Certain years are unquestionable in their top ranking of an undisputed masterpiece standing at the helm of its reputation. 1948 is not such a year. In fact, any of the top three titles could have easily taken the reins on a given day. Let’s talk about Red River for instance. Howard Hawks was a consummate craftsman that had very little patience for films with lofty ambitions. In fact, he was once quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, that “a ‘great’ movie is three good scenes and no bad ones.” And yet, Red River, despite all of its traditional characteristics indebted to the western, had already begun to redefine the genre. John Wayne, your meat (probably a T-Bone steak) and potatoes kind of guy, was already beginning to deviate from his black & white image of the knight and shining armor. His Thomas Dunson even predated The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards by questioning the morality of the film’s lead and probing the audience to reflect on their previous acceptance of the genre’s conventions. John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre took it even one step further by demanding that we not only contemplate the gradated ethics of the protagonist, but also acknowledge our own flaws as a human race. Pretty heavy stuff for the forties. And yet, the year has to go to an unconventional love story which by today’s standard would probably result in a restraining order. But cynicism aside, I always recall Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman as if experiencing it through a haze, a mist of some sort on a cold and rainy night. In fact, it’s because of the movie’s gung-ho sincerity in its love story – along with my “Brontë-like” setting watching it – that somehow Ophüls’ picture manages to rise above the rest of the studio system romantic schmaltz that was continuously churning out at the time. And boy was there a lot of it. As for the rest of the year, check it and see.
1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
2. Red River (Howard Hawks)
3. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (John Huston)
4. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
5. The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed)
6. The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
7. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica)
8. They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray) and Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann)
9. La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti)
10. Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa)
It almost kills me to place The Red Shoes at number four. But there it is. Powell and Pressburger’s vibrant, luridly colored musical, is amongst many things an ode to the arts, achieving a masterly status in the world of cinema all the while its protagonist is eluded by such an aspiration towards his personal work in field of ballet. Then there’s a couple of film noirs riding the wave of disenchanted soldiers returning from war and their formerly independent wives burying their angst in gun-totting and smoke-filled pulp thrillers. Italian Neorealism was continuing to do its thing with one of its better known classics (Bicycle Thieves) and an underrated but nevertheless heartbreaking family saga (La Terra Trema) that should be as equally mentioned about today. Cap it off with Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, and man, 1948, while not a benchmark year, was certainly holding its own.
Next time – at the rate that I’m going, who knows! – will be the year 1967. “We rob banks.”