Top 20 of 1943
20. Hangmen Also Die
Favorite Moment: Movie theater fight.
19. So Proudly We Hail
So Proudly We Hail has a cast that is really impressive nowadays, with Claudette Colbert, Veronica Lake, and Paulette Goddard in the three most important roles. Mark Sandrich, in probably his last moment of triumph thanks to his work doing Fred/Ginger and Holiday Inn musicals being up, creates a mosaic of experiences and voices of nurses during the tour of duty in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor happens. When you’re in the heart of the war and the outcome is uncertain, all the propaganda of the time is going to take on some weight, and this has charm to spare. Heroine’s guilt, tomato obsessions, and brassy charms are the name of the game for the early minutes even with Colbert potentially going through an emotional collapse that could kill her. The flashbacks are all sprightly and sunny, and the highlight is Goddard’s nominated turn as the typically sassy member of the brigade, flirting her way through every man in sight. Lake’s grumpy Olivia (as if someone who looks like that would ever be named Olivia) is a source of conflict, but it sort of vanishes in the face of a common enemy, scrubbing down the backs of attractive males be damned. Even a Christmas with the troops plays a rather gloomy attempt at jazzy Jingle Bells and a for the ages great delivery of the line “Merry Christmas!” before the complicated racism of the times comes to the forefront, along with some love stories. The deeply complicated relationships between Olivia’s desire for revenge finally reach an explosion that I wish had been utilized a bit better to really shock, but it’s still effective thanks to Lake’s performance. From there, routine becomes appreciated, and the story resolving plot threads so quickly means we get into the realm of the bombing sequences. Two hours is a bit too long for something like this, but the pleasures of watching these women just do their thing is one that cannot be undervalued, and the easy looseness of Sandrich’s direction means we can sort of transpose this into the same easiness of his dance pictures. Latter half basically turns into a lot of worrying and stasis, but I can’t complain much, it actually conjures the appropriate mood and leaves us feeling appropriately stranded. Eventually, all’s well that ends well, since this is a propaganda picture, but it’s worthy to be in the same ground as the clear winner of 1943’s wartime encouragement.
Favorite Moment: Bombing escape.
18. Edge of Darkness
Lewis Milestone’s reputation seems to be way too pinned on All Quiet on the Western Front, which is understandable but nevertheless a pity. Edge of Darkness is a film very much in the same vein, with the second World War substituted for the first and with a bit more bite in it, rather than despair. There is still hope at the end of the day for the people of Norway who are resisting the Nazis in various ways big and small, yet cannot come to an agreement over their common cause, with a town hall meeting where various push and pull dynamics come to the forefront being the highlight of the movie’s goals. Also a fond moment is the Nazis summarizing of the townspeople’s small acts of resistance, ranging from food distribution to good old fashioned anger over a son dying. The quality is frustratingly poor, but there’s still a kick to Errol Flynn’s performance, and when the combat scenes in the third act begin they’re genuinely tense, with one man’s cries for the resistance group to turn back hitting hard before the gunfire begins wrecking everything. A pacifist preacher begins mowing down the Germans with a machine gun from the bell tower of a church, in a scene straight out of Inglourious Basterds, which in itself justifies the highly unusual casting of Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, and Walter Huston as the heroes in this tale. Communist witch hunts would cause one of the key supporting players to have a heart attack, while Robert Rossen contributed work to the screenplay before going on to make his Best Picture winner All the King’s Men (not a very good choice, but nevertheless). Sure, the heroic characters are slightly too noble, but it’s ultimately endurable propaganda thanks to Milestone’s direction being perfectly suited for the times when chaos reigns above everything else. Genuinely surprised this is so little regarded nowadays, but I suppose it possesses a certain old fashioned nature, complete with a title that is instantly forgettable and has been used a million times nowadays. Too bad, for the price of glory is suffering, and Anderson’s character losing her child to the Germans, then getting forced to make friendly with them is a fascinating dynamic in its own right. The earnestness of the fiery passions is what carries this through the rough patches, and it feels like a phoenix burning up to be reborn.
Favorite Moment: Resistance meeting.
17. Lumiere D’Ete
Rules of the Game may have gotten itself banned by the Nazis for being such a vicious satire of the social mores of the time, but Lumiere D’Ete was still clearly taking on some influence from that in its story of five people who have a deeply complicated series of relationships. We have two women: one managing the hotel in the mountains where most of the action takes place (a true feat of production design, elegant and foreboding in equal measure), and the other a visitor who is pretty enough to already be fending off attention that is tearing her in half. The men consist of an emotionally abusive painter, an aristocrat with darkness in his past, and a miner. Gremillon’s camera alights particularly to Madeleine Renaud as the woman running the hotel, Cri-Cri, when he’s not watching the dynamics get twisted and probed over the course of a running time that nears two hours and feels deliciously slow about it. Even the names of four of the five actors feel like a showdown-Madeleine Renaud and Madeleine Robinson for the women, Pierre Brasseur and Paul Bernard for the men. (Georges Marchal, appropriately, does not quite fit into the dynamic.) We eventually arrive at a masquerade ball, reminiscent of my favorite Gremillon in Lady Killer, where the elegance of the people at the building (we are now located in a Gothic castle belonging to the aristocrat) reaches its pinnacle even with resentments towards the richer individuals in the lot hitting a boiling pitch that was no doubt what angered the Vichy and the Nazis in regards to its depiction of the upper classes being murderous and powerful. Unlike the grim ambiguity of the Renoir ending, what happens here is total comeuppance, with the rich and powerful going into the wilderness and getting devoured alive by it. The dark hedonism of the ones in power makes this arguably the Gremillon in the position most likely to slash and cut very deeply. Perhaps not my personal favorite since its scope is so broad and the Occupation is weighing so heavily on his mind, but it’s quite an accomplishment from an underrated talent, with some truly great shots of the wilds that would hit right into a John Ford Western, remaining in France. It’s well worth the effort to seek out, with the ugly truths about exploitation getting a firm reawakening four years after the biggest of them all.
Favorite Moment: Costume party.
16. A Good Lad
Two of Boris Barnet’s three most acclaimed films do very little for me (I’m plenty fond of By the Bluest of Seas), so imagine my surprise when the quick little bundle of emotions that is A Good Lad wound up wowing me. It’s only 67 minutes and totally economical in every sense of the word, but if Francis Ford Coppola’s adage about “fast, good, cheap: pick two” applies, then this must have been a very expensive film despite looking modest and getting banned almost immediately by the Soviet authorities, in true “Communist governments hate art” fashion. The story is appropriately simple and features a group of Russian partisans who are hiding in the forest and want to destroy a German airfield, with a shot immediately establishing a beautifully serene portrait of nature that has been marred by a crashed plane. They also wind up running into the French (well…”French”) pilot who landed it there, who they try and help, with plenty a musical interlude that feels straight out of a silent during the opening aerial fight that results in a dramatic parachuting down to Earth, set against a big sky and an equally open field, with comedy that feels out of place in a nice way, especially since it develops the romance between the pilot and our leading lady that is up against the political and social forces of the time. This is like if you cut out all the “boring” parts of a slower, more epic war film, with a rapidly developed conflict, torture, a bombing raid, and many more things to enjoy all in under 70 minutes. Sure, it’s total propaganda, but the collectivist values it advocates in the sense of “we shall come together once the war is over” are so endearing that you can ignore the fact that it was supposedly fine with Stalin (and also not…I don’t get art censorship logic, but then again that is the point). It’s absurdist, and gets great mileage out of that set of woods. It resembles a cult object from the Soviet Union, but one that encourages support because it’s so cheerful even when it gets dark, absurd in its dealings with life, and filled with enjoyable music even though the viewer is in the fight alongside those men in the woods. Shame the quality is so bad, though, this needs a restoration something fierce if such a thing is possible.
Favorite Moment: Opening shot.
Favorite Moment: The embrace in the chair.
14. The Ghost Ship
Attention for Mark Robson nowadays is primarily focused on The Seventh Victim, along with the other more mainstream soap opera stuff he did once the productions shut down (Valley of the Dolls, deeply unpopular Best Picture nominee Peyton Place), but the same year as his most acclaimed work came The Ghost Ship, which has been unfairly neglected due to how damn odd it is even by the standards of the B-picture workers. Oddest of all: it was a Christmas release, with Lewton’s production mostly rooted in investor trouble and him trying to be different for the sake of it. Before we arrive on the ship, we see a blind man who can tell everything about our bland male lead just by a few key signals, while a mute is able to narrate the entire picture with his thoughts. From there, Nicholas Musuraca does what he does best, and fog and shadows help make spectacles like an enormous swinging hook seem like some Expressionistic terror straight out of Murnau’s Nosferatu. It’s aggressively prosaic, rooting us in an atmosphere of Latin recitals and the nonexistence of sources for all the vague sources of terror. One hour later, the film is over, and we still do not have some of the answers…or any of them, for that matter. The captain is a terrifying authoritarian who is incapable of operating on someone with an appendix problem, but he wouldn’t harm a…moth? Well, maybe it’s because the bugs are most inclined to follow orders, but nevertheless, something could be totally normal in a “not in any sense of the word” sort of way. As a metaphor for the company’s trouble with producers and wanting to pursue perfection at whatever costs shall come, it’s potent and slippery, with the “sea lawyer” speech really summing it up. Shame that the reels were nearly lost due to it being removed from circulation for so long. The way that a little bit of information is doled out per scene until we have something that could resemble a complete portrait if you didn’t look too hard at what’s still missing is a dreamy haze that deserves high definition. Authoritarianism was on the rise at the time with Hitler, but there’s nothing political in place, so perhaps the metaphor isn’t meant to fit so neatly, with the worldviews being fundamentally unable to be grasped. The world may or may not be against you.
Favorite Moment: Swinging hook.
13. The Leopard Man
Favorite Moment: Castanet walk.
12. Le Corbeau
Favorite Moment: Church meeting.
11. Romance in a Minor Key
Romance in a Minor Key got tangled up in a battle with the Nazi Germany censors because they felt it was too defeatist. What a shame that Helmut Kautner’s humanist visions that are surprisingly delightful considering the social context have been dismissed just because of the era and regime they were made in. Unlike the charms of We Make Music, this one is more in the vein of something blacker and Wyler inspired (or even Renoir), with a loveless marriage taking the forefront of the plot immediately when the wife attempts suicide, sending her boring clerk husband into an emotional mess when he realizes she has been having an affair and getting hugely expensive gifts from the side man. No political context leaks in outside of one truly rancid toast, yet we somehow know we’re in the land that Fritz Lang condemned in M before he fled, with whistling becoming prominent around the fifteen minute mark here as well. We go from what seems to be a sort of lighter take on Earrings of Madame de… before moving into the absurd reveal that the man who originally purchased the pearl necklace that was the giveaway is actually a murderer, and it all began with the gift he bought her. (Perhaps Ophuls was inspired by this?) It basically results in a merry go round structure where each person involved in the whole end of the affair is given the opportunity to explain their side of the story a bit, with a new villain in every tale and consistently glitzy photography that makes even the lowest of dives seem fundamentally elegant, with the exterior night photography being super black and saturated with inky shadows. The performances are all fine, although there are no real standouts, but the action is staged in such interesting fashions, with the background being just as important as the foreground. You can watch this on mute and gawk at the beautiful sights rather than focusing on the silly nature of the plot. Everyone talks in grand, romantic proclamations and no cliche isn’t at least poked at. Nothing in this is going to last forever, and it’s sort of a tragedy. The descent into virtues that are compromised until they fall apart altogether is a tragedy in its own right. And music once again plays a big part until another ending that is a real slow burn of pain.
Favorite Moment: The toast.
10. Cabin in the Sky
Favorite Moment: Honey in the Honeycomb.
9. The More the Merrier
Favorite Moment: Seduction on the stairs.
8. The 7th Victim
The stealth favorite of the cinephiles who rightfully love the Lewton Horror Unit is The Seventh Victim, and while it’s a righteous choice to love, my preferences lie with I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People before this. Still, even by the standards of the company’s brief running times, this one feels especially urgent, with the background noises that were so frequently dealt in being amplified from the sounds of the church to the grinding of the machines at the sausage factory. It’s all taken care of in one clean sweep, but future Oscar winner Kim Hunter (giving what ranks among the small number legitimately good performances in a Lewton) spends a lot of anxiety inducing time running around to find her sister, eventually encountering a noose and a chair, and getting tangled up in a Rosemary’s Baby-esque web of underground New York City cults and shady business. Elizabeth Russell makes her second appearance in a cameo, and when she dies on the steps it’s as scary as anything you could imagine. (I imagine she plays the same character in all three Lewtons that she appeared in, but I have yet to see Curse of the Cat People.) Also spooky is the idea that the same psychiatrist we saw in the past is playing tricks on us, in the ultimate usage of metacinema that was not, perhaps, intended. The justification for the title is a flimsy excuse related to the rules of the game, but the threat is very much on the table. Nothing in this is scary in the sense of something horrible happening, but the sense of mounting dread is everywhere. What if you were tricked into drinking poison by a group of Satanists who cannot directly harm you, and what if you chose to sell out the detective helping you by not opening a door? Nicholas Musuraca’s impeccable credentials might provide the answer just by the power of dropping us fully into the shadows. He is operating at the peak of his powers here even if this is not quite the best thing he’d ever worked on. It’s exactly the increasingly uncanny atmosphere that we require to be fully sucked in to a tale of human evil that is totally pedestrian yet somehow perversely endearing to anyone who happens to be paranoid about the world around them. Polanski would arguably perfect this formula, but this is crazier.
Favorite Moment: Meeting Elizabeth Russell on the stairs.
7. Shadow of a Doubt
Discussed for 333 Great Directors.
Favorite Moment: The final train push.
6. The Gang’s All Here
Summarizing The Gang’s All Here is quite possibly the most impossible task in the world, being as it begins with a floating head surrounded by glowing lines and then goes even further into the mad recesses of the mind of Busby Berkeley, with all the mad colors that only Technicolor could give and songs that defy sense altogether, sung with real verve and pep by Carmen Miranda and her iconic fruit hat. It’s basically a Bunuel film made with Hollywood money, and while my preference may lie with the cliches of 42nd Street that transform into groundbreaking kaleidoscopes of dance, the nonstop film breaking ideas of this are plenty to love, and it probably makes it the easier watch since you can just tune in and out, appreciating that gorgeous red curtain while people rattle on about nothing and lemonade. A prescient homage to the Beyonce album wouldn’t surprise me, as this is the movie most likely to predict the future. Seeing a 1943 picture that features a woman using a cat as a phone rather than filling the spaces with wartime encouragement in the early acts is encouraging, but then when we finally do come to the sequence encouraging the buying of war bonds, it involves Eugene Pallette dissolving. Yes, that’s the way to put it. He croaks out the first bars of Journey to a Star, shortly after Alice Faye really does dissolve, then they sing a number in a gigantic blue stage. I really think you should watch this with company who has an open mind, because it’s something I think I may have hallucinated. That said, Berkeley’s skills should have lasted forever, not just been a brief stint of popularity in the days before darker stuff like noir was beginning to catch on and musicals became more strung through with sadness. “I wish you weren’t so beautiful” is sort of my thoughts on this as a whole, though, as 100 minutes of this kind of batshit spectacle is a tad wearying and causes me to bump this down a little. I cannot even imagine how terrifying I’d find this if I took drugs, but I admit the visual tempts me. This is an acid trip without the drugs, and in an age when musicals were beginning to get sour, this is a great repudiation. Enjoy it, and eat the hat, no matter how fake the fruit is.
Favorite Moment: Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.
5. Day of Wrath
Favorite Moment: The burning.
4. Heaven Can Wait
Favorite Moment: The nurse’s teachings.
3. I Walked With a Zombie
Favorite Moment: The walk through the wilds.
2. The Ox-Bow Incident
Poor William Wellman’s reputation is not as high as it should be. He was a reliable Hollywood professional who managed to score one of his most beloved films this year in the shape of The Ox-Bow Incident, featuring a truly great cast of character actors, all making plenty of impressions in a delightfully short running time of under an hour and twenty minutes. It’s a mix of those two most American genres: a Western and a noir. It’s arguably his highest received film for that reason alone, but the quality is enough to love it, with a small note of sadness over the fact that it was the last movie to receive nothing but a Picture nomination even though it deserved far more. When Henry Fonda immediately gets into a fight over accusations of cattle rustling, followed by the reveal that a murder occurred, he winds up joining a posse, and things feel far more unsettling from there. Wellman’s style of hustling through major events lends everything poignancy that you would not expect thanks to the fact that he’s throwing character details around like birdseed along the way, punching us with immediate poignancy in that way that we nowadays associate with Clint Eastwood’s much less speedy stuff. Margaret Hamilton’s brief role as a judge’s housekeeper slams the momentum to a stop in a way that’s deliberate, making us feel the frustration and the frights that come with playing a new sort of wicked witch of the West, before she releases us into queasy moral deliberations. This town is a Greek chorus of the damned, and mob justice is ruling all. Think Unforgiven with less misogyny-Jane Darwell is outright celebrated by the residents, while Harry Morgan and Fonda’s characters find themselves dragged into a lynch mob by the raised hands, with the American landscape beckoning and calling out its songs of madness as we ride away into the mountains. The spectre of wars past is lingering, and it’s not a friendly vision. Even incredibly composed, “look at this shot” moments like the men lighting their pipes in unison are earned when we immediately hear the carriage wheels begin to rattle for a group on the run in a stagecoach, with quiet shots wounding a man in the shoulder. And then there’s Dana Andrews’ entrance as the accused. He was no great actor, but the kangaroo court’s trial is tremendously affecting, and then it all ends.
Favorite Moment: The trial of sorts.
Watching this one, which I had always loved to the same level as any person with eyes and ears, but never realized how damn intelligent it was, in the light of our new world of increased fascist activity is a real revelation in both the happy and sad ways. We all appreciate the glory of certain iconic moments, from As Time Goes By to the finale that is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but stuff like the cynicism and the corrupt roulette wheel somehow passed over my head when I saw this for the original viewing on an airplane where it was a real pain to rewind if I wanted to. I did love it then, but mostly for its pacing and drama and for watching Ingrid Bergman sob while Humphrey Bogart looked anguished, in addition to seeing a work of genuinely revelatory pop culture that somehow managed to win Best Picture. That still holds up (and hooray that it won in such a diluted lineup), but buried not very far underneath is the story of two men (who cares about Victor…besides the characters themselves?) both in very different positions who must come to terms with the fact that they have become involved in something much bigger than themselves, while surrounded by an array of the most diverse array of talent that Hollywood ever pooled, all playing their typical characters to the appropriate extreme. Propaganda never looked so good, or had so much emotional devastation that accumulated so quickly. Sure, there’s some slightly funky story logic at the end with him drawing the gun on Claude Rains for rather vague reasons, but that is the subject for a Cinema Sins video or something similarly idiotic. Concentrated star power, the sexiest possible incarnation of World War II (only Peter Lorre dies! Who cares about the murderer from M!), and that wonderful fog that appears in the deserts with their misinformed waters. Highlight of one of the more minor, unknown bits: Knock on Wood, with everyone banging on the tables in unison. Who’s unhappy? We’re unhappy! But everyone is knocking on wood with that piano hiding the letters of transit. In the end, everything is in the hands of Sydney Greenstreet and what’s to come in the final days of the war against the Axis of Evil, so I suppose it remains to be seen what comes in our future as time goes by.
Favorite Moment: Ending.