Netflixable? “Curtiz” makes a hash out of filming “Casablanca”

The extras sit at a table in the shadowy foreground of Rick’s Cafe Americain. She sees him doodle in a sketchbook, an image of a man in a strange uniform with distinctly pointy ears.

What’s his connection to the movie? He points at the director, Michael Curtiz, his adoptive father. But what this fellow named “Lucas” really wants to do is write.

His real name is John Meredith Lucas, and he’d go on, 25 years after “Casablanca,” to work on the original “Star Trek” series. Yeah, I had to look him up because that’s such a dumb thing to shove into an ostensible “historical” movie. And no, that moment on the set of “Casablanca,” sitting with a young woman (Evelin Dobos) never happened.

There’s a lot a lot of balderdash of this nature in “Curtiz,” a film about the tyrannical, guilt-ridden Hungarian emigre filmmaker at the helm of the retitled, rewritten, “troubled” production that became one of the most beloved films in cinema history –“Casablanca.”

Yes, it’s true studio chief Jack Warner floated the idea that Ronald Reagan (and Anne Sheridan) should star in the script that Warners bought, a play titled “Everybody Comes to Ricks.” No, producer Hal Wallis (who only considered Humphrey Bogart for the lead) never said Reagan was “Serving (in the military), like everybody else. Making America great again.”

No, Curtiz wasn’t saying, “Vot eez zees, a comedy?” Or “Vere izz Ron (Reagan)?”

But yes, Curtiz was famous for his temper and his too-thick-to-understand accent, something star Ferenc Legyel masters.

This Hungarian co-production didn’t have the rights to use the song “As Time Goes By,” doesn’t show the no-name actors playing “Casblanca’s principals — Bogey, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet — in closeup. Because they hadn’t the budget.

Did Curtiz like to practice skeet shooting on the back lot, even after hours? Have sex with anything on two legs? Struggle mightily, with screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, with the script and especially, “the ending?”

Sure, or at least that much of the movie’s true enough to not quibble with.

The actor S.Z. Sakall (József Gyabronka), a fellow Hungarian (along with others in the cast), was Curtiz’s pal and on-set consultant, confessor, the one he could complain to (in Hungarian) about the government censor, the studio, the actors, etc. True enough.

You cling to those little tidbits of truth and a few cute moments (inventing dialogue, composing that famous “last scene” with a model airplane, dwarf actors to make it look realistic, and a lot of smoke and fog) and try not to grind your teeth to the stump over the stuff that sticks out as “What does THAT have to do with the making of ‘Casablanca?”

The Swiss-born Hungarian director, Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, focused on Curtiz, his arrogance and personal torment, his cruelty to the “stupid immigrants” in his cast, and on beautifully atmospheric lighting and production design, surrounding his players in darkness stunningly photographed in black and white.

That, at least, is a defensible choice. The rest of “Curtiz?” Less so.

The estranged daughter “Kitty” (Dobos) is our surrogate, showing up in her father’s life (as he is copulating with a waitress who wants a career in the movies). Kitty is, added to the payroll and watched like a hawk on the set of this movie by a U.S. government censor (Declan Hannigan) hellbent on making this movie “patriotic,” making Curtiz fill out a “loyalty” questionnaire and rushing the film through production because he knows something big is happening in “Casablanca” and environs at the end of 1942.

The picture comes together haphazardly — both the movie within the movie, and “Curtiz” — as the womanizing director tries to keep his wife in her place, the pressure on an ambassador to help his remaining family in Hungary, on Jewish/German actor Conrad Veidt (Christopher Kreig), humiliating him to make him nasty enough to be a Nazi.

Don’t know that this happened either, but maybe.

If you’re not hung up on getting film history correct, on coherent plotting, on a production taking absurd liberties in the amount of “importance” attached to the movie, in production, and government interference, if you don’t mind a lot of colorless performances (save for Kreig, Legnyel and once or twice, Gyabronka), at least do yourself a favor and turn on the closed captioning.

Aside from one or two infamous “Curtizisms” — “Don’t talk to me vile I am INTERRUPTING!” — the dialogue is as banal as the picture is striking to look at. And much of that banal dialogue is in Hungarian.

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, attempted sexual assault

Cast: Ferenc Lengyel, Scott Alexander Young, Evelin Dobos, Declan Hannigan, Andrew Hefler, József Gyabronka and Nikolett Barabas

Credits: Directed by Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, script by Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, Zsuzsanna Bak and (English dialogue) Ward Parry. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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