19. A Night In Casablanca
18. The Postman Always Rings Twice
17. Song Of The South
16. Tomorrow Is Forever
14. The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers
13. Duel In The Sun
12. Green For Danger
11. Beauty And The Beast
10. The Stranger – Following the disaster that was The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles tried to reconcile himself to the studio system with this little film noir about a Nazi war criminal hiding in a small town. Not especially dissimilar to Alfred Hitchcock’s superior Shadow Of A Doubt, the film was a failure and is generally considered Welles’s worst as a director. I don’t think it’s all that bad, Welles gives a nice performance as the bad guy, and he makes the small town creepy enough. Edward G. Robinson costars, and he’s as great as he always is.
9. The Killers – Robert Siodmak’s noir adaptation of a Hemingway short story stars Burt Lancaster as The Swede (think Miller’s Crossing) a former prizefighter who gets rubbed out by the eponymous hitmen. Edmund O’Brien is an insurance investigator who tries to figure out who killed The Swede and why. His investigation takes him through a series of Kane-esque flashbacks where we learn the story of The Swede’s last few years, including his association with archetypal femme fatale Kitty Collins, played very well by Ava Gardner. The opening scene is a noir tour de force: a point of view shot of a car driving at night, chiaroscuro headlights leading to a small town diner, scary hitmen looking for their target. The sequence is so great the rest of the film unfortunately pales in comparison.
Another mediocre film noir, this one featuring a superstar-making performance by Rita Hayworth as the title object of desire. Much like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (#8, 1996), a young gambler is adopted by an older man and shown how to survive. This time it’s Glenn Ford who’s taken in by George Macready’s Buenos Aires casino owner and would-be tungsten magnate. Things fall apart, as they must, when a woman gets involved, Hayworth in this case, Macready’s new bride and Ford’s ex-girlfriend. There’s more than just a hint of a homosexual relationship between Ford and Macready that isn’t exactly minimize by the hostility with which Ford treats Hayworth throughout the entire run of the film. Even after Macready fakes his death and he and Hayworth get married, he proceeds to lock her up in an apartment to punish her for her mistreatment of his “friend”. Of course, they all live heterosexually ever after, but we know what’s really going on. Hayworth, by the way, is as advertised, especially in her famous striptease in which all she manages to remove is a single glove. But I think she looked better in The Lady From Shanghai.
I haven’t seen it since then, but the film’s dizzying sexual politics sicks in my memory enough that I wouldn’t dare call it “mediocre” now. Bizarre and fascinating is closer.
7. The Best Years Of Our Lives – I first saw this over a decade ago when I was trying to watch as many Best Picture winners as I could stand. I really didn’t like it then: too long, too dull, too obvious. I watched it again a month ago, though, and while I still think it’s a bit too much on the obvious side (the Harold Russell subplot in particular is awfully repetitive), there’s a lot more here to love than I remembered. The film is marvelously shot by director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland, with textbook examples of the benefits of staging in depth and deep focus photography (David Bordwell writes about a particularly fine example in On The History Of Film Style: a single shot bar scene with three different planes of action following three different plot threads simultaneously. Frederic March, Myrna Loy and Dana Andrews all give marvelous performances. March, in particular, is a revelation; I’ve always found him to be rather stiff and dull as an actor. But he plays a great drunk here, and brings more depth to his returning veteran than either Russell or Andrews can muster. I still think the film is a bit overrated. After the first third (the vets first night home) the momentum slows and stops dead every time Russell appears. But I can better understand now why it’s so beloved.
6. Paisan – Six-part Roberto Rossellini film about the conquest of Italy in World War II. Unusual for this type of film, I actually really like every section. Some great action and suspense sequences (the opening story in a castle, the story about a woman attempting to reach her husband) and very moving non-action sequences (the bonding between an African-American soldier and an orphan who steals his shoes, a priest a rabbi and a minister having dinner in a monastery). One of the better war movies of the era, it manages to capture the epic scope of the Italian campaign within its human-scale stories.
5. My Darling Clementine – John Ford’s classical counterpart to his 1939 film Stagecoach, together the two films that have defined the genre ever since (and provided the foundation for all the variations and subversions of the genre ever since). Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp in this story of the Gunfight At The OK Corral, but the film has very little to do with action and instead focuses more on community-building (a constant Ford obsession). It’s a long way from George P. Cosmatos’s 1993 film Tombstone, with its histrionic action movie cliches and overbearing score and pace.
4. Notorious – We just played this Alfred Hitchcock film as part of our Metro Classics series. And of course it is a great film, with Cary Grant pimping his girlfriend (Ingrid Bergman, in possibly her greatest performance) to the CIA in order to ensnare Nazi Claude Rains. But watching it in the theatre this time, what I noticed most were the closeups: there’s a delirious amounts of extreme closeups in this film, more than I can recall in any other Hitchcock film. They come in both one and two shots (the famous long kiss between Grant and Bergman almost becomes an abstraction along the lines of the opening shots of Hiroshima, mon amour). I don’t know if this is something unique in Hitchcock, or just something I’ve never noticed before, but it made a great film even more fun to watch.
3. A Matter Of Life And Death – David Niven’s bomber pilot dies in a crash moments after meeting Kim Hunter over the radio. But there’s a mishap and the angel in charge fails to pick him up and his soul doesn’t get picked up. Before the mistake can be noticed, Hunter and Niven are in love, and so they decide to argue in court with the Powers That Be that Niven should be allowed to stay alive. That, or Niven’s totally insane due to a severe brain injury. This is one of the finest of Powell & Pressburger films, witty, romantic and profound, with great performances from Niven, Hunter and Roger Livesy as the doctor who diagnoses Niven’s injury and also helps him plead his case. P & P cleverly film the real world in Technicolor and heaven in black and white (a reverse-Oz), and their conception of the afterlife as a bureaucracy has become commonplace (Defending Your Life, After-Life).
2. It’s A Wonderful Life – Speaking of the afterlife, we have Frank Capra’s holiday classic, perhaps the most depressing and disturbing film ever to become an American cliché. James Stewart plays a suicidal bank owner who’s lost all his money, can’t stand his family, and has been stuck in his podunk town for life despite the fact that all he ever really wanted to do was leave and go somewhere else. So he throws himself off a bridge only to be rescued by an obnoxious angel and be given a vision of an even more hellish world where he never existed. The lesson, as always, is that no matter how much it seems like life sucks, it could actually be even worse.
1. The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks’s Raymond Chandler adaptation is one of the strangest of films noir, partially because censorship rules prevented the writers from explaining large sections of the plot, partly because those writers (Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) were more interested in the crackle and spark of their dialogue (and the sexiness with which their actors (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) delivered it) than any mundane issues like plot or narrative coherence. This, wedded to Hawks’s classical, don’t let the camera get in the way visual style, combines to make one of the most verbally wild and visually restrained noirs: funnier than most screwball comedies and lighter in tone, despite its many murders, framings, perversions and tortures, than a noir-influenced film like It’s A Wonderful Life. This is where the film lives: at the intersection of two of film’s most perennially popular genres, both perfected in the 1940s.
Some interesting stuff on my Unseen Movies list from this year, but nothing I feel a really strong desire to see anytime soon:
The Harvey Girls
The Razor’s Edge
No Regrets For Our Youth
Diary Of A Chambermaid
Utamaro And His Women
From This Day Forward
The Blue Dahlia
The Road To Utopia
Till The Clouds Roll By