Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-born director of Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and dozens and dozens of other Warner Brothers films from the 1920s to the '50s, remains the most perplexing major figure of the studio era. A volatile tyrant who helmed numerous great films, he made an even larger number of duds. Was he a great artist or just an expert technician who triumphed with grade-A scripts and actors but couldn’t transcend the subpar material he was assigned before and after his prime? If that question holds any meaning for you, seek out Alan K. Rode’s massive new biography, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film.
Or arrange to be at the Castro the night of Jan. 31, when Rode signs his admirably researched tome on the mezzanine after introducing Curtiz’s lesser-known murder mystery, The Unsuspected (with Claude Rains, best known as Capt. Louis Renault), at the 16th annual edition of Noir City (Jan. 26—Feb. 4). The other half of the 1947 double bill, the Film Noir Foundation-funded restoration of High Tide, is a nifty, twisty tale recounted in flashback from the low-budget studio Monogram Pictures. Only hardcore noirists will recognize the actors’ names, quite unlike the cast of the Warners’ movie.
Up and down the lineup, Noir City barkeep Eddie Muller has rounded up some of the usual suspects -- I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun For Hire, Shadow of a Doubt, The Black Dahlia, The Big Heat -- and paired them with gritty, offbeat B movies. From his little fiefdom in heaven, Michael Curtiz claps his hands, calls for rain and directs you to pack a flask.