Thursday, November 4, 2010

Year in Review: 1947

1947 contains some of my favorite films of the 1940s – but it also does seem overall to be a little weaker than other years of the decade (I’m not sure how many other years the bottom two films on this list would have made the cut) – but that’s probably my fault for not having seen a few more.

10. Boomerang (Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan directed two films in 1947 – one that won the Best Picture Oscar, and this one, and I prefer this one. The film is a courtroom drama starring Dana Andrews as the DA of Bridgeport, Conn, a town rocked when the beloved local priest is gunned down in the street. The manhunt turns up no leads for weeks, then months on end – and then they come across a suspect, a drifter who left town around the time of the murder. The police question him for hours on end, breaking him, put forth a bunch of eyewitness testimony, and has everyone convinced they have the right man. Everyone except for Andrews of course. The film is stylishly directed by Kazan in semi-documentary fashion as it slowly builds it case and then destroys it. Andrews in fine in the lead role, but the best performance is probably by Kazan regular Lee J. Cobb as the stubborn chief of police. A gripping police procedural, following by an even more gripping courtroom drama (which make lack something in the credibility department but is still entertaining), Boomerang is one of Kazan’s better early efforts.

9. A Double Life (George Cukor)
A Double Life is about method acting before the term was really all that well known. The film stars Ronald Colman is his brilliant, Oscar winning turn as a famed Broadway actor who always takes on a little bit of the character he is portraying. Now that he is playing Othello, things are getting out of control. He drives away his wife (Signe Hasso), who is also his co-star, and as the play continues on for months on end, he becomes more jealous, more enraged – eventually leading him to murder his mistress (Shelley Winters) – although he cannot remember it. The film has noir elements – the war within the man character, the dark lighting, the murder, the contrasting worlds between the glamour of the stage and Winters pathetic lifestyle – but I’m not sure it really is noir. Director George Cukor was best known for comedies, but here he brings this dark tale to life – with more than a little help by a brilliant Colman.

8. Quai Des Orfevres (Henri-Georges Clouzut)
Henri-Georges Clouzut was a master French filmmaker, and Quai Des Orfevres is one of his best. He specialized in thrillers, and this film certainly qualifies. It stars Suzy Delair as a woman, who wants to make it as a dance hall singer, and knows that her looks are her best asset and exploits it. This makes her husband, Bernard Blier, extremely jealous. When she pushes things too far, and goes to the house of a wealthy man who wants her, Blier becomes enraged and goes the house himself – and finds his rival dead. The married couple is the most obvious suspects, and neither quite believes it when they both claim to be innocent. The film is stylishly directed by Clouzut – who was better than almost anyone other than Hitchcock at building suspense – but is also extremely well written, full of great dialogue and a plot that twists when we least expect it. Not as well known as Les Diaboliques or The Wages of Fear perhaps, but it should be.

7. Pursued (Raoul Walsh)
Raoul Walsh’s Pursued is kind of like a Western noir. Robert Mitchum stars as Jeb Rand, the adopted son of a farm family. As a child, he watched his entire family murdered in front of his eyes – and although the memory haunts him, he cannot quite remember the details. He falls in love with his adoptive sister (Teresa Wright), but his brother cannot stand him – especially when Mitchum goes off to war and comes back a hero, and their mother (Judith Anderson) insists that a third of everything belongs to Mitchum. Secrets are revealed, violence and murder through the film, and even incest is implied, although never explicitly stated. Pursued is much darker than most Westerns of the time, and perhaps the smartest thing Walsh did was to hire Mitchum, to play his hero, as he delivers a great performance. A strange movie, but one that gets under your skin.

6. Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini)
Almost immediately after WWII ended, Italian filmmakers were addressing the issues of their role in the war – both on the positive and negative sides. But Germany took decades before they would really start to address these issues. Perhaps that’s why, after making two films about Italy (Paisan and Open City), Roberto Rossellini decided to make a film set in Germany. Germany Year Zero is probably the least known of the three films – but in some ways it is my favorite. It is harsh, unrelenting, depressing film about young Edmund – a Germany boy living with his family, and five other families, living in a bombed out building in Berlin. Although still a child, he has the responsibility of trying to keep his family – including his ill father – alive. When he takes something said by an elder too literally, he becomes raked with guilt. Germany Year Zero acted as a reminder, a necessary one at the time, that despite the evil that Germany was responsible for during the war, there were innocents and children there as well – who didn’t deserve the fate they were left to.

5. Brute Force (Jules Dassin)
Before he was blacklisted, Jules Dassin specialized in dark, brooding film noirs like this one. Set in a prison, Brute Force stars Burt Lancaster as a bitter convict who is determined to break out of prison to be with his wife. He has a plan, but needs help. Standing in their way is the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn is a wonderfully evil performance), who is just as violent as the men he is sent to guard. The movie has a flashback structure that allows us to see into the lives of the convicts before they were sent to jail, which simply adds to the tragedy of their tail. Dassin was a master stylist, and Brute Force is no exception, as he gives the film a dark, brooding, claustrophobic feel that works with the material. Yes, the social commentary is a little dated, but that doesn’t take away the effect of the film.

4. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
I think many people think of Charlie Chaplin mainly as a silent film director, and then The Great Dictator, and little else. But his Monsieur Verdoux – which he wrote with Orson Welles – is one of his best films, and one of the best dark comedies of the 1940s. He plays a banker who gets fired, and in order to make money for his wife and son, marries wealthy widows and murders them. All of this is played by Chaplin in his great comic style – although there is no Little Tramp here. The film is a marvel of comedic direction by Chaplin, who keeps the movie hilarious even in scenes when he is murdering old women – no small feat. The film may try to tack on a message at the end (as the murderer claims that what did was no different from killing during wartime), but that hardly matters. What does is that for most of its running time Monsieur Verdoux is a brilliant black comedy by a great filmmaker.

3. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
I don’t think that Black Narcissus is Powell and Pressburger’s best film – but I do think it is there most beautiful one. A group of Anglican nuns travel to a remote outpost in the Himalayas to set up a hospital, a school and to try and “tame” the local populace. But things don’t go according to plan, and the nuns are drawn deeper into their surroundings, and seduced by them. Deborah Kerr gives one of her best performances as the head nun, trying to forget a failed romance back in Ireland, who becomes increasingly convinced that she is a failure. Also wonderful is Kathleen Byron, as an unstable nun who is jealous of Kerr, and who suffers a violent breakdown as a result. The Oscar winning color cinematography, by Jack Cardiff, is a wonder to behold, the direction flawless and the screenplay is full of underlying sexual tension. I said at the beginning that this isn’t Powell and Pressburger’s best film – for me that is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – but its damn close.

2. Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk)
In 1947, Hollywood made two major films about anti-Semitism – one won the Best Picture Oscar, and the other was this one – I prefer this one (even if the source material was about discrimination against gays, not Jews). The film is a harsh, dark, violent film noir in which a soldier is murdered simply because he is Jewish. The film doesn’t skirt the issue, but deals with it head on. The entire cast is great – but particularly the always great Robert Ryan as the murderer, who is cruel, cold and brutal and Gloria Grahame as a pathetic prostitute, although Robert Mitchum is also excellent as one of Ryan’s pals. The cinematography, by veteran J. Roy Hunt, is dark and moody, but also haunting in some of the other scenes. Crossfire isn’t much mentioned today – I think most people write it off as a message movie – and while it is that, it is so much more as well.

1. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
You could argue that Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir of all time. Even if it isn’t, it is surely one of the best, and the film that may best represent the genre. Robert Mitchum stars as a seemingly normal gas station owner whose past comes back to haunt him. In a flashback, we see that Mitchum was once a PI, hired by a powerful man (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend (Jane Greer) who shot him and stole $40,000. She wants the girl, and the money back. It doesn’t take Mitchum long to find Greer – but like every poor sap in a film noir, he falls in love with the one girl he shouldn’t leading him into never ending trouble and his own doom. The story is classic noir, and I love the way it unfolds slowly. But the film is more than its story. Jacques Tourner, who got his started directing low budget horror films for Val Lewton, knew how to direct dark films, and this is one of his darkest. I love the use of cigarette smoke in the film – if you ever want to point to a movie that shows cigarettes are cool and sexy, just watch Mitchum and Greer smoke in this movie. It is the performances that really make this movie though. Kirk Douglas is great as the hard nosed bad guy. Jane Greer is one the sexiest, and most troublesome, femme fatales in screen history. And then there’s Mitchum. If anyone was ever made for the dark, cynical world of film noir, than that person is Robert Mitchum who delivered lots of great performances in his career but perhaps none better than this one. This one is a masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Bishop’s Wife (Henry Koster), Born to Kill (Robert Wise), The Farmer’s Daughter (H.C. Potter), Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan), Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway).

Notable Films Missed: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), La Terra Terma (Luchino Visconti), Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton), Odd Man Out (Carol Reed).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan)
I kind of back handedly mentioned this film twice in my top ten list, saying it wasn’t as good as Kazan’s other film from this year (Boomerang) nor as good as the other film about anti-Semitism (Crossfire). And while both of those things are true, and Gentlemen’s Agreement is certainly a dated film, I am not as down on it as many critics are. For one thing, I think that you really do need to look at this film – where reporter Gregory Peck disguises himself as Jewish to expose the unspoken anti-Semitism among the upper class – from an historical perspective. Everyone told Peck not to do the film – that it would ruin his career and that no one would like him afterwards. He didn’t care, he made the film anyway. Yes, the film has dated, and doesn’t have the genre trappings of Crossfire to fall back on, but at the time it was a daring film. No, it didn’t deserve to win, but it isn’t as bad as I have heard some critics claim.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Ronald Colman, A Double Life
Considering how many actors there are in the Academy, you would think that more actors would win Oscars for playing actors. But other than Colman, the only others I can think of who did was Maggie Smith in California Suite, Katherine Hepburn in Morning Glory, Cate Blanchatt in The Aviator, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway and perhaps Emil Jannings in The Last Command (he is kind of an actor in the film). But even those films weren’t so much about acting, but about the people. Colman is great is A Double Life as a very committed actor – he doesn’t know how to play a role and not take it home with him. This sounds familiar to people who have heard stories about DeNiro being Travis Bickle throughout the shooting of Taxi Driver, or everyone being scared of Daniel Day Lewis on the set of Gangs of New York. Colman nails the performance – and singlehandedly raises the level of the movie he is in.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter
I have often complained that the Academy never seems to recognize comedic performances. Die of some strange disease, play mentally challenged or be in a Holocaust film, and the Oscar is yours. Make people laugh, and you don’t have a chance. So it is with mixed feelings that I come to Loretta Young’s Oscar winning performance in The Farmer’s Daughter. The film, about a simple country girl who marries a politician (Joseph Cotton), who ends up running against his hand picked candidate because she thinks he is corrupt. The film is obvious, yet enjoyable fluff, and Young is wonderful, especially in the early scenes with her thick accent. But I also have to say the very thing I always complain about – that the performance lacks a certain weight that to me would make it Oscar worthy. Young is very good in the film, but she didn’t deserve to win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
I think perhaps the reason I have never seen Miracle on 34th Street is because every December I spend most of my movie watching time catching up with films for the current year to make up my top 10 list, that I never have time to watch this – and really who wants to watch a Christmas movie in July? I really should see it, as it is an acknowledged Christmas classic, and I have to admit I am a sucker for those, so perhaps this year I will finally see the film and Gwenn’s performance as Santa. He does look the part.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement
I love Celeste Holm is many of her screen roles – although she preferred Broadway to movies – in particular her work in All About Eve. Her role in Gentlemen’s Agreement is fine – she plays a fashion editor who becomes one of Peck’s allies in his story, and perhaps more as his relationship with Dorothy Maguire grows tenuous as his assignment continues. It is a fine a role, for a great actress, and I do think that she deserves an Oscar. Just not for this performance, where although she is very good, she is not given the opportunity to be great.

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