He was born Manó Kertész Kaminer in Hungary in 1886, began directing as Kertész Mihály, switched to Mihály Kertész in 1917, and was known in Hollywood as Michael Curtiz. The film that got him there, Moon of Israel (1924), sees him credited in English as Michael Courtice. But despite the dancing letters of his name, he was remarkably consistent in his approach.
Warner Brothers imported him from Austria, and Jack Warner would soon come to bemoan the prolific and successful emigré's tendencies to indulge in frequent tracking shots that seemed to have little to do with the plot, and to focus on set design and visuals over actors and story. Yet somehow, perhaps due to that elusive and phantasmal "genius of the system", Curtiz's approach meshed with the Warners house style to create movies where incessant gliding across glossy obsidians and luminous whites enhances rather than overwhelms the narrative values Hollywood holds dear.
In Europe, there was apparently nobody to keep an eye on Kertész/Curtiz's excesses, so his epics, such as Sodom und Gomorrah and Moon of Israel, are peculiarly prone to that malaise of the super-production: stiff, inhuman performances as monumental and un-life-like as the statuary decorating the towering sets. Lubitsch made his name injecting recognizable quirks of behavior into period movies, but elsewhere masonry dominated. (Hollwood was guilty of "epic acting" too: when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in Quo Vadis, he was told the gesture was too modern. "In what age, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?" he asked.)
Moon of Israel, derived from an H. Rider Haggard novel, mixes fictional characters with the mythic ones of the exodus from Egypt, reducing Moses to a guest-star in his own story and defying convention by narrating the tale largely from the Pharaonic point of view. Indeed, when the Egyptian hero strays into Israelite territory to see the woman he loves (everyone keeps calling her the Moon of Israel, though it's unclear if this is an official title or just some kind of strangely pervasive poesy) the Hebrews virtually become the heavies. In the ensuing mayhem, Curtiz indulges his tendency to sadism with some grisly arrow-in-the-eye action, and giallo-esque extreme closeups of edged weapons plunging into flesh.
Things get onto a more solid biblical track with the flight from Egypt, shot at the same time as DeMille's Ten Commandments, and shot-for-shot nearly identical. It's quite possibly his trumping of DeMille's effects (both movies use reverse motion for the sea's parting, but DeMille's walls of water look like jello glaciers while the Curtiz version, sculpted from plaster over which water trickled, has the effect of two Niagaras facing each other, the cascading waters falling into...nowhere) which ensured Curtiz of his ticket to the US. Curtiz deprives us of DeMille's subaquatic money shot, showing the Egyptian soldiers and horses sinking beneath the waves, but within two years of his arrival stateside, he'd be helming Noah's Ark, in which the entire world meets a similar fate, and by planting his extras where the dummies should have been, Curtiz appears to have sent several real humans to a watery grave. Do we blame his famous difficulties with the language, or his equally famous vicious disposition?
Whatever the answer, Curtiz's Hungarian, Austrian and German films certainly show the compositional gifts that enliven his American ones, and it'd be interesting to be able to see a large number of his films screened together to show more clearly the evolution of one of the great stylists.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.