Top 20 of 1944
20. Dona Barbara
Fernando de Fuentes’ incredibly dark take on revolution in Let’s Go With Pancho Villa was basically an acidic take on the nature of how boys’ clubs are fairly dangerous, so when he turned his eye to a film entitled Dona Barbara (with a co-director in Miguel Delgado), it was obviously going to be a two hour examination on the nature of femme fatales, with the original book reportedly being one of the most widely known Latina American novels (sadly, I’d never heard of it before this, showing just how egocentric the United States is). Maria Felix, who is reportedly considered one of Mexico’s great actresses even though I was not familiar with her prior to this, gets the titular role and is clearly having a fun time being a maneater who runs the neighborhood, but the backstory is tragic, and she is seizing onto it. She has screen presence and a natural tendency to go big, and it all combines to form a fairly epic impression, with the two hour running time making this practically an epic. Her first love was killed and then the murderers raped her. Horrifying, and a bit too casually treated in that it is very quickly explained as what causes her to hate men, but she still gets to the top via sexual manipulation and illegal practices, the queen of the castle and owner of vast lands, determined to ruin anyone who is in her way. In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, she winds up having a daughter who falls in love with her deepest rival, and who Barbara herself treats terribly to boot since she simply does not care. Karma is inevitable, because this is basically just Gone With the Wind with a new coat of paint in terms of what causes our leading lady’s downfall, a much shorter duration (should I be grateful or mournful over what could have been?), and a great use of the shadows that make Fuentes’ films feel so murky, like everything in the societies he satirizes are on the verge of collapse. This is very old fashioned entertainment, and you should seek it out if you want to watch something soapy, as it never ceases to chug along agreeably and with enough beauty in the cinematography that even formalists will find something to enjoy. Felix later claimed she was attacking family morals with her work, to which I say: you do you.
Favorite Moment: Horsemanship demonstration.
19. A Guy Named Joe
Favorite Moment: Final flight.
18. The Woman Who Dared
Coming off a film that was attacked by the Vichy for its satiric aims in showing the stupidity of the class warfare that was hugely exploitative and all-encompassing in that time of France, The Woman Who Dared was Jean Gremillon’s attempt at a comeback, successfully being applauded for its strength as a biopic of a woman who flew a plane, the sort of nice feminist message that almost everyone can get behind no matter how misogynistic they are. Sounds toothless, but it is actually very concerned with the fundamental nature of human decency, and it is not happy with what it sees, with the primary couple wishing to break away from the bounds of the Earth and go into the all-encompassing sky. Madeleine Renaud wants to break a woman’s flying record, while her husband Charles Vanel is torn between worries about the danger and wanting to genuinely help her accomplish her goals. Gremillon’s quiet reputation nowadays certainly makes sense: he has a recognizable style, but it fades in the face of material, and he had varied tastes in stories if not actresses, thus dooming him to get stuck behind Renoir and other directors like Duvivier, even with Eclipse shining some light on his Occupation work. The man’s desperation for liberation shows in this, one of his last films since his career dried up once the war did, and we once again embrace the country with a sort of neorealism style, orphans constantly cluttering up the frames whenever we are in the street and the primary couple’s competence established quickly enough so that we don’t waste our time on bullshit. It’s surprisingly rich and tough for a crowd pleaser, thanks to characterization being the main focus even with lots of effort expended on the way that life is lived in a town that looks like it is a few blocks over from the richer area that was the hotel zone in Lumiere D’Ete. The leads are focused on their aviation, but they don’t let it swallow their other concerns up entirely. We have a certain sense of familiarity, and while the story is constructed economically, you can definitely wonder if a few scenes designed to set up chemistry were filmed and not used. Enjoy it, and maybe force your kids to watch it, as it’s good family viewing that I can support as something to see with more patient younger viewers.
Favorite Moment: The flight.
17. Passage to Marseille
Passage to Marseille doesn’t have as much of a reputation as some of Michael Curtiz’s other works, but considering it came out right after Casablanca and also stars Bogart in another war picture (along with Claude Rains with an eyepatch and in a more overtly heroic part), with Michele Morgan from Port of Shadows and Stormy Waters as the female lead in a rare American role, you’d think it’d have hit harder, even with Bogart’s role as a French journalist being improbable and having exactly the terrible accent you would imagine just from hearing the description “Humphrey Bogart with a French accent.” Still, it looks gorgeous, with an opening sequence showing silhouetted soldiers running around to assist their German leaders and taking fire at planes in some misty flight sequences. It’s certainly bigger in scope than you would expect from Curtiz’s other works, complete with numerous timelines to navigate and enormous fiery explosions that seem like they’ll burst through the screen as they fill up the whole frame. We navigate though the wartime romance of the two leads, a return home, a jungle with a prison that the cast breaks out of, and a naval battle that had even more money spent on it than the opening battle in the sky. All of this is tackled via nested timelines that make this structurally exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, like a series of nested boxes. You can barely track what is going on plotwise, but it’s so much fun to be swept up in the stories within stories that it hardly matters. It was supposedly a half-assed production sequel to the original classic, so hell if I know why its reputation is so low, particularly with Curtiz being able to turn out hackwork in his sleep by this point in his career. Many a shot is exciting to look at because of the motion within and outside of the frames, but the shots don’t mirror Casablanca’s, with the visual setup getting increasingly exotic as we venture further into the layers of memory (and we have already gotten plenty of smoke on the airplane tarmac early on). Everything in this is cold and stark in a certain sense no matter whether we are in a Guinean jungle or England, but the one thing that never changes is the sense of the camera intuitively understanding how to block people to affect emotions.
Favorite Moment: Initial bombing.
16. Arsenic and Old Lace
Favorite Moment: Running from marriage.
15. Great Freedom No. 7
Helmut Kautner moved into color with the unwieldy title of Great Freedom No. 7, which badly needs a restoration. The opening credits are a marvel of colorful sunsets and billowing smoke, with his beloved shipyards that would play a major role in his most beloved work (Under the Bridges) getting their first moments of airtime here as a harmonica sings. Three men begin having an argument in the ship’s berth over the nature of which ports are the most fun, but we wind up in a colorful port town that leaves the question at least a little less in doubt, with everything being delightfully saucy and detailed, sea shanties from the bluest of seas translated into German and the romance that eventually shows up being taken into the inevitably depressing details we expect from Kautner if this is not our first exposure to him. Nobody gets what they want in this story of a singing sailor who plays the accordion and has to help out his brother’s ex-girlfriend when it’s the sibling’s last wish on his deathbed, after a string of petty resentments that are imparted before he goes, with a terrifying wide eye on the way out. This is a cruel cycle to stick our hero Hans in, particularly when the girl Gisa turns out to be someone he falls in love with for real. Clearly, the brothers had a type, and said type couldn’t help her affectionate nature towards a…fourth?…party, and she’s played by Ilse Werner from We Make Music in a role that still somehow calls to mind her other part, just because her mother (played by Hilde Hildebrand in arguably the best performance) makes such a strong impression as a blowsy bar entertainer and she gets a rustic, hardworking, muscular entrance. All the little acts in this add up to something made by a man who clearly knew just how horrible Germans could be, and used it to really make his characters suffer. What makes this watchable as opposed to mean is the system of coping mechanisms everyone seizes onto, helping them push themselves through another day and another ugly scene. It’s an allegory that becomes dizzying if you let it expand enough in your head. The war is everywhere, and it affected the shooting schedule since everything was getting bombed out, and it shows a bit in the slightly desperate point of view of whatever is going on.
Favorite Moment: Drunken musical number.
The first film Ingmar Bergman ever wrote was for the director Alf Sjoberg, a two-time Cannes winner whose first win was in the eleven way tie. The film in question was Torment, with Bergman’s early concerns about young lovers and cruel institutions being handled by the capable hands of an early Swedish great, making something cold and entertaining out of institutional cruelties that punish a couple who are both suffering: the boy has a sadistic schoolmaster, the girl has an abusive boyfriend of sorts. It all takes place on sets that are much colder and darker than the British ones for films such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, and it is deliberately framed so we side with the child in the same vein as the child-friendly horror work Curse of the Cat People from the same year-we are at his eye level, but there is lots of space in the frame to show that he has no control over his world, with the light of the enormous windows showing the pouring rain that is just barely being held back. It’s all very realistic, but with touches of Expressionism and theatricality that take it into weirder places with nothing more than an unusual pan within the set of the classroom: the teacher with his cane, the boyfriend getting named Caligula and his performance gets played as not entirely there altogether due to a recent illness that likely affected his mind. A very strong debut for someone who would go on to be one of the best directors ever, and another director who has been unfairly forgotten due to his most favorite work coming from a source that has been adapted plenty of times, along with focusing mostly on plays after a certain point. It’s distinctly cold and Swedish in what its aims are, but seems to owe a debt to the Hollywood works about urban misery in how it cranks up the joylessness. (Victor Sjostrom was a producer, so this production was a real meeting of the minds.) You could have remade this across the oceans with Peter Lorre in one of the villain roles and someone even blander in the leading male part, but would it preserve the drunk scene from Mai Zetterling? Don’t think it would. It’s melodramatic as hell, but in an enjoyable way with a lot of talent working behind the scenes. Surprised this doesn’t have much of a reputation just based on who worked on it.
Favorite Moment: Initial class.
Favorite Moment: Puppet show.
12. Till We Meet Again
Frank Borzage’s Till We Meet Again is not one of his most well remembered films and is infuriatingly only available on VHS, which is a shame, as it definitely ranks among the stronger ones despite seemingly containing off putting material about a nun and a downed American flyer, a sort of romance that sounds a bit vomit inducing. It’s shockingly strange and severe, however, with the strange moods of his final masterpiece, Moonrise, getting put on full display here in a sort of warmup since this is still fairly Hollywood in its aims. The nun, Barbara Britton, is in a French convent that is definitely feeling the effects of the war, with the birds and children that surround her in prayer getting increasingly frightened by the sounds and struggles of the war, which become incredibly nasty when the Mother Superior tangles with the head of another nasty, strict organization: a Nazi commander, and before anyone gets mad, this link was clearly present in the film itself, and is affecting the perceptions of Sister Clothilde as she blames herself for the Mother’s death due to her inexperience with the world (she arrived at the age of eight due to her own traumas) and her love for Ray Milland’s downed American flyer that allowed her to play right into the hands of the Nazis. Surprisingly tough for a feel good movie about a convent which begins with dumb jokes that are child friendly and only endearing because of how knowingly corny they are. Borzage’s camera was reaching a new level of formal precision, with the camera moving forward to show a group of men advancing, but then the Sister’s own movement, becoming a person with active desires and a forceful will to rival those who have harmed her and help her forge a way. The love between the couple is sensual, with quick embraces during bombings and one sequence involving playing with a handkerchief, but it’s not sexual, and what really alarms is how the Nazi who killed the head of the sisters is deeply sexual, making threats of a vile nature and using cigarette smoke to fog himself. It’s such an unusual application of mise en scene and little character details that I hope this gets a better release someday, with the director’s reputation being far too low thanks to his lack of a consensus masterpiece beyond some appreciation for 7th Heaven.
Favorite Moment: Prayer/bombing.
11. Murder My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk is mainly known nowadays for being a blacklist victim and among the Hollywood Ten, but his adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel with Murder My Sweet is pretty enjoyable in its own right. Philip Marlowe returns with Dick Powell as the avatar (he pursued a long overdue career change to more grim, dramatic parts after losing out on Double Indemnity): a step down from Bogart, perhaps, but it’s hard to argue that there is anything other than the hardboiled attitude and twisty plot that makes The Maltese Falcon such a standout even now, and this is only the lesser work by virtue of lacking career best work from some of the other players. Still, Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are hard to argue with (the latter’s final role, sadly, but she looks uncannily like the lady with the glasses from the yet to arrive The Big Sleep), and everything speeds by so enjoyably that you can watch this just for fun, with a mystery that has enough twists and turns along the way with a gloomy voice over leading the way to make it fun in its postwar cynicism, and one genuinely great performance from Mike Mazurki as Moose, an enormously tall, brutal man of a few words and a lot of pathos as he leads Marlowe to underneath that neon sign with the promise of two twenty dollar bills, which eventually leads to blindfolded speeches to thugs to explain the scenario. He is fundamentally nothing more than a goon, and there is a tragedy underneath that. There’s perhaps too many interiors and day scenes compared to the best noirs, but this is still very enjoyable and has a truly great zoom shot in the darkness around the 19 minute mark to introduce Shirley’s character. Most importantly, we get everyone lying their asses off until they have been figured out, which is what all the good noirs provide in their own way. We don’t get the vivid sensation of unstoppable forces colliding with one another to make an impression, but the pragmatism is easy and impressive, with the focus being on backstabbing negotiations rather than keenly managing the emotional obliteration tactics and desperate pragmatic attempts to snatch the upper hand of Huston’s masterpiece. Everyone is too calm and clean in how they play their games to scratch to the top via the law, but that is pleasurable in its way.
Favorite Moment: Moose in the bar.
10. The Children Are Watching Us
Favorite Moment: Beach run.
9. Hail the Conquering Hero
If I hear the title of Hail the Conquering Hero, I think of Aladdin’s Genie singing just that phrase when he successfully woos Jasmine before he is told that Aladdin is not going to be setting him free. Preston Sturges’ film is not too far off from that sequence, a sort of joyous moment that gradually turns into depression. His two 1944 works were focused on the war, and while neither one hits the dizzying heights of Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story, they are an impressive diptych, although this is the weaker of the bunch due to how it has an inherently sadder premise as opposed to a sillier idea to carry the plot along. (The tagline on the poster, a rhyme, is pretty inspired in its own right.) Eddie Bracken plays a soldier who is off to the war, but is unable to do his duty because of his hay fever (a disease that results in a refreshing lack of obnoxious sneezes, and instead we get people being smacked in the kisser for reasons that are best left unspoiled), sending him home right away despite the fact that he is a trivia nerd on the topic of the wars that the United States has fought in. Sturges’ comedy of transportation shows up when he meets a group of Marines who tell him to fabricate a story about his honorable discharge due to an injury at a bar on the route back home, depressed and lacking a gay outlook about the way things are going. Everyone is playing a con here, with a waiter who goes into a rant against all the souvenirs he has been stuck with from the men who have been passing through a giving things he does not believe in, like Hitler’s button and a flag that the Emperor committed Harakiri in. The lengthy take at the bar is one of the finest achievements in the director’s filmography on the formal level, but we are in it for the train jokes followed by taking the piss out of institutions: the marriages of Palm Beach results in an amusing Ella Raines having married someone else, while the rest of the town has just escalated out of control in their reception, with fights over who speaks first between the mayor and the chairman of the reception committee. Everything else is best left unspoiled, much like the other Miracle.
Favorite Moment: Band cacophony.
8. Phantom Lady
Phantom Lady is arguably the original acid noir, a demented foray into something very strange that begins with a woman wearing one of the biggest hats I have ever seen in something that was not a musical. She is the archetypical mystery lady, and when a man on the verge of losing his wife picks her up, they become anonymous companions at a show with another edition of the same absurdist hat in the stage wings. The production is supposed to be amusing and bring the mysterious dame laughs, but it just winds up causing anger, especially when he comes home and the wife has been strangled, with an alibi that does not hold up thanks to…well, was she a ghost all along? Perhaps. But he has a secretary, played by Ella Raines, working to exonerate him and taking the vigilante route to do so. She didn’t appear at all early on to boot, making the weird shifting of this movie’s axis even more savory. The crappy alibi also makes the police chief think he is innocent (amazingly twisted logic that fits right in), but the pursuit is rough: the bartender and the drummer are certainly acting like no suspects should or would. New York City has become positioned as a horrifying place where anything can happen, and you will take the blame for it if the world so sees fit. You have seen nothing in any other movie like that sequence in the jazz club, with the camera floating around as if it is about to burst through the ceiling and float away into the upper levels of the atmosphere. We eventually find out who the murderer was, and it turns into a genuinely nervy assault on psychopathy, rooted in the anxieties over the Nazis and the delusions of superiority hidden behind a vaguely human mask despite an inability to empathize. It might just be a deranged, surrealist masterpiece of the sort that could only be made in Hollywood during a very specific time. Siodmak’s noir tropes that he was inventing at the starting point of the genre’s inception may have been arguably topped by Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder the same year, but it’s a close showdown, and this has the mood that would be the rarest in the years to come, making it seem a rare treat if you can get on its highly specific and unusual wavelength.
Favorite Moment: Nightmare on the drums.
Lifeboat is one of the most cold and grim things Hitchcock ever did, with Stagecoach’s setup of nine strangers in a single moving location getting taken to a bleak extreme by sticking them in the middle of an ocean, with the film itself opening with the death of an infant after the crash occurs and only getting bleaker from that point. This was intended as World War II propaganda, but it possesses a slippery sense of morality and performers who are unafraid of making the characters they are playing seem loathsome. You can stretch a surprising amount of tension just by sticking the camera in the right spots when on this little tiny ship, and a real sense of gloom from all those objects we see floating in the water at the start, from a New Yorker magazine to a crate of apples, even with some of the more useless objects seemingly being pulled on. Released in a limited fashion due to Hitchcock’s refusal to add music and the depiction of Walter Slezak’s character, a Nazi, being too sympathetic, we can now see that he is actually one of the best villains in a Hitchcock picture, rivaled only by Tallulah Bankhead as a cynical columnist, the sole German speaker, whose primary fury over losing her film work so quickly is transformed into a method to support the desperate journey to Bermuda, complete with all the sniping and divides that this implies. The fact that this might be my pick for Hitchcock’s most cynical is rooted in how awful things get towards the ending, with Slezak’s Nazism reveal turning into a riot with a queasy atmosphere of “is it right to kill a man under these circumstances”? No music to soften the blow when the woman who has lost her child goes into fits of madness and then kills herself, no way for the stretching horizon to come to an end barring a faster journey, and a brilliantly awful final punchline. It even foreshadows They Shoot Horses Don’t They with the mention of dance marathons turned into a perverse positivity of a memory of the past, a happier time somehow. That time spent in such a small chamber must have been genuinely stressful, and it shows in the increasingly mad performances of everyone on that boat. It’s a fitting mood piece for a deeply stressful era in the state of the American mind.
Favorite Moment: Bracelet overboard.
6. Curse of the Cat People
Favorite Moment: “My friend!”
5. A Canterbury Tale
Michael Powell’s production (with Emeric Pressburger) of A Canterbury Tale is an oddball work which has only the vaguest relation to Chaucer’s pilgrims, but instead uses the text as a springboard of inspiration since we are moving into the territory of World War II hitting the director’s birthplace of Kent, England, during their years of propaganda work. It is, perhaps unfortunately, in black and white, and while I miss the color of the Archers, this is wildly beautiful even in a form that needs a restoration something fierce, a love letter to the countryside that is soaked in something special. The pilgrims here are a sad “landgirl” and two military men: an American GI and a British sergeant. It is two hours long and soaks in a slow, lullabyesque rhythm, as if we were part of the story being read at the start, with the falconers having their bliss ruined by planes and trains and the obnoxiousness of the people in the village when supposed rules about disembarking from moving trains are being broken. Lots of over earnest shouting abounds in a way that sets a bizarre mood that is like a parody of Britishness, perhaps aiming this at American audiences who would be more tolerant of the stereotype that is the GI’s folksy attitude (a real Sergeant who donated his salary to the NAACP, making him a genuinely terrific person whose acting I am inclined to be charitable towards now) and inability to understand the meaning of “next stop.” We later meet an antagonist called the Glue Man, who pours glue onto women’s hair and is unknown in terms of identity. Some would paint him as a prankster, others would call him a viciously nasty misogynist, but either way, he’s merely an excuse to stick around and learn about the history of the area while gently upbraiding passivity in war efforts. Nobody is giving a particularly brilliant performance in this, and there’s plenty of odd little fakeouts, but that just adds to the appeal, as we go around and get acquainted with all these fundamentally decent people just trying to live their lives. Learning from the human experience is the primary ideal, but it is drawn out simply by wandering in the wilderness and gradually learning to appreciate a history that has been thrown under assault by the battles and potential invasions. It’s an impossible film to explain the appeal of, but easy to fall in love with.
Favorite Moment: Happy endings.
4. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the most delightfully nasty thing Sturges ever made, and were it not for the fact that his Unfaithfully Yours was considered a return to form, this would be a strong, powerful note for his final great work before his life and career started to take a nosedive due to his financial and career woes that would plague him for the rest of his time in the industry. He received two Oscar nominations for screenwriting that year, but this deserved a whole host of acting nominations to boot for Betty Hutton in the lead, and supporting attention for Diana Lynn (the easy MVP) and William Demarest. Hutton’s lead, with the amazing name of Trudy Kockenlocker, gets drunk and bangs her head on a disco ball, leading to temporary amnesia (ah, the Code) and winds up very pregnant after dancing the night away with many soldiers on leave at a bar. James Agee’s infamous analysis involved the Hays Office getting “raped in its sleep” to allow the script to get past their strict ideals, but it somehow worked and came out as utterly filthy. Her father and sister, the aforementioned great supporting players, get much too involved with trying to find the name of the husband. Everyone is fully committed to the farce, running around like they are mad and planning to boost the town’s economy, but she opens up with a lip sync for your life where the vocals go way down low. Eddie Bracken stars in this as well, and he would be much better in Hail the Conquering Hero, the film’s primary flaw. The mythology being taken apart here is the ideal of the Virgin Mary, and boy is she ever not going for the immaculate conception in this version of the tale. That being said, everything in the middle feels a little irrelevant when you run up against the finale, which is about as good as it gets…well, Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story had the best endings, but this one is just a spectacular punchline that does right by the themes and implications that were set up during the hilarious early sequences, and that’s all you need. I would faint too, from laughter, if that absurdity could happen in our lives. But in a world where engagements involve curtain rings, perhaps it’s best to embrace the darkness in this brand of humor.
Favorite Moment: Final joke.
3. Meet Me in St. Louis
Meet Me in St. Louis is a movie I do not agree with on a fundamental level and love to death anyway. The film is plotless and colorful and features beautiful songs, and that is a deep pleasure, but I am less fond of the hidden stuff. The final decision to stick with a happy ending is a silly crowd pleasing decision, and the sequence where Judy Garland fantasizes about teenage boys just seems more aggressively heteronormative than some ode to young love for reasons related to the slightly slimy, corny dialogue that is just too of its era for my liking, along with a dead air romantic interest in the role of the Boy Next Door. Otherwise, who cares? This is wonderfully sad and pretty. Judy Garland’s performance is astonishing as per usual, but even though child performances from this era are usually fairly awful, Margaret O’Brien is pretty strong, and the Halloween sequence is genuinely creepy and suffuses her in the right state of mind for the changing of the seasons. As the oldest of four and the other three being girls, there’s a certain projection to my feelings towards Esther Smith (Lon Jr. is a nothing), as her inability to handle change even if St. Louis itself is not exactly some paradise on Earth genuinely makes me sad, from the Trolley Song to her changing the lighting to attract her lover to that final performance of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the only good Christmas song because it’s so aggressively grim and slow. You can take it sincerely, but why would you not suffuse it with sadness like she did? Fear of being overshadowed? A very valid concern for any performer, actually, so perhaps it is time to be forgiving. But the direction is like a symphony, so let us not let her overshadow the rest no matter how tempting it is. The way the family is introduced via so many unusual devices is symphonic in its own right. The thoughts that these people think are much darker than you would expect. The ultimate message may be the fluffy happy ending you expect from a Hollywood musical, but I suppose all good (and bad, at the same time) things must come to an end. Still, imagine a version of this that dared to end with the family moving away. Now that would really traumatize viewers and thus be likely unsalvageable for Blu-Ray. Hmmm…
Favorite Moment: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
2. Double Indemnity
There is nothing like the tough tartness of watching Billy Wilder finally come fully into his own as a director in a big way, with a script that has to rank as one of the most intelligently rancid ever written. It’s all gorgeously appealing, of course, the way that the money is omnipresent and ready to cut anyone who tries to come for it, but it’s too good to pass up in a world where even sexual desire has become an economic ideal thanks to the abundance of wartime goods and no rationing to be found. It’s a clause worth killing for. Edward G. Robinson’s little man may be what unwinds everything in this drama of people hissing at each other in apartments and insurance offices, but it’s also the children, with the stepdaughter who’s frankly a little unbearable getting her way thanks to a few key sights when her parents are knocked off, complete with the final acknowledgement that both Walter and Phyllis are rotten coming to benefit her romantically in the man’s one good move for another. Even construction benefits the parties here, with the constant wealth making new roads for the men to run on. 1940s noir was invented in the same year with this and Laura, but this is the harder, more concrete example of the genre, smothering out the fantasies the Preminger likes to perpetrate with diamonds scratching the surface until they bleed. Fred MacMurray finally learns how to break hearts and never uses the skill again until The Apartment, but it’s all about Barbara Stanwyck learning how to kill, a final flicker of indecision that gets snuffed out after providing enough genius in her poses and outfits to fuel a thousand fantasies, most of them probably Billy Wilder’s. She cuts the right silhouette for the window blind lighting that looks like every jail cell designed to hold back this supposed nurse and failing at it, but she had to make do with a tracking anklet with her name on it, cutting into her skin ever so sexily. She doesn’t have to put up with harsh words when she knows exactly what to do as it comes to slow moving trains and cars that won’t start properly as she tries to get away. She needs an oil change, before her rottenness starts to congeal at the last minute. Never pass up a deal for that.
Favorite Moment: Initial meeting of Walter and Phyllis.
Laura contains a twist around the halfway point that I am amazed has not permeated popular culture more in the same vein as the stabbing in the shower in Psycho, especially since the scene preceding it is a stunner of atmosphere and psychological insight, so stop reading now if you are an unspoiled viewer (and watch the film immediately). This is a noir that leans super heavily into the atmosphere, with a superb score and a plot that throws in a whole lot of nonsense just because Otto Preminger liked to fuck with the censors, starting with Clifton Webb showing off his naked body for Dana Andrews and continuing in the Politically Incorrect Evil Queer vein for the rest of the picture, with everyone of the suspects except the woman of the title having some sort of deranged kink, right down to the bland detective falling in love with what he thought was a ghost, nothing but a portrait above the fireplace, until…she reappears, not dead, the male gaze’s ultimate fantasy come to life after Webb’s desperate attempts to woo her back while she runs after Vincent Price’s stereotypical male body that is so clearly something the others want to possess, even with Judith Anderson playing mommy. In some ways, this movie stole liberally from Rebecca before passing things on to Vertigo, but Preminger’s cinematography is a glassy dream of tricky lights and increasingly growing darks that refract and delude the perception of what this woman, an object of projection, is. The supporting cast is rightfully celebrated (only one Oscar nomination for the ensemble? At least it went to the best of the lot), but it is time to acknowledge that Andrews’ monotonous ratatat delivery and Tierney’s gorgeous blandness work brilliantly, no matter how deliberate or not it was on their ends. In this year where Double Indemnity created so many staples of the most fun genre, Laura feels like its dark mirror. There is certainly something fascinating to be uncovered in the layers of Barbara Stanwyck’s phony wig versus the natural brunette shades of Tierney’s hair, or the way names give away everything you need to know about a person, but the weapons are where this one has the upper hand, hiding them away behind the facades of life, pants, and clocks for later, only to bring them back at the last minute in a shockingly quick and nasty shootout.
Favorite Moment: The big reveal.