Good thing I rewatched Casablanca recently: Curtiz, now on Netflix, dramatizes the making of the indefatigable film classic via a biopic about its director, Michael Curtiz. The feature debut by Hungarian director Tamas Yvan Topolanszky premiered at the 2018 Montreal World Film Festival and hung around the festival circuit for a year before making its international streaming debut. For film aficionados, it may be divisive — shot in atmospheric, throwbacky black-and-white, it’s heavily stylized and stagey, ripe to be fully embraced by viewers, or to repel them.
CURTIZ: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: 1941: Japan just bombed Pearl Harbor. Movie producers Jack Warner (Andrew Hefler) and Hal Wallis (Scott Alexander Young) are pressured by government mustache-in-a-suit Johnson (Declan Hannigan), who’s a total Johnson, to render a movie with the working title of Everybody Comes to Rick’s a rah-rah chunk of patriotic jingoism. Johnson’s agenda will be difficult to execute, though — the movie is being directed by Michael Curtiz (Ferenc Lengyel), a visionary filmmaker with Oscar gold on his resume and a reputation for being uncompromising and frequently behind schedule. As it is, the movie is barreling ahead with principal photography, on a limited budget and with no ending written, all the easier for Johnson to apply pressure.
Curtiz is far from cuddly. He berates extras on set, making examples out of them. He’s a serial womanizer, answering his telephone smack in the midst of commingling with a young woman, topless and bent over his desk. His wife, Bess (Nikolett Barabas), unhappily tolerates his philandering. His 19-year-old daughter Kitty (Evelin Dobos) finagles her way into a role as an extra on set, which is the only way to get past his handlers — and when she finally catches his eye, he’s cruel and dismissive. She’s the product of a previous relationship in his native Hungary; he paid for Kitty and her mother to move to New York, and keeps their existence a secret to the more important parties in his life.
Curtiz’s only endearing trait is his concern for his sister, who’s still in Europe, and is likely in danger due to invading Nazi forces. And the fact that he’s making a goddamn wonderful movie, of course, but that’s endearing to us, who already know that, not necessarily the other characters, except that they act like they know it when they shouldn’t. Anyway: Things are coming to a head. What will Curtiz do about Kitty? About the dink from D.C.? About his sister? And about that ending, which just refuses to coalesce?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Curtiz follows the same essential formula as 2012’s Hitchcock, which dramatized the Master of Suspense’s struggle to get Psycho made as he envisioned it.
Performance Worth Watching: Lengyel anchors the film with a convincing impersonation of Curtiz, although the performance is ultimately more charisma than depth, and doesn’t rise above the screenplay’s limitations.
Memorable Dialogue: “This film needs to be the collective embodiment of our nation’s character,” Johnson asserts. “Much more than the vision of just one man!”
Sex and Skin: The aforementioned desk-schtup.
Our Take: Curtiz instantly rubbed me the wrong way, not just because it cracks us over the head with its pastiche hammer, which isn’t a crime, except here it’s wielded by an amateurish hand. No, I’m bothered more by the film’s indulgent meta-ness — the characters here act as if they know they’re making an all-time classic, and not just another screen-filler of a studio picture, which, according to factual accounts, is exactly what Warner Bros. thought they had. It’s also not a crime to deviate from What Really Happened, since it’s what one should expect from a movie made with fake lighting and actors and stylized camera angles and all that. But I struggled to suss out Topolanszky’s point for telling this story in this specific manner, beyond his brushing against the idea of a lousy human being being a tremendous artist.
So it’s difficult to accept the film as a character drama, and not a flimsy exercise in winking cleverness. The script indulges annoying anachronisms — Ronald Reagan wasn’t cast in Casablanca because, one character quips, “he’s off making America great again.” Blech. Topolanszky is a skilled visual filmmaker, although with his wandering-camera long takes and showy, circling shots he works hard to show us he’s very much the director who’s directing this movie. You may love his approach, but there’s an equal chance you’ll hate it.
The best I can say about Curtiz is that it makes you want to watch Casablanca again. And I’d say your time is better spent forgoing this movie to watch Bogie and Bergman work their magic, but that would be disingenuous — you’d be better off watching Casablanca than pretty much anything that exists. It’s an enchanting film, even after a dozen viewings. It doesn’t need Curtiz to galvanize its enduring quality, and I can’t help but wonder what a Curtiz bio outside the context of its making might look like.
Our Call: SKIP IT. You don’t have to be a film buff to dislike Curtiz, but it doesn’t hurt.
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