Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1940's

10. Stray Dog (1949, directed by Akira Kurosawa)

The earliest of Kurosawa's many masterpieces (he's got at least 8 I'd call out and out great movies), Stray Dog is about a young post-war Tokyo cop who has his gun stolen on the train home one hot summer day. This gun later turns up as the murder weapon in another case, and sends the young officer on a manhunt to find who stole his gun. One of Kurosawa's underappreciated non-samurai movies, Stray Dog has a palpable sweat to it, evoking those unbearable summer days and humid nights. Wrapping that setting around a cop movie was a good choice, and having his favorite actors Toshiro Mifune (as the young cop) and Takashi Shimura (as the veteran helping him out) as his stars was never anything but brilliant.

9. Bambi (1942, 5 different directors)

One of those odd "nostalgic" movies that I'm not actually nostalgic for. Bambi was never one of my favorites when I was a kid, I think I thought it was too slow. But when I saw it as an adult, I was mesmerized by the nature scenes and the evocation of seasons and life in the forest. I still don't cry when Bambi's mother is killed, but I tense up as they're trying to get out of the burning forest, and get all dewy eyed when the characters are growing up. One of the great Disney movies for sure.

8. Double Indemnity (1944, directed by Billy Wilder)

The earliest of Billy Wilder's many great movies, Double Indemnity did what a lot of the classic noir movies did, it took a terrific noir book, and didn't screw anything up in the translation to the screen. Fred MacMurray is a great choice as our everyman protagonist, drawn into the web of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson makes for a great investigative foil who witnesses the whole thing unravel (as it always does in these noir movies). Great atmosphere, writing, acting, it's got all the usual hallmarks of a Wilder movie.

7. Foreign Correspondent (1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

The greatest movie Hitchcock ever made that most people haven't heard about, Foreign Correspondent doesn't have any big stars, or any iconic set pieces, it's just a damn fine movie. A globetrotting reporter played by Joel McCrea runs around Europe during WWII having all kinds of Hitchcockian hijinks happening around him (ya know, murder and blackmail and all that good stuff). Despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year, Foreign Correspondent seems overshadowed in history by Hitch's other 1940 release, the Best Picture winning Rebecca. But it has some of Hitch's best work (especially the plane crash), including a deviously villianous turn by a pre-Santa Claus Edmund Gwynn.

6. Monsieur Verdoux (1947, directed by Charlie Chaplin)
One of the great dark comedies ever made, I've written about Charlie Chaplin's diabolical opus before, but I'll recap that it was an idea Orson Welles had for a movie that he wanted Chaplin to star in. Chaplin had never been directed by anyone but himself, and wasn't gonna start at the age of 58, so he bought the script, re-wrote it, directed it, starred in it, and wrote the score for it (a typical day at the office for control freak Chaplin). It's the story of a man who marries women, kills them and takes their money. It abides by the production code of the day by not letting Chaplin get away with it, but coming out just after WWII, Chaplin can't help commenting "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero." I've only seen 2 Chaplin's I'd call genius. And while I think his The Gold Rush is superior to this, Monsieur Verdoux is certainly his other.

5. Citizen Kane (1941, directed by Orson Welles)

What more can really be said about this, likely the most talked and written about movie in cinema history? I'll just quickly posit that obviously I don't put it as one of the 1 or 2 greatest movies ever made, it is most definitely a great movie. Orson Welles' work as director is incredibly ambitious and impressive, his work as writer nearly flawless, but it's his central role as Charles Foster Kane that really carries this textbook of a movie. He doesn't need the aging makeup he's put in, he believably takes us through different stages of Kane's life with just body language and voice control. It's truly amazing work on every level from a man who was only 26 at the time. And for those who haven't seen it, yes Rosebud was his sled, but what does that mean?

4. He Walked by Night (1948, directed by Alfred L. Werker)

Probably the most unfairly overlooked noir movie ever made. Serving as the blueprint for Dragnet's use of real police files, and having that shows creator and star Jack Webb in a small role, He Walked by Night is a fascinating police procedural noir with some striking cinematography, terrific performances, and a tightly wound script that never lets up, even if it only lasts 79 minutes.

Credited to journeyman filmmaker Alfred L. Werker, but directed at least in part by the legendary Anthony Mann (reports conflict on how much), the calling card of the movie has to be its finale, a flashlight lit chase through the L.A. storm drain system that shames the more famous, and very similar, chase at the end of The Third Man, released the following year. The wonderful suspense of the chase is heightened by what we already know of the killer's knowledge of the underground system, and his preparation of just such a scenario. The little details adding up into a tremendous sequence that's the best I've run across in my quest. The photography of the picture overall should be commended as well, shot by master cinematographer John Alton (An American in Paris, The Big Combo), the finale is not the only memorably photographed sequence (although I can't impress upon you how much I loved that finale), we get many great shots of faces lit by the light shining through the blinds, lonely intersections broken only by a single street lamp, and many more.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947, directed by George Seaton)

Everyone has that movie (or movies) that just make them feel good. No matter what your mood is, no matter what's going on in your life, you can watch it and feel thoroughly good. Well, this is that movie for me. I watch it multiple times a year and cry with joy every. single. time. The tale of faith and Santa Claus and legal loopholes and all that stuff add up to be the movie that just makes me the happiest I can be.

I have always wanted to point out that it makes me laugh that the finale of the movie is all driven by people acting selfishly. Fred is so sure of himself as a lawyer he says he can prove Kris is the real deal. Judge Harper refuses to dismiss the case because he has to keep his integrity, but can't risk pissing off the voters and he's up for re-election soon. The post office workers simply want to be able to get rid of all the Santy Claus letters they have in their dead letter office, so they send them to Kris. It doesn't exactly underline the giving mentality of what Kris preaches, but the movie makes me so happy that even as I'm watching it and thinking about how everyone is selfish, I just don't care and I sit back and be happy.

But as a movie buff I couldn't put it on the list if I didn't admire it from a filmmaking perspective too. It's got a tight script, is nicely photographed, and the acting by everyone involved is top notch. So it satisfies anything I could want from it.

2. Notorious (1946, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the great performances from one of our greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman, is contained right here in one of the most low-key spy stories the movies have ever given us. It's really not a spy tale at all, it's the story of love and how these two people let their jobs get in the way, and put their country above themselves just long enough for things to get all screwed up, while we hope that they get out of it in the end. It's a nearly perfect movie, in my eyes, with Cary Grant's career best work, and Bergman's only being surpassed by another movie on her resume...

1. Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtiz)

Speaking of perfect movies, I don't think I can find a flaw in the world's most famous B-movie. Not intended as one of the big studio productions, Casablanca simply came together in the happiest of accidents and became one of the most beloved movies ever made. It took me a long time to see it, but as soon as it was over I wasn't asking myself what the big deal was, I was kicking myself for waiting so damn long to see one of the greatest movies ever made and the best movie of the 1940's.

I have to detail my personal favorite scene in the movie and the reason why Humphrey Bogart was one of our greatest stars. After seeing Ilsa again, and hearing "As Time Goes By" for the first time in years, Rick sits drinking alone after closing the bar. Sam comes in and starts playing piano, Rick gives his "of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine" speech, but then asks Sam what he's playing. Sam says it's something of his own, and Rick lashes out at him to "stop it! You know what I wanna hear. If she can stand to hear it, I can!" and the look of complete devastation on Bogie's face should've won him an Oscar.


Chris said...

Great list! A few of those I still need to see: Stray Dog, Monsieur Verdoux, 34th street, and He Walked by Night

My top 10 of the 1940s would look something like this:
1. Out of the Past (1947)
2. Random Harvest (1942)
3. Letter from unknown woman (1948)
4. Day of Wrath (1943)
5. Casablanca (1942)
6. Great Expectations (1946)
7. Mildred Pierce (1945)
8. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
9. Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)
10. Double Indemnity (1944)

kathy said...

I have seen most of the films in your top 10 1940's list. Was surprised I missed the #7 Hitchock film, since he is one of my favorites. Joel McCrea was a well known actor of his time...maybe just not well remembered. I will have to check out the films I missed!