Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ten Great Films of the 1940s

            I told you I was not done with this series.  This decade was definitely much harder to write about than the Oughts because this is one of my personal favorites.  The films of the forties are great because they have this sense of sophistication and wit that is very much its own and impossible to emulate.  The fifties was obviously the closest, but the subtext of paranoia and disillusionment will always be associated with that decade. 
            Anyway, there were two problems I had with writing about the forties.  The first problem was trying to write with some restraint.  But the other problem I had was trying to assemble ten that stand out because of the number of great films in 1940s is just staggering. So I made a compromise...

Honorable Mention: Pretty much everything.
            This list is admittedly biased towards Hollywood films, but this is not because nothing good was created overseas. In fact the list could have easily been expanded to fifty and have featured films made by everyone from Ida Lupino to Roberto Rosselini to Powell and Pressburger yet still the list would feel incomplete.  But truth is that in terms of consistency, the 1940s is easily the peak of the Golden Age of Hollywood and what is more appropriate than to show the best of this period?


10. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
            The idea of a film about three men scouring Mexico in search of gold and starring Humphrey Bogart sounds like it should be a fun western adventure, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is far from a blockbuster, which is not a bad thing. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is actually a very dark, and intimate drama that is famous for its frank portrayal of greed. The theme of destructive greed in The Treasure of Sierra Madre revolves around the main character Fred C. Dobbs, who begins as a decent man, until his search for gold slowly turns him into a paranoid rat of a person. Add to the fact that an unexpectedly brilliant Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs and he is easily one of the greatest characters ever shot on film.
            (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is available on DVD Blu-ray and digital download)

9. It’s a Wonderful Life
            The problem with writing about an undisputed classic like Its a Wonderful Life is exactly that, it is undisputed. The film is so ingrained into pop culture that fans and critics alike often talk about how great it is without actually saying why it is great. For the sake of brevity, It’s a Wonderful Life is considered the greatest Christmas movie because it never misses the point.  The story of how George Bailey is rescued by his guardian angel Clarence is not shallow consumerist driven tract, if anything the story is anti-materialistic. The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is about how earning the respect from others by being a good person will lead to a more fulfilling life, not from buying the coolest thing or comparing stacks of money. This makes for great entertainment yet it would have been fallen into a schmaltzy mess if not for James Stewart performance as George Bailey. 
            The story is held so focused on such a deceptively complex main character that it required an actor who is both childlike as well as quietly depressed, and in this context, James Stewart was the only option.  While this naïve everyman role is a typecast for James Stewart he was not really as nuanced as he is as George Bailey.  Stewart performs with great subtly and wit as his character tries to restrain himself from expressing his self-loathing. Yet as soon as his character is cornered, Stewart is not afraid to lash out like he has minutes to live.
            (It’s a Wonderful Life is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download )

8. The Grapes of Wrath
            John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath represents a rare anomaly of where the adaptation is superior to the source.  The story of The Grapes of Wrath is one about the Great Depression and how the victims of the Dust Bowl, represented by the Joad family, try to find work out on the west coast and more importantly survive. The film for the most part is fairly true to the novel with the exception of having a far more optimistic ending, which prevents the film from being overbearing and bland.  The given its subject matter, John Ford provides a surprisingly delicate direction to the film, revealing the plight of the characters through carefully crafted shots.  Finally the superb ensemble cast, especially Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, are so distinct and nuanced that it is impossible to read the book and not imagine these actors.
            (The Grapes of Wrath is available on DVD and Blu-ray)

7. White Heat
            Most of the time a film is best remembered if each element in front of and behind the camera is performed well and contributes to create something great; yet it is just as possible for a film to be great for just one phenomenal component.  For example, White Heat is about the fall of an American gangster named Cody Jarret, in terms of plot the film is no different than any gangster film made before, but it stands out because it features James Cagney doing one of the most intense lead performances in film history. Cagney is a beast in White Heat, completely unpredictable and unhinged, which may sound typical for him, but he has never been this terrifying as a gangster.  He brings a subtext to Jarret’s insanity by portraying him as an angry child who can barely restrain himself, which only makes his relationship with his mother more than disturbing.  Cagney was an extraordinary actor and his performance in White Heat was one of the great performances until method acting became the norm.
            (White Heat is available digitally but if you want a DVD then I would recommend this box set, it is not available on Blu-ray)

6. Sullivan’s Travels
            In Sullivan’s Travels a comedy director, wanting to create art films about the working class heroes, decides to travel across the country as a bum to see what it is like to live in the lower class, hilarity ensues.  Sullivan’s Travels is a film that is liked by critics and beloved by the average filmgoer because it satirizes the miscommunication between the artist and the audience.  Even back in the forties the idea that a filmmaker must make socially relevant films in order to appease the middle and lower classes, and while this is great way to earn an Academy Award, they rarely resonate with the average audience because film is meant for escape, not a reminder. By focusing on a character so pretentious that he does not understand why people love to laugh Preston Sturges, the writer and director, used Sullivan’s Travels to not only make a hilarious satire but also to study why escapist films are more beloved than art films. In the end though, Sullivan’s Travels becomes the one thing it is satirizing, but it is so fun and lighthearted that it cannot be tainted by the word pretentious. Plus it climaxes with a Pluto cartoon and that is awesome in too many ways.
            (Sullivan’s Travels is available on DVD through Universal and the Criterion Collection.  As of now the Universal print is half the price of the Criterion release; but if you love extra features, which is better explained in the link, then the Criterion release definitely worth the price.)

5. Citizen Kane
            The last words of the great newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane was only one, “Rosebud” the word becomes a sensation. News reporters from around the nation then search for every friend, enemy, and family in order to answer the same question, “What does Rosebud mean?”. This leads them to reveal some of the deepest and most personal moments of Charles Foster Kane’s life but nobody knows the answer to the question that matters. Thus is the premise of Citizen Kane, the greatest movie ever made. 
            Frequently considered by the American Film Institute, Sight & Sound and many critics as the greatest film ever made, it is practically a requirement to put Citizen Kane in any list about great films. In reality, the film is too cold and bland to warrant such a high title, but for anyone who has seen the film, it is not hard to understand why it is recognized as such because pretty much everything went right.  The entire cast performs beyond great expectations and the fact that the cast is made up of mostly unknown actors who worked on the Mercury Theater on the Air is inspiring. Greg Tolland’s cinematography at the time was considered very experimental but even today the film looks extraordinary.  But the greatest aspect of Citizen Kane is the powerful direction by Orson Welles who famously had full artistic control over the entire production.
            (Citzen Kane is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download)

4. The Third Man
             It is weird looking back at the many films of the forties that are about World War II because the tone changes rather jarringly with before, during and after the war.  Films made before or during the war like Sergeant York while not bad, and often very good, simplify the war into a game of black hats and white hats between the Hitler and the USA. Then there are films like The Third Man, which delves into the politics of postwar Europe as well as morally ambiguous characters.  Taking place in Vienna, still filled with rubble from the war, an American pulp Western author named Holly Martins visits the city after his best friend Harry Lime offers him a job, only to discover that Lime was killed under suspicious circumstances.  Inspired to know who wanted Lime dead, Martins discovers that, among many other things, his friend ran a penicillin smuggling operation that has led to numerous innocent people dead. The Third Man is a very bleak mystery that forces its audience to accept the fact that nobody truly has a clean morale code, even if they appear to have one.
            (The DVD for The Third Man out of print on but is available on Blu-ray and digital download.)

3. Disney
            While the first feature of Walt Disney Studios, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, may be a milestone in feature film animation, the truth is that it was only a catalyst for a series of brilliant films.  The next three films by the studio, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Dumbo defined what could be done with animation for fairly different reasons. Fantasia is easily their most mature effort in terms of creativity; the film is literally a series of animated vignettes where the Disney animators experiment with how music and animation complement, and it is layered in a way that only an adult audience can appreciate.  Dumbo is an interesting film to watch because it is easy to forget how economical it is compared to their previous efforts. Dumbo is only an hour long, there are little to no sound effects, and the most elaborate sequence in the film, the "Pink Elephants on Parade" musical number, is minimalist compared to other famous Disney sequences. Yet lavish bombast is not what makes the film so great. The film is very character driven and the emotional weight comes from the performances the animators bring out of their creations.  But the most realized film of Walt Disney Studio has to be Pinocchio, which contains both lavish production quality of Fantasia and emotional nuances of Dumbo, making for a remarkable experience.
             (Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Dumbo are available for purchase, but the first two are rather expensive, so I recommend using Netflix instead)

2. Double Indemnity
            Film noir is a difficult genre to describe because unlike the other classic genres, westerns and gangsters, the tropes associated with it are broad enough to not restrict the films to a specific formula. If anything, film noir is more of an aesthetic style and mood than an actual genre.  But if anyone were to ask what film noir looks like then Double Indemnity is easily the best example.  Double Indemnity has a fairly pulp fiction story about how an insurance salesman and a housewife, played by a sexually intimidating Barbara Stanwyck, plan to kill her husband and take the insurance money. But this pulpiness is more than made up for thanks to Billy Wilder’s skill as a director.
            Billy Wilder truly defined film noir with Double Indemnity through the use of sensually dark cinematography and his iconic screenplay. Like Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity is famous for a nonlinear narrative, which told from the perspective of the insurance salesman after he loses everything. This works beautifully in how it still remains unpredictable as well as it allows Wilder to write some of his best dialogue.  The dialogue in Double Indemnity is very stylized, even by the standards of other films in the forties; it has sharp wit and very sexy poetic tone that could only be written by Billy Wilder.  Nobody really talked like this back then, but given how often this screenplay has been emulated, people wished they could speak this smoothly.  The cinematography is unbelievably rich, every frame is filled with so many shadows that the actors are nearly silhouettes yet it complements them so well that makes it one of the sexiest films ever made. Double Indemnity is exactly what anyone would want in a film noir; it has an unpredictable plot, cool dialogue, sexy characters and sexier camera work, it is not meant to be a deep story, just an unforgettable one.
            (Double Indemnity is available on DVD and digital download, but not on Blu-ray)

1. Casablanca
            Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made, and along with Citizen Kane and The Godfather, it is frequently touted as the greatest Hollywood film in history.  Another problem with appraising an undisputed classic is trying not to overselling it. Compared to other films on this list, Casablanca is very a simple film, and a few individual elements can be easily scrutinized. This possibly stems from fact that no one at the time expected Casablanca to explode the way did. While technically not a B-film, the production of Casablanca is infamous for being rushed so quickly that it was practically improvised, and it was only meant to satisfy a crowd living through WWII. Yet in spite of this, Casablanca deserves every single accolade it earned since its premiere in 1942.
            On the surface, the success of Casablanca should not be as surprising as it is because the cast is staggering.  During WWII it was not uncommon for European actors to escape to America and find work in Hollywood.  As a result, the players credits reads like a list of the great character actors of the time period, including but not limited to Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Madeliene LeBeau, Conrad Veidt and Claude Rains, and all of them provide extremely memorable performances in this film.  This is not even including the top billed actors Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart who both give one their best performance. And then there is Ingrid Bergman, damn.  Bergman is just radiant in Casablanca; her presence is both dominant and complex as she plays a character that has to makes difficult decisions and hides her intentions, even if they are for good.  Yet what truly glues this film together is not in the ensemble but in its near-perfect screenplay.
            This screenplay, which written by an revolving door of writers including Howard E. Koch, the Epstein brothers and the unaccredited Casey Robinson belongs in a museum.  If the dialogue in Double Indemnity was cool then the dialogue in Casablanca is so witty, dynamic and powerful that it has become ingrained into modern culture.  It is probably harder to find an uninteresting line in this film than anything else it is that good. Yet what makes the screenplay a landmark is less about how memetic the dialogue is than how it each line defines a character at a near Shakespearean level of effectiveness.   Lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody.” and “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time” define the characters so much that they reveal more complexities than the actors themselves, and given the cast that is no small feat.
            Casablanca is not only the classic Hollywood film it is also defines what made the Golden Age so great as well as shows how powerful film a can be with just a screenplay. Not bad for a film that was not expected to be a hit.
            (Casablanca is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download)

Feel free to check out my first Ten Great Films list here and also my essays on King Kong and Daisies here

Update: I have added links to amazon.com as well as some minor purchasing advice under each review. It should also be noted that, as of this writing, that each film is available on Netlflix.

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