Movies Of The Year: 1948

I’ve seen 24 films from 1948, the most of any year up to this point, and a total that isn’t matched until 1953. I don’t know of any particular reason that would be, it’s almost twice as many as the number of films I’ve seen from 1947. Anyway, in spots 16-24 are some interesting films. Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express are interesting films set in post-war Germany that don’t entirely work for me, but they seem to be paving the way for 1949’s great The Third Man. Easter Parade, with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, I was really disappointed in when I watched it many years ago: the only thing I remember about it is being bored. Blood On the Moon is a pretty cool Western noir with Robert Mitchum and direction by Robert Wise. Key Largo is a mediocre Bogart-Bacall pairing, stagey and hampered by an annoying Edward G. Robinson performance. Words And Music is decent biopic of songwriter Lorenz Hart, with a surprisingly good performance from Mickey Rooney in the lead role. 3 Godfathers is a weird hybrid of Christian fairy-tale and John Ford Western. Vittorio DiSica’s Bicycle Thieves is one of the most famous and popular art movies of all time. I’ve ranked it as high as 16 giving it the benefit of the doubt. I really didn’t like it the first time I’ve seen it, and it managed to turn me off the whole Italian Neo-Realism movement for years. The sentimental, elementary social critique of it I found more obnoxious than moving, but I’ll concede I may have missed something. It wouldn’t be the first time.

24. The Three Musketeers
23. Easter Parade
22. A Foreign Affair
21. Berlin Express
20. Blood On The Moon
19. Key Largo
18. Words And Music
17. 3 Godfathers
16. Bicycle Thieves

15. Hamlet – Laurence Olivier’s version of The Greatest Play Ever features an atmospheric noir setting and some fun tracking shots that snake through Elsinore castle; it’s probably the best looking adaptation of the Play I’ve seen. The acting is terrible though. Olivier’s plays Hamlet as a whiny weakling who wouldn’t drink hot milk, let alone hot blood. This mid-Century RSC idea of performing Shakespeare as a recitation rather than an emotionally alive experience has thankfully faded away in recent years.

14. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre – One of John Huston’s best films, though one in which you can still tell why Orson Welles (or was it John Ford?) called him a faker. Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt are Americans down and out in Mexico who join up with Walter Huston and mine some gold. Soon greed and mistrust and banditos tear them all apart. It’s kind of like a Western, but like a Hollywood prestige Western along the lines of Shane or High Noon: it’s a mainstream, conservative film in the guise of a marginal genre, an elephant in termite’s clothes. Still, Bogart gives one of his better, or at least flashier, performances, and Walter Huston’s a lot of fun as well.

13. The Naked City – Jules Dassin’s highly influential procedural noir, which spawned the famous tagline “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” 1948 was a great year for noir, one in which its transition from a specific genre (detectives, femmes fatales, etc) to a general style (shadowy images, moral ambiguity, etc) really begins to solidify. Most of the films on this list show some kind of noir influence: Westerns, romantic comedies, and Shakespeare adaptations along with films in more closely related genres: police procedurals, Neo-Realist melodramas, gothic mysteries. The procedurals are so closely related that they’re often lumped in with classical noir despite their obvious differences. Dassin’s film here is less stylized than the one (sort of) directed by Anthony Mann next on the list, but it’s also a grander, more epic vision of the police force at work throughout the city. Plus, Dassin gets to work with Barry Fitzgerald, the leprechaunian actor featured in many a John Ford film.

12. He Walked By Night – It’s unclear how much Mann actually did direct of this film, but it fits very well with the semi-documentary noir style he used in 1947’s T-Men. Richard Basehart (La Strada) plays the cop-killing criminal on the run from the police. Special focus is given to the technology the cops use to help track him down, with the tech guy played by Jack Webb, who later adapted the style of this movie to create Dragnet. More of a B noir than The Naked City, as I recall, though it did win the “Best Police Film” award at the Locarno Film Festival (Dassin’s film won two Oscars and was nominated for a third). really, the two of them would make a great double feature.

11. Force Of Evil – More of a classical noir is Abraham Polonsky’s study of a corrupt lawyer try to make it big in a corrupt city. John Garfield plays the lawyer, representing a syndicate that wants to control all the rackets in the city, driving the small-time operators out of business, kind of the Wal-Mart of organized crime. Trouble is: Garfield’s brother is one of those small-time crooks. So, he’s got to keep his brother alive, while juggling his evil boss, the boss’ wife and the cute secretary who thinks he isn’t totally evil yet. One of the more beautiful, sharply written noirs I’ve seen.

10. They Live By Night – The first time I saw this, Nicholas Ray’
s debut film as a director, I wasn’t very impressed. Frankly, Farley Granger ruined it for me. He just didn’t look right for either a generic noir hero or for the specific ex-con he was supposed to be playing, he was too soft, too innocent, too obviously intelligent. But, the film has a lot of fans and a year or two later I gave it another chance. I liked it a lot more this time around, able to ignore (or maybe even start to like) Granger and get caught up in the whole doomy romanticism of it all. I liked Cathy O’Donnell as the other half of the ‘young lovers on the run’ pair, and Howard Da Silva made a great bad guy, and both held up on second viewing. I have a feeling if I watched this a third time, I’d really love it. But probably still not as much as the twisted fun of Jospeh H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy, which is now apparently listed as a 1950 movie on imdb instead of 1949. I’ve been noticing this a lot lately, which I guess is good assuming these new years are more accurate, but it means I have to go and move a bunch of movies around. If you notice anything I’ve got listed under the wrong imdb-year, let me know so I can fix it.

9. Portrait Of Jennie – A creepy romantic melodrama starring Joseph Cotton as a haunted painter. Directed by William Dieterle, who did the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I liked quite a bit. Anyway, Cotton plays a struggling painter who meets a little girl who inspires who to paint something that actually makes him some money. He continues to run into the girl, though she ages remarkably quickly, turning into Jennifer Jones. Cotton is as great as he always is, bringing his grounded Americanness to the gothic twists of the plot. There are some really cool transition shots as well, with the image freezing and fading into a painting (you see the little textured squares of the canvas take over the film image).

8. Macbeth – Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptation is much the opposite of Olivier’s, and thank God for that. The two films do share the same shadowy style, but Welles’s is pure B-horror whereas Olivier goes for prestige-noir. The approach to the text in both the acting as much as the more general mise-en-scène is what really differentiates the two films. Welles, badly dubbed, with cheap sets and costumes captures much more the medieval violence of the play and the psychotic emotions at its ghost story heart. Olivier treats Shakespeare like a text to be worshipped, not one to be lived in, felt or experienced. Give me the sloppy, haphazard Welles over Oliver’s polished bloodlessness any day.

7. The Pirate – One of the more twisted musicals Vincente Minnelli ever made, with a warped plot about the joys of abandoning reality in favor of fantasy and show business. Judy Garland plays a girl engaged to the local mayor who dreams of being kidnapped by a famous pirate. Gene Kelly comes to town with a sweet mustache as a traveling actor and is romantically rejected by Garland. He hypnotizes her, discovers her pirate fantasy and the convinces her and the rest of the town that he is said pirate. She runs off with him, abandoning the mayor, who is the actual pirate in question. Make sense? It gets weirder. Along with some catchy songs (I had one of Garland’s stuck in my head for two weeks after the last time I watched this) and great dancing from Kelly (as usual) and the Nicholas Brothers, who weren’t in nearly enough movies.

6. Rope – Another Farley Granger movie, but he fits much better here as the uncomfortable half of a preppy murder duo. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s experiment in long takes (the film is made up entirely of ten minute shots linked by invisible cuts) is what gets most of the attention when talking about this film, but they way it presents a variation on the famous Leopold & Loeb murder case, with the killers deluded by sophomoric misunderstandings of their teacher’s lectures on Nietzche and Dostoyevsky is fascinating as well. Jimmy Stewart is outstandingly cast against type as their professor, who is quite dramatically shown the downside of his philosophizing.

5. Unfaithfully Yours – I just saw this Preston Sturges film a few weeks ago, and if anything it’s grown in my memory since then, when I already really liked it. Rex Harrison, in particular, is astounding in the role: no one else I’ve seen has been able to deliver Sturges’s dialogue at the breakneck speed it requires. It’s unfortunate that unlike Cary Grant with Howard Hawks or John Wayne with John Ford, there was only one film for this great actor-director combination. But this film bombed and all but ended Sturges’s career.

4. Letter From An Unknown Woman – I wrote this after seeing this for the first time (and unfortunately only time so far): “Joan Fontaine stars in this Max Ophuls film about a woman’s lifelong obsession with a philandering pianist who doesn’t know she’s alive. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and darkly tragic as we realize just how delusional the poor girl is. Ophuls masterly fluid direction is at it’s best.” Fontaine really is terrific in the movie, but then I always think she’s great. It was her production company that financed the film, and I understand it was her decision to hire Ophuls, helping get his career back on track after he spent the war years seemingly languishing unused in Hollywood. So “yay!” for Joan Fontaine. She’s so much better than her sister.

3. Fort Apache – The first part of director John Ford’s informal “Cavalry Trilogy” stars John Wayne as the reasonable captain of a frontier troop holding an uneasy peace with the local Indians. When martinet colonel Henry Fonda shows up to take charge, he wastes little time leading his men into a disastrous battle. The military/political side of the story is the first in a series on Ford film’s that undercut both Western myths in general and Hollywood depictions of Indians in particular, and it’s evenly balanced with the kind of community-building family life stories Ford used to balance all his action films. A grown-up Shirley Temple plays Fonda’s daughter, the mellifluously named Philadelphia Thursday and Ford regulars Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, George O’Brien and Pedro Armendáriz round out the excellent supporting cast.


2. Red River – It looks to me like this Metro Classic was Howard Hawks’s first Western. There might have been an earlier one, perhaps a silent or something obvious I’m not noticing, but before this time it seems he specialized in screwball comedies and movies with airplanes in them. So this was a bit of a departure for him, as it was for John Wayne, playing the less than heroic, psychotic even, ruthless cattle baron driving his men clear across Texas for the sake of providing America with the beef she needed. Wayne and Montgomery Clift (playing Wayne’s adopted son) provide exactly opposite ideas about acting and, well, about manliness in general, underscoring the moral conflict they have in the film. There’s a lot going on in this film, from the post-war crisis of masculinity (a popular noir theme as well at this time), to the hilarious gay subtext of the conversations between Clift and rival gunman John Ireland, to the deliriously happy ending that doesn’t make the least bit of logical sense and yet emotionally fits perfectly. Simultaneously silly and profound, murderously dark and brightly comic, Hawks walked this tightrope a lot in his career, but I don’t know if he ever did it better.


1. The Red Shoes – Another Metro Classic is possibly the greatest, and probably the most famous, of the many collaborations between writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The story of multiple love triangles at a famous ballet company, each of the three principals is in love with two things: another person, and their art. Moira Shearer, a dancer in her first film role, is stunningly natural as the ballet dancer who is the object of affection for Marius Goering, the young composer who loves her and Anton Walbrook, the cold-hearted company director who might love her but loves her in his ballets more. the melodrama is enhanced by the great work of these fine actors (I can’t think of a single bad performance in a Powell & Pressburger film, that surely can’t be a coincidence) and the ensemble that makes up the lively ballet company. But the most amazing thing about the film is its centerpiece ballet sequence, a 15 minute tour de force of hallucinatory Technicolor and state of the art special effects. It raised the bar for musical sequences in film, directly inspiring Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly to try to top it in An American In Paris (another Metro Classic). I’ve wandered around in what my favorite Powell & Pressburger film is, it was this one for a long time. Lately I’m less comfortable with some of the turns the plot takes in the final sequences, I think the emotion of the melodrama (and the actors’ skill) hides what are some rather large holes in motivation. But this is after over a dozen viewings of the film. If I didn’t notice it before then, it probably isn’t that big of a deal. At least not enough to keep it out of the top spot for this year.

The Films I Haven’t Seen:

Oliver Twist
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
Sorry, Wrong Number
Call Northside 777
The Big Clock
Germany, Year Zero
Drunken Angel
I Remember Mama
Johnny Belinda
The Fallen Idol
Raw Deal
La Terra trema
The Emperor Waltz
Arch Of Triumph
Spring In A Small Town
Moonrise
A Hen In The Wind
Good Sam
The Argyle Secrets

And now onto the awards.

Best Picture:

The End: The Red Shoes
Oscar: Hamlet

Best Director:

The End: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes
Oscar: John Huston, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Actor:

The End: Rex Harrison, Unfaithfully Yours
Oscar: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Actress:

The End: Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes
Oscar: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

Supporting Actor:

The End: Anton Walbrook, The Red Shoes
Oscar: Walter Huston, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Supporting Actress:

The End: Barbara Lawrence, Unfaithfully Yours
Oscar: Claire Trevor, Key Largo

Original Screenplay:

The End: Preston Sturges, Unfaithfully Yours
Oscar: Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, The Search

Adapted Screenplay:

The End: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes
Oscar: John Huston, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Foreign Language Film:

The End: Bicycle Thieves
Oscar: Monsieur Vincent

Film Editing:

The End: Reginald Mills, The Red Shoes
Oscar: Paul Weatherwax, The Naked City

Black And White Cinematography:

The End: Franz Planer, Letter From An Unknown Woman
Oscar: William H. Daniels, The Naked City

Color Cinematography:

The End: Jack Cardiff, The Red Shoes
Oscar: Joseph Valentine, William Skall and Winton C. Hoch, Joan Of Arc

Black And White Art Direction:

The End: Letter From An Unknown Woman
Oscar: Hamlet

Color Art Direction:

The End: the Red Shoes
Oscar: The Red Shoes

Black And White Costume Design:

The End: Fort Apache
Oscar: Hamlet

Color Costume Design:

The End: The Red Shoes
Oscar: Joan Of Arc

Sound:

The End: The Red Shoes
Oscar: The Snake Pit

Original Score:

The End: Brain Easdale, The Red Shoes
Oscar: Brain Easdale, The Red Shoes

Soundtrack:

The End: The Red Shoes
Oscar: Easter Parade

Special Effects:

The End: The Red Shoes
Oscar: Portrait Of Jennie

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