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. 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, by every means noir’s definition. It could have gone to Murder, My Sweet, the genre’s surrealistically bleak high. Hell, it almost went to Double Indemnity, one of its most iconic. But Laura has an added gem: Clifton Webb, venom so deadly it cleans. That and a David Raksin score so specific to the film and yet so encompassing 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 bad. 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 and its unforgettable cake, 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.