Thursday, June 3, 2010

Year in Review: 1948

Perhaps I should have watched a film more of the Notable Films missed before doing this top ten list. Don’t get me wrong, I think that every film I have on this list is worthy of high praise – but the bottom two films on it are relatively minor works by major directors. Overall though, 1948 was a decent year for movies – not stunning as some years perhaps, but great nonetheless. Perhaps I will change my mind when I see a few of the films I missed.

10. Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa clearly meant Drunken Angel to be a portrait of post WWII Tokyo, and a condemnation of the American occupiers, and their influence in the city. Yet, because of American censors (who were able to control what Japanese filmmakers put in their films) only part of this comes across in the final movie. The story focuses on an alcoholic doctor (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who gets a visit for a young Yakuza member (Toshiro Mifune, the actor most closely related to Kurosawa) and tells him that he has TB. Angered, Mifune calls him a liar, but soon, is worn down by Shimura constantly tracking him down and telling him to get treatment. Meanwhile, another Yakuza member (Reisaburo Yamamoto) is released from prison, and tries to track down his ex-girlfriend, who is now Shimura’s nurse. The film does get much of what Kurosawa wanted in it – the depiction of prostitutes, the references to VD, and subtle jabs at American influence in Japan (most notably, Yamamoto slowly becomes more brutal during the course of the film, and at the same time, his dress becomes more and more Westernized). There are also a few moments however that ring false – and most of these were done at the behest of the censors. While Drunken Angel is not one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, I do think that it is a fascinating early movie by the director – and well directed, acted and written to boot. Kurosawa would go onto to direct greater films, but Drunken Angel is still a wonderful little film.

9. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock liked to experiment with different filmmaking techniques. While almost all of his films are thrillers, they differ in the way that he shot them. Rope, while not being one of his very best films, is one of his most stylistically daring. Not only was this Hitchcock’s first Technicolor film, he also shot the movie in “real time”. The result is a movie that is made to look like one continuous shot from beginning to end – although it isn’t. Two college students (John Dall and Farley Granger) murder a classmate to prove their superior intelligence and that they can get away with murder. They then host a dinner party where they invite the victim’s father, aunt, fiancée and former best friend, using the chest where they hid the body as buffet table. They also invite their former prep school teacher (James Stewart) who once lectured them on Nietzsche, and who they think will approve of what they have done. The story itself is well handled – but is a little derivative (how many different versions of the Leopold & Loeb story do we really need?), but the visuals make this one a must for Hitchcock’s fans. He boldly experiments when so many directors never dare to. This is a wonderful little film.

8. The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed)
Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is told entirely from the point of view of a child. The son of a wealthy diplomat idolizes their butler (Ralph Richardson) who tells him stories of all his adventures and the glamorous places he has been. In fact, Richardson is miserable – stuck in a loveless marriage, and in love with a much younger woman (Michelle Morgan) who he lies about to the child. An argument between Richardson and his wife ensues, and the wife falls down the stairs and dies. Or was she pushed by the butler? The child sees what happened but is confused by what it all means. Reed’s film is masterfully directed, and places us in the shoes of the child. We know what is happening, but it is all confusing for him who doesn’t want his friend put away for murder, but who in trying to cover up for him could do more harm. The middle film in what was a three peat for Reed at the BAFTAs (his Odd Man Out won the award for Best British film in 1947, as did this one in 1948 and The Third Man in 1949) The Fallen Idol is one of Reed’s best achievements – a thriller that goes well beyond its genre into something truly unique.

7. The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
Had Orson Welles not miscast himself in The Lady from Shanghai (he is too smart to play this dumb), the movie would probably rank among his best films. Visually, the film is as stunning as anything Welles has ever made. Welles is a seaman who meets the beautiful Rita Hayworth, and is persuaded to join the crew of his yacht – that is about to sail to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Once on board, Welles and Hayworth start a romantic relationship, and he is so enamored with her, he agrees to help her husband’s law partner to fake his own death and collecting $5,000 in the process. What he doesn’t realize is that Hayworth and the partner are setting him up to take the fall for their own planned murder of Hayworth’s husband. Hayworth is one of the best femme fatales in screen history in this movie – a beautiful woman, known for her long, red hair, Welles insisted on cutting it short and dying it blonde – and yet her beauty comes through in every scene. Welles and Hayworth were married at the time, although going through difficulties, and the camera seems both enamored by her beauty, but also lashes at her at several points. The hall of mirrors climax is one of the greatest visual scenes in cinema history. But because Welles miscast himself, and we have trouble believing that he could be as dumb as his character is, the film has a major flaw, which knocks it down a few pegs. But the end result is still a visually dazzling film, with some great performances. And at the end of the day, when a film has this much great stuff in it, does it really matter that it’s not perfect?

6. Key Largo (John Huston)
The first of two great films by John Huston released this year was this excellent thriller. Humphrey Bogart plays a war hero who goes to see the father (Lionel Barrymore) and wife (Lauren Bacall) of his friend from the War who was killed in action. However, the visit does not go as planned when gangster Edward G. Robinson shows up with his girlfriend (Oscar winner Claire Trevor) and his gang. They want to hide out at the hotel Barrymore owns until a hurricane passes, and then move on. Key Largo works as an excellent thriller, with Bogart in his Casablanca role (initially, he doesn’t care about Robinson, but reluctantly gets drawn in because of his hateful treatment of Trevor – he also downplays his wartime heroism, describing his dead friend as the real hero). Robinson was always great playing a gangster, and Key Largo is no exception. Bacall is young and sexy here, but also a little sadder than in her previous outing with Bogart. And Trevor is excellent in her Oscar winning role. But the film is more than a thriller – it also looks into the darkness of post WWII America, and the men who came back changed from the war. No it isn’t the masterwork that Huston’s other 1948 film was – but it is a great film.

5. Naked City (Jules Dassin)
Jules Dassin’s Naked City is an expertly made crime thriller. Something of a rarity in the 1940s, the film was actually shot on the streets of New York in pseudo-documentary style, giving the film a realistic look and feel, that some films of the era lack. Barry Fitzgerald gives an excellent performance as a veteran police officer assigned, along with his rookie partner, to the murder of former model. The film is an excellent police procedural – inspiring a television series in the 1950s, and in many ways, all the cop shows since – and is perfectly brought to the screen by director Jules Dassin who keeps the movie moving at a brisk pace. We are gradually drawn into the mystery, but perhaps even more into the city itself which is a dark, rough place. The film also contains a breathless, intense climax. This is a very influential film – and more than that, a wonderfully entertaining one.

4. Red River (Howard Hawks)
Marred only by its horrible final scene (which costs this a higher spot on this list), Howard Hawks’ Red River is one of the best Westerns of the 1940s – a dark tale that for the first time required John Wayne to give an actual, intense performance – something he pulls off brilliantly (John Ford, who by that time had made something like 10 films with Wayne apparently said after seeing this film “I didn’t know the big lug could act”). Loosely based on Mutiny on the Bounty, Wayne is in the Captain Bligh role – a tyrannical man who decides to herd his cattle from Texas to Missouri, where he can get a better price. Montgomery Clift is excellent in the Fletcher Christen role – Wayne’s adopted son, who starts to doubt Wayne when he becomes increasingly irrational. The film is magnificently shot by Hawks – rivaling the visuals in any John Ford film – and acted by its entire cast. Famed for not only this, but also the homoerotic subtext (involving Clift – the scene where he and another hand discuss their “guns” being the most famous example), Red River is much more complex than many Westerns. The only problem is the silly final scene where the ever annoying Joanne Dru tongue lashes Wayne and Clift and get them to laugh off their differences, robbing us of the climax the movie deserves. Everything up until then though is brilliant.

3. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
You couldn’t pay to actually attend a ballet performance, but Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is about much more than ballet. Anton Walbrook gives an excellent performance as the tyrannical head of his own ballet company. Infuriated when his star dancer decides to get married, he fires her and promotes Moira Shearer to the lead dancer. She becomes a sensation with her brilliant performance in the ballet The Red Shoes, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, about a young woman who wishes she can dance, and is given a pair of red shoes which allows her to do so – the catch being that she cannot stop. But Shearer falls in love with Walbrook’s composer (Marius Goring), and when they decide to marry, it infuriates Walbrook all over again. The film is brilliantly well made – expertly shot in gorgeous, lush color. Unlike many musicals that would follow its lead, when the films stops its narrative for 17 minutes and shows the ballet of The Red Shoes itself, the film doesn’t slow down. It is all linked thematically to what is going on. The tragic end of the movie is brilliant – the only ending that would fit. Powell & Pressburger are among the best teams in movie history, and The Red Shoes is one of their masterpieces.

2. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica)
Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief as it was incorrectly known for years) is one of the most emotionally devastating movies ever made. It is such a simple story that it sneaks up on us, and builds it subtle power as we are watching it – completely unaware of the hold it is generating on us. The story is simple – an unemployed man in post WWII Italy finally finds a job – hanging movie posters up all over Rome. For this job, he needs a bicycle – which he has – and he happily takes the menial job. He has a wife and two kids to support after all. But on his first day, his bike is stolen. Along with his son he searches all over for his bike – following up leads – and ending up getting nowhere. Then in a fit of desperation he decides that he could steal a bike himself – it would only be fair, since he got his bike stolen. From this simple story, DeSica is able to create an entire film world that is devastating in its simplicity. The key relationship in the film is between father and son – most heavily brought out in the dining room scene – and at the end of the film. While I would argue that Umberto D. is DeSica’s true masterpiece, the power of Bicycle Thieves cannot be denied. It is one of the most important, most influential films of all time – and should be seen by everyone.

1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best films ever made about greed. Humphrey Bogart may just give his finest performances as Dobbs, who along with two other Americans (Walter Huston and Tim Holt) head into the Sierra Madre mountains in search of gold. They have to dodge bandits to even reach the mountains, but when they do, they quickly strike it rich. They find lots of unrefined gold dust – enough for each of them to become insanely rich. But Dobbs grows paranoid, and eventually starts slipping into insanity, thinking that his partners are going to kill him. It was often said that Bogart did little but play himself – or at the very least his screen persona – in all of his films. But Sierra Madre proves different, as he is excellent as the paranoid Dobbs. Walter Huston, in his Oscar winning role, is also good as the grizzled old timer who joins Dobbs and tries to maintain the deal between them but Dobbs’ paranoia is too much. John Huston wrote and directed the movie and it perhaps his finest accomplishment – an intelligent, well written, well acted and well directed movie, shot almost entirely on location that still remains thrilling and relevant today. One of the best films of the studio era.

Just Missed The Top 10: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway), Fort Apache (John Ford), The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls).

Notable Films Missed: Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulusco), Oliver Twist (David Lean), Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle), Spring in a Small Town (Mu Fei), They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray), Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges).

Oscar Winner – Picture: Hamlet.
Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play, but I was somewhat disappointed in this version. Even more than many of Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations, this one feels very stage bound and not very cinematic. There are some nice touches, but as a director Oliver failed to capitalize on the best moments in the play – having all of Hamlet’s speeches to himself be internalized, and simply showing himself starring blankly off into space. It is still a good film, but a great one? I don’t think so.

Oscar Winner – Director: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre should have won Best Picture to go along with Huston’s win for Best Director for the film, but I supposed we should feel lucky that they at least got one of them right. Huston also won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for this film. It is clearly the best film of the year, so I for one am in full support of this win.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
Oliver, the actor, is fine in Hamlet but it so somewhat let down by Oliver the director. I mean why would he make the decision to have the iconic “To be or not to be…:” speech be all in his head, and instead of dramatically delivering the speech – which is how it should be done – have it play in voiceover as he simply stares off into space? Never mind that Olivier was too old for the role, he robbed himself of a chance at true greatness. Considering this is his only Oscar win, I won’t complain too loudly – the man certainly did deserve an Oscar (even if, I have always felt that Olivier was probably a made stage actor than a film actor) – but this is not his best work.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
Okay, confession time. I have never seen Johnny Belinda. To be honest, it kind of annoys me that the Academy always gives Oscars to people playing handicapped people, and Jane Wyman playing deaf certainly qualifies as that. Also, the film didn’t come out on DVD until last year. I’m sure I’ll catch up with it sooner or later – but not yet. The movie does sound very interesting though, but the fact that I do not think that highly of the director, has put this one of the backburner.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Not only did Walter Huston deserve to win this Oscar for his performance as the conscience of the film, it is also a great story since the film was directed by his son John (who would go onto to direct, nearly 40 years later, Prizzi’s Honor in which his daughter, Anjelica, won an Oscar). Huston was a great actor in his own right, and delivered several great performances – but this was his best one, and I am happy he won his Oscar for it.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Claire Trevor, Key Largo
Like Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I think Trevor deserved to win this Oscar for her excellent performance in a John Huston movie. As Edward G. Robinson’s half terrified, drunken girlfriend, Trevor is excellent in her role in this film – miles better than any of her competition this year. The Academy it seems made some decent choices this year.

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