Saturday, July 2, 2011

Favorite Films of the 1940s

It's silly to try to pick a top ten favorites from the 1940s, as more top quality films were produced that decade than any other. You certainly cannot pick a definitive list, as it is more than likely to change depending on your mood. One could easily name five each from just Hitchcock and John Ford and you'd have an outstanding selection. Or five each from Humphrey Bogart and Edgar G. Robinson. Or ten film noirs, a genre that came into its own during the decade. In any case, no-one can deny that for classic film lovers, it is a phenomenal period. Here are ten of mine, listed in chronological order. A few actors have multiple appearances: Claude Rains, Dana Andrews, Ingrid Bergman, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten. And noirs do comprise five or six of my favorites, depending on how you define the term.

1. Casablanca - 1942

Michael Curtiz's masterpiece has one of the most quotable scripts and outstanding casts of all time. Bogart plays the cynical Rick, still in love with Ilsa, played by a beautiful Ingrid Bergman. She and husband, an important Czech freedom fighter, are in the North African city looking to escape the Nazi's. Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre - what could be better. "Round up the usual suspects."

2. Shadow of a Doubt - 1943

Joseph Cotten best career performance as Teresa Wright's uncle Charlie, the Merry Widow Murderer. He's on the run from police and looking for cover. He gives a chilling speech at dinner about "silly, useless wives," that waste money and are "horrible, faded, fat, greedy women." One of Hitchcock's best, it shows that evil can raise its ugly head anywhere, even in quaint, quiet towns like Santa Rosa.

3. Double Indemnity - 1944

Insurance agent Fred MacMurray is ensnared by Barbara Stanwyck, whose Phyllis Dietrichson is sexy and conniving and spots a sap when she sees one. She wants her husband dead and Walter Neff's just the man to do it. A clever script based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the film deserved its 7 Oscar nominations. Neff provides the voice-over. "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" One of Billy Wilder's best.

4. Laura - 1946

Someone killed Laura Hunt and police detective Dana Andrews heads the investigation in one of director Otto Preminger's best. Along the way he falls in love with the dead woman's portrait. Clifton Webb plays a newspaper columnist and the girl's acerbic mentor, Waldo Lydecker. He received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for supporting actor. One of his best lines: "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom."

5. Notorious - 1946

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman team up as U.S. agents in Buenos Aires to spy on a group Nazis. The plot involves uranium, but that's not important in this Hitchcock story of intrigue. One of Cary Grant's first serious roles, his performance is outstanding as a man who ignore his heart for his duty. In love with Ingrid, he nevertheless sends her into harms way. Claude Rains plays a seemingly respectable businessman, caught unawares by the woman he too, loves. It relies less on action than on the emotional and mental anguish the stars undergo. A brilliant film.     

6. Great Expectations - 1946

Pip, a poor orphan, has a mysterious benefactor who enables him to journey to London to become a gentleman. David Lean is known for directing some of the world's most successful epics: Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, etc. But it is his smaller, more intimate films from the 1940s that are my favorites. This film is the finest film adaptation of a Dickens' novel. Lean and his actors bring to life the book's memorable characters: the convict Magwich, the attorney Mr. Jaggers, and an old woman stuck in the past, Miss Havisham.

7. The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

Belongs among the handful of greatest American films ever produced. William Wyler's masterpiece, it is as near a perfect film as you can get. Superior script, acting, and direction. No other "coming home" comes close to its realism and ability to affect the viewer as we follow three likable men home from WWII.  Several scenes stick with you: the emotional meeting between Dana Andrews and Best Actor winner, Fredric March, in Butch's Bar as March tells Andrews to leave his daughter alone (Teresa Wright); Andrews' father reading his son's medal citation; March coming home to surprise his wife (Myrna Loy); Andrews in the cockpit of an abandoned bomber. Wyler's other best of the decade were The Heiress and The Letter.

8. Black Narcissus - 1947

A group of nuns arrive at a convent high in the Himalayas, where the rarefied air does something to westerners. Deborah Kerr stars and her performance as Sister Clodah is terrific. She has her hands full with her own crisis of faith, and the odd behavior of her nuns, especially Sister Ruth, played chillingly by Kathleen Byron. One of directors Powell and Pressburger's impressive output in the decade, which included The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going, and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. P&P films have luscious cinematography and highly interesting stories.

9. Out of the Past - 1947

Perhaps the definitive film noir. All the requisite components of the genre are here: lots of shadows and lighting; a story that you know will have a dark end for someone; a cynical hero in Robert Mitchum, an amoral detective who gets in way over his head; and a gorgeous femme fatale in Jane Greer, the woman who plays Mitchum like a sap. He knows it too, saying in one voice over, "How big a chump can you be? I was finding out." Kirk Douglas in an early role provides support.

10. The Third Man - 1949

Director Carol Reed's marvelous look at intrigue in post-war Vienna. Joseph Cotten is a down-and-out writer of pulp Westerns named Holly Martins. He's looking to land a job with his old friend, Harry Lime, but arrives too late, learning that Lime is dead, recently struck down by a hit-and-run driver. When accounts of the death don't quite agree, Martins gets suspicious and starts poking around, attracted in large part by Alida Valli, Lime's lover, Anna Schmidt. Vienna is not what it seems. The black market flourishes in the bombed-out streets and Lime's old friends, odd and mysterious, seem to be keeping a secret. This is one of the most atmospheric films ever made, infused with a bizarre zither music and some of the best black and white cinematography ever recorded. It contains one of film's most shocking appearances and a spectacular chase through the city's old sewers.

Just Missing:

The Treasure of Sierra Madre - 1948

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - 1949

The Ox Bow Incident - 1943

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - 1943

Late Spring - 1949

Key Largo - 1948

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