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The CinemaScope Sunset of Michael Curtiz

The good people at Twilight Time have put out their first Blu-ray, a fine edition (limited to 3,000 copies, as are all of their discs) of Michael Curtiz’s 1954 “The Egyptian.” Photographed by the great Leon Shamroy (“Leave Her to Heaven,” “Skidoo”), it’s a handsome film, with a crisp, widescreen De Luxe Color image that shows off the improvements in the CinemeScope lens that had been made since “The Robe” a year earlier, but Curtiz clearly isn’t bringing his best game to it: there’s very little camera movement and little of the sculptural lighting that defined his style in black-and-white. Like his old Warner Brothers colleague and close stylistic cousin William Dieterle, Curtiz seemed to lose his way (or at least his interest) in the 1950s, as color and widescreen gradually became mandatory for big budget filmmaking; he may have the most disappointing late career of any major filmmaker, sliding into indifference at time when contemporaries like Walsh and Dwan were finding re-invigoration in the new formats. A review, and further speculation, in this week’s New York Times column, which includes a report on the Blu-ray edition of Cy Endfield’s “Sands of the Kalahari” from Olive Films.

278 comments to The CinemaScope Sunset of Michael Curtiz

  • I’ve always heard rumors that Hadleigh made those interviews up, but I’ve never seen any evidence either way. Some of them “sound” like the subject, some don’t … but then Hadleigh recounts, at length, an encounter in a Pioneer Chicken line with Richard Deacon, and if that’s faked, I say print the legend. I just did an interview with a male lover of one of Hadleigh’s HOLLYWOOD LESBIANS, and the two interviews definitely do not jibe … but then if the person was closeted, that’s kind of how it worked. So I will withhold judgment.

  • Dear D.K., I’m not sure about the floating mother either, because Tarkovsky floated people in the air much before Malick.

    On a more serious note, I do find it troublesome that the “flying people” in Tarkovsky’s films are there because the director believed in paranormal things (whatever they are). And he was not against corporal punishment regarding children. (I’ve read his journals!) But that does not make IVAN’S CHILDHOOD less of a film. (And no, Tarkovsky was not mean to the child actor, not to my knowledge!)

    So if one is really auteurist about this, does the knowledge of the above make Stalker a worse film? I don’t think so. But because of this connection with the director’s beliefs and his art, I prefer to talk about the man and the films apart from each other, or at least not strictly connected. I choose to “believe” the film, not the man.

    And also, I do feel it in my stomach every time the horse falls back to the ground from the stairs in the attack scene to the city in Andrei Rublev. I do not speak Russian, so I don’t know if there is a small print in the credits: NO ANIMAL WAS HURT DURING THE MAKING OF THIS PICTURE. And I think Rublev is his greatest film.

    It’s morning here, so I’m not exactly sure about the point I’m trying to make.

  • I sent my last comment twice, sorry!

  • Before this thread disappears:
    I don’t think Brian has yet found conclusive evidence yet that gay directors did something different than straight ones to glamorize stars. YET. The issue is still open. We should all keep watching and studying films with an open mind on this issue.

    I agree with Brian that IMHO Robert Taylor looks better in CAMILLE than in any other picture.
    What causes this?
    Cukor’s homosexuality may or may not have played a role.
    But other factors can also come into play.
    Cukor was a gifted artist. The directors of Taylor’s other pictures were often more artisans or craftsmen, MGM contractors who lacked Cukor’s artistry.

    1930’s clothes for men in the USA were awful looking, IMHO. 1940’s clothes were vastly superior. I have read articles suggesting I am not alone in this view. The 1940’s film noir clothes for men still look really sharp. Those awful 30’s suits make men looked trapped in the Depression. Taylor was stuck in such suits during much of his “glamour boy” early career. CAMILLE got him in period costume: a much superior “look”.
    Tyrone Power was mentioned by Dave Kehr as a male glamour star. Power’s studio had him in endless period dramas. His period costumes in SUEZ or THE MARK OF ZORRO still look great. He thus evaded those lousy 30’s suits for men.

    The mustache that often afflicted Taylor was also one of those awful styles. Taylor, liked James Craig, looked handsome without mustache and silly with it.

    PS In the 1960’s, top comic book artist Gil Kane used movie stars as models for the super-heroes he drew. Paul Newman was the model for Green Lantern. Robert Taylor was the source for the Atom.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Sent a couple of posts here last night with links attached – neither have gone up probaby due to this thread being so long. One was for Kent Jones’ great essay on Robert Ryan up at MUBI, the other for a thread on animal cruelty for Hannu (synopsis: there’s a lot of it, esp in “art cinema” — Tarkovsky, Tarr, I would add Bunuel, Harmony Korine).

    Here is the other post I tried to make (sorry if it pops up again later after clearing Dave’s filter): Alex was critical, at 6:13 pm, of my post comparing BIGGER THAN LIFE with the first season of BREAKING BAD. Ray’s film and BB’s first episode WOULD, I think, make a good double bill, for their thematic similarities (as I listed them). School teacher Ed Avery is humiliated by having to have a second job as a taxi dispatcher; school teacher Walter White is humiliated by having to have a second job in a car wash. Both have life-threatening health problems that upend their lives. And so on. Alex objects that Ed doesn’t become a “ruthless criminal entrepreneur” but in fact, the characters are more subtly connected in that both have a hyperinflated attitude about themselves: the Walter of the first season really feels he deserves the prizes and wealthy lifestyle of his ex-colleagues, and, well, we know about Ed. Visually, Walter’s Albuquerque tract house of course isn’t as striking as Ed Avery’s two story Expressionist house of horrors, although over the course of the series Walter’s house has been used quite expressively (eg, the child’s bed Walter is confined to at the beginning of season 3). Producer Vince Gilligan’s various directors include no one at the level of Nick Ray, but for all that BREAKING BAD has had its visual coups (as with the Bryan Cranston-directed “crawling men” opening scene of season 3 episode 1). I think actually that Ray would be quite at home with BB’s characters and milieu.

  • Alex


    Yikes, I hope that my rejection of your BTL and BB comparison doesn’t reflect classism and a probably ludicrous identification with James Mason. I do see that you’ve (at the very least) cleverly identified a number of analogies between the “films” that taken one by one are quite valid and I am wary of rejecting analogies for aspects of comparison that are beside their intended points, but I do still feel (perhaps too personally as a Westchester kid with a nearly well chiselled physiognomy) that comparison of BTL’s Mason and BB’s Mr. Ed Avery are worlds apart.

  • Alex

    BTW, any strong views about this “10 Rillington Place” film I’ve never seen and hadn’t ever heard of before this thread lead me to exposure to its high regard at IMDB.

  • Oliver_C

    An equally interesting comparison would be between the fictionalised (and sensationalised) Ed Avery, who manipulates doctors into prescribing him ever-increasing doses of cortisone, and the real-life subject whose case history inspired Maibaum’s screenplay, a blameless individual (though, ultimately, no less maniacal) essentially treated as a guinea pig by the medical establishment.

  • Oliver_C

    “In the 1960′s, top comic book artist Gil Kane used movie stars as models for the super-heroes he drew. Paul Newman was the model for Green Lantern. Robert Taylor was the source for the Atom.”

    Similarly in 1939, during comics’ first superhero boom, artist C.C.Beck based the character of Captain Marvel — whose long-running copyright dispute with Superman had publishing consequences still evident in comicbooks today — on Fred MacMurray.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Oliver, we only know the “real Ed Avery” thru Berton Rouche’s New Yorker essay, which provides an extra layer of mediation from the true story (whatever it was). I haven’t read the piece although both of Ray’s biographers have. According to McGilligan (via Lambert) the studio resisted including dialogue critical of the medical profession, so Ray compensated by casting and filming them to look “gangsterish” (329) — which they do.

  • jbryant

    Oliver: And we owe half of the name “Clark Kent” to B movie star Kent Taylor, who was related by marriage to the wife of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel (the “Clark” came from Gable). Not sure if Taylor provided visual inspiration for Superman as well, but he did have that square-jawed look and the black hair.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Just saw CAPTAIN AMERICA – THE FIRST AVENGER. Not a great movie by any stretch, but still enjoyable if you like 1940s cartooning (they did a remarkable job translating that basically flat look to 3D).

    I thought it was kind of a pity though that they moved to present times already by the end of this one – no more 40s Captain America in the upcoming sequels it would seem.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe Johnston, who obviously has a talent for this sort of thing, go on from THE ROCKETEER and CAPTAIN AMERICA to the C C Beck Captain Marvel of the 1940s, and why not with The Big Red Cheese look alike Patrick Warburton (of SEINFELD and THE TICK fame – note the squinting gaze and the eyebrows) in the leading part.

  • jbryant

    Johan: I loved CAPTAIN AMERICA (though I skipped 3D for the 2D version). And yes, it’s a shame the needs of the present-set AVENGERS movie precluded any period CA sequels. But the film is definitely a breath of fresh air after umpteen contemporary superhero films that have a similar look and feel. There’s a real respect for the imagery of the time, and I was amused by the KANE-like musical number at Howard Stark’s automobile demonstration, as well as the montage of Cap’s Hollywood sojourn. Good, nostalgic fun, and Johnston was the right man for the job.

    Since this thread is ostensibly about Michael Curtiz, and since Curtiz worked with Doris Day a few times, this is as good a place as any to mention that Doris is releasing a new album next month of songs mostly produced by her late son, Terry Melcher, who died in 2004. One of them is a re-do of “My Buddy,” a song from Curtiz’s I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS.

  • Peter Henne

    Hannu, I think those moments in Tarkovsky’s films of people floating in air are wishful, resistant, rapturous, and harmonious. Not all of these are without scientific explanation (SOLARIS), but they are all of a piece anyway, which perhaps expresses a deeper bind between what can be rationally known and the things in life that we never really come up with a complete explanation for (like art and love, for instance). But if we’re going to fault Tarkovsky for depicting inexplicable events, then why not go after Rivette’s many insinuations of occult practices and realities? To me, it’s all art where you can not only examine life but also impose order, depict how you would better arrange things or propose some ideal circumstances. The Renaissance sure did a lot of imposing order and proposing ideals, from which Tarkovsky takes many of his cues.

    And, yes, the horse falling in ANDREI ROUBLEV tears me apart too. It’s one reason why I’m convinced Tarkovsky was on the level when he told Michel Ciment that he preferred the 185-minute cut, because the longer version carries on even more implied violence along this same line, though what we see in the shorter version is tragic enough. I’ve often wondered if this shot on the stairs resulted in an unplanned event that Tarkovsky left in, to implicate himself in the name of his own religious humility which he wished to share. We are left with some gentler feeling about horses in the last shot of the film.

    Gregg mentioned a link to a discussion on animal cruelty in films which I would be very interested to see, but I didn’t find it. Any chance that could be posted again?

  • Peter, I side with you about the Tarkovsky images. I’m just not sure about the piety and humility of Tarkovsky the man, as opposed to Tarkovsky the artist. (I try to be consistent in preferring or believing or at least suspending the disbelief with the song, not the singer.)

    Aaah, but yes, some people have written that also Jacques Tourneur actually might have believed in the supernatural. But that’s okay by me, because Tourneur is God (or at least a god).


  • Thanks, Gregg! I would love to find that animal link! But hey, at least that donkey was already dead, when the eye was cut in UN CHIEN ANDALOU!

    Which brings us to “von” Trier. I raise my hat to John C. Reilly who reportedly left Trier’s film after finding about his cruelty in filming animals. (Not this time taking up the business of treating people and especially women very badly in his films!)

  • “There’s a real respect for the imagery of the time,”

    Not completely. A comrade posted the following at RevLeft:

    “There are no Russians in the Captain America movie. They are culturally sensitive enough to include a Brit, a Frenchmen, an African American, and even a Japanese American, but no Russians. And this isn’t just a coincidence, or something someone forgot. There is an old American propaganda poster in the movie that someone deliberately edited the flag of the Soviet Union out of.

    “Here is the original poster:

    “What the hell?? Even the Call of Duty franchise, one of the most right-wing oriented series, includes positive portrayals of the Red Army.”

  • Johan Andreasson

    An anonymous Russian artist strikes back:

  • Peter Henne

    “I’m just not sure about the piety and humility of Tarkovsky the man, as opposed to Tarkovsky the artist.”

    Hannu, you’re right to make the distinction. It’s fair to limit this discussion to interpreting the artworks and the artist we can surmise from them, but not the private individual.

  • Robert Garrick

    Funny that the topic of animal cruelty would emerge in a Michael Curtiz thread, because Curtiz was one of the worst offenders in Hollywood when it came to maiming and killing animals for the sake of a “good shot.” In the early days of Hollywood, they would run horses right off a cliff if they thought it would improve the scene.

    You know those sequences in westerns where there’s a gunfight involving men on horseback, and with each shot a horse drops to the ground while running? Those horses were tripped with wires, and many times the result was a fatally injured animal. But there were always more where they came from.

    This is one area of film production where things have changed a lot over the years.

  • Robert Garrick

    Further to the subject of Michael Curtiz and animal cruelty, I found this at the Wikipedia entry for Curtiz’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936):

    “The battlefield set was lined with trip wires to trip the cavalry horses. Dozens were killed during filming, forcing U.S. Congress to ensure the safety of animals in motion pictures. The ASPCA banned trip wires from films as well. Unlike the rest of Flynn’s blockbuster films, because of the use of trip wires and the number of horses killed, it was never re-released by Warner Brothers.”

    Elsewhere, I’ve read that it was Errol Flynn himself who turned Curtiz and his film set in to the ASPCA. Flynn had a few faults, but he loved animals.

  • Brad Stevens

    “You know those sequences in westerns where there’s a gunfight involving men on horseback, and with each shot a horse drops to the ground while running? Those horses were tripped with wires, and many times the result was a fatally injured animal. But there were always more where they came from.”

    Shots involving the tripwiring of horses are always removed from British video and DVD releases by the state censor. We must be the only country in the world that has censored Clarence Brown’s film of ANNA KARENINA!

  • You guys might want to sit down for this one:

    Raul Ruiz is gone.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jaime, I’d just had a long lunchtime conversation yesterday about MYSTERIES OF LISBON. We were comparing it and Sono’s amazing LOVE EXPOSURE as viable examples of roughly four hour narratives.

    Hannu and Peter, I posted the link to the animal cruelty article twice more last night, but Dave’s filter swallowed it for the second and third time. You can find it I’m sure by using your search engines: it was a MUBI thread of two years ago, titled “Remember that poor ox in APOCALYPSE NOW? The treatment of animals in film”

    I’ve completed the McGilligan Ray biography. Reading the entire book allows some context for the RKO material I’d read initially; I don’t have my copy of Eisenschitz’s bio handy but McGilligan does seem to have included new material on Ray’s youthful sojourn with Frank Lloyd Wright. It would be useful to sit down with both books side by side — it’s my impression that the production information on the films isn’t much augmented from Eisenschitz. Generally speaking, though, he takes the side of Ray’s critics, simply by quoting them at such length: Budd Schulberg on WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, Charlton Heston’s diary on 55 DAYS AT PEKING. Eisenschitz was more balanced, as I recall.

    As I’d commented upthread, McGilligan’s primary interest is in screenwriters, and when he can trace a pre-production history of a project (as with REBEL) he does a great job of synthesizing each draft and each new screenwriter’s contributions. He’s also good on Ray as an actor’s director. However he is less interested in cinematography and barely touches on, except to mock as a sign of Ray’s burgeoning incompetence, his latter-day interest in fragmenting images through multiple takes and careful editing. I had strongly got the impression from Eisenschitz that this was a deliberate artistic development on Ray’s part, helping to explain the multiple takes of “good enough” scenes he insisted on his later films (which so exasperated Schulberg, Heston et al).

    McGilligan mentions the complete reedit of WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN that Susan Ray has evidently completed, but doesn’t seem to have seen it. Has anyone?

  • Robert Regan

    Gregg, your remark about McGilligan’s interest in pre-production has brought to mind a question to which I have not been able to find an answer for many years. Does he know at what point in the preparation of In a Lonely Place, the matter of Dix’s guilt was changed from Dorothy Hughes’ fine novel? I have always felt that that change is one of the things that makes the film more than fine.

  • Gregg, your reminder that Mr. McGilligan’s interest primarily is in screenwriters reminds me that his relationship to auteurism has always been ambivalent, and that his first book was about James Cagney, with the subtitle “the actor as auteur.”

  • Gregg Rickman

    Robert, I’m afraid I’ve already passed along my copy of McGilligan’s book (today, after this morning’s summary) so can’t quote it exactly. If you are referring to the end of the film (spoiler alert, if anyone hasn’t seen IN A LONELY PLACE yet, and if so, why not?) Ray did shoot the scripted ending (out of the book, I think) where Dix does kill Laurel, only then to get the phone call clearing him. Dissatisfied, he then shot the ending we all know. He and Bogart (star/producer) both liked the ending we have better — an ending which, as I think we agree, moves a very good film into being a great one.

    Doug Holm, I guess you could say McGilligan’s primary interest is in screenwriters AND actors! (His Cagney book was quite good. Incidentally, Cagney loved working with Ray, as he wasn’t used to sensitive direction.) As I say, those are McGilligan’s strong suits in his book. He does use Ray’s lack of polish in his own writing as a stick to criticize him.

  • Robert Regan

    Thanks, Gregg. Dana Polan’s BFI monograph discusses the two endings, and yes Laurel’s death would have made the film more conventional, less universal. I should have been clearer in my query yesterday. In Hughes’ novel, Dix is indeed the hunted serial killer, making him more distant from the rest of us. This is the crucial difference between book and film. The latter follows the former quite closely in most ways, but that change which might seem a commercial decision to avoid totally tarnishing an essentially heroic star persona is actually what elevates the film to its higher level as a story of relatively normal people. Hunting for a killer becomes the background to Dix and Laurel’s doomed love, a tragic tale of loss. I’ve always thought that a key moment is when he “helps” her by straightening her grapefruit knife. Sometimes you just can’t do the right thing.