Michael Curtiz

curtiz_1928_portrait
Birth Name: Mihaly Kertesz

Birth: December 24, 1888

Death: April 10, 1962

Number of Films Michael Curtiz Made with Humphrey Bogart: 8

The Lowdown

Ask the casual Classic Film fan about John Huston or Howard Hawks and more than likely they’ll be some recognition. More than likely, Bogart’s name will come up. Huston and Hawks – those are household names if you’re in the Classic Film realm.

Now mention Michael Curtiz. There still might be some recognition from the casual fans. CasablancaWhite Christmas? Maybe if they’re a little more literate about the early years of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” they might mention Yankee Doodle Dandy.

But the Hungarian born director is so prolific throughout Hollywood history that it’s hard to imagine his name is rarely spoken outside of intros on TCM.

Curtiz crossed the boundary between the silent films and talkies. At 38 years old and with 64 films already under his belt, Curtiz was finally lured over to the U.S. by Harry Warner in 1926 where he would work with some of Hollywood’s greatest actors – Grant, Cagney, Davis, Flynn, Crosby, Kaye, Crawford, Bergman, Lorre, Greenstreet, Huston, Muni, DeHavilland, Sheridan, O’Brien, The Dead End Kids, Bacall, Bogart, etc… many household names.

As far as Bogart was concerned though, Curtiz was always on the shortlist of directors that were pre-approved. Yes, they fought a lot on set – settling character arcs and plot developments with shouting matches while the cast and crew waited, but there was great respect there as well.

I feel like Bogart and Curtiz complimented one another, making up for what the other lacked. Curtiz hailed from the European school of film where complex camera moves with lots of dollies were the norm. Bogart was from the states where Film Noir taught directors and actors to keep it simple, get to the point, and let the actors do the heavy lifting. Perhaps more importantly, Curtiz cut his teeth in silent films, and few actors beyond Bogart knew how do so much with simple gestures and subtle facial expressions.

Bogart and Peter Lorre reportedly loved pranking Curtiz on both Casablanca and Passage to Marseille. My favorite stories are from Passage where the two actors would stall scenes with long and jokey anecdotes until Curtiz would finally laugh and then they could carry on.

For a man who was alongside of Bogart throughout his entire career – from the early B roles to the biggest film of Bogart’s life, to the lighter role of Joseph in We’re No Angels, it’s about doggone time that Curtiz was placed into The Usual Suspects!

(And I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that Curtiz also directed Doctor X! The sorta prequel to Bogart’s only venture into sci-fi/horror, The Return of Doctor X!)

The Filmography

Black Legion – 1937

blegion

Curtiz is listed as an “uncredited” co-director here alongside of Archie Mayo, so I’m not exactly sure what his contributions to the film were. Considered by many to be one of Bogart’s biggest hidden gems, Black Legion is a must-see for anyone who likes Bogart’s better character work. Occasionally there will be a movie that is very well made, and yet so gut-wrenchingly powerful that I just can’t imagine sitting through it again. Schindler’s List was this way for me. So was Mystic River. I would easily add Black Legion to that category. Loosely based on a true story, Legion took me places emotionally that I wasn’t used to going in a Bogart film.

Bogart plays a blue collar machinist who’s frustrations and paranoia take him to an ugly, ugly place, and Directors Mayo and Curtiz do a great job of squeezing every drop of tension from this one.

You can read my original post on the film here.

Marked Woman – 1937

marked

This is another “uncredited” director role for Curtiz alongside of Lloyd Bacon. Bogart might get second billing on the poster, but in reality, he’s fourth or fifth down the line when it comes to screen time. Bette Davis is the real star here, and she does a good job in, but the script leans heavily on extravagant melodrama. The ripped-from-the-headlines tone of the film is almost too clichéd in this day and age to have the same impact that it did in the 30’s and 40’s. There is plenty to appreciate in this film though, as the cast has been put together well, and it’s always fun to see Bogart and Davis looking so young in their roles. Davis is as bright-eyed and gorgeous as she ever would be, and Bogart has got the healthiest, most filled out physique that I ever remember seeing on him.

You can read my original post on the film here.

Kid Galahad – 1937

gala

This was the first full collaboration between Director Curtiz and Bogart, and it was a bit of a tepid start in my opinion. It’s a by-the-numbers Warner picture for the time it was made. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It’s predictable, but fun. Robinson and Davis definitely save the day with their great portrayals, turning it into an enjoyable film. Bogart’s relegated to being the stock gangster character.

What sets the film apart though, is Director Curtiz’s ability to direct the the boxing scenes with explosive action and a skill that was surely honed in his silent days.

You can read my original post on the film here.

Angels with Dirty Faces – 1938

Angels with dirty faces

At one time, this Curtiz directed film was one of the biggest gaps in my Bogart/Classic Film knowledge. Does it live up to the hype? For the first hour – no. Not that I thought it was bad, because it’s actually very good. James Cagney and Pat O’Brien are great. Plus, there’s a good dose of Ann Sheridan, which is always a good thing!

I just didn’t think it was as good as everyone had told me. Up until the last fifteen minutes of the film I was ready to rank this one just below The Roaring Twenties. The script is good, but not great. Director Michael Curtiz does a fine job, but it’s a far cry from Casablanca. And then there’s the fact that Bogart is hardly in the film despite high billing and lots of presence in the advertising.

Then I got to the ending . . . wow.

Without giving anything away (in case you’re also behind on seeing this film), Cagney’s final scene is so powerful that I was still reeling from it two days after watching the film. The movie certainly didn’t have to end the way it does. It could have gone with a more audience-friendly finish. Yet Curtiz, Cagney, and O’Brien take what was a good film and elevate it to great with just the last fifteen minutes.

You can read my original post on the film here.

Virginia City – 1940

Virginia City Poster

Virginia City is a fun, old-school western with great performances by all the actors (save for a VERY poorly cast Bogart), and plenty of tension to keep you hooked until the end. With a running time of slightly over two hours, Director Michael Curtiz probably could have shaved off about twenty minutes with a few less horse chases and saloon scenes, but that’s a small complaint to have in an otherwise good film.

I thought Curtiz did a great job of making both sides of the conflict over the gold seem sympathetic. Heck, I was even rooting at points for Bogart’s painfully-accented Hispanic outlaw!

You can read my original post on the film here.

Casablanca – 1942

Casablanca Poster

The film that cemented Bogart’s legacy! If this had been his final film, I have no doubt that he’d still be the icon that he is today!

I think a majority of the credit has to go to Director Curtiz. From beginning to end, the city of Casablanca feels like a fully realized world. The daytime scenes are crammed from one edge of the screen to other with bustling streets. The nighttime scenes are packed with diversely populated clubs. The city is supposed to be overflowing with people looking to escape the war and Director Curtiz nailed it. This film is bursting at the seams with background artists, minor roles cast to perfection, supporting roles with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, and a handful of main characters that are handled deftly and given the time that they each need to establish their moments in the story.

Why do I need to defend what some argue as Hollywood’s greatest film?!? You can read my original post on the film here.

Passage to Marseille – 1944

Passage

This one’s a real showcase for Director Curtiz. Marseille is a film that exists almost entirely in a flashback. But not just a flashback – as it’s a flashback within a flashback, which I think even delves into another flashback! Just the way the multiple flashbacks are handled without confusion shows a director who’s storytelling craft is top notch.

The entire movie is said to be a slightly missed attempt at recreating the magic that was Casablanca, as so many of the cast and crew return from that movie including director, writer, composer, producer, and at least five other actors. Perhaps I’m far enough removed from the era, but I thought that my love for Casablanca only enhanced my enjoyment of this film. The story is much more action oriented, and it comes off as more of a prison escape movie rather than a war romance.

You can read my original post on the film here.

We’re No Angels – 1955

angels

The last of eight films between Director Curtiz and Bogart, Angels is subtle, dry, a bit goofy, and a wonderful movie for these two collaborators to go out on. In a story of three escaped convicts, Curtiz uses Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray to underplay the jokes so well that this film can often near the line of “dark comedy,” although I don’t think it ever steps over.

It’s silly, wonderful fun in the best possible sense. Plus! You get to see Bogart in an apron! Come on! That makes it a must see in itself!

You can read my original post on the film here.

‘The Usual Suspects’ is an ongoing feature on the blog that highlights some of Bogart’s best collaborators. You can find the ever-growing list of names here.

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