Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Year in Review: 1945

Looking at this list, it amazes me at how evenly split the top half of the list is between Hollywood films, and foreign ones. With the end of the war looming, Hollywood films seemed even darker than normal this year, and the foreign ones weren’t any lighter.

10. The Southerner (Jean Renoir)
In Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, inarguably the best film in his brief stint in America, a family suffers through a very difficult year as the father tries to make his own way as a farmer. Tired of working for others for little pay, he decides to rent a run down house on a nice piece of land from his boss – determined to grow his own cotton and make some real money. But things don’t go according to plan. His ever supportive wife, and his loving kids stand by him however, even as his grandmother constantly complains, and the weather and an uncooperative neighbor make things hard for him. The film is simply, yet beautiful and inspiring. While this certainly does not rank up Renoir’s best films – which are among the best ever made – this is still a wonderful little film by one of cinema’s greatest directors.

9. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer)
How can one describe a movie like Detour, which is so full of inconsistencies and errors, and yet still weaves its magic over the viewer? This is an excellent film noir about a man (Tom Neal) who is hitchhiking across country to try and get to California and his girl. He is picked up by a man, but things happen, and the man ends up dead, and Neal decides just to take his car. He then picks up another hitchhiker (Ann Savage) who at first appears to want to seduce him, but gradually reveals that she knows what he did – the same man picked her up a while ago. The movie is entirely narrated for Neal’s point of view, so we get a picture of him as an unknowing innocent who is constantly beset by problems that were not his fault. But can we really trust what he has to say? Yes, Ulmer’s direction is full of weird like inconsistencies, but that just adds to this dark film noir’s considerable charm. A curiosity piece to be sure, but a great one.

8. Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl)
Film noir is essentially a genre of films that concern a man falling in love with the wrong women. Leave Her to Heaven offers one of the best examples of this. In the film Cornel Wilde falls for the beautiful Gene Tierny, despite his own uncomfortable feeling about her. They marry, but she becomes increasingly jealous and posesseive of him. She hates his younger brother, who is a cripple, and moves to get him out of the way. When she gets pregnant, she hates the fact that he loves his unborn child, and throws herself down the stairs. Even after he leaves her, she controls him through his manipulation. Unlike most film noir, this one is shot in color – but it doesn’t hurt the film’s atmosphere at all, the gorgeous techni color making this look like a melodrama, and highlights the beauty of Tierny. Sure, the film is slickly made trash, but when it’s this entertaining and dark, I don’t really care.

7. Scarlett Street (Fritz Lang)
Made the year after the more celebrated The Woman in the Window (although I prefer this one), the movie stars Edward G. Robinson plays a cashier with 25 years of experience, but no real money or excitement in his life. He hates his domineering wife, and his boring life. But that all changes when he falls for the beautiful Joan Bennett, and lies to her that he is really a famous, wealthy artist. Bennett is convinced by her conman fiancĂ©e, the ever great Dan Dureya, to manipulate him and steal the money they think he has. Of course, when the truth is discovered, everything comes crashing down for everyone. This is one of the my favorite Fritz Lang movies in his American phase – a moody, atmospheric, dark film noir with Robinson, Bennett and Dureya all at their best. A wonderful little film.

6. Open City (Roberto Rosselini)
The first, and probably best, of Rosselini’s War Trilogy, Open City is set during the Nazi occupation of Rome the year before (1944). It is about a resistance fighter who is engaged to be married (to Anna Magnani, brilliant in her role) who is pursued by the Nazis. The central character is Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabirizi), a priest who is set to marry the couple who is caught by the Nazis and threanted with torture and execution if he will not co-operate with them. This really was the dawning of the Italian neo-realist movement, wrote and produced in Rome right after the Nazis were forced to leave, and shot on the same streets, which were still pretty much destroyed by the war. (technically, I’m not sure this is quite neo-realism, as there were film sets built, and actors, not “real” people were used, but there’s no need to nitpick). While the German film industry has been very slow to acknowledge their past sins, the Italians pretty much dove right in after the war. The result here is one of the acknowledged masterpieces from Italy.

5. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz)
Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is fiercely devoted to her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Veda has expensive tastes, and wants to belong to the upper class, and is ashamed of her mother who works hard and opens her own successful restaurants in order to support Veda. But it still isn’t good enough for her daughter, so Mildred marries a man of high social standing – and no money. But nothing is good enough for Veda. Michael Curtiz’s film is an excellent film noir – it opens with the murder of Mildred’s husband, and flashes back to reveal what happened to get to that point. Like his other films, Mildred Pierce is expertly crafted by Curtiz, and highlights some great performances. Crawford finally won an Oscar for her dynamite performance in the lead role, but I think Blyth is even better – a femme fatale who doesn’t just seduce the men in her life, but also her own mother, who is willing to throw her life away for her daughter. This is an expert film noir by a director who knew how to make them. I eagerly await what Todd Haynes and Kate Winslet come up with when they remake this for HBO this year.

4. Spellbound (Alfred Htichcock)
This classic Hitchcock thriller addresses some of the master’s greatest obsessions – an innocent man wrongly accused, and the psychology. Gregory Peck stars as a man who first claims to be a doctor, but then admits that he doesn’t really know who is he, but is convinced that he murdered the man whose identity he took. He turns to psychologist Ingrid Bergman with help unlocking his amnesia. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the sequence where Bergman (along with Michael Chekov) analyzes Peck’s strange dream – in a sequence designed by Salvador Dali, the surreal dream images are wonderful and strange. Like many thrillers of this ilk, the solution to the mystery isn’t quite as good as the mystery itself, but the film still follows its dark path right down to its suitable conclusion.

3. Les Dames Du Bois De Boulonge (Robert Bresson)
In his second film, Robert Bresson made one of his lesser known masterpieces. This was the last film he would make where the cast was comprismised only of professional actors, and is one of his only films that seems primary interested in its tangled web of a plot, rather than on human behavior and actions. Helene (Maria Casares) is devastated when her lover admits that he now just wants to be friends instead of anything more. She decides to extract a cruel revenge on him instead of letting the slight slide, by arranging for her old lover to fall in love and marry a prostitute, something that will destroy his high social standing. In one sense, this is a classic melodrama – full of sensationalism and passion. And yet, there are hints at the filmmaker Bresson would become with his later films. This is clearly a transition piece in the career of Bresson, but what a glorious transition it is.

2. The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
The Lost Weekend is an uncommonly frank film about alcoholism for 1945. Most films of that time have characters constantly drinking, but no one really “alcoholic”. Ray Milland gives a wonderful performance as a drunk who sits on a lonely bar stool recounting how his life ended up this way. His alcoholism rages onward, causing him to drive away almost everyone who cares about him (although his loyal girlfriend, Jane Wyman, remains by his side), as well as hallucinates and finally thoughts about suicide. The film is dark and moody – a film noir that doesn’t rely on crime or femme fatales, but on a character study of a man at the end of his rope because of addiction. The film has remained a staple of popular culture – being referenced in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to The Simpsons – but the power of the original movie – and Ray Milland’s performance, remains.

1. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne)
Marcel Carne’s epic film, made during the Nazi occupation of Paris, was billed as France’s answer to Gone with the Wind when it was released, but I think the film is actually much better than that great film. Carne’s film is set in 1830s Paris, where Arletty plays a courtesan known as Garance and has four different men – a mime, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat – fall in love with her. This is an epic love story where all the men who love the beautiful Garance will be hurt in one way or another, as they fates intertwine and come together over the course of the 7 years the movie spans. From the opening scenes, set on the seemingly endless, bustling “Boulevard of Crime” to its closing scenes, where the characters get lost in a carnival, Children of Paradise holds you in its narrative grip. That Carne even attempted to make this lavish costume drama at all during the Nazi occupation is simply amazing. That he ended up producing one of cinema’s greatest achievements is more astounding still. This is a true masterpiece.

Just Missed the Top 10: I Know Where I’m Going (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger), They Were Expendable (John Ford), The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise), Dillinger (Max Nosseck).

Notable Films Missed: A Diary of Timothy (Humphrey Jennings), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan), National Velvet (Clarence Brown), Anchors Aweigh (George Sidney).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
Considering that my number 1 film of the year was A) French and B) wasn’t released in the USA until 1947 (when it only got nominated for a screenplay Oscar, which is ridiculous), I have a really hard time complaining about my second favorite film of the year – by one of my favorite directors – winning this award, so I’m not going to.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend
Ray Milland’s performance set the standard for all movie drunks for 50 years (when I think Nicolas Cage bested him in his Oscar winning work in Leaveing Las Vegas). He would have been my choice for the win as well, so no need to complain about it. However, I do think that Edward G. Robinson, an actor who was always overlooked by the Academy, really deserved a nomination for Scarlett Street.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce.
What a great year for actresses this was! Crawford is brilliant in Mildred Pierce, and a fine choice for the Oscar, but fellow nominee Gene Tierny was pretty much as good as she was. As well, it is hard to overlook the great work done in foreign films – Arletty’s headstrong performance in Children of Paradise, and my personal favorite, Maria Casares in Les Dames Du Bois Boulonge. That doesn’t even mention Ann Savage’s femme fatale in Detour and Ingrid Bergman’s sympathetic doctor in Spellbound (Bergman was nominated for her work in The Bells of St. Mary’s instead – a film that despite my mother’s opinon, is not one of my favorites).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
I never did see A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I find early Kazan films completely impersonal and rather dull. I do find it odd that both male Oscar winners this year played drunks however. I liked Michael Chekov’s Oscar nominated performance in Spellbound however, and since they never nominated him again, I have to lend some support to Robert Mitchum for The Story of GI Joe, even though I haven’t actually seen it. I think they overlooked a great Dan Dureya performance in Scarlett Street, and had they been eligible, you could have nominated any number of great performances in Children of Paradise.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Anne Revere, National Velvet.
Not being a fan of “A Girl and Her Horse” movies, I never did see this one either. Sue me. Ann Blyth gave my favorite performance in this category – nominated or otherwise – as the bitch of a daughter in Mildred Pierce. However, like the actor she was teamed up with often (Dan Dureya), I think Joan Bennett deserved an Oscar nomination for Scarlett Street, and my choice for Best Actress, Maria Casares, was also great, in a completely different role, in Children of Paradise.

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