Top Ten Movies: 1944

Laura

A cigarette lighter extending from an unknown hand off-screen. A phone call with nothing but the sound of your own breath. And of course, the concrete clicks of heels walking in a shroud of something more than night. Before 1944, crime movies were Tommy guns and James Cagney. “Listen, see?” and devoted molls. The cops were righteous and sides were chalk-line clear. But the war did a little something. It muddled morality. After 1944, the good guys were bad and the bad guys were good, the women were seductive, corruptive, and the streets lingered in dread. There were desperate stoops above every gutter. Temperate con artists playing life like a rigged chess game. There were beggars pinching chump change ’til their fingers bled, crooked women straightening their seams, and American royalty throwing money like peanuts at a circus, demanding a show. Yes, 1944 cut the ribbon, shot the gun, waved the flag, whatever you’d like to call it. And the race was on. It could have gone to The Woman in the Window, honed. It could have gone to Murder, My Sweet, derisive. Hell, it almost went to Double Indemnity, iconic. But Laura has a little more: Clifton Webb, venom so deadly it cleans. That and a David Raksin score so specific to the film and yet so ambiguous overall, that it creates an anthem for a genre as elusive as smoke wafting in the air. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.” And so at number one it’ll always be remembered.

1. Laura (Otto Preminger)
2. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli)
4. Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges)
5. Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk)
6. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Sergei Eisenstein)
7. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges)
8. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) and This Happy Breed (David Lean)
9. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)
10. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)

A twofer by Mr. Sturges and his ideal blend of humor and Americana, with jolted performances by Eddie Bracken in both that were like a shot of heroin to a country lethargic by war. Then there’s Meet Me in St. Louis and Judy Garland, who does a lot of work to make up for a couple of kids that have me missing W.C. Fields terribly. But man, is she a movie star or what!? And Howard Hawks strew along a couple of his friends and told them to act, plucking Lauren Bacall amongst the crowd and saying “Hey, wait a minute. This one’s got something!”

Overseas, things were beyond rough. Obviously. And yet. And yet! Great movies were made. Powell and Pressburger had the oddity A Canterbury Tale, a very sincere and inspired booster for a nation not only fighting at its present but for its past. David Lean’s classical take on tradition and family in This Happy Breed is an exceptional case of that too. And the Soviet Union did that, boost national morale… well, sort of. Ivan the Terrible, Part I is patriotic without being so. It isn’t gentle and nostalgic but rides its chants of victory with lightning, overwrought even. It’s also one hell of a work of art, the way people are framed and shots are cut. But this is Eisenstein we’re talking about, so you know the drill.

Those that just missed the top ten include quite possibly the first deliberate camp movie – you know, like, on purpose – with Maria Montez (“Geev me the Cobra jewl”) in Robert Siodmak’s classic Cobra Woman. Which, since we’re on the topic, is one of four movies Siodmak directed that year! All wielded by a visionary with a firm hand and all wonderful: Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect. Ella Raines is undoubtedly actress of the year (see also Hail the Conquering Hero above). Then there’s Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, magnificent in letting Shakespeare breathe and allowing Sir Laurence to don one of my favorite haircuts in movie history *ahem* Javier Bardem *ahem*. The Woman Who Dared, a quietly valiant effort by France’s underrated Jean Grémillon, is about French pride at a time it desperately needed it. Then there’s also Rita Hayworth glitzing in brilliant technicolor for Cover Girl and William Castle debuting with a Lewton-esque gem, When Strangers Marry. I can keep going with another Fritz Lang project, Ministry of Fear, the rich ghost story The Uninvited, Canada Lee stealing the whole movie from Tallulah Bankhead in Hitchock’s Lifeboat, De Sica handling kid actors in The Children Are Watching Us, MGM warming up for The Best Years of Our Lives with Since You Went Away, and Bing Crosby introducing Swinging on a Star in the Oscar darling, Going My Way. But I’ll stop here, I guess.

Next month: 1966. There might not even be an American film in the bunch.

Top Ten Movies: 1960

1960 Psycho

Much to my many failed attempts, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this site. A year-and-a-half as a matter of fact. It’s safe to assume that Waterfront Cinema was beginning to look like quite the drought (and here’s hoping that it continues to rain for the one that actually matters in California). So I thought it would be interesting to develop a project, one inspired by a blog page I frequent. Robert Horton’s “The Crop Duster,” which is a collection of beautifully written reviews by the Seattle-based film critic who has a knack for wit to compliment his ingenious sense of film analysis. And just like his “Year by Year Best Movies” list, this one will be a categorization of films from a given year that have left the biggest impression in my viewing experience. Of course, it’s all subjective and you can take it anyway you’d like, but I always find myself attracted to lists. I feel like the need to create order is something innate in us all, like cleaning up a cluttered room. In the end, we might realize that the carpet is a different color than what we had originally imagined, or that an object we had given up for lost was actually stashed away amidst the mess. In other words, making lists can reveal a little bit more about us than what we originally thought composed our taste and outlooks. That and this project is one heck of a way to prevent getting rusty. Write. Write. Write!

So I’ll start off with the year 1960. Seminal in its transition from an older mode of filmmaking into one of complete freedom and experimentation. This is the decade where the “Waves” flourished (i.e The Japanese New Wave, the Czech New Wave, and of course, the French New Wave already kicking it off the year before). The studio system was beginning to collapse. And yet, my number one pick comes from a master of the craft who thrived under studio discipline. Psycho is as honed a genre piece as you can get; perfected through the expertise of artists and technicians taught, where else, but the on blood, sweat, and tears of the backlots in Hollywood. Still, Psycho is different. The shift in protagonists midway through the plot, the dark and disturbing psychological subject it chooses to portray, and of course, that infamous shower scene, are characteristics that would have been unheard of in the movies just a couple of years before. You can even compare Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, with this one and see how far movies had truly come. So here it is, solidly cemented as my number one spot.

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)
3. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
4. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini)
5. Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti)
6. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)
7. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
8. The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
9. Wild River (Elia Kazan)
10. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz)

A couple of Italian landmarks at the top challenging those brazen and restless French directors catching their first wind (this was also the year of the wonderful Les Bonnes Femmes and Zazie Dans Le Métro). And as assured as I am that Rocco and his Brother is one of my absolute favorite films – of all time, so the saying goes – there it sits at number five.

Those that were close but didn’t quite make the cut include the kinetic Cruel Story of Youth and the not-so-kinetic When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Strong turns by bonafide masters (Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, Ozu’s Late Spring, and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and Purple Noon, adapted from a Highsmith staple that I believe holds up even better than Minghella’s very good 1999 film version.

Below that tier are two Robert Mitchum vehicles (Minnelli’s Home from the Hill and Zinnemann’s The Sundowners) that prove that the studios still had it in them (See The Apartment and Wild River). And then there’s Spartacus, which apart from being very entertaining, also made for one hell of a funny Pepsi commercial.

Next week (I sound like an old episodic show) will be the year 1991. Think again before taking a bite of those fava beans and nice chianti.