrilling, or whatever. You could just as well argue that the reason teenagers like any kind of films is because they are afraid of terrorists and the films provide an escape from this fear. But then again, are teenagers actually that concerned about terrorists at all?

9/11 is a very popular reference point, but it was 13 years ago now. A lot of things have happened since then. The horrific tsunamis that have taken place in Thailand, Indonesia and Japan, the financial mayhem of recent years, the rise of Putinism and European fascism, and so on and so forth. To take one event and use that as some kind of benchmark for discussing culture is more often than not just laziness.

Sometimes articles and books that try to explain why something is popular reminds me of conspiracy theories, with the thinking being that there has to be a large force that explains things, something must be blamed, I suppose in both cases it is an example of human's dislike of randomness and chance. It is not that I am against contextualisations as such, only against the often sloppy ways it is done. (X came after Y, therefore X can only be understood as a reflection of Y.) But, as they say, correlation is not causation.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, when people discuss science fiction films from the 1950s it is often with the understanding that they are "really" about the fear of communists. But why? For one thing there is not always a subtext; sometimes a film about an alien invasion is just a film about an alien invasion. I am a bit suspicious about subtext thinking in general (see an earlier post about it here) but even when there are subtexts in these films, it can be about a number of things other than communists. It can be about a fear of nuclear war, or nuclear waste. It can be about fears of diseases. It can be a critique of conformity and/or racism. Of course, some of these films are about the fear of communists, but there is a lot more to it than that and there are many possible interpretations. When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in the 1890s he was not afraid of the communists taking over so why assume that a film based on it must be about such a fear.

On the other hand there is Susan Sontag's argument that there is "absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." A statement that is impossible to understand since it is so obviously wrong. (She wrote that in her 1967 essay The Imagination of Disaster.)

There is a film called Invasion U.S.A. (Alfred E. Green 1952) which tells the story about a Soviet attack on the USA. Maybe it is an allegory, and really about the fear of an invasion of aliens from outer space.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Westerner (1940)

A few weeks ago I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and John Ford. Its cinematographer was Gregg Toland, and he did another film that year, The Westerner, directed by William Wyler, the filmmaker Toland usually worked with. It is not typical of Wyler's work and it is an oddity in many ways. It begins with violence, then it becomes a two-man show about the growing friendship between two men, Judge Roy Bean (played by Walter Brennan) and Cole Harden (played by Gary Cooper), and then suddenly it turns to tragedy, before a brief ending, set a few years later than the rest of the film, which is at odds with almost everything that came before. It also has moments of unexpected dark humour. I am mentioning it today because the look of it, and how it sometimes corresponds with the look of some of Ford's films, including The Grapes of Wrath. Some images are breathtaking in their beauty and starkness.

The look of the film is its main asset. The other is the relationship between Roy Bean and Cole Harden. After the introduction there is an almost 40 minutes long sequence with the two of them in a bar, first as enemies and then they become friends, ending up sleeping together in the same bed. They talk and they drink and tell wild stories, and then they become partners, even if they sometimes fight. Roy Bean has a problem with his neck so every now and then Harden must set it right, it is a recurring thing in the film, and nicely handled.

But The Westerner is also somewhat confused, not sure what it wants to be about or where it wants to go. Wyler said it was "a comedy disguised as a melodrama" and within Wyler's oeuvre it does not really compare to any other film (I have written about Wyler here before), even though he began by making cheap westerns. It has at least four scriptwriters, Stuart N. Lake provided the basic story about Roy Bean, Jo Swerling and Dudley Nichols (uncredited) fleshed out the story and then finally Niven Busch was brought in and, among other things, he added the "love story" between Roy Bean and the stranger in town, Cole Harden. Wyler apparently wanted script changes on a daily basis and even though they have all written fine films, Niven Busch in particular is an interesting writer, still there is something missing here. Perhaps a number of compromises and committee decisions got in the way; one problem in particular is the part of Jane Ellen (played by Doris Davenport). As this is a film about two men and their affairs her part is rather superfluous and in that respect there are too many scenes with her, yet since she is in the film and is given some importance towards the end, more scenes with her earlier might have given the film a better balance. But any problems somehow pales when Bean and Harden share a drink, or one of Wyler and Toland's compositions pierce through the screen.

So while it is nobody's best work, it is still a good film and the real ending (i.e. the one before the last scene) is very moving.

Judge Roy Bean is a historic figure, a justice of the peace in Texas ("the law west of the Pecos" as he called himself), although the film is not exactly a true story. Cole Harden is fictional. The actress that the judge idolises in the film, Lillie (or Lily) Langtry, is a real person, and Roy Bean's obsession with her was also real.

Toland and Ford made another film in 1940, The Long Voyage Home, which is also visually advanced. One of Ford's self-consciously artistic films, but it is far from his best.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Waiting for Happiness (2002)

The coastal town of Nouadhibou in the North-west corner of Mauritania is a place where ships go to die, the sea outside it filled with old, abandoned ships. It is also a place to which Africans go as a last stop before trying to reach Europe. And it is where Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako 2002) is set, taking in the refugees, the ships and the locals. I first saw the film ten years ago and it has stayed with me. Now I have watched it again. For its type it is fairly conventional, a lingering narrative, more concerned with observing people than telling a story, little dialogue and plenty of shots with people sitting, or sometimes standing, in silence whilst looking pensive. In a way it is as clichéd as a Hollywood romcom but since clichés are a more or less unavoidable aspect of art, it would be unfair to demand something more. (I have written about clichés here before.)

The man in the shot above is Abdallah (he did not stay very long in that unfortunate room) and he is one of the main characters in the film, in passing on his way to Europe. He does not speak the local language, Hassaniya, so he speaks French, and the local girls make fun of him. His mother lives here though, so that is a reason for him being here. He befriends a little boy, Khatra, who is hanging out with an old man, helping him install light bulbs and electricity in the small houses in which the people live. They are moderately successful, which is also a source for comedy. The light bulb is a recurring motif, representing both life and death, and modernity and its problems.

There are a number of prostitutes around too, and a Chinese man who sings karaoke about being exiled. It is a motley crew, and they all have interesting stories to tell and to share. There is also an undercurrent of tragedy. If you are waiting for happiness, it means it is not with you now, and tales of broken promises, deaths and bodies washed ashore are plentiful. And always the lure of Europe is there, as a hope as well as something fearful, and always out of reach. Even if you happen to make it over there. But there is hope in the film, which, as is so often the case, comes through the children. They have not become cynical yet and they can carry on the culture and the traditions of a vanishing world.

This was Sissako's first full-length film, unless you count the one hour long Life on Earth (1998). His next film was Bamako (2006), which is also good, and more ambitious than Waiting for Happiness. After that it took some time before he was able (or willing) to do a new feature film but this year Timbuktu (2014) opened at Cannes, and hopefully I will be able to see it soon. It is about the Islamists' take-over of Northern Mali 20012-2013 and the subsequent horrors, which ended after France intervened at the request of the Malian government.

Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and now moves between France, Mali and Mauritania, is a fine filmmaker and it is a shame that he has made so few films. He wants to share his part of the world with the rest of it, the rest of us, and it is worthwhile to take the time to be a part of it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014


Today my blog statistics informs me that I have had my 100000th visitor and although I do not completely trust these figures I still think it is something to celebrate! (Actually it is as of now 100062.) There were many scenes I thought of as appropriate for the occasion, something by Raoul Walsh perhaps, or Claire Denis, or maybe Hou Hsiao-hsien. Or the opening scene from Manhattan (Woody Allen 1979), or, well. Then I decided to combine Cary Grant and George Cukor so here, a brief scene from one of the best films I know. A heartfelt thank you to all of you who have come here to read me!

Holiday (George Cukor 1938).