Top 25 of 1946
25. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a film noir that seems like it was designed to give Barbara Stanwyck the opportunity to say “Walter” repeatedly with that voice of hers. Good enough for me, but the film also contains something deeply twisted in its bones, a great noir because of one of the iciest actresses of the day being involved in romances with two of the most weirdly intense male actors: Van Heflin and, in his debut, Kirk Douglas. Still, one of the most surprising performances comes from Janis Wilson (best known as the insecure little girl from Now Voyager) as the younger Martha, running from her abusive and nasty aunt only to snarl at her when brought back to the home with a weird, tortured desperation that shows she clearly took notes on the set of the Rapper/Davis production. Judith Anderson is the aunt, and that is why it is so unsurprising that she would want to run away. She makes a standard great entrance, with icy dominion over the lower classes that she cannot be bothered to look at, let alone offer a scholarship to some poor boy who helped her out in maintaining her dominion. Even that cannot last when she is pushed down the stairs and dies from it, with Milestone having a particular enjoyment of shooting this sequence. He clearly likes cats even as the scenario turns into a nightmare of hanging an innocent man and blackmail to ensure the young Ms. Ivers gets away with what she wants to do. The cast gets older and the psychodrama turns into repressed trauma that has affected the love triangle of our threesome of stars, with a forced marriage and a business empire making the scale of things awfully grand. The biggest fish in this small pond will be disarmed by the return of the man who she truly cared for. Robert Rossen, who would later become a director in his own right, wrote the script and came up with a poisoned well for the individuals to wallow in. Attempts to escape turn into greater punishments and imprisonments that a young person would have no capability for. Shame this fell into the public domain and thus has a series of lousy transfers. The Code may have softened the ending on a moral level for some, but the greater darkness of what it implies is awfully hard to suppress.
Favorite Moment: Opening escape.
24. The Spiral Staircase
Robert Siodmak’s run in the 40s of critically recognized noirs was an exciting time, and his strong 1946 run got Ethel Barrymore, hot off her win from two years ago, another nomination for the appropriately spooky Mrs. Warren, head of a house and resident in a mansion that is too big for her. I particularly enjoyed how resigned she was in chewing out the servant, choosing to focus on the tiger in her room instead as the thunder rumbled in the background. She has hired a mute servant, and when a plague of sorts starts spreading around, the psychosis begins in the form of thinking said disease is “women with afflictions.” Cinema itself also takes on a part in the opening sequence at a silent movie house where the pianist is thudding away with the same old rhythms we have heard a million times before. A murder recalls a similar sequence in Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, before a closeup of an eye that basically gives the game away if you have a good…eye…for such thing, and that sort of sums up the strengths and weaknesses of this movie: strong formal chops slightly undone by predictability. Some of the moments are a little silly, like when our heroine walks alongside a fence and hilariously runs a stick alongside it in a way that recalls Anne Savage deliberately wrapping that phone cord around her neck in Detour. Still, the ensemble is so much fun and the shadows are so playfully murky that it is very hard to care about the little details even as they prevent the work from reaching the heights of Phantom Lady’s craziest parts and The Killers’ tricky formal precision. The supporting cast bounces off each other in irrelevant fashions as we quickly make our way through the spookiness of this movie’s universe. We get a good grasp of the geography of the mansion, so as we make our way through to the final moments where the killer, recognized by the viewer or not, is chasing a poor girl who literally cannot screech a sound to save herself. Barrymore’s deathbed status feels like foreshadowing even without her claiming that she’s doomed in the deliriums of a fever. “Mind…your own…business!” she chokes out, but she cannot stop, and neither can the camera. We want to escape, but we are not in the position to do so. Might as well enjoy the ride.
Favorite Moment: Rattling the gates with a stick.
23. Anmol Ghadi
Bollywood is an industry that I have tried a few times and not really gotten along with, even if most of the stuff I have seen is older and less likely to appeal to a modern, Western moviegoer. Still, I had heard that Mehboob Khan was responsible for the great Indian epic Mother India, so I decided to check out one of his earlier works, Anmol Ghadi. It is pretty terrific, as it turns out, and deserves better than to languish in obscurity. In contrast to the recent mediocrity by Damien Chazelle that got too many Oscar nominations for having six songs over two hours, this has twelve. Sounds like it could barely sustain a hoary old melodrama about young lovers who like poetry that are separated, but as it turns out, it makes the filmmaking more along the lines of a machine, cheerfully forcing its way through the minimal gestures required to get to the singing. The acting is oddly Bressonian, yet still affecting and emotional, with framing choices that I find interesting in ways that are hard to articulate. The best term to describe it is “restrained yet hammy.” This sounds terrible, but it adds a little layer of bigger feelings to what is being played straight. One of the few portions of some of the even older Bollywood works that I had seen and enjoyed was the sight of beautiful, unspoiled nature from before the cities sprung up and rendered everything industrial and polluted (I have been and the conditions are deeply depressing), and this provides that via the beautiful, nature filled houses of these people who were likely among the wealthy at this point in time. Separations are scored with songs that are upbeat in rhythm, yet nevertheless sound depressing thanks to the lyrics coming straight from a Disney villain soundtrack from a toy vendor who is pushing his wares too hard before we shift to the “it’s the aftermath and I need my mother to console me” part. Jarring and nonsensical, yes, but it also functions damn well on the emotional level. Favorite shot honors, however, has to go to the mom of our protagonist sitting down to eat as we dissolve into her working at her job in a graphic match that also shows the boy’s education. The message of financial strain being everywhere is usually conveyed in a much more boring fashion than this. (Also, this has a great downer ending. Hooray for expensive downers!)
Favorite Moment: Opening number.
22. The Locket
What do you do when you’re a director who specializes in unusual psychologies yet wants to do a take on Laura, a movie about a fundamentally unknowable woman? You complicate it with an obscene amount of flashbacks, rendering your protagonist truly unknowable. She fits right into the dynamic of mother and whore that everyone has tackled at some point. Kindness is a luxury not everyone can afford, and the world has been rough on poor Nancy, played by Laraine Day in a way that feels just right for a woman who is a memory within a memory when we examine her past. She spends the whole movie traumatized over the accusation of being a thief that haunted her as a child and caused her to wreak havoc on the world. Perhaps it is a slightly ridiculous backstory, but the interesting part is watching all the men do just as much damage to themselves as she is doing to them. They are always analyzing themselves, with one of the men even being a psychoanalyst. Nancy, on the other hand, is a series of psychological neuroses that could possibly not even exist. Who are we supposed to project upon: the husbands, or the wife? The Rashomon effect, as it turned out, came to prominence about half a decade too early for Kurosawa to claim full credit, yet the trick here is that it only seems like the stories match, though the lack of a full mesh is the tell one needs to keep the mystery afloat. Robert Mitchum, Brian Aherne, and Gene Raymond play the individuals whose lives she has supposedly ruined, and they all perform weirdly poorly in a way that suits the story, with an odd stiltedness straight out of Ulmer. (Anyone who can buy Mitchum portraying an artist has seen his best work much less than I have.) Still, it is oddly fitting that these individuals have professions that are focused on exploring a specific viewpoint: paintings, a psychiatrist, and the son of the man who first wrecked her life. A contrivance, yes, but so are the movies in general, and it is ever so fitting that the locket itself can contain an image that you hold close to your heart, a perversion of romance that has been brought on by multiple parties. This would be a masterpiece if the details were handled better (this is a very written movie but the acting doesn’t help), the broad strokes are genius.
Favorite Moment: Final collapse.
21. Restless Blood
The melodrama genre would take a major step up in craziness once Douglas Sirk came along, but even before he took bright poppy colors and incest subtext to the logical extreme so that audiences everywhere could appreciate it, we had Finland’s Teuvo Tulio, whose works have sadly become very hard to see. This is a shame, as the ridiculous campiness of his performers is taken to an extreme that allows their ridiculous acting to play off the props that they wield like weapons. Regina Linnanheimo is the lead actress, and her story begins with yet another Tulio sequence of her making out with a man in the hay while the sun shines over her. Things turn bad when her child is run over by a bus and killed shortly after her younger and cuter sister has admitted to being in love with that very man, a doctor with his own glamour shots. She tries to kill herself by drinking poison in what has to be the most lighthearted treatment of suicide this side of 13 Reasons Why, but it does not kill her, it merely blinds her, and her sister/awful lover begin to start having sex when they are not feeling vaguely guilty about the entire situation. Thankfully, we are not deprived too long of Linnanheimo’s talent for bugging her eyes out of her head, and she undergoes a risky operation to restore her sight, then spies on the affair through her dark glasses. As a mature and reasonable person, she of course goes insane from jealousy quickly…but her Bette Davis eyes seem to be run by live electrical currents as if she were a robot imported from silent era films. If I could convey that kind of emotion through my eyeballs, I would do nothing else except give people terrifying stares while wearing those dark glasses, but she goes driving instead, in a shot that I would rank as one of the most sublimely campy things I have ever seen. I make this sound “so bad it’s good”, and it does fall into that category, but it is legitimately enjoyable on the straight reading level. You just need to accept how absurd this universe that has been drawn is, and join me in worshiping Linnanheimo’s deranged brand of acting. (Her sister is also hilarious in how obnoxiously cutesy she is thanks to an actress that has the perfect appearance for that sort of role.)
Favorite Moment: Final car ride.
20. The Other One/La Otra
All Mexican melodramas are more than a little ridiculous, but more movies should be so willing to embrace the campiness that is cinema, and Roberto Gavaldon’s La Otra feels like the loopiest predecessor to Vertigo imaginable. Dolores del Rio, finally getting a part she could really sink her teeth into and in a project worthy of her, gets to play a double role. One of the twin sisters that is the center of the story is the seemingly perfect millionaire’s wife, while the other is a ball of jealous rage who lives a poor life as a manicurist. Of course they are named Magdalena and Maria, and of course we never really get an explanation of how the poor Maria only realizes just how nice Magdalena’s lifestyle is at a Christmas party. No one watching this for the right reasons will have a single care in the world, especially when a stabbing and a replacement occurs in the interiors of a nicely cold and sterile mansion. It also turns out that the nice twin was actually just as bad in a similar way, leaving her sister with a mess of romantic relationships to untangle. Most persona swap films do not go for the banality approach, with things like money and men in the forefront as opposed to the typical psychosexual derangement of something along the lines of Vertigo or Persona. Even the clothes are used as an excuse for silly but endurable contrasts, with the bad sister throwing her outfits on the floor in front of the other, only to be turned into a saint via her stabbing. Maria’s claims that she will live her own life at the start may be broad hypocrisy and foreshadowing, but the camera slowly tracking each twin’s walks across various rooms, pausing as they do, sticks us firmly in both of their minds, and neither character is meant to be sympathized with even though they are such fun to watch. Gavaldon’s career as a director, when discussed, seems to be primarily focused on this and his 1960 film Macario, which comes across as an intriguing work in its own right: it sounds to have genuine thematic care put into it, whereas this takes an easy idea and blows it up to big, epic scales with noir shadings to carry it over the finish line. This is the kind of allegorical, easy filmmaking we need a higher volume of.
Favorite Moment: The murder.
19. Canyon Passage
Canyon Passage shows Jacques Tourneur doing something out of his wheelhouse at the time: a straight up Western, albeit one that is shot just as beautifully as you would expect from the man who worked to create the shadows and pitch black moods of his work at the Lewton Unit. Here, we get Technicolor, and the sky goes between a shade of buttermilk (inspiring an Oscar winning song of the same title, a quietly deserving victory that I’d hope to see more praised) to a jaw-droppingly pretty pink sunset. It is a very sensual Western, one attuned to depths of feeling that are not rooted in the harshness that paints someone like Ford or Wellman when they are confronting their demons. We open in the rain, with a gorgeous crane shot of horses struggling in the mud, before we see Dana Andrews making his way through his day. All you need is gallons of water to make this more interesting, but unfortunately he loses his facial hair for the sake of impressing a woman. The journey from Portland to Jacksonville is a sad trip, consisting of a love pentangle between five individuals whose past relationships make this the anti-Stagecoach. That had strangers, but the other has a soap opera of past affairs and doomed romances. Susan Hayward, future Oscar winner, is surprisingly not as hammy as her reputation for her later work would lead an Oscarphile viewer to believe, so why not watch her in this just so you can enjoy her when she’s not trying to sock it to us? Or you could stare at the many beautiful sights, from an unshaven Dana Andrews in the earliest scenes to the skies and landscapes that are photographed as beautifully as any John Ford Monument Valley picture. The attitudes towards the Native Americans are not great, of course (lots of racial epithets), but the acknowledgement that we are on their land is the sort of little detail that allows you to pry open new readings like it were a clam. It feels a little in the vein of a Douglas Sirk examination of the wild, but the viewing of the society coming together, then drifting apart in sadness, is potent. Debts and the problems in one’s old days seem to be constantly floating by, right as a man drowns. I do prefer Tourneur as he goes for full urban darkness, but his talent is formidable.
Favorite Moment: Plans in the rain.
18. Henry V
Henry V takes a meta route that is partially rooted in a place of concern that the audiences would not properly appreciate the Bard (they never would except in an abstract sense, really), and partially in a way that makes the theater seem like a relatable place to the people who were stuck in the middle of World War II. This somehow did not get released in the States for two years and still picked up plenty of awards attention, which would be unthinkable nowadays. It deserved it, too, with the Globe Theatre rendered as a whole world in and of itself, 1600 era audience included as a stand in for anyone who happens to be seeing this. After a prologue that seems to function like the induction in Taming of the Shrew, we see the play taken theatrically, even with the camera using what tricks it can take advantage of and in glorious Technicolor to make the costumes that the players have to switch in and out of seem vibrant and alive and the audience’s rudeness during certain passages more egregiously gray and ugly. Eventually, the long overdue moment when we enter a sort of picture book comes around, and the reality of living life in a play begins, away from the audience telling us which jokes to laugh at. Good thing for those tennis balls rousing the ideas in Olivier’s imagination (you could really break this movie into smithereens if you studied its ideas from a meta perspective). Once we have broken free of the stagebound parts, we move straight into battle, with Henry serving as a Winston Churchill and the poor French essentially being some vacant enemy, an allegory for the current situation that thankfully does not hold, and deliberately so at that with Olivier’s decision to take out the nastier traits of the protagonist. Perhaps the length is exhausting, but it is hard to argue with the results, a journey to the other side of the curtain that seems like Dorothy going to Oz thanks to our freedom from the cold and rain of reality. The deliberate decision to push the aesthetic of a picture playhouse in the way the castles resemble drawings that sprung to life is as film friendly as one can get in terms of taking the wordplay into a scenery. Eke out their performances with your mind, you will be better off for it.
Favorite Moment: The theater opens.
17. Utamaro and His Five Women
Favorite Moment: The women jumping into the water.
16. The Yearling
While the Academy’s track record with recognizing family films in the Best Picture category is not as pristine as I would like (for every Beauty and the Beast and Babe, we get a Finding Neverland and Seabiscuit), they did make up for a weak 1945 lineup that would have been improved by the inclusion of a National Velvet by recognizing The Yearling, with the same director and a similar animal premise, the next year. In this case, the child is a boy, and he has adopted a pet deer during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. While the adoption of the pet itself does not take place for a surprising amount of time, the early stages are spent getting to know the family: Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman were nominated for Oscars as the parents, one a Confederate soldier who is warm and loving towards their only surviving child, and the other a woman who has had a lot of miscarriages and is constantly managing herself internally,. coming across as a harsher sort than Anne Revere’s Oscar winning performance in the prior Clarence Brown work. This slow pace turns out to be a benefit, as the movie was successful in winning awards for its production design and cinematography. Richly deserved awards they were indeed, with Charles Rosher (who shot Sunrise, meaning he was basically a genius) turning 1800s Florida into something between a dreamy, colorful storybook and a place that is realistically grim. It is an exterior studio set, but it has a nice balance of the artificiality and the realism that makes this so much better than it has any right to be. Peck’s performance is fine: I am not a fan of him as an actor, but he was best suited for playing warm and intelligent fathers. Wyman’s is the standout, with a little touch of acid to give some of the hokey moments some counterweight. Claude Jarman Jr. plays the boy at the center, and though I wish he wasn’t so dependent on the style of kiddy acting that characterizes so many performances of this time period, he still does a solid job. The most beautiful shots are interiors at night, featuring firelight so beautiful that it actually made me mad that Technicolor does not exist anymore even as it features Wyman being a scold about her son wanting a companion. It’s a small miracle this exists so beautifully, and the fact that the deer wasn’t killed immediately upon eating the food is even more of one.
Favorite Moment: Opening shots.
15. Perfect Strangers
Despite appearing on Robert Osborne’s hidden favorites list, the fact that Perfect Strangers AKA Vacation From Marriage has two boring titles has ensured its slightly diminished reputation. This is a pity, as it feels like a smirky little take on how boring certain British films had become in the past several years thanks to World War II rendering everything into propaganda. Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr, who might be two of the most aggressively British actors of them all, play a couple that fit right alongside fellow Osborne favorite Dodsworth in the canon of movies about deeply depressing marriages. However, this couple manages to make a recovery, with their time in the military being nothing more than an excuse to fall back in love with one another. London is totally bombed out and it looks surreal thanks to these sets, but the backdrop just heightens the emotions when the perfect strangers spend three years apart doing their work on their vacation from marriage. Korda’s work as a director was always a touch heightened and ridiculous in some small ways, making the light comedy a neat complement to the fact that the production design and script play off each other to deliver a neat self-parody of the English that would be too polite for a Monty Python sketch, yet feel too silly for a standard drama. Having horizontal bars of shadow look like prison bars is nothing new, but when the effect is accomplished with an elevator grate as Robert Donat monologues to himself about how he wishes to get a good deal from his oblivious boss, his puppy dog sad face makes it quite clear he will be stuck until he is not, and that is treated as a joke. Deborah Kerr, surprisingly, is outperformed here: she’s a great actress, but her funny bone is a dry one, and she gets stuck with a bigger character in the early stages. The rote functions of the relationship between our main twosome is transferred over to a place where the routines are even more awful and grinding, and the happy, sexy reunion feels as if a nerve has been exposed. Glynis Johns, best remembered as the suffragette mother from Mary Poppins, is having the best time of the cast, straddling the line between the military life and the desire for passionate things like lipstick (it’s a metaphor) so well that she arguably should have been the leading lady.
Favorite Moment: Reunion.
14. Duel in the Sun
Duel in the Sun has been claimed as part of the Selznick studio, and it certainly bears his signature, but King Vidor’s increasingly dark and sexual approach was writ very large when this mega production came into existence, all in Technicolor to highlight the red swollen body parts lusting away in the dust. Over two hours (if this had been four like Gone With the Wind it’d be widely reviled as opposed to a reclaimed weirdo production), we get to see the bizarre love triangle of Jennifer Jones as a half-Mexican woman, Gregory Peck as an unpleasant ladies man, and Joseph Cotten as a pleasant gentleman and his brother. While Cotten was a versatile enough actor to play both roles in this, Peck as the flirty, evil brother is the worst casting decision I could imagine. Still, it hardly matters when the sun shines so bright and red over the hills at the start, and the narrator intones its proclamations so seriously. Everything is so heightened, even if it is in the wrong directions, that it coheres and becomes worthwhile. Nominating Jones’ performance in the Academy Award for Best Actress category was probably not the right way to recognize her, but her bizarre take on the role surely is what keeps it all hanging together by a few threads, right alongside the more conventionally strong performance from Lillian Gish, surely thinking that this was so much gaudier than those DW Griffith productions that were not much different in how strange and thin the parts were. The film broke even, which seems oddly fitting, and then broke through to become the first thing Martin Scorsese ever saw. Perhaps the subliminal nature cracked through as the conventional masterpieces were affecting his form and content in boring, recognizable ways? Despite me characterizing this as some camp nightmare, some of the decisions in parallels and framing are deliberate, affecting, and work well. Perhaps it’s a touch ridiculous about it, but I admire something that is so willing to go crazy. Thankfully, this is in the Top 1000 of TSPDT, so its reputation has improved, but it seems to be losing a more modern audience in a way that makes me sad. It’s Showgirls, but less deliberate in how it reaches what it wants to do. I especially loved the drastic changes in lighting as we arrive at the ranch for the first time, continuity errors to put us in the right frame of mind.
Favorite Moment: Water taunts.
13. The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep’s plot is notoriously indecipherable, unlike the prior Bogart-Bacall vehicle To Have and Have Not that rips off Casablanca to the point of ridiculousness. It is also not a noir, with Hawks not bothering too much with the darkness since everything that is occurring is too light and inconsequential, to the point where language’s meaning seems to have evaporated. All you need to know is what each individual wants, and how they are going to get it. Fittingly, the man who starts off the proceedings never appears again outside of that greenhouse with the wretched orchids that its owner hates with a passion, and Marlowe is just Sam Spade under a different name, but with all the women seeming to go a little crazy in his presence. Perhaps Lauren Bacall was making them jealous? Martha Vickers acquits herself the best of that group, but they can each speak English as taught to them at college. Parenthood is an indulgence, but having sex with a random bookstore clerk just for the sake of atmosphere is not. It seems practically designed to make the audience members forget that the plot didn’t really make sense between viewings (or readings if you are a bookish type), until it reabsorbs you and you realize that no, it was a weird fever dream of detective plots, like David Lynch’s imagination after too many episodes of CSI. Murder My Sweet is the better work if you watch this for noir, but as a screwball comedy this is the hardest one to beat as far as Marlowe stories go (not sure what to think of that Mitchum version that does not seem to be very well liked: I haven’t seen it, but it looks thin on the ground). A couple of suggestive fades cause us want to want to know what was going on in the background of that bookstore, but the rain is ultimately designed to lull us into dreams that we may not ever escape from. I prefer the well oiled machine that is Huston’s Maltese Falcon, but this is bolder and riskier, so I think I only downgrade it because of the amazing bell curve that is Howard Hawks. Even the pauses when people don’t talk about nothing in particular hold a certain appeal thanks to something else that is occurring in the frame to keep us working through the weirdness, like Vickers’ drug trance.
Favorite Moment: Bookstore.
12. Under the Bridges
L’Atalante’s influence after its 1934 premiere is impossible to estimate thanks to how badly censored it was within Jean Vigo’s lifetime, but the basic premise of love on a boat seems impossible to avoid as a juicy topic for the time, even in Nazi-era Germany. Helmut Kautner made Under the Bridges during the last days of the Third Reich in 1944, while it was not released until after the country had been defeated in World War II. Fitting, in a way, for a work that avoids politics altogether and is just trying to convey a state of poetic realism for the two barge workers at the center. The comparisons to Vigo are inevitable, of course, but in a way the shooting style is more in the vein of Max Ophuls, opening with a gorgeous tracking shot that seems to violently tilt towards the sky as if laying on one’s back, looking up at nothing in particular, and the sea shanties with an accordion are more in the vein of Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas. As they pass by the bridges and see women up upon them, they hope for romance, but they find it in the form of a woman jumping off, her own private anchor. The love triangle that ensues may not be anything special on the level of plot, perhaps, but the atmosphere is impeccable, with a series of flourishes that only call attention to themselves in order to make a point. The fatalism that defined the works of Carne and his lot is done away with, with the goal being to be a stilted sort of happiness, even with suicide being right around the corner. The barge at night is a thing to behold, and so is a romantic climax that takes place in the titular location, an ignored spot that appears to be where high passions get thrown around like candy. Perhaps symbolic of the country’s dirty laundry? Certainly, something powerful looks to have been absorbed into Kautner’s filming style: he made plenty of great works, but this would be the only on e where the sugar and the cyanide played off each other to such a strong level, a seeming reflection of something greater. All this for a generic threesome plot where the throwing of money into the water feels like a reflection of what shocked audiences in Haneke’s Seventh Continent, turned into sadness.
Favorite Moment: Duck dinner.
11. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Double Indemnity and Laura perfected noir’s two extremes within the same year, with the former going for a tight ball of Hitchcockian plot while the latter went for dream logic. Most of the successors would go for Wilder’s concoction, with The Postman Always Rings Twice being one of the very best examples in how to take some tropes and make them your own. Tay Garnett, inconsistent yet underrated, brought his own energies in directing John Garfield and Lana Turner. Garfield’s modus operandi was much more heightened than Fred MacMurray, increasingly desperate to get out of his horrible life situation, while Lana Turner’s very persona gets its greatest workout. She is no Phyllis Dietrichson: she has the presence of such a vicious femme fatale, but said presence has an aura of desperation, something that Sirk would use so that she could get rattled by anyone who got in her way, from her maid to her awful Sandra Dee daughter. Here, she is merely looking to sneak out of her circumstances with a decent enough murder plot that will keep her away from her husband, even with the stench of poverty being unavoidable. It is American to its core, with the attitudes of the war leading to the meltdown that was film noir. These two cannot keep up with the mistakes that inevitably happen, the rehearsal that keeps Wilder’s film constantly churning even when the lovers spat. The economy was definitely present in Double Indemnity, as it is all about capitalism, but this takes it to a new peak where there is a lot of need rather than want. Lana Turner’s fundamental plan is to leave herself still stuck in the same old shitty diner where she was before, but with a man she actually likes and wants to fuck as her partner. Garnett’s films always had unusual outlooks, but where the romances of One Way Passage and Her Man are heightened and strange, this is flat and dull. It comes awfully close to reaching masterpiece status just for how exaggerated the shadows and whites are, with high contrast as the name of the game. Most works in this genre would not leave the couple’s success in such a strange place, having their misery with the money they acquire functioning as their final punishment. This keeps going, and it feels like a cruel joke more than anything else in this beat up town.
Favorite Moment: Diner becomes famous.
10. The Killers
Robert Siodmak’s The Killers is his most electric work, with the director’s well established shadows pulsating with energy the whole way through. Hemingway’s short story is the launching point for a plot that may slow down once the screenplay runs out of the old material, but never loses its way. The opening is bravura, a parody of both noir and ghost stories as the past comes back to haunt Burt Lancaster’s leading man, The Swede, in what has to be one of the greatest debuts of all time, right alongside William Conrad in a great supporting role as the embodiment of acid tinged disdain. The diner’s table seems long thanks to the deep focus that Citizen Kane had officially made popular, but not everyone is coming here to eat the big dinner, and we get a Double Indemnity start where the aura of doom hangs over the rest of the recap that is Swede’s doomed life. (The blocking and recurring use of a certain type of shot is very smart stuff, with that overhanging mirror getting manipulated subtly so we stare at the reflection rather than the terror in the foreground.) Siodmak was never better with the cast and crew, knowing full well how to get Lancaster’s performance to live up to the hype that Conrad is generating when he menaces the diner. You can try to stop what’s coming, but all you can do is remember what went wrong when you finally decide to stop running, and Ava Gardner’s very existence makes it clear how badly things are going to go. She is such a femme fatale that on paper, it seems shocking that the gentle and scared Swede we see at the start as he dies from gunshots is the type to become involved with her. She is also in this for about five minutes, but they are critical, and the fractured chronology makes her return to the primary tale a shocker. The careful way this is parceled out, falling together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle, is delicious. Savor the way that this experiments with the narrative of a beloved writer. Tarkovsky later did a short based on the same story, but you have to wonder if his sculpting in time was really suited for something like this: in some ways, this has been opened up perfectly. Certainly as close as this underrated talent ever got to a masterpiece.
Favorite Moment: Opening twenty minutes.
Notorious may not be my favorite Hitchcock, but it has plenty of perfect moments, and it is too much fun to really get worked up over the smaller issues that prevent it from reaching the top tier in my mind. On the level of characterization, it might be his richest work, thanks to terrific work from the four primary cast members. Ben Hecht may have gotten to direct a film earlier that year in Specter of the Rose, but the overcooked dialogue in that becomes a virtue for Hitchcock’s performers, who get to have plenty of fun with the words, the extended kisses, and the crane shots. The Nazis have officially become the villains in American culture by this point, but there’s no reason why they can’t have ethics and morals, and Claude Rains is just the man to do it thanks to Ingrid Bergman’s father being locked away right at the beginning. She celebrates good times (come on!) but Hitchcock’s dream man is here to shake things up, demanding that she play the mole. Bergman’s natural evasiveness seeps into the edits themselves, with Cary Grant’s entrance seeming to come out of nowhere at the party she hosts that ends by a slow deflation, like a love song that makes you laugh instead of cry. Hair gets in your eyes, causing a fog like alcoholism, but the rear projection is the ultimate joke to a modern viewer, even if we ignore the fact that the reality and the fantasy nature of these two men seems to seep into the very way that things are edited, with the odd interlude with the police officer being the most unusual way of contriving the scenario of Bergman going to the belly of the beast, right in the same region as Leopoldine Konstantin’s mother from the depths of hell. She fits perfectly into the Hitchcock universe, and it’s a shame that she joined the Tallulah “one and done” club in terms of iconic roles. Patriotism is ultimately what our leading character falls for and goes for, but do we really sympathize with the gentle dullness of a Grant character in this context? We want to see the Nazis win, the ultimate perverse tactic from the master of suspense’s gallery of tricks. With his recording of her at the start, you could grab onto the meta nature of tape and assume it is all a fantasy for the director. Wouldn’t be surprising.
Favorite Moment: Kiss.
8. Rome Open City
Favorite Moment: Shooting in the street.
Gilda’s status as a minor classic is enjoyable to me for various reasons, most notably the fact that I have a very young sister who enjoys doing her own impersonation of the famous hair flip from Rita Hayworth when asked if she’s decent. (It grows funnier depending on the length of her hair when she’s doing it.) It’s such a suggestive, teasing moment that has deservingly become iconic and really sums up the gestalt of Rita Hayworth, sadly not an inspiration to all young women in how she tries to get what she wants. The picture is precisely the sort of corny, strange touchstone that would appeal to someone like David Lynch, and in the words of one of its psychosexual characters, it makes its own luck. Charles Vidor does not have much of a reputation nowadays, but he directs the hell out of Glenn Ford’s weird hangups, starting with a great shot of dice going towards the camera. Ford gets hired to be the muscle for George Macready, the man with the cane and the woman who drives his hired help mad. They had a relationship in the past, but who knows who the problem starts with in terms of what a monstrous tease she is? Femme fatale or simply misunderstood? (All femme fatales are, of course, that’s part of the fun.) Rudolph Mate, who did the cinematography, might seem to get the bulk of the credit for why this is so gorgeous and beloved, but anyone who can do the things with gloves that Rita’s doing in this clearly had one hell of a director in terms of getting that performance. It’s an odd blend of a melodrama and a noir, so of course she gets to play both parts with relish, and the men have just as much fun. Gambling and women, however, do not mix, and the rebirth of the sinner takes us to the limit of darkness before unfortunately retreating thanks to the Code. This did not need to end with an apology, but with a scorched earth fury suitable for the den of sinners that populate the gambler’s house. It does retroactively ruin things, but just a little. Perhaps it will never last and the homoeroticism will continue? Certainly, business is about to become very bad for the rotten underbelly of this part of Buenos Aires. Shame this was not an Ulmer ending of real twistedness, though.
Favorite Moment: Hair toss.
6. My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine seems to sum up John Ford’s ethos of “print the legend”, a glorious series of lies about the gunfight at the OK Corral that you barely even notice since they are so slow and drawling, deliciously lazy in a way that perhaps holds it back from the level of something like Stagecoach. Zanuck’s interference was a deeply unpleasant experience for the director, whose reshoots resulted in an increase in affection rather than a sense of sprawl, but the cut we have today is still fairly magnificent, and it’s hard to argue about the additional romance in this even if it’s a small violation. (Think Elaine May’s A New Leaf, still a fundamentally similar vision, rather than the weird nightmare that is the cut of Magnificent Ambersons.) We start with hearing the full song of the title, vaguely familiar although the later verses are probably less well known to a modern audience, before seeing the cattle that will be rustled and serve to ever so slowly drive a stake into the heart of the town. The day for night effect gets gorgeously evocative in this, clearly phony but giving all the shadows it can anyway when the men arrive in the town, rowdy and filled with women lending credence to the old fashioned mother and whore dynamic of Eustache. Henry Fonda, starting the film off as arguably the most gorgeous he has ever been (shame about the mustache), has an interrupted shave that erupts in steamy fashion, with the whores running out, clearly inspiring Unforgiven in the process. Sadly, the movie’s most racist moment also comes into play here, but it inspires so much greatness when we get away. Walter Brennan gets to play a villain, and his mealy mouth provides one of his finest performances. We quietly live our lives in this small corrupt area before it all comes tumbling down in a carefully warranted burst of violence that brings the movie, and in a way the world that Ford is capturing, to an end. Much like Young Mr. Lincoln, a great sequence shows Fonda staring at a grave while we admire the landscape, a sort of mythology in its own right. He wants the children to live safely, but it will never happen, and that plaintive guitar score is the giveaway. Linda Darnell’s song is another musical key, a summary of the work in miniature. It winds up, at the end of the day, being about the stupidity of cows.
Favorite Moment: Leaning on the rail.
5. It’s a Wonderful Life
Has It’s a Wonderful Life ever really recovered from the slanders against its reputation? Poor Frank Capra’s career absolutely collapsed afterwards and his conservatism began to calcify into something toxic, the war wrecked his way of seeing the world, the movie is remembered as saccharine garbage by the contrarians out there (and, bless him, John Waters). Yet it is one of the definitive Hollywood masterpieces, taking us to the edge of a cliff and nearly shoving us off, leaving just enough breathing room so that you can imagine the nightmarish shitshow that could potentially happen afterwards to poor George Bailey. Yes, it’s a Jimmy Stewart character, but he finally gets to play a real shitheel in what would be later taken up by Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock in their increasingly twisted Westerns and suspense pictures, with some truly unpleasant moments towards Donna Reed as Mary. The happiness at the end is nice and well-earned, but he is merely beloved by a community, and everything he gave up to accomplish that goal is lingering in the background, whispering in his ear even as he basks in his one final moment of glory before he likely gives back into his suicidal depression. All the prayers and angels seem saccharine, but they also provide scope, to the very galaxies in the skies before we come crashing down to the frozen lake that is very obviously going to thaw out. Lionel Barrymore, normally a tremendous ham, finally gets to play a villain who resembles a human and a fairytale character from hell at the same time. The entire interlude when George is a young boy and saves H.B. Warner (best remembered as a Sunset Blvd waxwork) from dying is devastating in its own right thanks to the depths of cruelty in slapping the boy’s sore ear, but he grows up and is stuck with his father’s burdens, all in the form of Potter. A Christmas Carol had the clever structure, but this just strands you emotionally, with the full benefits of a life well lived mixed in with the nastiness that seems ever-present. Sure, the reveal that Mary would become a spinster librarian if George had not entered her own world is a little over the top, but I suppose it works with Gloria Grahame’s cartoonishly fun entrance, the sort that happily got her a greater career as she proceeded. Where was I? Forget the clip reels, is what I’m saying.
Favorite Moment: George returns to the family, angry.
4. A Matter of Life and Death
In heaven, everything is fine, but maybe it is really a place on Earth after all if you are a bomber pilot who has just slipped past the people in charge of the afterlife. The escalator leading you to the great beyond is a fascinating creation, but the decision on Michael Powell’s end to film the scenes separately between black and white and color results in a piece of film that glows in an otherworldly fashion. All it asks of the audience is to believe, and it rewards us with sights and sounds that could have only come from one man’s imagination. Even the logo that goes from monochrome to with distinctively toned rings is a major signal of what the audience can expect to come, with the opening credits playing over the very universe itself, a matte painting of science that is supposed to be reassuring despite the war still lingering. We finally get to see Kim Hunter and David Niven, with politics and poetry mingling in the face of mortal terror. Lancaster comes in with a bang, and the mistake of death is stuck against both the bureaucracy and the very glow that is love at first message before the long fall to earth. Certified genius Jack Cardiff, who was still incredibly early in his career and did not even hit his highest highs here, hit it out of the park right off the bat, shooting in two different styles that complement each other alongside a production crew that managed to tailor everything we could see to the vision of the Archers. Tailored to regulation, of course, but they were made to be broken, and the bells ring so beautifully when they do, breaking up that eerie repeated note on the piano while the men killed off earn their wings and go through some sort of tunnel. Ignoring Powell for a second, however, and note that the beauty of the universe is the product of a broken mind going through his last moments…or not. Is that why it is so beautiful and fantasized? No place on the planet has ever looked this good, even before pollution had existed. Marius Goring, who would be the bland love interest of Red Shoes, gets to have much more fun as the Conductor who breaks the metaphysics and has plenty of fun as the fool of the French Revolution who lost his head, then did so again.
Favorite Moment: Seeing the statues on the stairs.
3. Children of Paradise
Sure, it gets remembered primarily nowadays for being filmed while France was being occupied by the Nazis, but Carne’s genius was taking a certain aspect associated with the regime and transforming it into a metaphor that doesn’t easily transpose. The Devil’s Envoys was about love overcoming hate, but Children of Paradise is one of the greatest films about populism, a five-way romantic epic where the sensation of wonder covers the grand scope that is furiously put into action via Arletty’s vulnerable performance, a Norma Desmond who really does have fans and is handling all of them horrendously even as they display their own problems. It has been called the French Gone With the Wind, but that does not sum up what this is aside from sheer length. The amount of opulence that has been conjured up is impressive, but the United States was getting obscene volumes of money for movie productions in 1939, while France was starving and the banquets were frequently robbed by extras who had much more important needs than sitting around in a production where they were irrelevant. Jewish workers were involved with the creation of major components (sets and music), and had to work secretly, but it was all worth it. The monumental success was admittedly never topped by Carne, whose legacy would be slashed up by the French New Wave’s Cahiers critics, but even Truffaut admitted he would give up his entire body of work to make something this good. It sparkles, from Barrault’s mime who gives up everything he has, to Arletty’s magnificence as the embodiment of the sort of icon you can fetishize no matter how many problems of her own she has. There is nothing more thrilling than watching that curtain drop at the end of Part 1 that reconfigures the dynamics altogether, and despite the second half losing its way in some small places, it ultimately returns to the tragedy that wrecked everything, and the love affairs turn into awful pragmatic and logistic negotiations once again. Maria Casares is the most devoted woman in the world, and yet she gets exactly what she deserves at the end of it. Pierre Brasseur’s performance is perhaps a touch too annoying (to the point where his status as a renowned actor of Othello seems ridiculous), but everyone else knows exactly what they are doing, and it carries us through a story that is the definition of what people love about French film.
Favorite Moment: End of Act 1.
2. The Best Years of Our Lives
William Wyler’s style was never the flashiest, but he knew how to exploit the possibilities of a script, and Best Years of Our Lives is widely considered his masterpiece. (I’d probably give that citation to Dodsworth, but it’s awfully close either way.) It is a staggering 172 minutes long yet never feels overlong or tiring, with the ensemble creating something that only could have been made while the feelings over the war were still fresh. Wyler’s hearing loss, his age, and his temper all were embodied in different forms by Fredric March (who had to lose a lot of weight), Dana Andrews (the perfect choice for a trauma victim), and real-life disabled veteran Harold Russell, winning two Oscars for the same performance thanks to the assumption that Claude Rains had it on lock for Notorious. The traumas are drawn straight from the other two Wylers that could be called masterpieces, Dodsworth and The Letter: loveless marriages, pretensions of youth, a lack of thanks, trauma over assimilation. The nation is supposedly grateful for the sacrifices that have been made, but they sure are not showing it, and nobody really fits in now that they have seen the depths of human suffering. The men can try to prop each other up, but they are fairly broken in their own right, and the woes of a nation are on their shoulders, ranging from all their marriages collapsing to the inability to adapt to the workforce as a result of PTSD and a general sense of malaise. No way that a film that is still one of the biggest box office hits ever would have won such popular and critical acclaim if it was endless misery, however, and there’s plenty of joy to be found here. Toland’s deep focus cinematography is consistently gorgeous and carefully blocked, the home reunions are a mix of joyous and nightmarish even though we have barely hit a sixth of the running time and thus have nothing to prepare for, and if anything I found it too short. It’s okay to cry, Homer’s mother tells us when he arrives, but is it okay to get stuck in a psychic quagmire? This is like a parody of Oscar bait, with enough nuance and modernity in how it functions to put the stodgy biopics to shame. Capra won the war for people’s hearts, but Wyler won the battle, and he put me over just a shade more.
Favorite Moment: The bar visits.
1. Brief Encounter
My David Lean agnosticism is a tricky thing. I cannot deny that there is a lot of good stuff in his epics that would go on to win popular acclaim with the Academy Awards, but they also have some screechingly huge flaws that are exacerbated by how goddamn long his work can get. His smaller stuff is what I am less familiar with, but the majority of his work with Noel Coward is perfectly average…with the exception of Brief Encounter, one of the most absurdly perfect movies ever made and the most exquisite realization of what it is like to slowly fall in love, complete with the couple in question doomed to be separated. With all due respect to a perfectly capable Trevor Howard, he gets outshined badly here: Celia Johnson’s performance is one of the greatest of all time, and it is a tragedy she barely acted in films even with the sheer devastation caused by the deep oceans of feeling behind those eyes and in the set of her mouth. She never once plays for our sympathies and earns them anyway thanks to how simply and cleanly the film is shot outside of certain moments like the infamous tilt of madness, devastating every single time. She has been bored for what feels to the audience to be a millennium or three. The moral of the story is to never let a piece of grit get stuck in your eye, for something else might be trapped in there as well as the trains go by, and the deep overwhelming sense of passion is kept at bay only by the prior commitments that are a glue that holds everything together, yet keeps the character of Laura trapped in her place at the home, a postwar trauma in its own right. In some ways it is shot as if it were a noir, but the joy is constantly present even when the romance is going to crumble, and whether our couple gets to do anything beyond kiss is a mystery that helps keep it from dating (a remake showed Sophia Loren and Richard Burton having sex, yikes). The world is prepared to judge, but does it really care? That question refuses to be answered thanks to the exquisite finale of what may or may not be forgiveness for a transgression that might be justified. The end of the affair could only end this way.
Favorite Moment: Tilt of madness.