Top 25 of 1947
25. Kiss of Death
Victor Mature and Henry Hathaway do not have very strong reputations nowadays, with the latter being sunken into obscurity as a director via never really hitting his stride, and the former even being self-depreciating over the fact that he was not particularly talented and gave a lot of terrible performances in his career. Mature’s role as the lead in Kiss of Death, however, works nicely for a surprisingly twisted little crime film which is in some ways the reverse of the main formula that Goodfellas is most known for: a man who is in the organized crime syndicate wants to get out of it because his family has been destroyed while he was in prison, with his wife committing suicide due to financial problems and his daughters have been sent to an orphanage. Obviously enough, the lead is not the reason to watch this. No, that would be Richard Widmark, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for a gangster heavily inspired by the Joker in the Batman comics (thank god that trick hadn’t become played out to death in 1947). His maniacal laugh is less cartoonish than Heath Ledger’s simply because of the great location shooting on the actual New York City streets that inspired this brand of storytelling, with Hathaway turning the darkness of the city into a series of exciting compositions and shadows. The narration here is done by a woman, and Mature’s tendency to look sad and soulful pays great dividends when he has to weigh his resolve for seeing his children against his desire to not be a snitch. The most iconic moment involves Widmark’s character at the top of the stairs with an older woman in a wheelchair about to go down, and this is deservingly considered iconic, but the stuff in between is good too thanks to how simple yet poignant the moral twists are, with a strong opening robbery that holds the interest well to boot. The bulk of noirs don’t factor in the family element, and that deleted scene where Widmark’s character takes advantage of the wife and potentially makes her commit suicide is one to be mourned. Perhaps the moral elements bomb since the third act resolves too happily (the Code sucked sometimes), but as a suspense work, it’s up there with the best thanks to the sense of restraint before Widmark tears it all open as a cackling, hideous menace.
Favorite Moment: Down the stairs.
24. Record of a Tenement Gentleman
Record of a Tenement Gentleman’s title and opening minutes are misleading, with the focus eventually going to an older woman who is essentially forced into adopting a child after starting with two men and the little boy they have found who needs to be taken care of. Choko Iida, best remembered for her parts in various Ozu and Kurosawa films, plays the vendor Tane, reluctantly forced into accepting a motherhood role. This is the basis, in a way, for the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike, except with the focus on the parental role and with a much stronger sense of an arc. I watched this under very poor circumstances, but Ozu’s sense of space is the sort of thing that cannot be ruined by bad Russian dubbing, with the cluttered housing lending great beauty to the frame. I’m particularly fond of one of the men asking Tane for help: the man and child are surrounded by hanging implements that look like weapons, while the worried woman in the position of power has a clean, sparse set behind her that allows her to sit. We then move behind her head when she has to take him anyway, and thus, she gets the implements making her look threatened instead. Her face is too amusingly sour for us to take this too seriously, though, and the comedy begins soon after thanks to the sheer desperation involved in passing off an innocent, then bonding with him anyway until the inevitable tragedy of a real parental figure returning into the fold occurs. It also contains Ozu’s funniest pillow shot: a futon flapping in the breeze, repeated throughout, which is inevitably pee stained at a certain point. Despite the gradual acceptance, the boy is a little like that futon: silent and a bit sullen in its affect, only saying a few words throughout the film while the tenement residents spend their time arguing with one another. This was the director’s first postwar movie, and the emphasis on people trying to come to terms with another even in this harsh new world is acutely felt and, of course, stained with melancholy. This has a happy ending, however, with the lead eventually taking the RuPaul motto of “If you can’t love somebody else, how in the hell are you going to love yourself?” to heart when that somebody else is taken away. A touch cheap, but it works, in the same vein as the shooting itself.
Favorite Moment: The mattress in the wind.
23. Body and Soul
Robert Rossen was not without talent, but he never really found his footing even when he hit a successful project. Body and Soul’s assets are let down by the script, a hokey barrel of cliches that never really transcends them on the level of writing. The rest, however, is exactly what you’d expect from Scorsese’s primary influence on Raging Bull. (Between this and The Man I Love having a part in New York New York, Scorsese clearly liked 1947 as a year much more than I did.) James Wong Howe wore rollerskates and used a handheld camera in the ring, and the results are astonishing and dizzying, a one hit KO that leaves us exhilirated before we inevitably have to return to the same old schtick about crime and how It’s Not All That At the Top. Even this material does not get too deadly, however, thanks to John Garfield in the leading role, giving a performance that can best be called “feral,” selling the hell out of any cheesiness regarding how money is ruining his life and getting exploited by Howe to best effect regarding his weird textures in the face and the sweat that drips from it. Those old cliched roles like Anne Revere once again playing a sympathetic mother or Lili Palmer as the primary love interest get given some teeth in the performances, with Revere’s usual friendliness turning into something stiffer and bonier, while Lilli Palmer is unknown enough that her generic romantic interest role is breaking the formula. Still, the standout among the supporting women is Hazel Brooks in her one big part, a torch singer whose goal is to seduce, and her voice would make Lauren Bacall and her female tenor jealous. She is also so absurdly gorgeous that you have to wonder why her career went nowhere, until you learn that her marriage caused some scandal. If you’re going to watch something standard executed with absurdly great style, then you might as well embrace a tidy boxing melodrama that looks better than damn near everything else in that genre give or take Raging Bull and Huston’s astonishing Fat City, two films which broke as many cliches as possible while writing a group of unprecedented ones in that tired genre. Maybe JWH was the true genius here as opposed to Rossen, but it’s a partnership that works nicely with a standard script and great performers.
Favorite Moment: The first fight.
Possessed opens up on a note that makes itself catnip to many a Joan Crawford fan: she wanders out in a pained shuffle around the sidewalks of Los Angeles, muttering about a man called David before she collapses into a coma. Camp excess is the name of the game here, with her face looking far worse than she ever did even at her most suicidal in Mildred Pierce or demented in Torch Song, and the city streets resembling Sweet Smell of Success even in the early morning. She looks like she applied sandpaper as makeup. It’s a melodrama from the pits of hell, the very aesthetics conforming to her breakdown. The characterizations border on the impossible, but Van Heflin really sells his part as the romantic interest, perpetually soused and shrinking away from the force that is Crawford’s face. She received an Academy Award nomination, and much like the film itself, it cannot just be written off as a campy, out of date piece of work about mental health (the title refers to the belief that the mentally ill are possessed by devils). The score is an electric organ that feels straight out of a Gothic melodrama, practically fitting into the lullaby that scored The Innocents. The plot is committed to the heights of insanity and shapes itself accordingly, fittingly mad rather than a sterile waxwork, as traumatizing as Joan’s stare when she starts off the film laying in bed. The prose is purple, and if it weren’t for that same year’s Daisy Kenyon (a flat out masterpiece of aggressive realism in dialogue), it might be the most artificial nonsense the poor lead actress ever had to spit out, and while the director Curtis Bernhardt is somewhat underrated (The Blue Veil’s copyright troubles don’t help him out here), he is no Preminger, and Heflin’s performance doesn’t offer the solidity of Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda. Still, the lack of formal reins is exciting, and the dialogue responds appropriately so that we can fully get trampled by things like point of views from dead women or some of the most absurd lovers’ dialogue written to convey romantic jealousy. The grandness is self conscious and preening, begging for you to notice it, but it somehow works anyway: a medium talent whose delusions are more fascinating than his successes. In some ways, that makes it the more endearing work, easier and with a more outwardly loopy nature.
Favorite Moment: Opening walk.
21. Private Affairs of Bel Ami
Albert Lewin stuck primarily to making literary adaptations with George Sanders for the first part of his career, and he did it very well indeed, with Dorian Gray taking all the right liberties with the text. His next work was not adapted from as well known a material, and the budget occasionally shows quite badly in the matte paintings and how unsettlingly clean and brand new the sets look, but it is all redeemed when his knack for being an art collector comes forward in his odd little recreations of paintings that are shown at a distance and not in the center of the frame, with an actual painting of St. Anthony in lurid Technicolor as the big showstopping moment that suggests a whole world outside of this one that the characters cannot enter. Censorship standards take away from the seediness of the original Guy de Maupassant work, but there’s still something cold and cutting about how George Sanders manages to make his hatred of the world into an aphrodisiac (“women take to men who have the appearance of wickedness”), quickly scrambling his way to the top as a journalist thanks to pure luck and using it to break the politicians he clearly loathes. Angela Lansbury, meanwhile, gives her first really great performance, a sort of redo of her role in Dorian Gray that gets a greater emotional effect to utilize as a weapon thanks to the fact that she is less of a bland victim within the narrative. She stands out among the five women who get stomped by the sheer acidity of the plot. It reminded me of a budgeted Merchant Ivory, with outdated social norms that are not so very different than our own ruling the Paris of the start of the 1880s, complete with constantly being forced into the presence of the numerous potential interests. What makes this one different is how the art of the day is constantly surrounding these people in subtle ways. Inspiration is everywhere, and even with the plot going somewhat squishy in the home stretch, the deliberate rendering of an aesthetic rather than a believable world in its own right feels like an inspired Poverty Row production, a fable of France. Highlight is the slow, burning realization on that most unamused of actors’ faces that dancing the can-can is actually quite fun, rendering his whole romance with Angela Lansbury surprisingly believable even as he attempts to go for the boss’ daughter.
Favorite Moment: The painting.
20. Miracle on 34th Street
Believing in Santa is a tricky territory for parents to navigate, but if utilized so that children have a greater imagination rather than encouraging them to believe in mysticism, it can be a strong choice in parenting despite the inevitable letdown when they mature. (Shame most people don’t outgrow other mystical men.) Miracle on 34th Street has plenty of avenues that keep the flavor from getting too sugary even though it’s sweet overall, with George Seaton pulling writer-director duty and doing far better than the rest of his career would seem to indicate. The Kris Kringle in this version…well, it’s irrelevant whether or not he is the real Santa Claus, because his influence on the people he surrounds is the same as the real thing, and he’s working his way through a delightfully cynical New York where Macy’s and Gimbel’s are in a rivalry that uses altruism purely to make some more cash. Even the judge who gets caught up in the ridiculous trial has to negotiate his career, being informed that if he rules that Santa’s a fiction, he will become a has-been almost immediately, while nevertheless having to put up with numerous annoying children at the trial. Gwenn won the Oscar, but Natalie Wood’s debut is an oddly fascinating child performance, filled with the weirdness that only Nick Ray was capable of bringing out again. It’s a shame that this had to settle for a Supporting Actor Oscar (a reasonable choice, although Gwenn’s performance is kept a little deliberately banal) while the hokeyness of The Bishop’s Wife took over in Picture, but I suppose the fact that Maureen O’Hara and John Payne’s romance is a bit of a dud makes it a little harder to swallow than the easy charms of Cary Grant, along with the fact that it probably plays like gangbusters to the sort of capitalists you should be avoiding, even if it pokes fun at them too. Its status as a holiday classic is ultimately warranted, however, and some overdone choices that reek of the silliest of classical Hollywood choices (one of the children in this is foreign, orphaned, and has a gap tooth to boot) can’t bring it down. Favorite part has always been the opening credits, though, when Christmas incorrections are flatly pointed out. Christmas could always use a little bit of pedantry, especially from Santa Claus himself when he hands out his gifts.
Favorite Moment: The judge is informed about his career prospects.
19. In the Grip of Passion
When you watch a Teuvo Tulio melodrama, you know exactly what you are going to get, and In the Grip of Passion delivers that in spades. We open in a graveyard that is practically strewn with crosses, as a man digs up a hole in the ground and the score thunders in a way that implies a reveal for the ages. We get a cackling skull and a distorted face of shock from a man that is meant to be a hunchback, so we are in full German Expressionist territory as we stare at the way the Finns in these movies have the ability to turn themselves into rubber in this parody of Frankenstein. Regina Linnanheimo, leading lady in most of his films, once again stars as a woman of many remotely puppeteered faces in her own right, arguably a bit of a boring romantic lead but perfect for the world that hates alcoholics in this world, where she winds up in an arranged marriage to a brute who drinks too much. The opening at the cemetery only barely makes sense, but it certainly sets the tone right, and we go to a church where the bells ring as loudly as any bolt of lightning in the cemetery. There are no quiet moments in Tulio’s films, but unlike the constant screeching hyperactivity of a City of God or a Fight Club, this somehow warrants its demented attempts at capturing something heightened and unsubtle in the crazy landscape, complete with a musical number that goes nowhere about the rapids while people solemnly watch in silhouette like the dance of death from Seventh Seal. I suppose you could take the inevitable look at domestic violence as something that attempts to be serious political commentary, but it’s too ridiculous even when it’s sad, such as a knife stabbed into a rocking chair that sways back and forth just a touch too violently to be casual about it. Other parts feel like a weird little homage to L’Atalante if the Vigo had been beamed down into someone’s consciousness via someone colder and crazier. It all coheres on the level of an arc, even if it makes no sense on the plot level: the ideas of someone who is pursuing a grand vision at the risk of creating a folly, and there is nothing grander than a few good nature shots, of which this has plenty.
Favorite Moment: Opening.
18. The Ball at the Anjo House
The Ball at the Anjo House has been nearly forgotten, and its director Kozaburo Yoshimura has fared even worse in the collective cinephile memory. This is a shame, as it is essentially Japan’s own take on The Magnificent Ambersons, a reckoning with the fact that the war has essentially torn the country’s values apart and nothing is ever going to be the same again no matter how much they try and make it so. A notable director in his own right, Kaneto Shindo, did the script, and while his work would become much more explicitly horrific, the nightmare of such a long night is plenty notable in this, with the American occupation being plenty terrifying to a whole people having their lives upended, no matter what level of security they can claim to have thanks to their wealth. Emotional trauma is writ large thanks to Setsuko Hara as the daughter trying to keep her father from committing suicide, while the underrated Masayuki Mori plays the son going mad in his own right, seemingly cynical but with great depths of feeling underneath the surface to display just how badly his values are getting dragged through the dirt by the way of the world. Despite the fact that the film only exists in a rather bad quality, you can still sense the talent within the unusual formal rhythms, opening right off the bat with Setsuko Hara mid-sentence and saying she’s against the very concept of something. The subtext may be a touch explicit, with the characters flat out saying what this event happens to represent to them, but the edits are cutting and cruel, such as one guest mocking the father as a trained monkey before we see him putting on a tuxedo as part of his induction into the Western world. The slow ramping up of the evening’s traumas, however, sees the work dissolve into a series of Dutch angles, outbursts of pure emotional anguish caused by drinking too much, and many suicide attempts. All the characters are trying to keep themselves stable by reciting the basic facts and themes of this world, but it does no good. The narrative itself has corrupted them, and that makes it appear dated, and thus it avoids a restoration and a higher profile. What a pity, but its time has passed even as it still renders the tension and melodrama excruciating. Some ball this is.
Favorite Moment: Final dance.
17. Nightmare Alley
Edmund Goulding’s directorial career was never particularly bleak in its aims, but Nightmare Alley was his final burst of relevancy as a director before going into a series of forgotten comedies. He reunited with Tyrone Power from the Oscar-nominated Razor’s Edge, but made a much better film, as bleak and unforgiving as you could ask for yet with the same hairpin turns as his best film, Dark Victory. Here, we join something just as ridiculous as Bette Davis’ rich girl mansion: a carnival with a con man in it, trying desperately to make himself the main attraction with the help of the always fantastic Joan Blondell and the surprisingly unknown Ian Keith, her nasty alcoholic husband. Despite a start that owes a big debt to Tod Browning’s Freaks, the rise and fall has been sanitized a bit so it’s less grimy in that sense, then covered in noir trappings so that it still smells of crime and the hard life. Alcoholism is neither overblown nor a joke in this: it’s a genuinely unpleasant thing to live with in day to day life, and no wonder why anyone would want to escape that sort of living. Still, Coleen Gray is more appealing to Power’s con artist and his lack of conscience, and while the original novel’s ending implied our lead would be stuck as a barker until the moment of his death, the movie’s ending makes Gray’s character so blindly romantic that she dooms herself to heal him, where she will inevitably and indirectly wreak havoc if he gets better. Funny how the Code works sometimes, and even more surprising that such an acclaimed director couldn’t be recognized for what he pulled off here. Ultimately, the movie was a financial failure thanks to protests, but they missed the forest for the trees as they are wont to do. The code that the doomed married couple shares is worth all the money in the world, and how fitting that it’s easily abused once the original pairing gets snapped apart by a hard, cold man who later is tormented by his own decisions, causing yet another couple to die in the end. It’s fun and subversive in a way that Goulding should have embraced more often, even with the pleasures of his Oscar winner Grand Hotel being fully in the safe realm of “look at these stars.” Stay in the darkness with this lot.
Favorite Moment: Opening show.
16. The Damned
Rene Clement’s The Damned fits into the long, proud, and grim tradition of boat films, where you stick a group of people on a boat and let the tension unfold naturally. Das Boot is the most famous example, alongside Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but the last day of the Third Reich is a particularly pointed time to have this scenario play out (the fact that all of these involve World War II is interesting in its own right). Hitchcock and Clement’s influences play off each other: the scenario and shooting style on the U-Boat is inspired by Lifeboat, but a man getting stabbed would be re-used by Hitchcock himself about 13 years later on poor Janet Leigh. Here, it’s all a bunch of Nazis and collaborators, along with a French doctor who has been kidnapped to treat a wounded passenger and is deliberately ensuring his own survival by protracting the treatment of the wife’s injuries. Unsurprisingly, since we are on a French production, everyone is depicted as utterly loathsome except the heroic doctor, a witness to the fanaticism that spins out of control as the storyline unfolds. Clement was still in the early days of his career, but his Cannes-winning Battle of the Rails had shown an eye for docudrama, and he uses it here to capture the scope of the shipyards before the boarding occurs, with a crew that just wants to go home compared to the rest of the passengers, a group that gets cheerfully thrown under the bus and absolved simultaneously. One has to wonder if the film’s statements about complicity are muddled for the sake of suspense and drama, but what is carried over from a time when the war had just ended is fairly devastating, a group willing to push a dangerous button because they’ve been at war so long that they want to get out of it by possibly starting another. Most effective is the blocking within the cramped space, with secrets being revealed through the arms of someone who happens to be standing in the way. Truffaut would later dismiss Clement’s entire output as old fashioned, but his talent was emerging, and this potent piece of cramping is far too unfairly forgotten nowadays for its successes in the field. There’s certainly something to be poked around with as it relates to the characters and how they represent their respective nations in the context of what has just ended.
Favorite Moment: Conversation on the top of the ship.
Panique is the return of Julien Duvivier to France and the noir that had initially made him famous, Pepe Le Moko, and it might be a better work than that movie’s brand of cynicism thanks to the advances he had made in his style and a crazier source material to work with. As opposed to the slum where everything is confined in the Gabin vehicle, however, we have the more manic Michel Simon stuck in a small town from hell, with paranoia and cruelty running the show on all sides after a woman’s body is found dumped into a trash can. It is an exorcism of the Occupation’s demons, but that’s not a pretty process even with the thought that’s been put into making the locations seem appropriately trashed. Monsieur Hire is the titular character, and while the remake by Patrice Leconte is held in high regard by some, this has more atmosphere even with Duvivier’s career being forgotten thanks to the French New Wave critics throwing him under the bus with plenty of others, with Simon’s complete inability to care about the horror of a murder resulting in a lynch mob forming against him over time, a nasty little series of tricks rooted in mob mentality that seem warranted due to how shadowy and grim it all is. Similarly to Pepe Le Moko, we just enjoy the atmosphere, but here that includes things such as the local butcher trying to get a child to pin down M. Hire as a pedophile in an accusation that must have seemed equally shocking back in the 40s, while another sequence involving bumper cars at a fair being used as a blocking device is clever and nasty, a forerunner to the famous scene from Mouchette but with no happiness to be found in this scenario. The most grim storyline of the bunch, however, involves Hire’s attempts to woo a woman called Alice away from her boyfriend, a criminal. She is just as horrible as the rest of the town’s residents, and the trick she pulls results in a climax straight out of a horror movie. Remaking this in the 1990s seems like a pointless exercise when so many of the tensions of this are rooted in the traumas of a war that has recently ended, so it is a shame that Duvivier could not quite continue in the same mode for the rest of his career.
Favorite Moment: Bumper cars.
14. Great Expectations
My first experience with Great Expectations was at a very young age when my dad tried to force it on me, and of course I hated it, especially since all the efforts to push Dickens on me were not really working out aside from A Christmas Carol. Coming back to the film many years later and having read Bleak House for a college course was productive, as my David Lean doubts were still on the horizon but easy to bat away in the face of nicely lush production design and taking advantage of the novel being such a plotted creation, with only brief stops for atmosphere that still look terrific thanks to the surprisingly underused cinematographer Guy Green. Having such Gothic looking trees and a violent scream in a graveyard to start things off is an impressive start, and Lean manages to find the cinematic equivalents of things that would only get a few passages in a novel. The array of plot twists will come across as ridiculous no matter how you handle this material, but at least Lean’s skills by this point were so strong that he could simply take them as natural and utilize them appropriately in the realm of creating something that could resemble a slightly more natural picture. The performances mainly succeed off the back of Martita Hunt as Mrs. Havisham, the juiciest role and one that she sinks into like it’s an old chair, practically swallowed up by that wedding dress until she needs to open her mouth and demonstrate a voice that creaks like a door. Even factoring in the film likely scraping itself into the Picture lineup thanks to its delayed release in the States, it’s hard to imagine why she wasn’t a Supporting Actress nominee. Estella admittedly becomes much less interesting once she stops being played by Jean Simmons, but the violence of the early scenes when Pip is a child linger over the refinery to come, rendering the emotional cruelty a substitute for the caning (Freda Jackson is also terrific). Most of this is perhaps too tasteful, but then again, the repressed depths of feeling were a boon for Brief Encounter, and they certainly keep an interesting subtext floating here even if half of that is what an audience member might take from a plot summary or having read the novel. Don’t show it to your kids, but encourage them eventually to seek it out.
Favorite Moment: Burnt dress.
13. I Know Where I’m Going!
I Know Where I’m Going! is a great title for a movie, and Michael Powell helps it live up to that brand of spunk, even as the film remains comparatively earthbound compared to the flights of delirium that would accompany their Technicolor stuff. This remains crisply with its feet on the ground in monochrome, and Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are the perfect choices for a standard English couple that is staying right where they are…except at the start of things, Hiller is not, as she is on her way to marry a wealthy industrialist before the inevitable distractions set in, such as those gorgeous opening credits that she ignores even as a child, and especially when she turns 25 and decides to marry the very embodiment of her work. When her father gently points out that she’s marrying someone as old as he is, she doesn’t care and just heads straight for the train after a brief dancing detour. Shame about that train ride with the song playing over it, a slightly ridiculous scene that doesn’t get us to the romance as quickly as I would have liked, with the foggy castle spectacle making up for lost time, along with Roger Livesey’s voice. Wendy Hiller’s sharp, brash tones don’t fit into this part of the world, a sort of spiritual sequel to Powell’s The Edge of the World except with more romanticism involved (funny how the war played into Powell’s attitudes), and thus she is stranded and must learn how to skin rabbits. It’s an old reversion of the city mouse and the country mouse, but most of the glosses on this fable don’t give us lines as memorable as “They aren’t poor, they just haven’t got any money,” or chemistry as strong as that between Hiller and Livesey, both deeply polite individuals who manage to harness up great depths of feeling. Even if I wish this was another Technicolor fantasia, American audiences in 1947 were lucky enough to witness both this and Black Narcissus on the big screen during the same year, and the cold cleanness of this black and white is enviable. Powell steals a few tricks from Citizen Kane, as we are all inclined to do, including the very long dinner table to emphasize distance between a couple that is already stuck in a remote landscape filled with horrible weather. He ups the game with gigantic shelves that need a ladder.
Favorite Moment: Dance.
12. Woman on the Beach
The Woman on the Beach was the last and best of Renoir’s American productions despite the fact that studio interference marred its production and any of the director’s trademarks barely shined through to some eyes, resulting in a major loss for the studio. Nowadays, what exists is an enjoyably offbeat take on the noir genre, with the love triangles that are the bog standard getting new life from a great cast: Robert Ryan and Charles Bickford as the men, and Joan Bennett as the woman. The film quickly destabilizes us by starting with a dream sequence that is highly specific yet leaves us wondering who the dreamer happens to be. It is unsettling, and we know that the fantasy is intuitively a bad one. He wants to ruin his own engagement with Bennett’s character, who is married to a blind artist, but she is a great match for him: she is the one who blinded her husband, her own little method of destroying her happiness just so she could escape. Or is he even blind to begin with, and merely faking it to gain money because he is metaphorically dead? It’s an exciting set of concepts that get embodied with full commitment. Ryan’s fiancee Eve innocently asks “Is there a reason?” when questioning his devotion to her, and we all know Renoir himself would reply “Yes, of course. Everyone has them,” but where the French’s reasons are logical and cruel, the Americans are simply foggier and rooted in stupid ideals of shipwrecks and women at the bottom of a wreck. Ghost stories are an essential part of our culture and may be the only thing that can bring this threesome peace. We get our happy ending, but is this really what we want to root for? Bennett and Ryan have the most interesting characters, but it’s Bickford who really steals the show as a performer, giving an unfussy take on blindness and your fate being consigned to obscurity that is just barely believable as someone who is potentially faking it. All of this is taken on in 70 minutes, a blessing that helps keep the pacing from ever going slack even if so much of this is essentially a moodpiece designed to probe odd depths of psychology. The nerves have been cut, and the ground is going out underneath us as Renoir cheerfully allows us to drown in this beautiful, marred sketch.
Favorite Moment: Opening dream.
11. One Wonderful Sunday
Favorite Moment: The cafe.
10. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Favorite Moment: First meeting.
9. The Man I Love
Raoul Walsh’s reputation is that of a manly man who primarily worked on gangster films and Westerns, but it’s time some appreciation was shown to his melodramas, namely the delightfully strange Strawberry Blonde and his later work with Ida Lupino, The Man I Love, arguably just as oddball despite the fact that it follows a more conventional arc. Lupino’s performance as a torch singer shows off a voice that is pretty solid even as she chain-smokes while performing the title number. Smoke gets in your eyes, turning the story itself into an oddball musical where it makes perfect sense that you can order a specific drink just with a hand gesture. After all, what is cinema if not a series of gestures that give you something specific? The studio sets in this one happen to be pretty cheap, but they conjure up plenty of atmosphere of a sort of lousy skid joint bar, a place worth falling in love in or saying goodbye to someone in. In this case, it’s another triangle dynamic, a structure that is the best thing for Hollywood to build upon for its melodramas. In some ways it’s amazing this passed the Code, with its implications of alcoholism and adultery that manage to be complicated. When Lupino’s Petey Brown finds out that her entire family is involved with a genuine shit named Nicky Toresca that keeps making passes at her, while she herself falls for a fellow musician named San (not a typo), who never really recovered from his divorce and is making it plenty tempting for whether or not Petey should sign on for a new job on a boat, leaving her old hometown. Our lead is the MVP, but Robert Alda’s hawkish face makes him well-suited for the part of the awful leading man. Most shocking is that this is the movie that primarily inspired Scorsese’s New York New York, and it has essentially been forgotten nowadays. The depths of feeling and the fact that it’s all so bluesy makes it shocking that this has essentially been forgotten, but it deserves a major revival as a delicious pleasure. It’s primarily an excuse for some fun rather than something genuinely groundbreaking in its own right, but the camera work is clever, Preminger-esque in how it slowly tracks to and fro across the interiors. The rise and fall might be a small one, but it feels like an epic.
Favorite Moment: Opening number.
8. Odd Man Out
Carol Reed’s brief period at the top during the 1940s looks even more depressing in retrospect, but at least we have his three beloved movies from that time period, and Odd Man Out was the last of the ones I had left to see, starring James Mason at his most elegantly ruffled under the elegant lens of Robert Krasker, making the trip through England during a time of the IRA look like a nocturnal trip through the urban jungle. Yet despite this, Mason’s character winds up being sidelined thanks to his early injury as a series of dramas play out around him. It’s an oddly structured film: some episodes go for suspense, others for political dissection via the moral crises, but you rarely get both. Despite an introduction that tries to cover its own ass regarding discussion of the IRA, a taxi driver gives us the political line that sticks, warning Mason to not mention his name if he’s caught by the police but it’s okay to do so if he were to be successful in his quest to return to his friends. Also terrific is F.J. McCormick as the tramp named Shell, who operates out of greed yet never seems cruel. When you learn that this is Roman Polanski’s favorite film over the more popular The Third Man, his own visions all snap into place, even if the way this operates is on a plane of teetering on the edge thanks to the early murder that sets Mason on the run with his regrets sticking in his woozy mind. One terrific early sequence shows him driving through the streets as the canted angles of Reed’s start to show up as his way of looking at the world, a director officially running away from the quiet nature of the opening and going into mad suspense, with the raid on the bank leading to everything falling out of control. I am not crazy about how Mason’s Johnny winds up getting shot in the arm, but everything after that is a crazy ride without a car, for it has driven away and left him behind. How could talent just disappear like that? It’s not like Reed slowly evaporated, it simply vanished altogether with no redeeming works after his pinnacle. Cherish what we have, because you never know whether your favorite director may follow the same road into the realm of mediocre hackwork.
Favorite Moment: Wandering from the snow to the bar.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
6. Monsieur Verdoux
Favorite Moment: Boat outing.
5. Brighton Rock
The Boulting Brothers have been nearly forgotten nowadays, but their production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is a stunner of a noir, crisply cynical and with plenty of sharp pans that occasionally stop to focus on an item or person of significance, to the point where you have to wonder whether they just got lucky with such a fun script. Richard Attenborough and Hermione Baddeley are the leads, and have to carry plenty of British slang in the screenplay, for it is a time of gangs that the opening credits reassure us has been wiped out. Two storylines begin to come to light: Attenborough’s Pinkie, a gangster, thinks a certain reporter is responsible for a friend’s death. He eventually stabs him (although there’s an immaculate mirror scare along the way), but it’s a Lady Vanishes scenario where Baddeley made a friend with the man before he died and is now conducting her own investigation. A series of attempts to keep things afloat results in Pinkie falling in love with a woman played by Carol Marsh, who had a small but notable career, and here really sells the Catholic guilt of being in love with such a psychopath. With the ending needing to be changed, Graham Greene unintentionally came up with something of infinite pathos, a recording for the ages that will lead to many a delusion on both sides of the silver screen. It’s a paranoid world, where you can run but you can’t hide and the sunny side of the street contains dark alleyways that the villains who we perversely root for are hiding in. This movie plays on the audience’s character sympathies like a violin, where we want both success and failure for Pinkie’s attempts to get away with what he has done even after we sympathize with the man who runs away from him. The opening chase is a marvel simply because of how many stops are made along the way, an attempt at remaining normal in public that is also an attempt to hide. Catholic guilt has been brought to the seaside and rendered into a gigantic metaphor, with that haunted house ride as a great way to represent the end of a life. With such confidence in the opening, the film had me in its grasp all the way, and the stunner of an ending finishes things off just right to make one wonder why the Boultings never hit it this hard again.
Favorite Moment: Opening chase.
4. Daisy Kenyon
Favorite Moment: Car crash.
3. Black Narcissus
Favorite Moment: The transformation of Sister Rose.
2. Out of the Past
With I Walked With a Zombie, Jacques Tourneur made a masterpiece of atmosphere, and he then proceeded to do something rooted in a perverse sort of realism for his best work, Out of the Past, one of the pillars of the noir genre and featuring three astonishing performances from Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer. We don’t start things out with the latter, though, as the seeming romance is between Mitchum’s Jeff and a dull girl named Anne who may or may not be what holds this back from the top tier, I haven’t decided yet. What does propel this to the top is Theresa Harris, forever not getting her due, claiming that the missing woman got sick from vaccinations, and Jeff’s subsequent casual realization that she was in Mexico and not Florida because of that little nugget. The recounting of these little anecdotes is just being repeated in the present, his gallows coming back to haunt him in a perverted form thanks to the slippery nature of memory. Fitting that when he’s with Kathie as he shouldn’t be, they talk to one another in odd metaphors, the hard-boiled dialogue of the pulp novels that keeps them afloat as they wander around Mexico, the sounds of the cinema keeping them awake as they slowly try and make their part of the love triangle a touch longer in the legs, then using that width to run off to San Francisco. Fitting that all the different genres mix and match with the places this couple runs off to, trying to keep themselves afloat, but this isn’t a fantasy of a marriage so much as it is the recollection of a divorce, with the audience frequently being reminded of who is doing the talking in the next version of the car ride we are on, before we return to spots near the movie houses: escapism, but not quite. Fitting, considering that story makes you feel like it will recur in the present thanks to the trailing that is going on and the seductive pattering of the dialogue that Mitchum sells better than he sold anything except perhaps his psychotic priest in Night of the Hunter. Here, he’s the only stable man despite his doomed memories, as the other two points in that love triangle keep switching out as he makes his way through life and loss via the power of storytelling. The movies are the past.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
1. La Belle et La Bete
Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete might be the definitive fantasy, and even he seemed to know it when he pleaded for the audience at the start of the show to respect the rules of his game and go with the flow via a little message (he had wonderful handwriting). Hard to pick what works the best in this most sensual of adaptations, from the grimy farm that is covered with chickens yet remains elegant, to the castle itself, a marvel of artificiality simply by painting men and having them hold still to be statues. It’s the uncanny valley of fantasy, and that effect is best personified by Jean Marais as the titular monster with some of the most wondrous costuming work ever done in history. Those eyes are real, and they stare right into your soul even as the fur gives you a strong longing to pet such a strange and unusual monster, one with a soul beyond those eyes (the Disney version is a masterpiece in its own right but the Beast never seems vulnerable with Belle at first). Josette Day’s performance is oddly, productively flat so that we can project away, and it all makes sense when the costume falls away at the end and reveals a blandly handsome prince that reportedly inspired someone to yell at the premiere “Bring back my Beast! What have you done with him?” It’s a story too good to be true, but the restoration on the big screen is real and fantastic, and I was lucky enough to see it. It’s oddly fitting that it was postponed for US release until 1947, because the four best films of the year are all about confronting the boundary of truth and lies. This does it in the most absurd, obvious manner, yet that somehow makes it the strongest of that bunch-fitting, since all films are fundamentally about this topic in an odd way. Demy would later take on this mythology with his Donkey Skin, and did a very good job with it, but he lacked a certain sense of the uncanny and odd even as he compensated with his pastel pallette and gave Marais more to do with his cinematic face. Cocteau limited his lover to just his eyes, and drew out a performance that in its own way is for the ages, with the limits that helped draw out greatness getting trampled when he went back to the Orpheus well.
Favorite Moment: Our first look at the castle’s interior.