Category: Michael Curtiz

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Bogart and Bergman are a love story for the ages in the ever-young Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Viedt (Major Henrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeline Lebeau (Yvonne), Curt Bois (Pickpocker), SZ Sakall (Carl), Leonid Kinsky (Sascha), Marcel Dalio (Emil), Joy Page (Anna)

For today, for tomorrow and for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of lifespan Casablanca has: to see it is to fall in love with it. That’s what people have been doing for nearly 80 years. There isn’t a more popular “great” movie. This is vintage, top-notch, prime Hollywood product, made by a group of people at the top of their game that has such impact you’ll know most of its highlights without having ever seen the film. No wonder people have been saying since it was released “Play it again” (famously, a phrase you will never actually hear in the film itself).

Casablanca, December 1941. Corrupt Vichy France officials rule the roost, with the city clinging to neutrality. European refugees and American ex-Pats mix with Nazi officers – everyone trying to get those all-important “letters of transit” you need to climb onto a plane and get out of the warzone. Letters like this will cause a world of trouble for American ex-Pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), keeping Rick’s Café going as a place where politics are never discussed. But Rick may be forced to choose sides when his lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) lands back in his life, on the run from the Nazis with her husband Czech freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Just before the fall of Paris, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair (she thought Victor was dead at the time) and neither of them has got over it. Will Rick take a stand and help Victor flee to continue the fight against the Nazis? Or is this a chance for Ilsa and he finally to be together?

Like many hugely beloved films, Casablanca combines a host of genres into one superbly digestible, hugely enjoyable, package. This is a star-crossed romance in the middle of a war film, with lashings of everything from espionage to gangsters to comedy of manners. In short, there would have to be something wrong with you not to find something to tick your boxes in Casablanca and it’s all brilliantly packaged together by Michael Curtiz into possibly one of the most purely entertaining and crowd-pleasing films ever made.

Casablanca is a superbly written pinnacle of the hard-edged but strangely romantic dialogue of Hollywood at the time, all delivered with more than a dash of humour. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a quotable line in it: and all of them delivered by a brilliant actor. Each scene is a master-class in Hollywood professionalism and skill. From our introduction to the streets of Casablanca – capped with the shooting of a Free-French fighter, who collapses to his death underneath a poster of Petain – to the beautifully evocative set (wonderfully shot by Arthur Edeson) for Rick’s café, where we will spend so much of the movie. In swift economy we see how ruthless Rick can be – not lifting a finger to help to petty crook and friend Ugarte (a wonderful cameo from Peter Lorre) – before understanding fully why he’s like that when he responds with something between shock, horror and desperate longing by the arrival of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa.

It’s also a film where the stakes are expertly set out. There are jokes about the cold ruthlessness of the Germans, but we are left in no doubt about their danger. (Conrad Viedt is grimly imperious as head Nazi Stasser). The scar on Victor’s face is a constant reminder of the horrors he escaped in the concentration camp (although, as per the time, the film understands these as jails rather than the hell they were). The refugees are putting on a brave face, but there is desperate practising of English and a willingness to trade anything (including their bodies) for letters of transit speaks volumes.

Nearly all of those actors (and Curtiz) are of course refugees and migrants themselves (only Bogart, Wilson and minor-player Page were American). The film gains a sub-conscious depth from this being more than just a story for so many of them. Fleeing from German advance in Europe (or escaping from Nazi persecution) was no theoretical for Henreid, Veidt or the host of great European actors in small roles. You can see that emotion when Victor cajoles the café’s clientele to sing La Marseillaise. The scene never fails to move because of the genuine power of watching real refugees, playing refugees, defiantly singing in the face of the Nazis who ruined their lives (the shots of Madeline Lebeau genuinely tear-stained face or the increasingly moved Spanish guitar player are beyond memorable). You can’t watch this sequence without a lump in your throat.

Mind you can’t watch most of it without that lump. Bogart and Bergman cemented themselves as icons with this passionate love story. It’s grounded, like so many truly affecting romances, on loss and pain rather than joy. Aside from a brief flashback to their time together in Paris – before Ilsa jilts Rick at the train station, rain washing the ink from her note (the sky shedding the tears Rick cannot) – these are two people essentially at loggerheads, because it’s the only way to keep their hands off each other. Rick deeply resents Ilsa, Ilsa can’t even begin to allow herself to think about her lost love for Rick because she fears it will take control of her. Particularly as, in Bergman’s beautifully judged performance, she clearly has a sort of spiritual (as opposed to romantic) love for the noble Laszlo.

It all helped to make Bogart such an icon for generations to come. Bogart is effortlessly cool here, but he’s also incredibly relatable – who, after all, hasn’t had their heart-broken? Watch him sadly starring in the middle distance, befuddled by drink and demanding Sam play As Times Goes By over and over, and it’s no surprise that he’s so torn for so much of the film about what to do. Paul Henreid could never compete with the mix of vulnerability and misanthropic cynicism Bogart effortlessly brings to the part (one of the all-time great performances in the movies).

Bogart is also a perfect encapsulation of what America wanted (and still wants) to be. Minding his own business, but tread on him and he’ll bite back. Not only that, he’ll pick the right side and always make sure he does the right thing. It’s hinted to us that, for all his shady past, Rick has sided with anti-Fascists in Spain and Ethiopia. We even know he had to flee Paris because there was a price on his head. He might “stick his head out for nobody”, but the genius of Bogart is we don’t quite believe him, even while we see him do just that.

The chemistry between him and Bergman – who claimed never to quite understand why the film had such impact – is breath-takingly good. Helped by some of the wittiest and hard-edged dialogue in the movies, they become Hollywood’s own Lancelot and Guinevere. Bergman’s deceptively soft-edged performance, carries inner grit masking her own pain – she also brilliantly manages to show how she could be in love with two men (in different ways) at once. These two characters go through a long dance of denial before finally confessing all: and the iconic ending has the perfect combination of heartfelt longing and sacrifice they both know needs to be made.

But it’s not the only romance in the movie: having almost as much impact is the chemistry between Bogart and a never-better Claude Rains as jovially corrupt Vichy inspector Renault (merrily trading letters of transit for sexual favours and ticking the boxes of his duty while lining his own pockets). Casablanca also has in it one of the greatest love-hate friendships in the movies, between two people who can’t help liking each other, even when they barely have a single interest combined. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Critical discussion has often revolved around whether Casablanca can be considered a piece of “high art”. It’s hard to imagine Ingrid Bergman’s famous Swedish compatriot directing it. To be completely honest, Casablanca is one of the finest packaged pieces of Hollywood Hokum ever made. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a master craftsman of glorious stand-up-and-applaud films in Curtiz, delivering his masterpiece. Casablanca doesn’t have the revelatory flair of something like Citizen Kane. But no other film in existence so brilliantly exploited the Hollywood formula. And it shows how much power, emotion and joy you mine from Hollywood’s narrative and filmic tropes when they were worked with as much skill and passion as you get here.

It’s a film that not only perfectly encapsulates a whole period of Hollywood professionalism, it also establishes the sort of golden rules – a brittle semi-anti-hero, sacrifice, moral complexities and open-endings – that would increasingly dominate Hollywood in the decades to come. Casablanca is a genuine turning point in Hollywood, a perfect summation of the noirs, love stories and adventures that preceded it, but repackaging them with influential insight. It’s also, above and beyond everything else, a bloody brilliant film that, as Nora Ephon said, you can never see enough.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney is superb as Broadway legend George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney (George M Cohan), Joan Leslie (Mary Cohan), Walter Huston (Jerry Cohan), Richard Whorf (Sam Harris), Irene Manning (Fay Templeton), George Tobias (Dietz), Rosemary DeCamp (Nellie Cohan), Jeanne Cagney (Josie Cohan), Eddie Foy Jnr (Eddie Foy)

To many James Cagney was the definitive gangster. But Cagney wanted to be known as more than just another heavy: at heart he was a song-and-dance man. He got few chances to show it, so when the right film came along, doggone it he didn’t plan to leave anything in the dressing room. Cagney dominates George M Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy (at times its almost a one-man show with guests). He’s in almost every scene, doing his twist on Cohan’s stiff-legged dancing style with such energy and enthusiasm it leaves you quite exhausted watching it (Cagney sprained his ankle twice making it). It was a massive hit and won Cagney a much-deserved Oscar.

George M Cohan came from a family vaudeville troupe and became “the man who owned Broadway”. An accomplished performer, he was also a prolific writer (banging out more than 50 shows and 300 songs, including nation-defining tunes like Over There, The Yankee Doodle Boy and You’re a Grand Old Flag). The film uses his awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D Roosevelt (Cohan arrives at the White House fresh from playing an all-singing, all-dancing version of the wheelchair-confined President in I’d Rather Be Right) as a framing device. Naturally, the President wants to know all about this Broadway legend’s life. Cue Cohan settling back to tell him his entire life story: from birth to childhood stardom, knock-backs and a string of successes.

It’s odd to think Cagney wasn’t keen at first. A leading union man – one of the founder members of the Screen Actor’s Guild – Cagney was not an admirer of Cohan, who had taken a strong stand against the 1919 actor’s union strike. What changed Cagney’s mind was accusations of communism from the House of Un-American Activities in 1940: he was cleared but his producer-brother William told him he needed “to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made.” They certainly succeeded with Yankee Doodle Dandy, such an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the American way it must surely be Sam the Eagle’s favourite film.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is nothing more-or-less than a grand slice of entertainment. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as The Great Ziegfeld, another cradle-to-grave rundown of the life of a Broadway mover-and-shaker. Like that film, Cohan’s rough edges are comprehensively shaved off: his hostility to the actor’s union goes unmentioned as does his divorce and remarriage (instead his two wives are amalgamated into a new fictional wife, conveniently called Mary so that his song Mary’s a Grand Old Name can be named after her). Several events are telescoped or shifted to a new date for dramatic impact. Cohan emerges thoroughly charming (if proud), decent and honest all-round entertainer, overflowing with bonhomie.

Narratively the film does nothing Hollywood hadn’t done before. The big difference here to The Great Ziegfeld is that Curtiz keeps the story moving with real pace and a certain flair (it’s a solid two hours, and never outstays its welcome) and the musical numbers are dynamic and entertaining. A great deal of that is due to Cagney, outstanding in a part that demands an overabundance of personality. Cagney’s dancing and singing doesn’t have the grace of Fred Astaire (the original choice), but it has a gloriously entertaining and breath-taking energy. Cagney studied Cohan’s stiff-legged-marionette dancing style, and used his physical exuberance to bring to life his numerous dance routines with a spectacular stand-and-applaud skill and energy. (Curtiz uses a highly mobile camera to film most of these in single shots, to really capture the skill and energy of Cagney). His singing also follows the Cohan style – the sort of half-singing, half recital style Rex Harrison would later make his own. His impersonation is uncanny and performance superb.

Cagney is gloriously entertaining and makes every single one of his numerous songs thrum with glee. It’s a real reminder of what a modern performer Cagney was: he’s fast-paced, lacks any sense of staginess and has a real emotional honesty. His comic moments are very funny: in Cohan’s first meeting with Mary, still in old-man make-up (fresh from playing father to his own mother on stage), Cagney lets a little moment of glee move across his face as he realises Mary thinks he really is an old-man in his 70s – a confusion he plays up to, before launching into an impromptu tap dance routine. When tragedy strikes he is just as moving: his heart-broken repeat of his mantra “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you” at his father’s death-bed not only moves the audience, it also made the stony Curtiz weep on set.

No wonder, when a dying Cohan watched the film, he said “My God, what an act to follow!” Cagney’s performance, with its playful energy, encouraged a greater spontaneity in Curtiz’s disciplined directorial style. The famous sequence, where Cagney walks down the steps inside the White House before bursting into a joyful bout of tap-dancing was improvised on the spot (and a glorious summary of the playful joy of the movie it is). Curtiz uses montage very effectively at several points (a sequence of early knock-backs for Cohan is a wonderful collection of shots of signs, producer refusals and walking feet). He often uses high and low angles to imaginatively shoot the action, and the fluid camera for the musical numbers finds a neat middle ground between theatrical performance and cinema.

Of course, it is damned patriotic. The film recreates several of Cohan’s most stirring numbers in all their pomp. The explosion of Americana (Washington! Lincoln! Teddy Roosevelt!) that is You’re a Grand Old Flag (with hundreds of Stars and Stripes). The cheek and charm of Yankee Doodle Boy. The rousing marvel of Over There. The film plays up Cohan’s determination to do his bit in the First World War – turned down for service as too old, he carries out a full tap-dance routine to show he’s as limber as the next man. But it also has time for finding a way of staging creativity: there is a marvellous little sequence – beautifully shot by James Wong Howe – of Cohan finding the tune for Over There, tinkling experimentally with a piano on an empty stage.

The narrative of the play doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it delivers a traditional structure with plenty of energy and some good scenes. (I enjoyed Cohan’s mother, struggling to find something nice to say about one of Cohan’s rare-flops, a music-free melodrama, left weakly praising the set). Though Cagney dominates the film, Walter Huston is very fine as his supportive and experienced dad and Joan Leslie charming as his loyal wife Mary (so supportive she’s happy to gift her song to stage star Fay Templeton, because the show needs her more). The balance between standard biopic scenes and musical numbers is very nicely handled.

Yankee Doodle Dandy offers up a familiar package, but one of the most professionally assembled and enjoyable of its type ever made. With Cagney in joyful, dominant form, you’d genuinely be quite happy just sitting and watching him go through as many vaudeville acts as he likes. Shot with flair by Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is catchy and highly entertaining.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford sacrifices everything for a daughter who doesn’t deserve it in Mildred Pierce

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce), Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie), Lee Patrick (Mrs Maggie Biederhoff), Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson)

There are few things that classic Hollywood did quite as well as a melodrama. Adapted loosely from a James M Cain novel – its murder plot line is a flourish solely for the screen – this is a triumphantly entertaining picture that mixes themes of sex and class with good old-fashioned family drama. It’s got psychology and it’s also got the high-concept family feuding around the building of a restaurant business that you could find in Dynasty. Put simply, Mildred Pierce is a prime slice of entertainment.

After her second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) is shot dead, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is brought in by the police for questioning. After the collapse of her first marriage to Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred has expanded her home-baking business into a full restaurant chain, with the support of Bert’s old business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred’s goal is to provide for all the needs of her eldest child Veda (Ann Blyth), a selfish snob who despises her mother for having to work for a living. The tensions between self-sacrificing mother and demanding, unloving daughter, lead Mildred to take a series of disastrous personal and business decisions, culminating in her wastrel, upper-class, Veda-approved, second husband Monte going down in a hail of bullets. But who pulled the trigger?

The murder mystery plotline adds effective spice to this very well directed (Michael Curtiz is at the top of his game) melodrama. Full of domestic thrills and spills, it races along like a combination page-turner and soap, perfectly matching a deeply sympathetic, self-sacrificing heroine with a host of deeply unsympathetic wasters, chancers and bullies. It’s capped by giving our heroine possibly the least sympathetic child in film history, the deliberately selfish and greedy Veda. 

Sure you could argue that its psychology is either pretty lightly developed, or thrown in only for effect. It’s never clear when or why exactly Veda and Mildred’s relationship went south so completely, or where Veda’s deep resentment and ideas above her station come from. It also avoids looking at how Mildred’s complete devotion has probably completely spoiled a child who clearly needed to be told “no” a lot more, a lot sooner. But it doesn’t really matter as the film follows the logic of an event-filled plot-boiler, throwing revelations and cliff-hangers at you left, right and centre.

In the lead, Joan Crawford took on a role that many had turned down before her – stars at the time were not keen to be seen playing roles that suggested they were old enough to have mothered children as old as Ann Blyth. The decision to push for the role paid off as she netted an Oscar and it’s the finest performance of her career. A somewhat haughty actress, Crawford here demonstrates depths of vulnerability and tenderness as a much-put upon woman who, despite everything, will stop at nothing to give her daughter what she wants. Crawford dominates the film, her air of self-sacrifice never once tipping over into self-pity, even as the character so desperately seeks for the sort of love and affection that is denied her from those around her. 

Around her most of the cast – with the exception of Eve Arden’s entertaining, wise-cracking best friend (Oscar nominated) – are basically a bunch of sharks. None sharper than Ann Blyth’s (also Oscar nominated) sweet-faced but dead-inside daughter. Rarely has a display of more naked grasping, snobbish disdain ever been captured on film, matched with unapologetic greed. Veda has no compunction about the moral consequences of her actions and, like Zachary Taylor’s archly lazy Monte, is as interested in spending Mildred’s money as she is contemptuous of its source. 

Curtiz’s film constantly however plays with our judgements and expectations of people. Veda has more than her share of moments of pain and vulnerability as she shares some of the more painful travails of her mother. Similarly, Wally Fay (very well played by a roguish Jack Carson) oscillates between being a trusted confidante of Mildred, and a lascivious greedy creep. First husband Bert (a somewhat dry Bruce Bennett) starts as a love rat but may have more decency about him than anyone else (except Mildred).

The film is wonderfully shot in luscious black-and-white by Ernest Haller, in a dynamic noirish style. Water reflections lap across ceilings. Smoke from fires and cigarettes rises up and seems to dance and swirl in the light. There are some beautiful shots of faces – the camera work in particular perfectly locates a vulnerability in Crawford’s superior features – and there is a beautiful shot late on when two people caught in an illicit kiss roll their heads back from the shadows to emerge into the light. The entire design of the film is spot-on, and it looks and sounds fabulous today.

Mildred’s struggles make this a brilliant example of the stereotypical “women’s picture”, a tale of a woman struggling against all the odds to make her way in the world, with the twist that the daughter she is straining to support is a monster and the men she chases are feckless wasters. Mildred makes chronically terrible decisions throughout but for the best of motives – and part of the film’s appeal is that you are so invested in her fundamental decency you are willing her not to make the same mistakes again and again.

Curtiz’s melodrama is brilliantly enjoyable and never lets up. It’s also a feminist icon of a sort – Mildred is never punished for having a career, indeed she’s celebrated for it (and is far more savvy about it than nearly all the men). She leaves her husband, runs her own household, pushes for her own divorce all while protecting and providing for her child (not her fault the child ain’t worth it). Mildred Pierce is ahead of its time, and still a fabulously entertaining film.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney leads the way as a hardened criminal in Angel with Dirty Faces

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Father Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Martin), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), The Dead End Kids

It has perhaps the most famous ending of all gangster films. Faced with his final few minutes on Death Row, charismatic gangster Rocky Sullivan meets with his oldest friend, Father Jerry O’Connell. Rocky is a hero to the kids on the block, and Father Jerry pleads with him: go the chair yellow and just maybe you can help turn these kids away from a life of crime. No way Rocky is going to lose his pride – until the final few moments, when suddenly he collapses into a morass of whimpering fear and terror. Did he decide to listen to Jerry’s pleading? Or did he really go yellow after all?

It’s the question that you are meant to take from Angels with Dirty Faces, a superb example of the gangster genre, brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz. And it works so well because quite simply no other actor in the history of film could have pulled it off as well as Cagney does. If you have any doubts about whether Cagney deserves to stand as one of the truly greatest film actors of all time, this film erases them. 

Cagney is simply superb as Rocky. Has there ever been a gangster who was so charismatic, so magnetic, so strangely decent in his way, who plays in the corrupt world of crime but has his own absolutely rigid moral code? Few other actors could have you so ready to believe he would ruthlessly pull the trigger at the drop of the hat, and yet would still be someone you’d consider inviting round for dinner. Every single scene hinges on his brilliance as a performer, and his interaction with each character is superbly judged. He is an unapologetic bad guy, a man who openly says that he isn’t sure he is capable of empathy in the same way as normal people, yet he also has a fierce sense of loyalty and doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for others or to put himself in harm’s way to protect those he feels loyalty towards.

It’s all part of the intriguing moral puzzle of the film, that rather bravely inverts the idea of good and evil that the Hays Code mandated. On the surface this is a Board approved plot of two kids from the wrong end of the block, one who ends up good one who ends up bad, with the bad one getting his comeuppance and the good saving souls all around. But scratch the surface and actually this is a film that is making far more subtle points about a world that is in shades of grey. For starters, the most faithful and loyal character in the film is the hoodlum Rocky. 

But more than that, the film stresses that the margin between priest and criminal is very thin indeed. Repeatedly it’s stressed that Jerry is only a priest – rather than a fellow criminal graduate of the reform system like Rocky – because he was able to run away faster from the police during their days of mayhem as tearaway boys. It only takes chance and a few lucky turns, and the priest owes his ability to find God and the good life solely because the criminal happily took the whole rap as a Kid. The priest and the criminal work almost hand-in-hand trying to encourage the local kids to engage more in their community (even if they are teaching subtly different lessons) and their friendship is unaffected by the events of the film. 

Much as the film is building a traditional narrative of crime being attractive but not in the end paying, it is also subtly suggesting that good and evil perhaps coexist in harmony more than we might think (or might be comfortable to acknowledge). Which brings us back to the title I guess: Jerry is an angel with a dirty face from his flawed childhood, but in a way Rocky himself is an angel whose face is covered with the muck of crime. Both characters have lives that have crime and misdemeanours behind them, even if they have eventually chosen different routes.

Curtiz’s film allows this commentary to bubble subtly and cleverly under a host of wonderful scenes and carefully composed sequences. The highlight of which might well be an extraordinarily well made extended shoot out scene, as Rocky faces his final show down with the cops after one crime too many. But it’s a peak of a series of superb sequences that make excellent use of framing and intent. Curtiz even makes the Dead End Kids – a group of, I’ll be honest, rather irritating child actors, whose fates I find it hard to get worked up about – reasonably engaging. There are several other fabulous performances, not least a wonderfully snivelling turn from Humphrey Bogart as a cowardly and corrupt lawyer with more than a few criminal connections.

It all comes back to that final sequence as events catch up with Rocky and the electric chair awaits. Cagney is simply brilliant in this scene, a perfect steel front of composure and pride that we are invited to question whether it cracks or he does so deliberately. Curtiz shoots the sequence in shadow play (apart from one shot of Rocky’s hands clinging desperately to a radiator) – to meet the Hays Code rules about what you could and couldn’t show on screen, the chair being a no – but it works superbly and Cagney’s powerhouse but also restrained performance nails it perfectly. While you like to think Rocky has done the “right thing” you can’t be sure – and it’s that question that hangs over it that helps cement this as a brilliant inversion of the black-and-white morals of the era: we like to think decency has prevailed, but maybe it’s all just being yellow after all…