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: 1981

Cutter's Way

Not a memorable year for moviemaking. Other than Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 seems forgotten, tucked away in a decade that would help reinstate the overblown studio mechanism of the blockbuster as grand ruler supreme at the box office, a variation of the epic from twenty years before and one that would stay with us ’til this very day. Which is all the more reason for me to champion my number one pick. Cutter’s Way has got mythology in the making. Quietly released under the title Cutter and Bone – a more appropriate and superior choice – it was pulled, renamed, re-released, hailed by whatever group of small critics that actually got a chance to watch the damn thing, and vanished, awaiting some sort of “discovery” ever since. Well, it hasn’t gotten there yet, but I myself am living proof of word of mouth. Like the lingering echoes of the death nail that was Heaven’s Gate, Cutter’s Way is all the more devastating because it refuses to be forgotten, paralleling the near discarded mystery that gnaws away at the edges of its three leads, outcasts spited by something more than just life. Seriously, Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and particularly Lisa Eichhorn have hardly been any better, personifying a certain kind of American disenchantment that’s dulled them to the bone. Watch it and see for yourself. It’s a masterpiece. As for the rest, very good movies in a very off year.

1. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer)
2. Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
3. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
4. Reds (Warren Beatty)

5. The Road Warrior (George Miller)
6. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski)
7. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)
8. Thief (Michael Mann)
9. Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth)
10. Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Brian De Palma has always been a kind of savant of imperfection, which is no knock off at all, believe me. But with Blow Out, the planets must have aligned because he sure delivered a thriller on par with its flawless inspiration. Then there’s Lola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sinister continuation of his BRD trilogy and a gorgeous film to look at. Seriously, it’s my pick for favorite lighting in any film I’ve ever watched. Quite the hyperbolic overstatement but I’m sticking to it. Reds is possibly the best thing Warren Beatty ever touched, the thinking man’s Doctor Zhivago, and Possession is horror trash (my kind of genre) elevated to higher depths because of its raw take on jealousy, not to mention performances by its two leads that throw caution to the wind and so much more. So so much more. And have you watched Gregory’s Girl? Because you should watch Gregory’s Girl. A tiny quirk of a film that Bill Forsyth conducted with utter perfection.

The Road Warrior squanders the idea that sequels are distillations of their original source, and Thief builds up the tropes of the crime genre only to scrap them as a “I could give you what you want but I won’t” at the end. Then there’s Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, that does something quite remarkable by adapting a source material and throwing it in a whole other setting. I’m talking 180 degrees here. And it works!

A lot of stuff that could have easily made the list, and some had at certain points. But Blind Chance shares the spot alone for its pick your own adventure premise and making an inspired political drama out of it. I mean it’s Kieślowski! Has that guy ever made anything bad? But just to satiate, I guess that’s the word I’m using, your curiosity, the final slot could have gone to Jean-Jacques Beinex’s Diva, with a killer score to match its introduction to cinéma du look. Francois Truffaut was handling Hitchcock again with The Woman Next Door, introducing the film world to the wonder that is Fanny Ardant. And for that matter Lawrence Kasdan was doing just the same in America with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, the best of the noir remake bunch that became a thing around that time (i.e. Sharky’s MachineThe Postman Always Rings Twice, Against All Odds). Then there’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, which I like a lot but not enough apparently. And the list keeps going: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Das Boot, Prince of the City, They All Laughed, S.O.B., Escape from New York, The Aviator’s Wife, Scanners, My Dinner with Andre, Modern Romance, Gallipoli, Mephisto. And finally the horror genre, particularly The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in LondonThe others, while good, can’t match the fun of those two.

Next Month: 1944. I’m gonna start humming The Trolley Song, I know it.

Top Ten Movies: 1956

07_the_searchers__Blu-ray

When thinking of 1956 and all of the continuous, ceremonious even, praise for The Searchers, I almost hesitate to place it as my number one. Do I really love John Ford’s often cited magnum opus because of a lack of my own peripheral vision muddled with a sort of cinephile status quo? Or do I genuinely think of this film as, and here I go and say it, one of the greatest achievements in the cinema? The answer, of course, is listed below. If there is any indication of the “Great American Novel” transferred to film, my argument is that yes, it has already been achieved, and yes, it was done by the sanctified cinematic duo of John Ford and John Wayne. If you trace back Ford’s filmography, you can see him actually cover every groundbreaking moment in American history. From the War of Independence (Drums Along the Mohawk), to the Civil War (The Horse Soldiers), all the way up to the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath) and beyond. So it’s quite the statement to be made then when he introduced a staple in his mythology, in this case the All-American Hero, and stripped away the romantic varnish of its purity. Ethan Edwards is his protagonist but he’s hurdles away from being a saint. Ethan’s clung to all of the ugliness that has tinged the nation’s past and has displayed it for the Eisenhower generation to digest along with their popcorn and drinks. Here’s a genre historically steeped in controversy over its archaic racist depictions and overlooked misogyny. And here’s the flag-bearing director of said genre’s success forcing audiences to question their previous acceptance of the western’s conventions. That’s quite the pill to swallow but quite the courageous leap for Ford to make creatively. So at #1 The Searchers goes.

1. The Searchers (John Ford)
2. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
3. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
4. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray)
5. Flowing (Mikio Naruse)
6. Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher)
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel) and Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville)
8. Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
9. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin) and Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
10. Calle Mayor (Juan Antonio Bardem)

1956 also happened to be a spectacular year for melodrama. Aside from the aforementioned Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life, and Baby Doll, there was also Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow; movies that really pulled away at the patterned curtains and into the American hypocrisy of its domestic complacency. And what an inspired momentum Sirk had with that! Melodrama overseas included Japan’s Flowing and Street of Shame, two wonderful and would-have-been labeled “woman’s pictures” that hold up beautifully today; the latter also the final outing by the ingenuously talented and deeply empathetic Kenji Mizoguchi. Spain had the Betsy Blair tug-at-your-heartstrings Calle Mayor, a gem desperate for rediscovery, and I almost gave the tenth spot to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second in his brilliant Apu Trilogy installment.

Others hovering near the end also include Kubrick’s first solid masterwork The Killing, Robert Aldrich’s biting and sneering war drama Attack!, Vadim and Bardot really digging each other in And God Created Woman, and Fritz Lang’s seething noir, as if he knew how to do anything else, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Then there’s the colors in John Huston’s Moby Dick, and that and just about everything else in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. Oh! And Hitchcock had two perfect Hitchcock pictures in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, warming up for the work he had in store ahead.

Top Ten Movies: 1947

Out of the Past

What a year for film noir! Let’s begin with a painstaking list of those omitted. You had Richard Widmark’s seething and sinister Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. Tyrone Power and his traveling carnival troupe in one of the oddest entries with Nightmare Alley. Joan Crawford trapped in a vicious ménage à trois between Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda – Henry Fonda! – in Daisy Kenyon. Burt Lancaster tearing through steel in Brute Force. John Garfield doing what it is he does best, brooding as a tortured anti-hero in Body and Soul. You had Robert Ryan playing an outright anti-semite in Crossfire. Hell, you even had John Hodiak and Wendell Corey getting tight and chummy as the more fascinating love interest in Desert Fury, the year’s Gilda. But with that said, nothing tops the classic duo of Jacques Tourneur and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. It isn’t the most innovative script with the most inspired climax, but it is everything a noir should be. It’s smoke coiled underneath an exposed lightbulb. It’s Mitchum’s baritone voice cooly describing his downfall, probably with a dangling cigarette in his mouth. It’s Jane Greer’s twenty-two year old youth brandished against her jaded fatalism. It’s basically the stuff that dreams are made of. So here’s tipping my glass of scotch to that, the year’s best.

1. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
2. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
3. Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
4. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
5. Pursued (Raoul Walsh)
6. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
7. T-Men (Anthony Mann)
8. Boomerang! (Elia Kazan) and They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel)
9. The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda)
10. La Perla (Emilio Fernández)

Odd Man Out has got to be one of the most extraordinarily idiosyncratic exports from the Brits. A film that begins like a caper but evolves into something surreal, all unique unto itself in its quiet and poetic finale. Then there’s Powell and Pressburger’s technicolor extravaganza that basically boils down to horny nuns in the Alps. Who woulda thought that it could make for such a damn good movie!? But like E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, it gets at British repression and social propriety against the call of, ahem, nature. Charlie Chaplin deviated as far away from his Little Tramp character with Monsiuer Verdoux, probably intending to make a statement by it, and Zoltan Korda snatches the win for the most criminally neglected film of the year with The Macomber Affair, one of the best adaptations of a Hemingway novel and an ironic piece of scrutiny against masculinity. Robert Preston should have won an award or something.

Next time, who knows! Hey, it was Robert Mitchum’s birthday today and I had a couple of hours to kill.

Top Ten Movies: 1948

1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman

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.”