Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Year in Review: 1943

1943 was not the strongest year of the 1940s – but it still produced several classic films, including one of the most loved films of all time – but as always, there are more great films beneath the surface.

10. The More the Merrier (George Stevens)
The More the Merrier is an enjoyable war time comedy about the housing shortage in Washington. Jean Arthur needs a roommate, and reluctantly agrees to rent half of her apartment to Charles Coburn, who turns around and rents half of his half to Joel McCrea. Arthur is furious, but since she has already spent the rent money, she has no choice but to relent. The three of them bicker and argue – with sexual tension building between McCrea and Arthur, despite the fact that she is already engaged. When a possible scandal erupts, McCrea and Arthur are forced to get married – they plan to have it annulled later, but you know how these things work out. The primary reason to see the movie is for the excellent performances by the three leads – Arthur in particular is a pure joy to watch, and Coburn is wonderful (in an Oscar winning performance) as the crotchety old man. This film represented the last of a kind for Stevens – who throughout the 1930s made mainly comedies and musicals. After returning from the war – where he made many documentaries about the Nazis, his films would become much darker. But The More the Merrier is a wonderful comedy of its sort – hilarious and heartfelt – something Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make.

9. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
Don Ameche has just died and believes that he belongs in Hell, not Heaven, so that is where he goes. He is greeted by the Devil and asked why he thinks he belongs in Hell, so Ameche tells his life story. He was a spoiled rich kid, who grows up to be a playboy, until he finally falls in love with a woman (Gene Tierny) and marries her – only to almost lose her when he has an affair. Torn up with guilt about his life, he thinks he deserves to be where he has come. Directed by master comedic filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait is a witty, clever comedy, with a little more drama that Lubitsch usually let sneak into his film. It is wonderfully photographed in color, and the leads are both wonderful – as is the supporting cast. This may not rank among Lubitsch’s best films – but that’s only because of how talented he was.

8. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur)
I Walked With a Zombie marked the second wonderful collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton. Very loosely based on the Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the film follows an Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) as she travels to the Caribbean to care for the wife of a wealthy plantation owner (Tom Conway) who is essentially in some sort of waking coma, that her doctors says is because of a tropical fever. We will learn otherwise. I Walked With a Zombie is a wonderfully stylish film by Tourneur – who was a master at this sort of B horror film. Like most of Lewton’s films, we are not quite sure what to make of the supernatural elements of the story – they are treated with ambigiuity. The film is not really a zombie film at all, but rather a look at the culture on the Caribbean island itself – with its depiction of voodoo and the troubles of the descendents of slaves. The film is brilliant – and proof that sometimes B movies can be every bit as good as A movies.

7. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath is a deeply spiritural, that is brilliantly shot, and well told. A young woman, married to an older man, falls in love with his son, who is just slightly older than she is. She is rapturous at their new found love, but he is much less so – being dragged down by the guilt of his sin. Her husband is convinced that he is being punished, be he had just overseen the death of an older woman who had been accused of witchcraft – who placed a hex on him before she was sent to die. His mother hates his new wife, and finds any excuse she can to make it well known. Like all of Dreyer’s films, Day of Wrath is a very serious affair – one that takes religious extremism very seriously, as the weight of the guilt that the son feels finally overpowers him. The film is also about the blatant sexism in society during the period (it takes place in the 1600s). The son views himself as a good man, so the only explanation for his sin, must be the young wife – who was just exploring her sexuality, and for the first time felt free – must be a witch who hexed him. Day of Wrath is more of a film to admire than one to whole heartedly embrace, but it is still a masterfully well made movie. Would it be wrong of me to say that I prefer this to Dreyer’s much more highly acclaimed Ordet, which is also masterful, but not quite this emotionally devastating.

6. Le Corbeau (Henri Georges Clouzot)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau was a huge hit in France when it was released in 1943, but after liberation, the film, and the filmmaker were banned. It was perceived as being anti-French, and since it was produced by a German company, this made it doubly suspicious. But all these years later when one looks at Le Corbeau, what emerges is a strongly anti-fascist, anti-right wing movie. The film centers on a small town in France, where virtually everyone starts to receive letters that are signed only by Le Corbeau (The Raven). The letters cast disparaging remarks onto the town’s doctor – who is said to be having an affair, lying to patients and committing abortions. The town grows increasingly paranoid at these letters, and the secrets they reveal. Although the film is a whodunit, the identity of the letter writer is really beside the point – it is about the damage the letters do to the town, which is threatens to destroy. Clouzot is one of the underrated masters of the French cinema, and this is one of his best films.

5. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
The second of two Val Lewton produced horror films on this list, The Seventh Victim is one of my favorites from the famed horror producer. The film is an excellent film about a young woman (Kim Hunter) who goes searching for her sister when she apparently disappears. The search leads her to a Satanic cult where her sister was a member. The film is daring in a number of ways. There is a certain homoerotic tension between the sister (Jean Brooks) and another woman in the film – which may help explain some of Brooks actions – including her shocking final suicide, something that was also frowned upon at the time. You could read the film as anti-feminist if you want – Hunter is a good girl, who loves children, whereas her doomed sister is more worldly and indepedant – but it doesn’t really matter. The Seventh Victim is a wonderful atmospheric film, with shocking twists and turns. It is one of the best films that Lewton ever produced – and perhaps the best film that Mark Robson ever directed.

4. The Ox Bow Incident (William A. Wellman)
William A. Wellman doesn’t seem to get too much respect these days, despite having a very long and successful career in the studio era – spanning silent and sound films. In my mind, The Ox Bow Incident is the finest film he ever directed. The film is about the danger of mob rule, as a posse is formed to catch three suspected cattle rustlers and murderers. When the posse catches up to the men they think are guilty, they become leary about arresting them and bringing them back from trial. The courts could let them go. They take a vote – and only a few (including Henry Fonda) want to bring them back alive – the rest want to hang them. The film is a powerful indictment of the behavior of the men, who leap to judgement with little or no proof, and ends with a heart wrenching climax. Well acted, directed and written, The Ox Bow Incident is a great studio era Western.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of the great movies ever made about life in the military. The film recounts the times of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a British officer who fights in the Boer War, WWI and is finally a General during WWII, where he has become old, and fears he is no longer respected or needed. The film uses Candy as a metaphor for how modern warfare changed over the 40 year period – it used to be for gentlemen who played by a certain set of rules, but by WWII, all the rules had gone out the window. Livesey is great in the lead role, going from an arrogant young officier, into a kindly old man still steadfastly believing in right and wrong. He is more than ably supported by Deborah Kerr – in three roles, as Candy was in love with the first one, than spent his life getting surrogates – and especially Anton Walbrook, who is amazing as his German friend who doesn’t like what has happened to his country. The film is brilliantly photographed in vibrant Technicolor, and although it is nearly three hours long, it never drags. Apparently the British government didn’t approve of the film – it wasn’t as uplifting or patriotic as something like Mrs. Miniver – but it is 10 times better, more honest, more true. It took guts for Powell & Pressbiurger to make this film in 1943 – and that is one of the reason why it is a masterpiece – perhaps the best film the duo ever made.

2. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock often referred to Shadow of a Doubt as his personal favorite of his own movies – and although I don’t quite agree that it’s his best, it is certainly one of his masterpieces. A bored teenager living in suburbia (Teresa Wright) is thrilled when her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) comes to town for a visit – not knowing until it is too late that Charlie is a serial killer. Wright is wonderful in the role of the teenager who is torn between doing the right thing, and staying loyal to her family. Cotton is even better as Charlie, an outwardly nice guy, who harbors a cold soul underneath. Masterfully directed by Hitchcock, the films depiction of the darkness that lurks in suburbia would inspire such filmmakers as David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and Sam Mendes (American Beauty). The film certainly ranks among Hitchcock’s best.

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
Truly, how could I possibly select anything other than Casablanca this year? Not only is it among the most popular Hollywood films ever made, it also served (along with Citizen Kane and a number of Marx brothers movies) as my introduction to classic cinema. I remember watching it around the age of 10 and being completely absorbed in it. And every time I watch it again, I remain completely absorbed by it. Humphrey Bogart gives one of the greatest screen performances of all time as Rick – the cynic who loses the girl that he loves, but finds his way back to humanity again. Ingrid Bergman has never been more beautiful than she is here. Claude Rains is perfect as the corrupt cop, and Paul Henrid even does fine work as the morally outright man. Curtiz was a journeyman director, but one of the most talented in screen history – and he the cinematography in this is among the best of all the black and white films. This is, in short, one of my absolute favorite movies of all time.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur), For Whom the Bells Toll, Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang), Watch on the Rhine (Herman Schulmin).

Notable Films Missed: Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings), Douce (Claude Autant-Lara), The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown), In Which We Serve (Noel Coward & David Lean), Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy), The Song of Bernadette (Henry King).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
I am duly impressed that the Academy picked this seemingly lightweight film over the more “substantial” and “important” movies they could have picked. In doing so they picked one of the most timeless, enduring classics in movie history. Good job.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
Paul Lukas was given the role of his career in Watch on the Rhine – as a Good German hiding out in America for a little while before having to go back and work against the Nazis. Lukas is very good in his every scene. The problem for me is the movie itself shows too much of its stage roots – there are far too many times when the action stops so that Lukas can make a speech and it drags the movie to a halt. Lukas is better than the movie, but still I would have voted for Bogart – and think that Roger Livesey deserved a nomination as well.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette.
I really did try to watch this film once – but the VHS copy I got for the library didn’t work, so I took it as a sign that I shouldn’t watch it. I will get to it someday I swear – I do love Jennifer Jones – but a three hour movie about a virtuous nun really doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, does it? Out of the nominees, I loved Jean Arthur and Ingrid Bergman – even if they stupidly nominated her for Whom the Bell Tolls and not Casablanca. I will also say that I thought Teresa Wright was brilliant in Shadow of a Doubt, as was Kim Hunter in The Seventh Victim – the later being all the more impressive since it was her first role!

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier.
Coburn is very good in the role – funny and heartfelt – but really in a year where they nominated Claude Rains for his great work in Casablanca, and could have nominated Joseph Cotton for Shadow of a Doubt and Anton Walbrook for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Coburn is just nowhere near good enough.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Katin Paxinou is one of my favorite parts of the often heavy handed (yet still entertaining) For Whom the Bell Tolls, and considering it wasn’t a particularly strong year, I guess she deserved to win. My vote would have gone to the triple role of newcomer Deborah Kerr for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where she expertly played three different characters – but they didn’t nominate her, so what the hell.

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