MARCH/APRIL 2009

THE VARIETIES OF CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE

II: On Michael Curtiz

by B. Kite

My real education in classical American cinema began when I broke my leg. Immobile, well cared for, Vicodin-addled, and cable-connected, I found myself able to follow only the outlines of plots, and many of those outlines I may have mistaken. Instead, I drifted atop textures and grain: the arc of a painted eyebrow, the toothy polish of bathroom fixtures, a wash of strings above the lacy shadow of foliage, a glazed and glinting pond, the endlessly intriguing bottles and labels and magazines glimpsed at the back of a drugstore set I’d encountered before, would encounter again, but would always gladly revisit, grateful to trace once more with the mind’s finger the chrome brim beneath the cushion of the stools that lined the soda counter. I’d known Howard Hawks and John Ford but only now grew to appreciate studio craftsmen like Archie Mayo and Lloyd Bacon. Ah, Mayo and Bacon—just add George Brent and you’ve got yourself a sandwich. (George Brent always reminds me of a big loaf of bread.)

But the director who delighted me the most consistently was Michael Curtiz, perhaps because he approached his material much as I did. Curtiz occupies an odd position in critical surveys inflected by auteurism. He directed too many good movies to be dismissed (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Mildred Pierce are his), and his films do in fact display a stylistic continuity, especially in their obsessive devotion to depth effects: piling on planes of light and shadow to thicken atmosphere, plotting elaborate diagonal tracks through spaces crowded with people and/or furniture to lend density to his casinos/casbahs/living rooms. But auteur theory hinges as much on personality and thematic through-lines as on distinctive style, and here Curtiz is elusive.

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B. Kite lives in Brooklyn.

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