The best movies by decade, part 2: The 1940s

17 Jun

Wartime brought fresh motivation to Hollywood. Movies for the first time in the U.S. served purely propaganda purposes; the dream factory enlisted in the war effort. But after the war, the soldiers—black and white—returned home to disillusionment and despair. The good war dead ended into the cold war. A grey shroud settled over the world: proxy wars, warring economies, and the dread of mutually assured destruction. This strange darkness settled into U.S. films as well, a darkness that never really left. Collectively this bunch of post-war cheapies have been labeled noir or B-movies but they have as a common element: a focus on the losers, hustlers, criminals and ne’er-do-wells that crawled along the underbelly of the U.S. (The French loved these movies, and went on to perfect the artform.) The big theme is darkness, social anxiety, and alienation. Dark, dark, dark, dark.

1.It’s a Wonderful Life—Number one with a bullet. This annual Christmas tradition isn’t really a Christmas movie at all. Instead, it’s a character study of a desperate man, pushed to the limits by his thwarted ambitions. If you want to see how hellish a decent life can be, watch the first half of the film and then stop. It’s a horror story of self-imposed frustration, and how living for others is a peculiar kind of hell. Exposes the limits of dreams, ambitions, and talent better than any other film, a meditation on the victims of an America defined by fiduciary success. Jimmy Stewart delivers a master class on how to build a character and then tear him apart. They really, really, really don’t make them like this anymore. I don’t think they ever did.

2. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—In some ways, the 1940s belong to John Huston. He made so many great films and he did them in a particular, artful way. It’s still riveting, after all these years, the story of three scoundrels prospecting for gold in the deserts of Mexico. Unlike many older films, the pacing of Sierra Madre never feels stagey or slow. The characters unfold beneath our gaze, stretched by the heat of their surroundings and desires. Walter Huston is marvelous, Humphrey Bogart is strong, and Tim Holt is passable. You can taste the grime and see the stink.

3. The Shop Around the Corner/The Lady Eve—A personal favorite, and a movie I can watch again and again. The story is simple: Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play dueling shop clerks who have, through correspondence, fallen in love. Frank Morgan plays Matuschek, the cranky storeowner who has struggles of his own. An assortment of believable supporting characters fill out the movie. Funny, touching, and handled with that smart, light Ernst Lubitsch touch. A film that makes movies seem easy. Eve: Preston Sturges best film follows a hapless rich boy (played by Henry Fonda) as he is lured into the schemes of a band of con artists, including Barbara Stanwycke (who was probably the funniest actress of her generation). The original auteur, Sturges wrote and directed this film by himself. A fabulous movie.

4. The Third Man—One of the great thrillers, from a screenplay by Graham Greene, and directed by Carol Reed. Joseph Cotton plays a hack pop writer in post-war Vienna, visiting his friend Harry Lime who has been killed just before Cotton’s arrival. Or has he? It exists as a perfect film, birthed whole from some celluloid deity. Witty, fast-paced, and even scary, this is one of the greats.

5. Casablanca—The best Hollywood movie ever made. Last-minute rewrites, a changing cast, indecision about the ending, but somehow it all worked out. Bogart plays Rick, a hard-drinking expatriate living in a sordid port city in Morocco. Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre both make appearances, while Paul Henreid and Claude Rains deliver the best work of their career. Rousing, romantic, tender but not saccharine or overly sentimental, this is one of the ages. If aliens discover one film about human dignity, let it be this one.

6. Gaslight—I have a predilection for horror movies. At an early age I snuck around the house to watch as many as I could find. Gaslight follows Ingrid Bergman, a discombobulated young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt committed suicide. She’s accompanied by her controlling new husband. Often alone, Bergman begins to see things, such as the gaslight flickering. She believes that her aunt’s ghost is haunting her. Director George Cukor—the dismissed director from Gone with the Wind as well as the director of the Philadelphia Story and all of those great Tracy-Hepburn comedies—never did finer work than he does here.

7. Citizen Kane/ Magnificent Ambersons—Okay, it should be higher, but I can’t help but respond to the decades of constant praise. The film still delights. The story of a marriage, the terrible tantrum in the hotel room, Welles’s textured acting, the remaining enigmas that haunt once the movie has ended. The deep focus cinematography is still beautiful after all these years. Influential and important, but also moving. Magnificent Ambersons: Unclassifiable little movie about land, money, the breakdown of families, and the encroaching modern age. It has dazzling pieces, check out the dance, the myriad ways Wellese uses the spiral staircase, but it also has Tim Holt, who picked good movies to act badly in. Some of the scenes are a touch histrionic, but there’s a hard, dark nugget in here somewhere, about how futile the squabbling, scheming, loving and even breathing can be. Orson Welles left to shoot footage in Brazil before the movie was finished, and Hollywood tacked on a 3-minute happy ending. No matter; the movie still stands as a testament to Welles’s eccentric genius.

8. The Maltese Falcon—And darkness enters the Hollywood film, and it would never leave. The cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. A lot of tough talk, dark interiors, and the pain of a thousand murders all written on Bogart’s haunted face. The rocket fast pacing comes directly from the Dashiell Hammett novel. Many critics prefer the Big Sleep, but I find the streamlined storytelling, the hard-nosed coherence and world-weary morality of Maltese far superior.

9. Double indemnity—A great movie from a great novel by a great director. Fred McMurray plays Walter Neffe, an insurance adjuster bewitched by the sexy wiles of married femme fatale Barbara Stanwycke. The two cook up a scheme to murder her husband for the insurance money and make it look like an accident. This would all add up to a great film, but there’s a fascinating and peculiar subplot involving Stanwycke’s daughter, taken straight from the James Cain novel. Edward G. Robinson co-stars as a suspicious coworker suffering from a strange form of indigestion.

10. Sullivan’s travels—Preston Sturges stands as a hero to the outsider/auteur crowd, and here he creates a great film about an entitled director (played by Joel McCrae) who decides he’s going to live with the people so he can learn how to make great peasant art. His hubris leads him into the arms of Veronica Lake, and jail. Mistaken identity leads him into the hobo life, riding railcars with wobblies, and eventually into a life sentence. Don’t worry; it all enventually works out, but the film stands as a great historical document to the great depression, and a very good companion to My Man, Godfrey. (By the by, the film McCrae sets out to make is titled, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Watch the Coen Brothers movie after this and you’ll see how crass our contemporary auteurs can be.)

11. Battleground/ The Best Years of Our Lives—Unsentimental, raw, almost documentary-style view of men at war. A battalion of American troops finds themselves trapped in a snow-packed landscape of fog, broken trees, and burned out earth. They are low on food, ammunitions, and fighting spirit. The Germans outnumber them, have them surrounded, and bombard them with entreaties to surrender. My father-in-law likes this to a European version of an American war film, and he isn’t far off. Best Years of our Lives: The gold standard study of post-war struggle and desolation, and the perfect companion to Battleground. William Wyler directs this somber study of a handful of veterans as they attempt to navigate the strange cruel society they donated years, and in one case both arms, defending. Dana Andrews has never been better, and the scene where an armless veteran plays piano in a bar ranks as the best Hollywood has ever produced.

12. Yankee Doodle Dandee—An exhilarating, funny, and ultimately somber celebration and exploration of a complicated life. Before he was a gangster, James Cagney was a song and dance man. He radiates light here as George M. Cohen, the child prodigy and eventual songwriter of “Over There.” Great dance numbers, where Cagney seems to be a life-sized marionette, and sharp characters, good writing, this is perhaps the best biopic ever made.

13. My Darling Clementine/Red River—Really two movies. The first is a tale of two violent clans, with stone-faced killer Walter Brennan leading the Clantons and uncompromising Henry Fonda leading the Earps. The second is a melodramatic soap opera with misfiring lines. How the two movies intersect is unclear, but it’s still worth seeing. John Ford strikes again. Red River: A very fine western for people who aren’t sure they like westerns. Howard Hawks is one of the great directors, and like Sidney Lumet he makes filmmaking seem so easy. Here we have John Wayne and Montgomery Clift locking horns over an immense stock of cattle. As in all of Hawks’s films, there’s humor, lots of great scenes. Wayne plays one of his tougher roles, uncompromising and murderous.

14. Thieves’ Highway/ Where the Sidewalk Ends—Jules Dassin is the great American director who was chased away. Here he shoots a film set in the unlikely world of fruit vendors and famers on the west coast. Richard Conte plays a veteran who comes home to find his father crippled by the back-handed dealings of an unscrupulous fruit dealer (played by Lee J. Cobb). Conte joins up with Millard Mitchell to deliver a truckload of golden delicious to the vendor, make some money, and enact revenge in the process. It sounds silly, but it isn’t. Dassin shoots the film with a sinister seriousness, and the seediness of the fruit market, which is realistic, offers a great backdrop for the inevitable confrontation between Conte and Cobb. Scripted by I.A. Bezzerides, the screenwriter on the greatest film noir ever, Kiss Me, Deadly. Sidewalk: Otto Preminger is one of my favorite directors, and this is his foray into the police procedural. Only, it isn’t a whodunit; the head detective, played by Dana Andrews, is the murderer, and he’s also assigned to the case. A very, very good movie, beautifully shot. Preminger later made long, attenuated films on the pillars of democracy (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Exodus). He also played a camp commander in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.

15. The Man Who Came To Dinner/The Philadelphia Story—Playwright George S. Kaufman had a hand in many of the movies on this list (You Can’t Take it With You and Night at the Opera), and here he writes a very funny movie about a curmudgeonly film critic named Whiteside, who is forced to convalesce in the home of a middle class family. Rude, caustic, and disagreeable, Whiteside ingratiates himself with the children and servants of the house, while attacking, demeaning and berating the elders. Philadelphia Story: Not my favorite, overly talky, and strangely dated, but one of the great casts of the studio era with Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant sparring, jostling, ribbing, cutting. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn play dueling ex-spouses, while Jimmy Stewart stars as a wisecracking prole out to burst bourgeouis hypocrisy.

16. Humoresque/Notorious—A movie about music that watches like a movie about crime. John Garfield, famous for his roles as a tough guy gone rough, here plays a violin prodigy who falls into the sights of moneyed seductress Joan Crawford. The music is excellent. But the various shots of Garfield playing the violin—they had two top violinists play his left and right hands and you can’t tell at all—make this one of the best movies about music and musicians ever made. And not until Shine did a film show the toll a life devoted to music can exact. Notorious: Ingrid Bergman’s third film on my list, and Hitchock’s first. The story of a “fallen” lady who seeks to find redemption by using her feminine wiles to root out escaped Nazis in Argentina. Cary Grant and Claude Raines costar as the agent assigned to help her and the war criminal who she’s sleeping with. It’s Bergman’s movie, though, and anyone who sees her primarily as a nice actress, reliable and safe, should see her performance here. Hitchcock enjoys himself here, and the film’s suspense is all the more excruciating due to the on-screen chemistry between Bergman and Grant.

17. Black Narcissus—Michael Powell’s best film, a disturbing meditation on isolation, cultural misunderstandings, and unfulfilled sexual desires. A group of nuns set up a cloister in the Himalayas, where they attempt to administer medical aid to the local sick. The exotic peoples, the strange locale, the harsh realities of this new culture, all has an alienating and distorting affect on the sisters. Eventually, one of them descends into madness. Shot in rapturous color—Powell was one of the great visual stylists of film with Peeping Tom and The Thief of Baghdad—this is a fantastic, as well as strange, oddball, cultish and Freudian film.

18. White Heat/High Sierra—Hard-boiled, nihilistic, and bleak. Alongside Roaring Twenties, these two films form Raoul Walsh’s unofficial trilogy on American crime. Bogart plays the murderous psycho in Sierra, while Cagney delivers his most developed psychopath in White Heat. The final ten minutes offer white-knuckle thrills, and Cagney’s big denouement, where he screams to his dead mother atop an exploding tower, stands as one of the most memorable death scenes in the history of cinema.

19. Key Largo/Force of Evil—A fantastic John Huston film about gangsters and dames and drunks and hurricanes. A group of people are thrown together in an old hotel during a hurricane. One of them is gangster Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson). When his presence is discovered, a cruel game begins. Rocco tortures, bullies, and torments the others, while a man named McCloud (played by Bogart) tries to outwit him. My uncle’s favorite film. Force of Evil: John Garfield again, this time in a hard-boiled gangster movie about unscrupulous lawyers getting mobbed up for money. The film is at times slow, scripted by later blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky, but the movie’s steady tracking of the main character’s moral decline is chilling, unrelenting, and nightmarish. See how many of the 1940s best films are about crime?

20. Meet Me in St. Louis/Shadow of a Doubt—A visual feast, sumptuous and sad. Vincent Minnelli, along with Nicholas Ray, is the great visual stylist of the indoors. This very fine musical follows a family through a year of ups and downs. The songs are just okay, the acting is passable, and the story is pure melodrama. But the scenes are fantastic, the colors lush and rich. Shadow: Hitchcock offers a different view of small-town American life; there are untold horrors hiding amongst the idle trains. One of my favorite Hitchcock films, which says a lot. A teenager begins to suspect that her favorite uncle is actually an at large serial killer planning to kill again. Hitch did great work with black and white, and his lesser known films—Stage Fright and Frenzy for instance—hold a variety of surprises.

21. Buck privates—My wild card, and a ridiculous addition to the best of the decade list, but also hilarious, fast-paced and funny as hell. Abbot and Costello sometimes misfired; the often took their shtick too far; and their collective output runs together like many early comedians work, including Bob Hope. But when they’re on, they rule. Check out the seen where Costello convinces Abbot he owes him money when he’s the one asking for a loan. Manic wordplay, scripted pieces, hilarious slapstick.

Honorable mention: Arsenic and Old Lace; The Big Sleep; Cabin in the Sky; Grapes of Wrath; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Al Jolson Story; Now Voyager; To Be or Not to Be.

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2 Responses to “The best movies by decade, part 2: The 1940s”

  1. waranneagle June 18, 2011 at 2:56 am #

    Arsenic and Old Lace is an honorable mention…

  2. FCM June 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    “They Were Expendable” directed by John Ford, starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed, while having some over the top John Wayne bravado is for the most part understated. As the American milatary’s hold on the Phillipines slips at the outset of WW II, there’s a sense of abandonment, the soldiers knowing that no one is going to rescue them, that is heartbreaking and wonderful film making.

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