Curtiz: Here's looking at you, Casablanca

Chris Knight finds this film, set during the making of the famed 1942 war movie, a fun ride into history but maybe not worth playing again

An out-of-focus Humphrey Bogart - it's basically the only way we see him - in Curtiz. Netflix

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You have to admire the chutzpah of Tamas Yvan Topolanszky. The Swiss-Hungarian director decided to make his first feature about the creation of Casablanca, one of the most famous films of all time. No pressure.

Often, fictionalized or semi-fictionalized movies about movies place a naïf in the presence of glittering fame – think Zac Efron in Me and Orson Welles, Eddie Redmayne in My Week with Marilyn, or Alden Ehrenreich in Rules Don’t Apply, in which he’s Howard Hughes’ driver.

Curtiz takes a different tack, focusing on Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, who remains less than a household name in spite of five Oscar nominations for best director (and a win for Casablanca) and a mind-boggling 177 directing credits over a half-century career.

It’s a wise move, for it means that even as we’re on the set of Rick’s Casablanca bar we never quite get a good look at Humphrey Bogart; he’s always just out of focus, or just out of shot. And who would you have play Bogie in a major role? Like Tilda Swinton and Ron Perlman, he’s an actor whose facial structure is unique in the known universe. Even his voice is hard to do, except in caricature.

But it’s also a bit of a bait-and-switch, because Curtiz is more about the man (played by Ferenc Lengyel) than the film. The closest we come to the day-to-day minutiae of filmmaking is discussions between Curtiz and Conrad Veidt (Christopher Krieg), who keeps pleading with the director to kill off his Nazi character in the film. (Veidt, a pre-Reich star in Germany, left the country in 1933 and was no friend of the Nazis despite often being cast as one in American movies.)

I can guarantee no one in 1942 was doodling pictures of Mr. Spock and the starship Enterprise

There are also some nice dramatizations of myths that have grown up around Casablanca. Yes, it’s true that the airplane in the final scene was a tiny cardboard prop, made to look bigger by shooting in fog and surrounding it with little people dressed as the ground crew.

And no, Ronald Reagan was never seriously considered for the role of Rick. And I’m sure no one referred to the future president’s wartime service as him being “off making America great again.” Also, I can guarantee no one in 1942 was doodling pictures of Mr. Spock and the starship Enterprise, a quarter century before the launch of Star Trek.

But for the most part we have a straightforward story of responsibility in time of war. Curtiz butts heads with Johnson (Declan Hannigan) of the newly formed U.S. Office of War Information over how to portray Nazis, collaborators, sympathizers, refugees and Americans in the film. But he’s also distracted by the arrival of Kitty (Evelin Dobos), a daughter he helped emigrate from Hungary, but then abandoned with her mother in New York.

Topolanszky films the story in rich black and white, the better to match the period, and throws in some great period quotations. Studio head Jack Warner barks: “I don’t want it great. I want it Tuesday.” And Curtiz, who could be prickly on the set, delivers his famous: “Don’t talk to me while I’m interrupting!” Lest you start to like him too much, we also see him harassing women and commenting lecherously that “Magic happens on the casting couch.” Ick.

The results are solid if a little underwhelming, with the original dialogue tending toward ponderous and self-important. And there’s an oddity in the Netflix transfer in that the occasional dialogue in Hungarian doesn’t come with subtitles, meaning you’ll need to turn on close captioning to understand what’s being said. Curtiz is an intriguing dip into film history, but you probably won’t want to play it again.

Curtiz is available now on Netflix.

3 stars out of 5