Thursday, October 28, 2010

Year in Review: 1941

I saved 1941 for later in this series for a simple reason – no matter how good the rest of the films on this list are, we all know what the number one film of the year is going to be. I would be rightly mocked and ridiculed mercilessly if I picked anything else.

10. High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)
High Sierra is about as exciting as robbery movies get – with lots of action, but also with a heart. Humphrey Bogart has one of his best early roles as Roy Earle, a just released convict who drives across country to lead a casino robbery. He falls in love with a simple girl with a limp (Joan Leslie) – and even pays for her to have corrective surgery – and she still rejects him. He then falls into the arms of Marie (Ida Lupino), and the two even share a cute little dog. The robbery, of course, goes wrong and Roy heads to the hills mountain with the police in pursuit. And wouldn’t you know it, it was that damn dog who does him in. Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film is an early film noir and helps to establish Bogart’s tough guy screen persona, as well as Lupino’s own persona – much tougher than many women of that era. But it really is Bogart who makes the movie – turning Earle into more than just a stereotype, but a realistic guy who you ever feel sorry for.

9. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is a thriller that keeps you guessing right up until its final moments. It stars Cary Grant in a typical Grant role – that of the charming, irresponsible and broke man who seduces the somewhat dowdy Joan Fontaine. As Grant’s debts pill up, his business schemes fail, and he loses his job, Fontaine begins to distrust her husband – thinking that he maybe plotting to kill her for the life insurance. Grant is great in his role – and he really does keep us guessing about him, as he seems so suspicious, even if he hasn’t actually done anything. Fontaine is great, slowly cracking up due to her paranoia about her husband – and Hitchcock, as always, knows just how to play the audience. I thought the ending was a little bit of a cop out – the studio mandated happy ending rings a little false – but everything up until then is first rate. No, this isn’t one of Hitchcock’s best films – but it is great just the same.

8. How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is best known as an answer to the trivia question: what film won the best picture Oscar over Citizen Kane than it is as film unto itself. No, this is no Citizen Kane, but that’s not really a fair standard to live up to is it? The film is excellent on its own terms however – it depicts life in a small, Welsh mining town at the turn of the century, and shows their simple way of life dying, and the family unit at the heart of the story falling apart. The film shows the hardship of life in the mines, the pettiness of small town gossip, and the generational divide when a strike threatens to shut down the mines. This is all told through the eyes of a young boy (Roddy McDowell) who watches as his father (Donald Crisp) struggles, and fights with his older brothers, his mother (Sara Allgood) tries to keep everything together, and how his sister (Maureen O’Hara) is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. For such a dark film, Ford also finds moments of light sneaking through the cracks, and the film as a rather nostalgic feel to it. I have always liked Ford’s Westerns more than his non-Westerns, but the man knew how to direct a movie – and How Green Was My Valley shows that.

7. The 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Japanese film during WWII was apparently not very good, and for understandable reasons, not even all that plentiful. But watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s two part, four hour epic retelling of the classic Japanese story The 47 Ronin is to see storytelling at its finest – even if it is a propaganda film for the Japanese military (American and England surely made their fair share of those as well, including some on this list, so we can’t really fault the Japanese). The film is epic in sweep – contains dozens of majors characters, and dives right into the plot with no attempt to intiate anyone into the background. It took me about an hour of careful observation before I started to piece together the different story threads – the different characters. This is not an action oriented samurai film – it contains remarkably little action at all really – but a political power struggle story, expertly crafted by one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. True, I think some of Mizoguchi’s later, more personal work, is better, but The 47 Ronin is still an epic masterwork.

6. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)
If you want to, you can look at Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York as more wartime propaganda. It is the glowing biopic of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), the most decorated American soldier from WWI. York is a pacifist, but before his conversion, he was an excellent marksman. He tries to get out of wartime duty in the Army as a concietious objector – but has his claim denied, and sent to war anyway. But he is won over the to American side, and goes to war determined to do what he has to do. While there, he becomes a hero – but doing so means killing a whole lot of Germans – but he justifies to himself. What he did will ultimately save lives. The film is directed with Hawks usual visual flair – even if the story isn’t quite as anachric as many of his films. Cooper is great in the title role – the man struggling with his own beliefs to do what needs to be done. Yes, the film is perhaps a little too patriotic – but it is still an inspirational film, brought to life by a great cast and an even better director.

5. The Little Foxes (William Wyler)
The Little Foxes is a brilliant, little poison pill of a movie. It stars Bette Davis in one of her great screen roles as Regina Giddens – a Southern matriarch who wants more money and power than her stature of a woman will give her. Her brothers are wealthy, and while her husband also has a lot of money, she wants more. The family is facing financial difficulty, and see the opportunity to open their own cotton mill as a chance to become millionaires. The problem is that Regina has no money of her own – and her husband refuses any part in the deal. Regina is one of the great screen villains of all time – cold, conniving and downright cruel to her sickly husband. She values money above all else – and although she ultimately gets what she wants – she loses everything else in the process. Davis dominated the movie, but the supporting cast includes a great Teresa Wright as her sensitive daughter, Herbert Marshall as her husband, Dan Dureya as her slack jawed nephew and Patricia Coolidge as the dimwitted Aunt. This film is an actors dream, and Wyler’s direction is wonderful – capturing the crumbling, Southern gothic all around him.

4. 49th Parallel (Michael Powell)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel is an epic wartime thriller focusing on a group of Nazi u-boat crew members who find themselves stranded in Canada. Just as they are debarking their sub in Hudson’s Bay to find fuel to make it back to Germany, their submarine in blown up – and it takes a while for the Canadians to realize that no all the crew members were on board. What 49th Parallel really is, despite all its action and suspense, is a film about how no matter what complaints Canadians may have about their country – it sure beats the hell out of being a Nazi. I got a huge kick out of seeing Laurence Olivier as a French Canadian fur trader in this film (complete with a wonderful accent), and Anton Walbrook is equally good as a German immigrant farmer, and founder of a religious community in the praries. The Nazis go into Canada thinking it will be easy to get them to see why Germany is the best – the French Canadians are marginalized by the rest of the Canada, that German immigrant community should still love their motherland – but they continually are shocked by how much Canadians love their country. I have to admit, I got a patriotic little thrill out of watching this film – rarely do we see our country portrayed this way on screen – and the film is also exciting and well made. While it may not be the best Powell/Pressburger movie (although Pressburger was not a credited director, he wrote the screenplay) it still is exciting filmmaking.

3. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is one of the best screwball comedies of all time – and for my money is the best film that the great comedic filmmaker ever made. It stars Barabara Stanwyck in her best performance as a con woman who falls in love with her mark – the sweetly shy and dim witted Henry Fonda. She cannot help herself. He is so sweet, so earnest, so sincere and he trusts her almost immediately. She starts out trying to fleece him, but in the end falls for him. But she has to leave him – he does not trust her, and that hurts, even though she shouldn’t be trusted. So what does she do – she disguises herself as The Lady Eve and shows up at his house. His valet knows immediately it is the same woman – she makes no attempt to alter her physical appearance, but just adds a phony British accent. He immediately falls for her again. You can’t take a screwball comedy plot seriously – they just don’t work that way – but watching The Lady Eve it always amazes me just what Sturges and his cast gets accomplish here – the film is a balancing act between comedy and romance, adds in pratfalls and tremendous sexuality for a film of its era, but never steps wrong. The film is an inversion of the usual gender roles, and the two leads play it perfectly right until the closing lines of the film – that have to rank among the best in cinema history.

2. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
The Maltese Falcon was far from the first detective movie ever made – hell it was the third version of the novel filmed – but it forever changed the genre when it came out. John Huston, making his directorial debut, crafted a wonderfully dark film world, and captured the dialogue of Dashiell Hammett’s novel exactly – he copied it straight from the book. But it was the performances that really made the movie – especially Humphrey Bogart as the “hero” Sam Spade – who may just be the best detective in cinema history. Bogart had a way of delivering the dialogue, dripping with cynical wit, that no one could ever quite match. Consider one of his last lines in the film, when talking to Mary Astor, the woman he loves, who has just be arrested for murder. ''I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.'' He is cold and cruel – yet he is also moral, perhaps the only moral person left. The film also benefits from the performances of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as the bad guys, who worked so effortlessly off each other, and as the bad guys for Bogart. Okay, sure, Mary Astor is miscast, but that’s a minor flaw. Consdier Huston, who is inventing a new film style – the film noir – as he goes along. Consider the magnificent tracking shots in the film. And consider the dialogue. In almost any other year, The Maltese Falcon would easily be the best.

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
What more really needs to be said about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which is routinely voted the best film of all time, and has been for decades now? If Welles had only directed this film, he would still be one of the most important filmmakers of all time. Perhaps because Welles was so young when he made this film, perhaps because he had never made a film before or perhaps just because his ego was so huge, Welles really goes for broke here. Along with cinematographer Gregg Tolland, Welles’ helped to reinvent film language – every shot in the film is brilliant. Every edit is precise. The score, by Bernard Hermann, ranks among the best ever. And the performances – especially by Welles himself – rank among the best in cinema history as well. The more I watch Kane, the more in awe of the technical prowess on display I become. But also, interestingly enough, the more involved I get in the story – the more I feel for Charles Foster Kane, who really is a greedy monster, but he didn’t start out that way. Citizen Kane is really an American tragedy – the story of a man who got everything he ever wanted and is still absolutely miserable. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane yet, what the hell are you waiting for?

Just Missed The Top 10: Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen), The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle), The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg), That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch), The Wolf Man (George Waggner).

Notable Films Missed: Blossoms In the Dust (Mervyn Leroy), The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding), Hellzapoppin (HC Potter), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall), Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Liesen), Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings), One Foot in Heaven (Irving Rapper), They Died With Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh), Tobacco Road (John Ford),

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
It isn’t the films fault that it beat Citizen Kane for the best picture Oscar. If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else, because Welles and his film had pretty much pissed all of Hollywood off, because it inspired the wrath of William Randolph Hearst. They were never going to give that film the Oscar. So, they went with what they knew – an inspirational, nostalgic historical drama that is well made by a great director who they loved. So, no, How Green was My Valley is no Citizen Kane. But what film was?

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
I quite like Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. He plays the country bumpkin to perfection, and as the film progresses, he gives dramatic weight to his decisions that weigh heavily on his conscience. Cooper was a movie star who had never won an Oscar before, so they wanted to give him one. Who else were they going to give it to? Welles was out of the question, because they hated him. Bogart was amazing in The Maltese Falcon, but fell victim to genre bias. Walter Huston is delicious fun in The Devil and Daniel Webster – but he’s barely in the film, which isn’t as good as he is. So, Gary Cooper wins by default. Much like How Green Was My Valley, it is easy to pick on this win because of the competition that Cooper beat out to win – but that isn’t the performances fault, which is quite good in its own right.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
They wanted to give Joan Fontaine an Oscar since she had been so good in a similar role the year before – for the same director no less – in Rebecca. Her performance in Suspicion is quite excellent – she nails the paranoia she feels towards her husband perfectly, and her fear is palpable. But again, her competition bested her – particularly Bette Davis dripping venom in The Little Foxes. Again, not her fault, but again not quite as worthy of a winner as they could have had this year.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley
Donald Crisp is excellent in How Green Was My Valley – as a father trying futilely to keep his family together. He wants his older sons on his side, but cannot convince them. He wants to protect his daughter, but can’t. Wants to support everyone, but finally can’t do that either. It is a rather heartbreaking role for a great character actor. Personally, I think the great Sydney Greenstreet should have won for his work in The Maltese Falcon (but only because Joseph Cotton was overlooked for Kane), but I don’t have a real problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mary Astor, The Great Lie
I haven’t seen this film – although I have seen all the other nominees, and particularly loved the two Little Foxes performances by Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge. I have never much liked Mary Astor – although she was great in The Palm Beach Story – even thinking her miscast this year in what is undoubtedly her most famous role in The Maltese Falcon. I do want to see the film – how could I not want to see something that has Bette Davis lost in the forest – but the film took so long to come to DVD, that I still haven’t had a chance to rent it. I will correct that some day.

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