Project: 1940s canon (1.0)
1940s CANON 1.0
Christmas in July (1940, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Fantasia (1940, various directors)
The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin)
His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, William Dieterle) [cap]
How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler) [cap]
The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
Meshes of the Afternoon (SHORT 1943, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) [see below]
Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
Red Hot Riding Hood (SHORT 1943, Tex Avery) [see below]
Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)
Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)
Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Screwball Squirrel (SHORT 1944, Tex Avery) [see below]
To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Battle of San Pietro (SHORT 1945, John Huston)
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [cap]
Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne) [cap]
I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) [cap]
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945, Robert Bresson) [cap]
Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)
Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [cap]
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Cluny Brown (1946, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
Ivan the Terrible Part I (1945, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
My Darling Clementine (1946, John Ford) [cap]
Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)
Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1946, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
King-Size Canary (SHORT 1947, Tex Avery) [see below]
The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin) [cap]
Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed) [cap]
Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
Quai des Ofevres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [cap]
Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) [cap]
Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [cap]
La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophuls) [cap]
Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
The Pirate (1948, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Women of the Night (1948, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Gun Crazy (1949, Joseph H. Lewis) [cap]
The Heiress (1949, William Wyler) [cap]
I Was a Male War Bride (1949, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Jour de Fete (1949, Jacques Tati) [cap]
Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Orpheus (1949, Jean Cocteau) [cap]
Prison (1949, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls) [cap]
The Southerner (1949, Jean Renoir) [cap]
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [cap]
“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood — for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world — millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say: do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”
– Charlie Chaplin as The Barber in The Great Dictator
For the third happy year running, this modest blog was concerned with a chronological exploration of the “film canon” as defined by faithful users at a certain web forum that’s a magnet for eloquent, informed cinephilia; exploring the lists project at the Criterion Forum prompted me to stop messing around with facile polls and get serious about widening the perspective of this film blog. We’ve come to the 1940s, which — due apparently to a dip in participation at the time the original list was made — is a slightly abbreviated list in its original incarnation, with 88 titles including both features and (relatively few) shorts. Despite the list’s limitations, it gave me plenty of new stuff to watch and revisit which is the whole point. I expected to wrap this one up a little sooner than I did, but it’s been a busy year. As it all panned out, I kicked off on January 17 of this past year by revisiting The Red Shoes and finished on Christmas Day with The Reckless Moment. As mentioned, this is a more flawed list than the first two; there are obvious omissions — but it’s just a starting point, and notice that it still took me a full calendar year to see everything it included!
The sketchy history that follows isn’t intended as a full-on act of scholarship, just an interpretation of all that I’ve seen this year, with holes and flaws dutifully noted when I’m aware of them. Compared to the silent era and the 1930s, we find that in the course of the ’40s, despite two transformative events (the war, and the American major studios’ divestment of their theater ownings in 1948), the obvious narrative thread of all this disappears; things fragment, the business gets more complicated, the bulk of the art and history of cinema becomes harder to fit into a linear story. But I’ve done my best, even if what I’ve ended up putting down is my own story much more than the story of these films.
PART ONE: ART IN THE STUDIO SYSTEM & THE HAYS ERA
In this section I want to talk about a few of the major Hollywood auteurs and how they opened the decade.
Preston Sturges had been writing dialogue and contributing screenplays in Hollywood since the beginning of the sound era. His reputation was made by his knack for erudite, wordplay-ridden dialogue that nevertheless sounded perfectly natural with the right performers, which is presumably one reason why — as a director — he so frequently used the same stable of character actors, one of many contributors to his tensions with his home studio, Paramount Pictures. Yet Paramount couldn’t argue with success; starting with The Great McGinty in 1940, Sturges directed his own scripts and quickly became one of the few “celebrity directors,” recognized as a true American wordsmith while still running up against the same instict for safety and conservatism that seems to derail all artists who try to make it within a commercial system. Within eighteen months between 1940 and ’41, Sturges directed three classics in a row that retain their place in the pinnacle of film comedy: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels.
Each of these is magnificent in its own way. The Lady Eve belongs in the pantheon as a sterling example of the screwball comedy, of which more later. Sullivan’s Travels is both a winning, funny, perceptive satire of “the business” — perhaps not as cynical as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. but equally savvy — and a surprisingly dark tragedy in which a successful filmmaker learns of the dregs of life at the bottom, and experiences an artistic (if self-serving) awakening, not to mention the joys of Walt Disney cartoons. Perhaps the most ageless of these films, however, is the remarkable Christmas in July, a personal and heartfelt chronicle of the fleeting nature of success. Its story is predicated on the very convoluted and very Sturges Americana of a slogan contest for a coffee company, but the “moment in the sun” that results for its hero, Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald, has an irresistible poignance, a recognition that the often ephemeral nature of happiness is baked into it, and that deeper and more permanent things aren’t necessarily tied to ecstatic moments of great triumph. In this film more than any other, Sturges’ love for his characters radiates out from the screen and infects everyone watching; and up to the idiosyncratic conclusion, there is never any doubt that this is that elusive Hollywood moment of a film reflecting, truly and completely, the work and sensibility of one specific artist. But whereas Sturges’ world typically seems so heightened compared to ours, in July and Travels he allows us to merge with it. The transition is violent and sudden in the latter film; in the former, it’s something much more ethereal and touching.
Talking of cartoons, this list’s sample size precludes a really proper look at the greatest decade for the “other studios” (non-Disney); as we’ve said here before, the shorts of the classic animation years will be the subject of future delving. Fantasia is here and more power to it — still a tremendous, transformative film — but Pinocchio, Dumbo (Disney’s best feature, and for me the finest animated feature of all) and Bambi are not. But someone really liked Tex Avery; three of his cartoons from his slick MGM period make it here. Red Hot Riding Hood is of course infallible, deservedly one of the most famous of all American cartoons and still a riot, and still clearly not designed for children at all with its open, joyous, lecherous lust toward a lovingly rendered burlesque performer on the part of a wolf who then fully gets his, and by his own hand. Equally madcap and imaginative, despite some relatively lackluster character designs, is King-Size Canary, the defining cartoon of the “escalate everything beyond absurdity” dictum. Screwball Squirrel, however, has always struck me as tennis without a net, because the title character is so anarchic by definition that he ends up completely lacking a personality. It is interesting that the most staid and rigid studio of all, MGM, would bankroll the least inhibited character from the era, but apart from the satirical jabs at Disney that open the film, it’s an affair that makes such a valiant attempt at Bob Clampett-like intensity that it becomes contrived. There’s no way for an “anything goes” premise like this not to end up being sadly predictable. I feel that much of Avery’s best work, and he is one of the examples of a director whose cartoons completely reflect his own personality, came when he worked with regular characters, like Droopy or Bugs Bunny, so of course I tend to prefer his Warner Bros. output. The Warner cartoons’ absence from this list is glaring, and probably a result either of happenstance or of such a glut of classics to choose from that there was no specific work to rally around like Steamboat Willie for Disney in the ’20s. Again, the day to more coherently approach all this will come.
If anyone could — as of 1940 — match Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney’s status as a luminaries to the film business, as well as Preston Sturges’ and Ernst Lubitsch’s as household-name directors, it was Alfred Hitchcock, who moved to Hollywood in 1939 and immediately began work on Rebecca for titan producer David O. Selznick. The film, a stunning Gothic anti-romance from Daphne du Maurier’s delectable novel, won a Best Picture Academy Award and captured the national imagination in much the same way Selznick’s Gone with the Wind had from production to release. The film was sold to the public with Selznick’s name, not Hitchcock’s, despite the director’s international success with several of his later British thrillers. The tide turned quickly, thanks in part to Hitchcock’s dogged, constant working — the ’40s would prove his busiest and most chaotic decade in cinema, culminating in his break with Selznick and the creation of his own short-lived production company in 1947. While still under contract to Selznick, he repeatedly made scrappy thrillers like Foreign Correspondent that displeased his boss (that film proved hugely popular and was acclaimed enough to compete against Rebecca at the Oscars, which surely didn’t make the relationship any happier), not to mention the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which despite (or maybe because of) being a major outlier in Hitchcock’s career is the first film whose publicity campaign centered on his own name, even with stars Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery on the bill. But this list skips over those to move straight to Suspicion, the slickest of these early non-Selznick Hollywood Hitchcocks, which stars Cary Grant as a conniving husband to an understandably pensive woman (Rebecca‘s Joan Fontaine) who begins to suspect he is a murderer. With a lot of flaws that show themselves in many of Hitchcock’s works from the first half of the decade, Suspicion nevertheless finds space for a number of perversities and preoccupations that Selznick would’ve never allowed, which makes it fascinating right up to its extremely compromised ending. The greatest disappointment is that Hitchcock never got to work with Fontaine again despite their obvious spiritual synchronicity; for the director and Cary Grant, though, further and larger glories lay ahead.
Still working at MGM, where he’d made Ninotchka after years with Paramount, Ernst Lubitsch came in swinging with the loving, humane comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which exhibited all of his best tendencies as an architect of humor and characterization in the context of a winning, romantic holiday narrative about a bickering man and woman among the staff at a leather shop unaware that they’ve fallen in love by mail. In the same way as Christmas in July, this is Hollywood at its very best as an avenue of communication with the base goodness in people. Lubitsch switched to self-producing after this and would end his career at 20th Century Fox, dying all too young.
For John Ford, the ’40s were a time of increasing prestige and accomplishment interrupted for several years by his War Dept. service; he made many information films for the government, including an infamous one about “sex hygiene.” Just before the war, he received an armload of Oscars for his two most literary works and not coincidentally two of his most superficial, the flawed but faithful and at times painfully realistic The Grapes of Wrath and the sentimental How Green Was My Valley, a tough but turgid adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel. Both films reflect Ford’s concerns about class, poverty and human dignity, but less cogently than his messier, more insightful genre films.
The greatest now-unheralded Hollywood director of the age (sometimes I think any age, until I remember Frank Borzage), William Wyler carried the humanism of Dodsworth forward to The Little Foxes, a nasty Lillian Hellman story and play that hides a real awareness of the deep love that can unite families amid all its righteous grousing about the hate that can divide them. Bette Davis’ sometimes excessive bombast, following on from Wyler’s Jezebel, is kindly kept in check within the framework provided by the other actors; as usual, he coaxes out remarkable performances, particularly here the equally underrated Patricia Collinge as a woman who has learned to shut up for the sake of her own survival. Wyler could also, at times, be a polished and overly professional curator of Hollywood dreams, but an eclectic one; he will reappear to us here in his better guise, but I do want to mention the pure fun of The Westerner and the shocking force of his family-oriented war propaganda film Mrs. Miniver, neither on this list but both wearing the years better than his Wuthering Heights from 1939.
I am not sure how much William Dieterle qualifies as an auteur in any modern sense; he’s most commonly known for his straightforward, Oscar-attracting biopics of the 1930s, the two most famous of which (The Life of Emile Zola and The Story of Louis Pasteur) both starred Paul Muni, but a suggestion of the more adventurous realm he would explore in this decade can be traced, perhaps, to his visually sumptuous 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at MGM. His most famous film of the ’40s — and his entry here — is the messy but dreamlike and very un-studio The Devil and Daniel Webster, made for RKO in 1941, a didactic and loosely structured but engagingly weird interpretation of the Stephen Benet story that, among other things, gives us one of the most unsympathetic Hollywood heroes outside of noir (James Craig) and lets us watch Walter Huston having a hell of a time as the surly, wiseass old-man Devil, here “Scratch.” One sequence that revolves around a dance with a seductress played with mischievous joy by Simone Simon is a marvel of photography (by Joseph August) and editing (by Robert Wise). Dieterle’s toying with the strange universe of nightmare-logic and visual unpredictability would culminate in his unsuccessful but influential and fascinating project for Selznick, 1948’s Portrait of Jennie.
While that may be Simone Simon’s most striking performance seen here, it’s not the most iconic or long-lasting — that would be her work in Cat People, one of two downright insane — yet perversely laconic and artful — horror films on this list directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton for RKO. These two innovative films are significant for the specific method by which they carry the genre forward from its pre-Code golden age in America (Britain had Ealing Studios, woefully absent from this list, to experiment with the often horrifying Dead of Night in 1945): via absolute stonefaced seriousness that never flinches at the ludicrousness of either premise. Cat People is literally about a woman who thinks she’s a cat; I Walked with a Zombie is so nebulous in its actual story content it’s hard to even summarize it, but essentially there’s a weird island, and Voodoo, and ancient rituals, and racial tension. Cat People is improbably creepy because it demands that we look past its suggestion of psychosis and take its ideas at face value, with our hearts being oddly tugged in multiple directions; when you realize the extent to which you’ve been played, it’s kind of alarming. For me, Zombie is the miracle: a film that uses shapeless traces of horror-based ideas to thoroughly seduce the audience with mood. Neither film makes much sense, but that’s a compliment; they feel less like studio features, much less the cash-in product of B-movie legend, than avant garde pieces that were budgeted by RKO through some sort of rounding error.
All this talk of RKO brings us to the decade’s undeniable behemoth to stand above them all, at least in Hollywood. Orson Welles, a wunderkind stage director in his early twenties, had come to national prominence with his brilliant, wildly ahead-of-its-time radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, presented as a fake news broadcast. A similar savvy in regard to media informed his breathtaking directorial debut at RKO, the newspaper film to end them all, Citizen Kane, the vivid, vital, astoundingly detailed narrative of the life of a flawed, monstrous but multifaceted news mogul portrayed by Welles himself, and a pointed but humane takedown of one of the biggest egos in the country, that of William Randolph Hearst. The film’s potency and clarity as satire kept it away from the mass popularity (and Academy Awards) it deserved, but it stands as one of the most uncompromised visions by any director ever produced and released by a major studio. By contrast, Welles’ equally ambitious follow-up, the Booth Tarkington adaptation The Magnificent Ambersons, was doomed by reshoots and recuts done without the director’s consent or enthusiasm; it forever stands as one of the great lost films even though its truncated version is full of haunting suggestions of what might have been. Welles sadly would continue to be the most dramatic example of a phenomenal artist constrained by the boundaries of Hollywood’s commercialism, reminding us that however much incredible art was crafted within the studio system, very little of it came about easily or without compromise, and all too often any generosity toward and freedom afforded the great filmmakers of the day was purely incidental.
INTERLUDE: AVANT GARDE
The first of a few blind spots I want to address briefly.
After following the thread of avant garde cinema to a much greater extent in the silent era (where it’s inescapable) and ’30s, we kind of lose the plot on this installment of the canon project; even the magnificent Unseen Cinema boxed set stops in the early part of the 1940s, and while I was able to borrow Kino’s Avant Garde sets that go a bit further some time ago, I haven’t gotten to spend a lot of closely attentive time with them. There are some decent tastes of American abstract work going into the middle of the century on the Treasures from American Film Archives sets; alas, I’ve only netted two of those to date. At any rate, this project did bring me to a new discovery, one of the most beautiful experimental films I can ever recall seeing, and one of the most famous so I’m honestly just decades late here: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon, featuring both of them as performers but wholly conceived by Deren. You can watch the film at this link; a stirring combination of the floating interpretive dances of Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and Jean Cocteau’s later Orpheus with the then-radical feminist messaging and ahead-of-time wisdom of Germaine Dulac’s awesomely witty La Souriante Madame Beudet, it follows a woman’s dream cycle through a series of mysterious, fluid flights around doubles, mirrors, textures, and stabbing moments of literal and metaphorical violence. Dark and unencumbered by reality without exactly rejecting reality, it’s nevertheless beautifully linear, its camera movements sweeping and transportive, allowing the look and feel of a dream like few other films, even the best of the earlier avant garde works by the likes of Jean Epstein. Inception fucking wishes. I even caught a bit of a Hitchcock connection, even if surely an unintentional one, when the palpable feeling of feet landing on differing grounds called to mind the expressionistic sinking rug in Murder!.
Hitchcock’s more legitimate avant garde connection in the ’40s may as well be addressed here; the reputation of his second film for Selznick, Spellbound, has suffered over the decades for good reason. Despite being immaculately directed and admittedly gripping, it suffers from a terribly stupid, senseless script about an escaped asylum patient taking over a mental hospital then going on the run, and a tepid lead performance by Gregory Peck, but its place in the imagination comes from its iconic dream sequence that was designed by Salvador Dali. While the scene is a striking thing to find in so typically staid an environment as a Hollywood picture produced by David O. Selznick, a quick comparison to Dali’s production drawings reveals the compromises and dilutions to which his work was subjected by the system. Dali was obviously a major influence on Hitchcock and evidence suggests it should have been an immortal, once-in-a-lifetime collaboration; but even though Hitchcock skillfully brought the artist’s terrifyingly disorienting visions to the screen with the same aplomb Luis Buñuel had two decades earlier, every image he presents suffers the trite over-explaining of Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist character onscreen, in order to ensure that no one in the audience has their daily life disrupted by any horrendous ambiguities. That a studio film would recruit Dali to begin with, then would corrupt his vision to this extent, provides us with much the same maddening lesson as what happened to excitable kid-in-a-candy-store Welles on Ambersons: the machine wants it all, yet will have none of it.
INTERLUDE: EUROPEAN CINEMA DURING THE DOWNFALL
Obviously the war is the decisive event that overwhelms everything in the 1940s — you could argue, in fact, that it continues to overshadow our day-to-day lives, even as the last firsthand cultural memories of it fade. What fascinates me is that we’ve entered an era when, for the first time, filmed and recorded products of the world of eighty years ago, beyond the photograph and the written word, will now accompany us into the future… which makes me wonder how we seem so determined to relive the errors of those years. But I digress.
European (and Asian) film industries were cut at the knees by the war, a situation evidenced by the presence here of only three films from the continent released in the middle of the conflict itself, all from 1943. There are surely more we must see to form a fuller picture, but the three we have here certainly do tell us a lot; and handily, they come from three different nations, two occupied by Germany, one under Fascist rule at the time of production. In Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath exhibits a shocking boldness given this context, hinging as it does on the burning of “witches,” though Dreyer was emphatic in his denial of the historical drama’s connection to Nazism. Like all of the director’s best work, it feels like a story that cannot possibly have been captured by a film camera — too ancient, too elemental, too shocking and full of dread. While Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, from France, is slightly more pleasant and audience-friendly in its storytelling, it’s also more directly analogous to the times and conditions of its creation; its chronicle of cruelty and mistrust within a town under the spell of a series of bombshell anonymous letters has a paranoia and tension that feel, at least to an outsider, inextricably tied to the great fact of Occupation. Interestingly, Dreyer fled Denmark despite his denial of a political allegiance within the film, while Clouzot’s arguably much more explicitly anti-Nazi parable got him flack for the remainder of his life in France, where he was seen as a collaborator for contributing to the occupied nation’s film industry.
The most oblivious of these three films is the one, ironically, credited in certain spaces with the start of the neorealist movement in Italy, Ossessione; during the year of its production, the Armistice of Cassibile established peace between Italy and the Allies, prompting Germany to attack and occupy much of the state. Somehow, out of this chaos comes a story — based on an American novel, no less — about a bored drifter wandering into the fraught lives of an unhappily married couple running a diner. It’s downright strange to see Europe depicted with few signs of any outside trouble — economic strife notwithstanding — but even the relative peace of Luchino Visconti’s disturbingly casual world of joyless adultery, pointless murder and fleeting friendships was too probing for Fascist authorities, who moved to suppress the film and, thanks to the resulting controversy and chaos, kept it from a worldwide audience for decades. More on Ossessione in Part Five.
PART TWO: WARTIME CINEMA
The war changed Hollywood completely for a time, as it changed so many aspects of American and international life; in the same way the Depression informs so much of what was made in the U.S. film industry in the ’30s, the war’s impact and rippling effects are felt, in one way or another, in nearly every film produced by the major studios throughout the length of this nation’s role in the conflict and for some time thereafter. The total submission of the industry under the throes of events of worldwide import kicks off with the American entrance after Pearl Harbor in late 1941; thus, films that show the effect tend to be dated no earlier than 1942. At the end of that year, Casablanca was released and in 1944 it became the second consecutive Best Picture winner dealing explicitly with World War II. The fact that Casablanca is among the longest-lived movies in the general social consciousness among even non-film buffs is evidence of how this one last righteous battle of good and evil is never far from our minds in the United States, in large part surely because it marks the last time that our obsession with intervention and war put us on the right side of history.
Of course, it took us a while. Three British directors, two working in Hollywood, directly sounded the warning bell about the cavalier American attitude toward Hitler’s advances prior to 1941 — Alfred Hitchcock in Foreign Correspondent, Michael Powell in 49th Parallel and Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Only the last of these makes our list, understandably — it’s the wittiest, the most prescient of the three. Chaplin takes great advantage of his own resemblance to Hitler in his thinly veiled satire about a wicked, anti-Semitic fascist surrounded by Yes-men, his head high on intentions to invade and overtake the whole continent, followed — poetically — by the world. At the end of the film, much like Powell and Hitchcock, Chaplin has a character turn to the camera and plea for vigilance directly, but his own passion for the subject is better illustrated by the fact that he is giving the speech in question himself.
Dictator has endured long past the war — in fact, it’s now among Chaplin’s most popular films, despite some typical consternation at the time about its left-wing ideology, a bogeyman that would haunt Chaplin and Welles both and a depressing prediction of the Blacklist in the 1950s — because it’s truly funny and boasts undeniable gravity within its pathos. For similar reasons, Ernst Lubitsch’s outstanding To Be or Not to Be, a screwball vehicle for Carole Lombard and Jack Benny as married stage actors who end up rubbing elbows with the rising Nazi regime in Warsaw, now plays as beautifully as ever; the film neither glosses over its sharp anti-fascism message nor sacrifices freewheeling, airtight comedy for misery tourism — watching it today, it seems it could just as easily be a new period piece as a feature actually dating from the moment depicted therein. Later Hollywood films expressly concerned with the war would often resemble propaganda more than art, or would messily collate the two, two well-known examples being additional Hitchcock pictures, the frenetic caper-travelogue Saboteur and, on this list, the excellent but dated Lifeboat, which is exactly what the title suggests and gains much of its appeal today from the awe it generates of watching Hitchcock craft drama on such a tiny, single set.
For this viewer, it’s sometimes hard to find the lasting emotional power of certain didactic wartime films, and it’s equally hard to identify what separates those that work from those that do not. Moving over to Britain for just a moment, Powell & Pressburger’s morale-building interlude The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, while an all-time favorite of many viewers, failed to move this dedicated fan of the directors’ other films. It’s a life story of a fictitious senior commander in the British Home Guard, whose involvement in his country’s military affairs dates to the Boer War, all told about through flashbacks along with sidelines about his love life and his belief that defeating the Nazis would require fighting back against them with ruthlessness rather than patience, a lesson that still resonates now. Nevertheless, the film feels rambling and facile, handsome but clearly targeted to a time and place that now feels distant; it lacks the kind of universal power in the best of these films. By comparison, the team’s A Matter of Life and Death — about an RAF pilot who suffers a near-death experience and struggles to understand what happened with the help of the American radio op he fell in love with at his darkest moment — is mostly a metaphysical tale about love and the afterlife, but was intended covertly as an encouragement of good relations between American and British officials in the aftermath of the War. Ironically, the parts that deal directly with this — like a long, wrongheaded courtroom scene laying out the differences in culture between the two nations — are the weakest moments of an otherwise fanciful, magically romantic and touching film.
Casablanca obviously succeeds as pure entertainment and has a wizened wartime message about longing, love and sacrifice — something about being the bigger man, something else about grabbing onto moments of happiness as they arrive — that applies as easily to exiting college grads as it does to soldiers and veterans, but where Michael Curtiz’s masterpiece really succeeds is in its intoxicating atmosphere, making it one of the scattered movies it’s perfectly understandable to want to live in. Curtiz, Warner Bros. and the film’s three screenwriters expertly craft a world of curiously lethargic intrigue: danger and death are such a constant that the inhabitants of Rick’s have become immune to it, and somehow Humphrey Bogart’s coolheaded, cynical barkeep and romantic — a stand-in for America itself with the gradual turn away from rugged neutrality — finds a way, with the world swirling around him, to become the epitome of masculine heroism without any broad, violent theatrics, and famously without “getting the girl” (Ingrid Bergman). Bogart does come away from the narrative with his leading lady (Lauren Bacall in this case, afterward Bogart’s partner in real life) in the very similar To Have and Have Not, the tougher-minded nature of which (it was directed by the comparatively macho Howard Hawks, and based on a Hemingway novel) precludes the air of mysticism and foggy sweetness that surrounds Casablanca, though it’s hard to imagine anyone liking one of the films and disliking the other.
Not addressed in this particular canon narrative, for the most part, is the horde of famous filmmakers who went outside the studio, sometimes to the front lines, to make propaganda films for governments or otherwise for the public good. Powell & Pressburger made an entire feature for general consumption about the service (The Volunteer), as did Walt Disney (Victory Through Air Power), to say nothing of the animated cartoons made to assist in the war effort by Disney and other studios, some for the public and some for soldiers; others took even more hands-on action. Alfred Hitchcock returned home to the UK to make two films in French for the British Ministry of Information, intended as propaganda aids to the Free French; he also assisted in editing Sidney Bernstein’s harrowing collection of concentration camp footage, Memory of the Camps. John Ford famously made short documentary films for the U.S. Navy. Frank Capra conceived an entire, remarkable series for American morale, Why We Fight.
And on this list we find John Huston’s half-hour The Battle of San Pietro, narrated by the director himself, which is perhaps the most complicated of all the wartime propaganda films I have seen, and for this reason undoubtedly the fairest and most honest in its treatment of the war itself, as well as American involvement in it. For those like me who are fascinated by this period of history while deeply loathing war itself, Huston’s attitude compared to that of other directors of the time is a kind of balm — in minute detail he explains the necessity of the battle and the strategy behind it while never glossing over the degree of loss that the struggle inevitably entailed. Refusing to romanticize any of this, he shows us dead soldiers up close, in body bags and wrapped in blankets, while also showing how San Pietro is able to thrive again after the occupying Germans are forced out. He also, we can sense from the staggering footage he gets with his small crew, put himself right into the field with the soldiers and in an equal amount of danger. He’s aware of the war’s importance but has the same conflicts about it has any sane person would — the U.S. Army was initially displeased with the film and accused it of being anti-war, to which Huston unforgettably responded (in Mark Harris’ account) that anyone who made a pro-war film deserved to be shot.
The end of the war did not wash the world, the culture or the movies clean; the bombed-out ruins in its wake are a backdrop of famous cinema all the way through the ’80s at least, and perhaps forever after in simulated form. The feeling of stasis in some films about Europe after the war can be hard to bear in its emotional crush, in the palpable sense of the lives lost and the sensation of abandonment that would never leave many souls; while it’s easy and fashionable to revel in memories of those times as a gung-ho battle in which forces of good and righteousness defeated evil, in reality the human toll of World War II and its distressing violence, genocide and destruction are a tragedy that indicts humanity itself. We will never get over it. That degree of head-spinning trauma is impossible for any art to truly get its head around; sometimes, films that make no attempt to do so — unlike, say, Roberto Rossellini’s, Frank Capra’s or William Wyler’s responses, covered shortly — manage to say a great deal about the way that people keep their heads up and move straight beyond adversity, sometimes foolishly. Marcel Carné dedicated several years of his life to making his three-hour Children of Paradise under nigh-impossible conditions in German-occupied France — and all this for a story about bed-hopping circus performers in the 1830s. The sheer difficulty of the film’s existence becomes its story; the irrelevance of its true-ish narratives becomes an act of amusing defiance. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a dignified tale (written by Noel Coward) of the urgency that cuts through a bored housewife’s world when she meets a dashing doctor at a railway station, is almost aggressively set in the months before the war begin, as if to cast out all thoughts of what had happened, and more specifically why.
In America, these questions weren’t exactly ignored, but they were hardly addressed with bluntness either. This nebulous attitude toward the most foreboding corners of the heart and mind led us down a darker corridor than might be thought possible in commercial Hollywood cinema.
PART THREE: FILM NOIR
There’s probably nothing that critics love more than gathering semi-unrelated things together, tying them in a neat bow and giving them a name; and admittedly, it’s partially by this process that the term “film noir” came into existence, but even with this in mind it’s still remarkable that so many Hollywood directors, working within the studio system, simultaneously happened upon a mood and stylistic vernacular among hundreds of films that, seen today, seem to be of a piece. Noir refers to the typically dreary, often morally ambivalent (in their lead characters if not their actual story thrusts, though you might argue that frontlining a protagonist who shows amoral tendencies automatically renders your film somewhat more sympathetic to nefarious causes that would be typical of Hollywood movies) crime dramas of this decade and the next. They sprang up in multiple places before any one film had a chance to specifically influence any others, and it took French critics, after the war, to notice a trend toward dread and darkness — hence the name.
If it seems hard to believe this, keep in mind three major factors that undoubtedly played a role in forming noir, from within and without the system. The first factor is purely visual, the influence of German Expressionism; recall that with the rise of the Nazi regime, European directors, cinematographers and other crew members had already been emigrating to Hollywood in droves for the better part of a decade, and not only would the influence of the major Ufa films of the silent era be palpable in the work of newer filmmakers, in some cases noir was created by those influences themselves: think of Fritz Lang, one of the key practitioners and original developers of the noir aesthetic, for instance. Secondly there is the popularity of hard-boiled crime fiction hot during Prohibition and the Depression, candy to a struggling public vicariously living on the edge through openly sleazy detective stories (if sometimes with implicit scolding). Thirdly, there is the Code: foggy, bleak depictions of moral depravity would be easier to slip through than more nuanced narratives of adult life; after all, as weird and skeeved out as the Hays office was about sex, they — like the MPAA now — were much more lenient when it came to pointless bloodshed.
Noir was not without precedent here or abroad. In addition to Expressionism, the films of the French Poetic Realism movement directly forecast the mood and narrative ambivalence of noir, although often with greater frankness and a more obvious willingness to draw direct lines to the lurid world we actually occupy rather than an elevated one of smoked-out windows and endless shadows, not that those were absent. Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine and Julien Duvivier’s Pepe le Moko — both cigarette-consuming chronicles of love, lust and hopeless life on the run and/or hiding out — obviously anticipate the flavor of the times ten years hence in America, only free of censorship. (It is interesting that, although Italian neorealism tends to be less often associated with noir, one of the first examples of neorealism, the aforementioned Ossessione, is obviously just a noir in another language, and indeed shares its story with The Postman Always Rings Twice.) In Britain, Alfred Hitchcock’s bleak, frightening Sabotage (1936) essentially ticks every box of noir: shadowy cinematography, a conflicted and basically villainous protagonist, a taste for bizarre characters and settings, a strong association with the details of a specific city, and a sense of despair and hopelessness. That same year in America, Lang released Fury and followed this with You Only Live Once; both films are considered classic noir in most quarters despite their early dates and their idiosyncratic structures. Lastly, the strongest candidate for a real predecessor for noir is the run of Hollywood gangster pictures from the 1930s, mostly released before the Code by Warner Bros., which took silent films like Regeneration (Raoul Walsh) and Underworld (Josef von Sternberg) as jumping-off points for a run of narratives that glorified the ruthlessness and perverse camaraderie of the organized criminal underworld while pretending to wag their finger at them; it made for glorious entertainment that was not a little concerning in terms of what it said about our relationship with violence. Walsh’s splendid White Heat, James Cagney’s return to playing bloodthirsty assholes after a hiatus, is usually labeled noir but really belongs to the gangster genre rather than to this one in every respect save its age.
Whole books exist about what these films actually share that makes them, distinctly, noir, in narrative terms; the visual elements are less ambiguous, easier to define. Generally, however, the structure requires either a central or next-to-central character to be an “anti-hero”: either an outright inexcusable cad or just a flawed human being with major moral conflicts. If the hero happens to be a good person, then noir is a prison for them, surrounding them with dark, unscrupulous forces that may or may not destroy them but either way trap them in a miserable state for virtually all of the film’s duration and maybe longer. Sex tends to be shadowed in euphemism but, assuming the viewer is savvy enough to read through the metaphors or is familiar with the kind of books that prompted these productions, these are just about the horniest movies in American history, screwball comedies with their fake-chaste remarriage narratives standing as the obvious runner-up. If the film centers around a man — and most of them do; the major examples that diverge from this often have their status as noir questioned for supposedly other reasons — then usually there is a woman with mysterious motives, either an obstacle to overcome, a villain to annihilate or a cause to die for… or a blend of the three: the femme fatale. Sometimes noir is surreal, sometimes gritty and realistic; sometimes it is practically a city symphony, sometimes it is laid out in the broad expanse of open country. You know it when you see it, as the saying goes; and at any rate, the key distinction that overrides all others is that these films tend to have a sophisticated, intelligent, no-holds-barred narrative style that sets them apart from the status quo in mainstream Hollywood pictures and marks them as clearly being intended for adult viewers with some hunger to be shocked, shock being in terribly short supply in films of the time — and perhaps because of American censorship, noir flaunts its ability to take audiences beyond the pale, dipping their toes into forbidden realms of indecency in a way that, all told, sometimes feels just a little bit adolescent, as does the nihilism often on display.
But these films, despite sharing this label, all seem so different once you actually sit and watch them; at least the ones good enough to end up on a list like this do. Discarding the two controversial Hitchcock titles for just a moment, I have never been relieved of my feeling that Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is the ideal noir, one that exemplifies the best elements of the genre while rising above its obvious limitations. Recall that under Hays, anyone who killed somebody — and being in noir, you probably did — would have to be punished; it was the “law.” So in some ways the test for a great script, and a great director, would be to find the most interesting way for a killer we grew to like and even “understand” to go down; in all my years now watching films like this, I have yet to feel that anyone found a better gut-punch of an ending for a doomed noir hero than Wilder and Raymond Chandler did for Fred MacMurray in this film. In analyzing why this title comes off stronger for me than many others do, I can point to many elements. The performances are heightened yet believable: MacMurray is joined by Barbara Stanwyck, who is expert (and so different from her second-best role in The Lady Eve) at radiating infinite eroticism in the limited capacity she’s given while also projecting an instability that feels human, familiar and terribly dangerous; and by an inexhaustible Edward G. Robinson as an intuitive insurance fraud investigator who gets closer and closer to the truth about the murder that’s happened under his nose. Closer than that, in fact. The presence of Robinson as a delightful, if oblivious, character makes the explosion of MacMurray’s complicated maneuvering feel delicious even as we continue to feel every step of the story with the latter. This gift for putting us in the shoes of a murderer while rejecting the moral relativism that put us there is a narrative balancing act that not only gives the film a lot of emotional resonance and genuine ambiguity, but makes its machinations and gradual clicking together even more of a pleasure to witness. And along the way, Double Indemnity, thanks to the liberating doom of its finale, is able to contain a scene that’s arguably the (erotic, shameful, deeply troubling) essence of the genre: when MacMurray embraces Stanwyck and, simultaneously, shoots and kills her.
The other noirs that mean the most to me tend to be the most ambitious, the most literary, and the least straightforward in terms of their structures or backdrops, their protagonists typically far beyond an ordinary seen-it-all detective or the rote brutal criminal, plucked from something that feels observed rather than thin air. (One simple, if infuriatingly duplicitous, way of putting it: I prefer the noirs that are either the most or the least like real life.) Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street shares its source material with Jean Renoir’s already terribly dark La Chienne but somehow makes it more distressing yet by leaving its central figure, a mild-mannered banker and artist played by Robinson (again!) who gets hoodwinked by a cruel young couple, in inexpressible torment for the rest of his life. It’s a direct violation of Hays, and he gets away with it. Lang is the sort of director who never lets the viewer off the hook for the kind of film they have come here to see. All talk of “fun” Hollywood noir mets away in a moment like this when the art comes to feel like anguish projected back toward a world anguished enough to produce it.
Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (a British film so not strictly eligible for the noir label) is remarkable for its strange Homeric poetry and Christlike imagery, as it uses a typical bank-heist plot — filmed in relentless, assaultive fashion — to transform its central figure, James Mason, into an injured duck waiting for redemption as his fate is decided by a group of opportunists surrounding him. The torture to which he’s subjected, and the world to which he brings us, has a remarkably linear progression from a kind of classic underworld gloom to an outright bizarre sleaziness. Sleaze of a more American variety informs Joseph H. Lewis’ outstanding Gun Crazy (a 1950 film according to the IMDB but it got placed on this list anyway); like Saboteur and You Only Live Once before it and Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands after, this is a twisted travelogue about life on the run that captures both the dread and the powerful, romantic escape of such a scenario for a couple who start robbing and killing, first as a one-time scheme then as a matter of spite and survival. Lewis visits places that any other commercial director would likely avoid, the torn-up gas stations and garishly lit-up quick-stop marriages of backwoods squalor and truck-stop misery, the “other, weirder America” MGM wouldn’t dare show us (Freaks aside). Lewis’ directorial choices are so wild and so unencumbered by convention that you expect any moment for one of the many firearms in the film to point out toward you and blow your own gawking head off — and this eagerness for our complicity as this departure from societal norms goes off the rails is what makes this film a work of kicking, screaming art.
The last film I especially want to single out here is one of the few with a woman as its central character, The Reckless Moment by Max Ophüls, and a smart, resourceful, utterly believable female character at that, exceptionally played by Joan Bennett. In this case, a traditional noir and gangster-film narrative of a lunkheaded goon with a heart of gold he doesn’t even know he has is mostly played offscreen. Bennett plays a happily married (as far as we’re told) woman whose husband is away on business, and whose art-student daughter has been running with a local, older crook for whom Bennett displays understandable contempt; when her daughter accidentally kills the man, she stops at nothing to protect her — without even pausing to question or contemplate it — and this determination lands her in hot water with a local blackmailer, Mason once again, who seems to be sweating and stumbling his way through his profession, though this doesn’t make him any less intimidating. As the story progresses, Mason falls for his target and he must keep his even more evil boss (Roy Roberts) at bay while attempting to pursue this hopeless whim, which ends up permitting one of the most elegant and surprisingly emotional third-act wrap-ups in any noir, calling up memories of that similar feeling of coexisting sorrow and justice in Double Indemnity. All the while, with his fluid camera and snapshots of calm suburbia, Ophüls gives us a deeply throttling glimpse of a universe in which threat collides with the placid conventions of day-to-day life. To find another noir (in my own definition that satisfies me) that allows for this feeling of uncomfortable realism, we have to move over to Hitchcock — which we will in a moment.
When most casual viewers think of noir, the above films are understandably not what likely comes to mind. More commonly we would hear of the Chandler and Hammett detective story adaptations, the Bogart vehicles like The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo (both directed by John Huston) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) that drown us in pure style, a gaggle of oddball characters and the sheer pleasure of stars schmoozing around and talking in prose poetry. These films are a rich pleasure, no doubt about it, but they rarely feel dangerous — except in the sense that in a movie like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, the cavalier attitude when the latest body shows up is somewhat dispiriting to me, and calls to mind the rather flippant modern trend of murder mysteries that revolve around bodies found in knitting clubs and cute bookshops, with recipes at the end of every chapter: violence as window dressing, though at least in those books the object tends to be a kind of comic understatement. Perversely, these adaptations might seem less celebratory or casual about loss of human life if they were more violent, if there seemed to be a consequence to each plot development aside from the latest clue for Marlowe to piece together. Among the convoluted, multi-character mystery-solving noirs — and I hasten to add, again, that I very much enjoy all of these films I’ve named — the one that escapes this feeling of crass inconsequentiality is perhaps the most universally beloved film noir of all.
What’s odd is that in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the moments that resonate most strongly are those with the same attachment to day-to-day weirdness that marks Gun Crazy, the unexpected snapshots of storefronts, diners, disrepaired back roads and life in unincorporated Cow’s Ass or wherever. Robert Mitchum gets buzzed awake from his slumber as a nice-guy gas station attendant and is swept up in the residue of miseries from his past, up a creek before he even realizes what’s happening. If one can breathe enough to follow the story, the character arc Mitchum inhabits is touching, but it’s also terribly cruel — which is just what some viewers like and come looking for. For me, while the circular you-can’t-go-home-again horror at the core of the film is palpable, and deeply moral in its fashion (a brush with criminal life tarnishes a person forever), I find myself conflicted about the pleasure I get from the film, the fun recognition of watching the many noir tropes play out, because the actual story I’m being told is so sad, and comes around to its sadness in so convoluted a manner. It’s a film that feels like a delight when it shouldn’t, probably because so many of its specific trappings quickly passed into cliché; I honestly feel it might have been a better movie in a world where it influenced nothing, when there were no textbook noir elements to identify in it.
Sadly, my own suspicion of genre trappings in general seemingly keeps me from seeing the virtue in a number of other classic noirs, on top of my muted responses to several of the aforementioned. Otto Preminger’s Laura leaves me almost totally cold, an uninspired overload of irrelevant plot turns and details that throws away its most interesting elements in service of a story that’s quite benign and, when all is said and done, feels like a weak Gothic fantasy more than a crime picture. (It hinges on a dead woman and a mistaken identity, and Nothing Is as It Seems, but it spends more time explaining events than showing them to us.) John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, the only color “noir” examined this decade, is undeniably a blast but is also quite stupid and facile in multiple respects: it’s a ridiculous portrait of a “woman who loves too much” (Gene Tierney, also the title ghost of Laura). The character’s response to a dead-bedroom marriage to appallingly dull pretty-boy Cornel Wilde, who instead of screwing her on the honeymoon invites the entire extended family out to sing bad folk songs around the fireplace, is to start drowning children and poisoning family members, all served with a placid, self-satisfied smile. It only gets sillier from there, and doesn’t strike me as being of a piece with noir except in its sheer extremity — which in this case just makes it feel campy — and attractive interior decorating. And if you think those icky Hollywood morals are too much, try Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, an initially promising screed about a numbers game, which gets points for its full-on plunge into the depths of petty racketeering among career criminals, that eventually gets bored of scolding the audience for being intrigued by its story and just starts going apeshit and scolding itself, a tiresome prediction of the popular organized-crime films of today.
Laura aside, these lesser films tend unsurprisingly to be the work of lesser directors, either names I don’t know at all or names I associate with B-pictures and assembly-line studio product. It should be mentioned that in the course of this project, I’ve learned that “conventional” noir tends to be a bit dull to me, perhaps because “conventional” anything is; others have good reasons for loving specific genres and the traditions that accompany them, and I’m not declaring myself superior to that sort of procedure, it’s just not really where I’m at, for better or worse. At the same time, I have to mention how different it all looks when a real undeniable master takes on the form.
The most obvious example to consider here is Orson Welles, who made two of the most beloved noirs of all, one in this decade and one in the next (though I also want to mention the brilliance of his 1946 noir The Stranger, which features the director himself as a Nazi hiding out in an ordinary town and teams him — or rather opposes him — with Edward G. Robinson, in a role originally meant for Agnes Moorehead). Here we see The Lady from Shanghai, which so effortlessly overwhelms every criticism of “traditional” noir it almost seems unfair. Here is a movie that looks and feels the way all noir is supposed, according to the textbooks, to feel, which makes me less forgiving of the more pedestrian examples on this list. Welles stars as a drifting jack-of-all-trades who, like so many other leading men on this list, gets more than he bargains for when he falls for a lady (Rita Hayworth) whose life is a perpetual mess thanks to two extremely sinister men revolving around her, one of whom is her husband. Taken out of Welles’ hands and brutally cut just like Ambersons, this nevertheless retains the director’s singular sense of beauty, menace and style, and of course awe-inspiring visual poetics, breathlessly moving from one remarkable image or unnerving dramatic moment to the next, up to its indescribable climax at an empty circus and its hall of mirrors. As usual, the story with Welles is that he’s perhaps the most ambitious filmmaker in history, and yet he had the inspiration and did the legwork to match up with that ambition. You feel like you want to insert the movie into your veins, even if you don’t entirely understand it — nor would you want to, initially. It is a dream, and one that results in a deeply disappointed awakening.
And as for Hitchcock, well, in many quarters his three films that have traditionally been considered touchstones of noir — Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and from the 1950s, Strangers on a Train — have come to be regarded less and less as part of the “canon,” largely because they seem to belong to a style of suspense storytelling that Hitchcock himself uniquely founded, outside labels seeming superfluous. No one will argue more strongly than me that Hitchcock’s work is its own distinct and separate matter. But there is no logical way to label The Reckless Moment as being noir and Shadow of a Doubt as not being noir; the same for Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. Yes, the two Hitchcock films have more fluidity and elegance, arguably, than most major noir titles — but all the same, you could just as easily argue that Ophüls or Wilder or Huston or Hawks or certainly Welles are directors too singular and specific in their stylistic persuasions for any of their work to fall under any designation besides “Ophüls films,” “Wilder films,” etc. So to me, these two listed Hitchcocks are pure noir, and being Hitchcock, they virtually overwhelm everything above for me with the exception of Wilder’s film.
Shadow of a Doubt is the most disturbing of all of these movies, and the reasons are simple: Hitchcock doesn’t simply put a human menace, the serial killer Charlie played by Joseph Cotten, in pleasant surroundings (Santa Rosa, California, where even the war is mostly a benign distant fact aside from the presence of soldiers on leave, war bonds signs and the “current events” talk at the local women’s club); it allows us to know these two warring elements inside and out, enough to know that neither can survive their collusion unscathed. The hero of the film is the only noir heroine on this list except for Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment: Teresa Wright, one of Hollywood’s greatest young actresses of the day, as Charlie’s adoring niece in whom we painfully trace a progression from an unconditionally loving, almost frighteningly devoted acolyte of her uncle to a girl with a suspicion and finally an uncompromising enemy to his future. Both characters’ inner lives are projected nakedly on the screen by the director and actors; and the pall Charlie’s secret casts on day-to-day life, and in the entire demeanor and impact of Wright’s performance, is a hard truth to shake, not least because all the way to the conclusion, most of the characters remain unaware of it. It’s as if we are being left with a burden ourselves, to be shared solely with Wright’s character on into the rest of our lives after the film, and we can only speculate on how it will damage her.
The seriousness with which Hitchcock’s film, made for Universal while he was still under contract to Selznick, tackles the corruption of a small town is fascinating because it takes absolutely no pleasure in it, or in Uncle Charlie’s signs of decadence and mental illness. (His niece cannot tell her mother the truth because it would destroy her, Charlie claims, and we know this is true because she is played — outstandingly — by Patricia Collinge.) Like Sabotage before it, this turns the conventions of noir on its head because it expects no feeling of comfort or trust among the signs of classed-up sleaze and modest terror that surround the basic goodness of an ordinary working-class family doing the best they can; we are not morbidly fascinated, nor are we delighted by the outrageousness of the situation as would be the case for the private-eye comings and goings in the Bogart films or in the petty bitchery among the upper crust inhabitants of Laura. We are pulled in and thrown around much as we are by the hardworking housewife of The Reckless Moment later on because this is all of us, and we are not safe. Perhaps the war creeping in at the edges does mean something.
The war and its immediate aftermath are everywhere in Hitchcock’s other great noir, Notorious, and what can one really say? There is no use denying that watching this film is a matter of pleasure, even though its dangers are equally palpable. The anti-hero in this case is a gorgeously photographed Cary Grant as an American spy who recruits a Nazi’s daughter (Ingrid Bergman, equally sumptuous), who has renounced her father’s politics and considers herself an American patriot, to perform espionage in Rio de Janiero. Between their departure for the mission and their learning of the nature of the assignment — she is to start a romantic relationship with a Nazi (Claude Rains in the one time he’s permitted to be a nuanced character rather than a delicious monster) who’s made his home in Brazil and is suspected of continued acts of sabotage — they fall violently into a frenzied (and “very strange”) love affair, which is abruptly cut short by the mission. This conflict sets the stage for a beautifully, eerily simple yet morally and emotionally complex narrative that resists categorization as noir because it so resembles a classicist fairy tale, complete with a love for the ages, a villain that must be destroyed and a princess held prisoner in a castle. Yet it’s more human and artful than all that, with Grant’s boorish, possessive hero outwardly colder than Rains’ kindly, sad-eyed villain, and Bergman only made helpless when Grant’s clumsiness gets her found out. Up to its intoxicating final scenes, the film seems gripped in the fit of romance, hazy and dizzy from new love. The negativity and bottom-feeding dread of something like Force of Evil or even the excellent, sweltering Key Largo seem small-minded and trite in comparison.
Emphatically, these unfathomably beautiful people are not us, and Hitchcock knows it; they’re not him either. But what he does know is something about the way movies and fairy tales capture the popular imagination; and these gripping, impossible scenarios that feel so immediate they could be happening to us are, like The Lady from Shanghai, seemingly etched in the clouds. Notorious is so intensely gorgeous, and so fluidly thought-out and performed, that it has the feel of a fantasy we are willing into existence. We are made children by the film, with fascist holdovers and a freakishly ornery mother-in-law standing in for evil stepmothers and wicked witches. It boasts all the elements of film noir, but it carries them to a plane that’s nearly unthinkable outside of this one film. And even among Hitchcock’s works, only Vertigo is more enchanting in its lovesickness.
In essence, noir makes a hell of a teaching tool, and its omnipresence in the period — and certainly in studies and cultural memories of the period — is remarkable. But the best individual films under the category that make the strongest mark do so for reasons entirely separate from its generally celebrated characteristics.
INTERLUDE: THE NOIR INFLUENCE IN EUROPE & ASIA
Again we see how arbitrary the “American” distiction for noir is, because these three examples of foreign film noir strike me as being better-developed in many ways than the “real thing.”
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres resembles American noir more than the rest of his major films because of its quite Hollywood touch of optimism and redemption, approached in a different way than in Leave Her to Heaven or Force of Evil with their last-minute deliverances. In Clouzot’s Diabolique and The Wages of Fear the director seems always to be sneering down from above, an elevated version of some of the less savory elements of American noir; but he’s able to justify this dread and misanthropy because the action and mood of his films is permitted by the French industry to be so much more extreme and detailed in its danger and hostility than we’d ever see in an American film of the time. In Quai des Orfèvres, there is still the possibility of a way out of all the madness: it’s true that the jealous husband at the center of the story is an obviously cracked figure of toxic maleness, but conversely, for the detective on the case of his rival’s murder, blissful relief seems to be only as far away as the next Christmas with his family. Clouzot’s films tend to be believably dire, but in this particular example there’s some light from a window leading out of this claustrophobic world.
That goes less for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, despite its extreme affability as a “buddy” picture about a couple of police detectives tracking a lost weapon that one of them foolishly let go of on a bus. In this case, while Kurosawa’s usual rain-soaked Japanese skies are falling on city streets rather than ancient villages, the influence mostly flows in the other direction — this doesn’t seem like an Americanized movie so much as one whose impact on future American films about killers, city crime and cops is incalculable. In its urban confusion, moral consternation and complex characterization, it vividly resembles now-classic Hollywood movies like The French Connection and (almost beat-for-beat) David Fincher’s Se7en. Kurosawa’s treatment of this material is graceful and quick-witted, but also frontlines the inner life of its lead character (Toshiro Mifune) in a manner that renders it a surprisingly emotional powerhouse. Most noir is tied to its era, often to its benefit; but this truly great example of noir’s far-reaching impact succeeds because it feels so lost in its urban bustle and in the labyrinthine puzzles of the human heart and mind that it could easily be brand new.
The Third Man couldn’t be brand new. Not only is this crown jewel of British cinema (directed by Carol Reed, two years after Odd Man Out) a chilling portrait of anarchy and deft morality-dodging in a city (Vienna) just after the war, it’s so immediate and streetwise in its treatment of that setting that we couldn’t fashion it as a modern period piece. Plus there are few who could cover its nuances and haunting alleyways with the imagination of Reed, whose film is so visually thrilling that for a time various later scholars tried to attribute parts of it to one of its actors, Orson Welles. (Welles emphatically denied this, and there’s no truth in it.) Once again as in Notorious, the emotions of noir become larger-than-life projections onto the screen thanks to Joseph Cotten as a beaten-down writer trying to accept that his now-dead former best friend (Welles) was essentially a war criminal while falling for said friend’s former paramour (Alida Valli), who’s less than receptive but still opens up to him. The film fires on every cylinder with deceptive ease — nearly every scene contains some breathtaking composition, the acting is vivid, and the script diabolically clever and eloquent, never sacrificing emotion for content even in the immortal moment when a cold-blooded murderer lays out his entire world philosophy on a Ferris wheel. There’s intrigue and strangeness as in all American noirs, but the plot-heaviness never overcomes what amounts to a devastating story about learning to believe the worst about people, and about the sort of mutual betrayal that haunts someone to their grave. The “heroes,” on the side of law and order, seem slimy and pedantic, the villains slick, amiable, beautiful; it’s “their people” versus “our people,” which doesn’t subvert right and wrong so much as question the very fabric of where one actually sits on the spectrum. And in a film so magnificently thorny, how can it be justified that it all ends with nothing more than a long chase scene and a thwarted moment of reunion between a man and a woman, like millions of other such stories? It’s in the way that Reed approaches and maximizes these moments, renders them among the most harrowing sequences in the entire dreamworld of cinema. This film alone does more work than the lion’s share of American noirs put together; and if it qualifies as part of the genre, then like Notorious, it frankly overshadows and overwhelms the great majority of canonical examples of it — and invalidates any excuse for their deficiencies, forever casting the “trope”-filled version of noir as a fun niche rather than the kind of revelation Reed’s film can singularly provide us.
PART FOUR: THE SCREWBALL COMEDY
The other great subgenre in this era of Hollywood cinema was already introduced and described in our page for the 1930s canon last year. However, screwball comedy continued its brief peak in the first few years of the 1940s. (So popular and ubiquitous was the format that even Alfred Hitchcock threw his hat in with the inconsistent Carole Lombard vehicle Mr. & Mrs. Smith.) I’m uncertain about the application of George Cukor’s stagy, talky The Philadelphia Story to the genre, but it is frequently lumped in with movies like Holiday, and it’s easy to see why, with its slight air of mania and literary bent; it qualifies in its status as a remarriage narrative, and it does bear some resemblance to the dialogue-driven comedy of Preston Sturges’ films. Its intellectualism and the feeling that its verbosity makes more sense on printed paper or on a three-dimensional stage does have a distancing effect, at least for this viewer, but the opportunity to see Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the same film is difficult to resist.
The finest true-blue screwball comedy of the decade in my view is Sturges’ The Lady Eve; by 1941, screwball was a commercial idea feeding on itself, viewed (even if the word itself wasn’t used) as a mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking that had arguably begun with the Academy Award-winning It Happened One Night and would persist in dominance over other varieties of adult-targeted comedy for a full decade after that film’s release. The Lady Eve stands apart largely because of Sturges’ elevated genius as a writer of characters and dialogue, and because of the clear Lubitsch influence in its delightfully mixed-up narrative (note that Lubitsch himself made a semi-screwball with To Be or Not to Be a year after this), borrowing Lubitsch’s shattered moral code and the nonchalant front-and-center presentation of scam artists as comic heroes, specifically from Lubitsch’s masterpiece Trouble in Paradise. That film’s characters were, like those in Notorious, too beautiful to imagine touching even as their social class was implied to be dubious; Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins’ unmistakable elegance made the film sensual and strikingly mature. Despite casting Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in his two lead roles, Sturges goes for something considerably earthier, and comes away with a good quintessence of his untidy worldview — of people as basically good, funny, warm-hearted, and klutzy. Of course there is a cruel scheme at the center of The Lady Eve, with Fonda positioned as the clueless wide-eyed rich boy to be shamelessly ripped off by his new girlfriend Stanwyck, but after many convolutions love inevitably and joyously conquers all.
I have not yet seen The Palm Beach Story and do not consider Christmas in July, Sullivan’s Travels or Unfaithfully Yours to remotely belong in the screwball category, but Sturges crafted one additional mainstay of the genre before the war was out; unfortunately, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek seems to inherit only the obnoxious loudness and overdriven “wacky” scenarios of the classic screwball form to end up with a film too manic and kooky to make any sense, despite its expertly running afoul of the censorship codes of the day. Betty Hutton stars as a music store clerk who spends a wild night out with several army men, hits her head while drunk and wakes up married to an unknown party and pregnant to boot. She enlists nice-guy hanger-on Eddie Bracket to try and fake her way out of the situation with a quick marriage, but further complications arise. The film doesn’t totally lack charm, but the jokes date badly and the main performers are too annoying to offer the kind of charm that makes the best screwball so memorable and ripe for revisitation. Perhaps the genre is simply an older person’s game; it seems to lose a lot when centering around the lives of what are basically children, or rather, extremely young adults.
Howard Hawks was probably the king of screwball in the 1930s, directing the greatest film in the genre (Bringing Up Baby) and one of its several founding texts (Twentieth Century); in 1940, he offered another touchstone with the irresistible His Girl Friday, though yet again this is a film that in many ways cancels out any genre trapping. Yes, it’s a remarriage comedy filled with irreverence and bite, but it’s so fast and furious, so smartly performed, so socially progressive, and so strangely believable a chronicle of machinations and insanity in a newsroom (serving as a remake of The Front Page with a flipped gender) that reducing it to its adherence to screwball traditionalism does it a severe disservice. That said, it’s again an example of a film whose actors — Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with Ralph Bellamy as third wheel — entirely set its tone and deliver the goods; it’s impossible to imagine the same movie with anyone else in the two lead roles.
Some years after the omnipresence of screwball dissipated a bit, Hawks delivered a semi-return to the field with the backward-looking comedy I Was a Male War Bride, a based-on-a-true-story trifle that feels a little older than it is. That’s not because it tracks backward to World War II for the source of its story; WWII films were everywhere in Hollywood in the late 1940s and would continue to be for decades. Rather, it has Cary Grant as a military husband (supposedly a Frenchman) contending with the red tape that comes about when he marries a female American soldier (Ann Sheridan); there is again a teasing, delightful sense of social progression, or at least a thumbing of Hawks’ nose at typical “mores” that comes from centering his film around an unapologetic career woman and even getting Grant to briefly cross-dress. However, Grant’s Odyssean journey of doing whatever he can to spend the night with his new bride, never quite succeeding, feels like a regression both for the director and for Grant, who could perform this part in his sleep and seems to be moving backward from the sophistication of his work nearly a decade earlier in Friday. The movie is fun in a laconic, unstructured way, but it thoroughly lacks the fire and fury that are central to screwball comedy; you get the sense that the characters in His Girl Friday would sneer if asked to report on the War Bride story for their paper.
Noir would continue properly for another decade, and then would retain its place in the culture seemingly permanently in the form of neo-noir and various derivations across multiple art forms. Screwball comedy, however, had its day and — apart from a select few quaint imitations in the years since — it seems to me that it mostly died off with the end of the war. Unfortunately, movies like Holiday and His Girl Friday probably remain even now about as sophisticated as mainstream Hollywood comedy will ever get.
INTERLUDE: MUSICALS & WESTERNS
Once again, Hollywood musicals are under-represented on this list during the middle of the period that easily stands as the peak of the form. This will ultimately be corrected, obviously, but for now we did view the two Vincente Minnelli-Arthur Freed musicals listed here and they have good reasons for floating to the top for this period. The Pirate was not a box office success and is only a particularly famous film among more dedicated film buffs and fans of the director and his then-wife Judy Garland, but it’s a witty, winning example of the high-budget musical comedy in its top form — matching Garland up with the irresistible Gene Kelly, whose physicality even in ridiculous “pirate” getup is always a joy to behold, and with songs by Cole Porter. (Not his best by any means, but Cole Porter songs nonetheless.)
Meet Me in St. Louis probably needs less of an introduction, though this year marked my first time seeing it, and I was taken by its wistful sweetness; also starring Garland along with child actor Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Leon Ames and others, it follows a year in the life of a charming, ordinary yet idiosyncratic family in the outskirts of the title city as they parade through day to day life in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair. Over time, the film attains an increasing but somehow indefinable melancholy that the performers are more than capable of rendering as something palpable, visible. And as for the songs, in addition to period-appropriate source music, Garland performs future standards “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” but most importantly, the achingly sad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Minnelli’s film walks right up to a well-earned world-weariness at the conclusion that he (or the studio) chooses not to fulfill; viewing the film now, it’s almost as if we’re meant to fill in the blanks beyond what’s obviously a too-pat finale.
The Hollywood western is also only sporadically found in this list of films, again with two major, genre-defining titles present but none of the rest of the massive numbers of integral features from the period included. (It could be for this reason that the forum later performed separate listing projects for westerns, musicals and noir.) While both Ford and Hawks have films elsewhere on the list in different genres, the western offering by each of them gets at the core of what made them such titanic artists of their time. My Darling Clementine is a languid and delicate take on the Earp narrative that openly resists the elemental quality of the American mythos it draws on; Henry Fonda figures as such a believably calm hero you can’t imagine that much changed when Ford shouted “action” or “cut.” As ever for Ford, the unspoken lays heavily on the actors, with emotional breadth hard to entirely detect until one later contemplates the film. Hawks’ western Red River couldn’t be more different from that experience: it’s an action-packed, exciting chronicle of a cattle run that spans decades and organically devises an epic battle of wills between its two leads — Montgomery Clift and John Wayne — whose stakes only seem to get higher until Hawks perversely and unceremoniously drops the whole matter in the final seconds for the sake of a gag. Growing up and being around my dad who loved westerns, I complained that they — like war movies, which are also mostly absent here and of which I still have a generally rather low opinion — were all the same thing with different dressing; it would never have occurred to me that two non-random but unrelated samplings like these could produce such incomparable responses. It’s almost tempting to wonder at whether “western” is a proper genre in the first place; whereas noir films are virtually all thrillers or crime stories, westerns can be romances or action films or historical dramas or tense suspense pieces. I suppose what’s important is what they share: the visual urgency and sense of cinematic space that make their world seem both impossibly distant, utterly infinite and strangely familiar.
PART FIVE: ITALIAN NEOREALISM
My relative ambivalence about film noir — to be clear: that the genre itself is limiting in a way it takes a great artist and a great deal of work to transcend — is basically new information to me. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve long been aware of similarly dispassionate feelings about Italian neorealism. You may be thinking at this point: does any fucking thing please Nathan? It’s like I don’t want movies to be cruelly heightened and overly “clever” in their treatment of human beings and yet I also don’t want a straight-ahead unadorned approach to real life. The truth is actually that I want both things: I like storytelling and I like humane realism, but I find cinematic movements that concentrate almost exclusively on one extreme typically to be unsatisfying (and not in the way that art should be unsatisfying), and the same goes for “theoretical” notions by those who abide ruthlessly to some across-the-board philosophy of criticism, which is why Ray Carney and John Simon’s ideas, for example, never really seemed to apply to what I got out of the movies I loved. All that said, neorealism is several tiers above what I’d consider the most extreme examples of “anti-cinematic” cinema, like John Cassavetes’s work and the Dogme 95 movement; the films do at least tend to be beautiful and poetic and brilliantly acted. In fact, one of the major contradictions that hurt a number of these films for me personally is that they actually strike me as more sentimental and condescending than a number of Hollywood pictures about day-to-day life.
The basic principle of neorealism is implied by its name; in the absence of a big, centralized, studio-based Italian national cinema, particularly upon the fall of Mussolini’s government (which overlaps with the production and release of Visconti’s Ossessione), directors seized control and began dedicating themselves to socially progressive films shot on real locations that tended to use amateur actors to tell stories of strife and poverty, usually pertaining to the daily problems of common life in postwar Italy. Ossessione is typically listed as the first film in the movement and, having been completed in 1943, it’s the only one to escape this last distinction; its grim story of adultery and murder is practically escapist fantasy compared to later neorealist works, though many key elements are already in place, like the direct and realistic performance style, the gritty but gorgeous documentary-like photography and the unmistakable sense of place, not to mention the specific attention paid to the problems and inner lives of the poor, who are presented in Visconti’s film in a manner free of belittling or superiority and without any apology or condemnation or audience-geared comfort to dilute the sense of desperation. But this was done without making such desperation the entirety of the film; acknowledging ups and downs of daily existence familiar to many working class cinema audiences, at least in Visconti’s case, the work gained a sense of gravity without turning into rubber-necking misery porn. (The question of whether working class cinema audiences particularly wanted to see their own lives projected is an entirely different subject.)
The best of the neorealist films screened in this particular project are, by considerable distance, those by Roberto Rossellini; in fact there is frankly little question of his War Trilogy’s superiority over the Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica films seen here. (The other major director of the movement was Giuseppe De Santis, whose 1949 Bitter Rice I have not yet seen; Federico Fellini’s early films like I Vitelloni and La Strada owe a great deal to neorealism and will be a part of the 1950s chapter of this history.) Rome, Open City is really the founding treatise of neorealism, a shockingly brutal portrait of the country under occupation covering ruthless German pursuit of a Resistance leader; it feels as if it owes something to Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, equally harrowing and uncompromised. The next film in the trilogy, Paisan, is an anthology of wartime tragedies about cultural distance within and among the war’s fighters, civilians and enemies that vary greatly in style and artistic value but are, at their best, nuanced, troubling and deeply insightful. The most striking of the three films, however, is alone among major neorealist films in that it does not take place in Italy but rather in ravaged, hungry Berlin just after the end of the war. It concerns a twelve year-old’s grifting, scrounging, endurance of abuse and dodging of threats to try and thanklessly provide for his family whose adults are next to helpless. Watching the film one can almost be lulled by the deceptively slow-paced, undistinguished days in the life even as the threat of starvation and disaster forever looms; because of this, when the film nonchalantly turns everything on its head and demonstrates the absolute impossible scale of loss and horror it’s depicting, the impact is severe enough to manifest physically in the viewer — and to induce nightmares.
There is nothing so affecting and powerful in the De Sica and Visconti titles; the latter’s work shuns the entire idea of anything it shows us being “powerful,” which is an understandable line to draw. La Terra Trema, about impoverished Sicilian fishermen and their families trying to fight City Hall and suffering incalculably as a result, is such an uncompromising slice of bottom-feeding miserablism that, however justified it is in its political messaging, watching it is an endurance test; and the film’s prettied-up cinematography calls up questions about its ethical value — yet simultaneously, there’s just no mistaking Visconti’s seriousness about the subject and his resourceful brilliance at presenting it. Perhaps there is no way to chronicle this world without creating a work of virtually artless despair, but in comparison with Germany, Year Zero, Visconti seems content to depict people in conditions of hardship without actually saying anything recognizably substantive or even just compassionate about them or their situation. It’s somehow the opposite of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, so freewheeling and loud in its didactic speechifying, but has the same effect of odd, unmoved insincerity. The length is no help; Rossellini’s economy and shirking of repetition made his War Trilogy films a triumph that would be impossible with Visconti’s cruelly protracted pace.
Vittorio De Sica’s internationally celebrated Bicycle Thieves (formerly mistranslated as The Bicycle Thief, nonetheless a better title) aligns with Ford more than it does with either Rossellini or Visconti. Along with his later (and superior) Umberto D., it represents the entirety of neorealism in the minds of many film students and casual cinephiles, perhaps because it feels so much more like a Hollywood picture than the works of De Sica’s peers. It also imposes a kind of neat if smarmy irony that those films lack, by kicking off the bulk of its narrative with the stealing of a bicycle belonging to a desperate working-class family man who badly needs it in order to work (as a sign poster) and make ends meet, and ends with his only recourse finally being to resort to theft himself — but of course he is caught and must now contend with the shame in front of his son, who has been at his side throughout this catastrophic day. That boomerang-like narrative trick calls back to Mervyn LeRoy’s Hollywood classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (“I steal!” its once-innocent and falsely accused hero answers when asked how he survives after escaping prison) but this analogy points up the shortcomings of De Sica’s film all too clearly: Paul Muni’s James Allen was a flesh-and-blood creation, not a pawn in someone’s tearjerking polemic. The finale hinges upon a kind accuser relenting after looking into the innocent face of the small boy, a sentimental enough construct to have made it into an MGM weepie like King Vidor’s The Champ, though the masterpiece that the film seems to want to evoke is Vidor’s untouchable The Crowd. Once again, in the supposedly artificial Hollywood imagining of a scenario like this, the catharsis that comes about works because the characters have become so well-known and deeply familiar to us. Bicycle Thieves never grants that luxury because it seems its goal is less to tell a story than to gain credibility from its pure presentation of awfulness, of humans at the brink of destruction.
It doesn’t even need to be pointed out that mine is a minority viewpoint. Not many films in the annals of history are more universally beloved than Bicycle Thieves; at least one friend, for all intents and purposes, stopped talking to me after he found out I was less than wholly enamored of it, and I can’t particularly fault his response because I kind of admire anyone who cares that much about any movie. What’s strange is that Bicycle Thieves seems to run at exact cross-purposes with the stated intention of neorealism, as does the equally sugary and sob-inducing Umberto D.; not only is it built on emotional flourishes and dramatic irony in a way that seems deeply manipulative and almost O. Henry-like, the narrative shortcuts in terms of story and character taken by its screenplay are considerable, excused by many perhaps because of the many tangents in the film like one about a fortune-teller — perhaps not coincidentally, the point at which I lose all sympathy for the protagonist. Please believe me when I say that I don’t particularly want to be this way, and I hope my waxing poetic about the emotional resonance of films like The Crowd and even Germany, Year Zero demonstrates that I’m not, as my friend accused, heartless. In my essay about the film I wrote: “In the running time of the movie, [the hero] tries to benefit his situation by drinking away his problems, eating away his problems, visiting a psychic, hitting his child, picking fights with street hooligans, and stealing. If the film’s point is that people in rough situations are more vulnerable than others, it’s right, but the drama that results might be more believable if we could find any way to understand a character who’s incredibly inconsistent despite holding our sympathies, perhaps because he is mostly there to illustrate a point and not to live and breathe as a person.” Maybe that gets at the core of the problem with not only this movie, but with neorealism: these are illustrations, not stories.
Like so many sweeping and revolutionary film movements, Italian neorealism as a coherent philosophy and consistent style disappeared less than a decade after it began, living on for a time in the works of more eclectic Italian directors like Fellini, but more intriguingly in the works of film artists overseas. A number of the films deeply influenced by the neorealists are stronger than any of the actual examples of the style sampled in this project. Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night, of which more in a moment, was inspired by neorealism; and in the following decade, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy was inspired by the perspective and directness of movies like Bicycle Thieves but wiped away every trace of sentimentality and left us with something incisive, emotive and transcendent. America was another story. Cinema in Hollywood had changed drastically since the likes of Vidor and Josef von Sternberg had made their great realistic masterpieces of silent film — the vast changes in communication by movies are visible in just those directors’ own work. It’s therefore not surprising that the neorealism aesthetic, which for all its faults produced routinely interesting films, would face dilution when tackled in the United States.
Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner are not “studio films” in any classic sense. They may also not really be neorealist-influenced films, both being revised versions of ideas Flaherty and Renoir had essentially been exploring for much of their respective careers; but it’s an intriguing coincidence that they came about the notion of investigating working class daily lives in such detail simultaneously with Visconti and the others. Both were small films, works of independent producers but with large-scale associations: Flaherty’s film was produced as a promotional tool for Standard Oil, and Renoir’s was distributed by United Artists. Both works are even more flawed than their neorealist counterparts. Renoir’s simply feels insubstantial, overflowing with his usual endearing humanism and beautiful cinematography but clearly beholden to American censorship and pressure despite moment-to-moment riches. By contrast, the high reputation of Flaherty’s film is outright bewildering; despite being positioned as a “docufiction” like his earlier works (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran) and despite its many sequences of natural if barely audible dialogue among the Cajun family at its center, the film makes no attempt to present any look at the hardship of poor people living in the Louisiana bayou. In fact, the decision by the elderly patriarch to allow oil drilling on his property is presented not as a tragedy but just as a big white smile of a great adventure for the boy in the film, who has a great time cutting up with the impossibly friendly Standard employees, hanging out with his pet raccoon and fighting gators and such. Nicely shot or no, it’s an appalling film, and say this for the neorealists: they never had a fucking corporate sponsor.
PART SIX: POSTWAR AMERICA & THE IDEAL OF WARMTH
If neorealism’s inadequacy as an expression of universal human experience is not improved by American films’ attempts to access truth by many of the same methods, why is it that occasionally, even as late as this and with studios and egos and commercial motives and Hays office censorship in full swing, the machinations of Hollywood produce something capable of the radical shock of uncovering ourselves, meaning those of us in the audience, and accessing our deepest yearnings and feelings? It is not a question of capturing American life; Meet Me in St. Louis, while a beautiful and expressive film, is distinctly American, its great truths only really applicable to everyone in the sense that we all may occasionally be nostalgic for a childhood safety that was mostly imagined. I’m speaking of a certain breed of film that, without pandering or fakery or false sentimentality, seems to transfer human emotion directly to the screen, specifically the emotions attendant to love and family ties and long-term relationships. Any number of seemingly innocuous pre-Code films like Henry King’s 1933 Fox production State Fair and Frank Borzage’s astonishing Bad Girl seemed almost incidentally to brush up against this level of unexpected grace, perhaps because the Code had not yet ordained repression and innuendo as the essence of the adult relationship, fucking up generations’ worth of ideas about sexuality. Perhaps the film that most readily comes to mind when I think of this phenomenon, though, dates from a few years later: William Wyler’s Dodsworth, a film so deeply empathetic toward its lead character (and really, at least two of its side characters as well) that it completely forgets to transfer the acerbic satire of Sinclair Lewis’ novel to the screen, instead turning into a heartbreaking portrait of a crumbling marriage and a man trying as hard as he can to be the mature party despite the fact that his wife has already clearly left him behind emotionally.
This is a film of infinitely complex adult problems that are not meaningfully tied to its time or home base at all; Dodsworth’s wealth, while it allows for a few story contrivances to feel more convenient and therefore organic, is completely irrelevant to the inner reality of his story, and I would argue that this is also true of his race, age, gender, etc. I can tell you that when I first saw the film I started wanting to cry after twenty minutes and couldn’t explain why. I was not prepared for the fact that my own thoughts and emotions of that phase in my life were going to be launched back to me with devastating accuracy by a movie that was already nearly half a century old when I was born. I was shaken, gratefully, and I suppose I don’t have to explain that moments like that are the reason you are reading this blog.
In the 1950s, the repression would increase even as certain directors became more daring; this was largely a result of McCarthyism and the sensation that not only the Hays office but the government — already testy with the film business over the monopoly issue broken a few years prior — had its sharp eye on any suggestion of subversion or lust beaming into the national cinemas. The best films would become larger than life, more melodramatic, more untouchable in a sense; and while Singin’ in the Rain is as likely as Dodsworth to make you reevaluate your life and question everything, it’s for wholly different reasons, its heightened reality daring to take camaraderie and joy as a given. In the same way, the gut-punch of Vertigo is horrific and debilitating explicitly because it’s an elaboration on human impulses and fears writ large, impossibly large. Even All About Eve, perhaps the best film of the decade about normal people, isn’t really about normal people but rather how normal people adapt to the fickle treachery of show business.
Therefore, in Hollywood, the ’40s are the final resting place of many of these heartfelt low-concept moments of characters behaving as you or I would in situations you or I might even face, and with the resulting firestorm of complications and thoughts readable on various actors’ faces not a Xeroxed version of easily imitated outpourings and pseudo-soulful dark nights (think the end of Home Alone, when an hour and a half of violence and insults culminates abruptly in arbitrary, meaningless cuddliness) but a genuine, painfully extracted expression of emotion itself. Do not misunderstand: it can occur anywhere in cinema — I find it in Disney’s Dumbo, shamefully not listed here — but what I find interesting is that the three most unpretentiously, reliably heartfelt Hollywood movies of the decade all date from the same year.
In poor health by the early 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch did not go overseas to the war. Frank Capra and William Wyler did. Set pointedly (like Brief Encounter) in the late 1930s before the breakout, Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown was his last completed film; like most of his signature works, it’s a comedy, but it bears little resemblance to the likes of The Smiling Lieutenant and To Be or Not to Be. Its central operator is a working class cleaning lady (Jennifer Jones as the title character) working for a stuffy family that values her only insofar as she functions as “the help.” The story centers on various attempts to restrain Cluny from her irrepressible spirit and to convince her to become “proper,” the pressure for which comes from all directions including the fellow staff of the house. The situations are effortlessly funny in the usual Lubitsch manner, but there is a surprising undercurrent of true upheaval — on top of its serving as a sort of anti-Pygmalion, the film’s resentment of class division borders on radical in comparison to most Hollywood films of the time, like a very soft variant on Ruggles of Red Gap or Boudu Saved from Drowning, but with the more affecting overall decency of Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange. As much as you may laugh throughout the film, what sticks is the warmth of it all, the way the film seems to pine for Cluny to be herself and to find happiness without casting her as any sort of clichéd oddball or proto-MPDG. She seems like a friend you might have, whose life you wish you could change; or maybe she seems like you at a moment when you hated your job and had no place to go. To have the camera thus turned on us by a giant like Lubitsch is a powerful bit of disarming nakedness; and there is a certain kind of viewer that, when Cluny is told she can do all the plumbing she wants, will be unable to avoid tearing up.
The stand-in for Lubitsch’s magic in Frank Capra’s first postwar film is actual magic: angels, Heaven, an entire alternate reality. Yet It’s a Wonderful Life, about a banker contemplating suicide after facing financial ruin, arguably sentimentalizes day-to-day life less than almost any Hollywood movie that’s achieved its degree of lasting fame; even Casablanca has a certain nostalgic vagueness and romance to its conception of hanging out at Rick’s. Life is harsher and more despairing than almost any film noir of the same period, chiefly because it is very evidently not an escapist dime-novel story about gangsters, hoodlums and dames but a chronicle of just how truly empty life can seem when confronted with loss, tragedy and disappointment; it is uncompromising in its treatment of adulthood as a potential wasteland.
Moreover, it feels like a direct cry from someone’s soul in response to the mounting despair and fury of a generation that had faced financial collapse followed by total war in the space of fifteen years. When James Stewart breaks down crying at a bar, he cries for the entirety of a planet, for the dead and living, and for now-impossible longings for inner peace, for a world of no corpses and hauntings. Capra and Stewart agreed the film was a catharsis after their experiences in the war, which makes the film’s ubiquity as Christmas comfort food over the seventy-five years since its release seem particularly ironic until you consider that our comfort with this film is tied directly to its understanding of our plight: our continued plight, not just that of our grand- or great grandparents. What makes the film exceptionally powerful is its humane comprehension of the ecstasies and trappings of memory: how an entire life can be summed up only to have its essence missed; or how the grandest memories, so often, are the smallest. It’s less goopy and indistinct than that, though, piling its observations on with detail and various traces of warmth and love that feel quick and fleeting enough to be traces of remembered reality, yet cold comfort in a time of distress. As an act of empathy with — rather than therapy for — those suffering from depression or trauma, the film is remarkably ahead of its time.
Yet no film of the 1940s captures both the haunted spirit of the postwar period and the general, impossibly unpredictable mixture of pleasure and pain that marks and taunts everyday life like William Wyler’s reaction to the end of the war, the heartbreaking, steadfastly unsentimental but, eventually, soaring The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie powerful enough to remove all boundaries of death and life, then and now, fiction and non, for there’s simply no way not to believe that its characters are still out there somewhere, fumbling around trying to figure themselves out. I spoke earlier of my reaction to the master humanist Wyler’s Dodsworth; Billy Wilder made nearly the same observation about The Best Years of Our Lives, that the crying started in a matter of minutes and continued for three hours. Audiences knew at the time that the film evoked a generation’s feelings with astonishing grace and wisdom; they could not know how the film would resonate forever in its treatment of the way families and friends connect, disconnect, align and fall apart — and the way that war stunts the growth of everyone who encounters it.
At the time, however, the chord the film struck with audiences — it was the greatest U.S. box office success since Gone with the Wind — was explicitly because of its directness and lack of artificial sugarcoating of complicated issues. Ostensibly narrating the reentry into civilian life by three American veterans but functioning as the story of an entire civilization bouncing back from unimaginable trauma, it was precisely the balm that was needed for the collective sigh and ache after World War II, yet the comfort it provides is not of the superficial variety offered by the greeting-card cinema of post-9/11 America, or even the polemics of the Vietnam years, but rather just the calm, therapeutic act of bearing witness to the everyday problems of regular people who are clearly flawed and clearly trying. The drama contained in any of the film’s three interconnected stories would be more than enough fuel for a lesser picture: Dana Andrews’ sad, empty marriage; Fredric March’s budding alcoholism and concerns toward his daughter’s attraction to Andrews; and most famously, Harold Russell as a spirited young petty officer who begins to break down after he comes home to find his family and girlfriend treating him differently as a result of the loss of both his hands in the service. Instead we get everything, though the plight that Russell, an amateur actor, brings to the film is almost beyond words in its depth and achingly moving essence, culminating in one of the most tender love scenes ever captured on film, when he confesses his insecurities to his wife-to-be (Cathy O’Donnell, impeccably cast) and she, for the first time, helps him undress.
It may come across as a kind of protracted schaudenfraude to celebrate an American film about the war’s aftermath at the expense of the more harrowing ones made in the countries whose infrastructures and civilians suffered a great deal more; yet my honest feeling is that The Best Years of Our Lives could have come from anywhere that happened to spring forth brilliant figures like Wyler, his cinematographer Gregg Toland (the greatest black & white cameraman of all, and the deep focus master of Citizen Kane) and his flawless cast. Hollywood itself was not uniquely positioned to produce such a film, or else it presumably would have made many more of them; indeed, it’s not strictly a studio film anyway, being the work of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and distributed by UA. Wyler later said that the film’s nonchalantly anti-fascist (there’s actually a Neo Nazi-punching scene; amazing how little changes in seventy years), humanist stance would have become impossible just a few years later with the advent of the Second Red Scare and its suspicious toward any mild gestures toward any ideal of common goodwill among people. It’s seldom acknowledged, and the conservative Frank Capra certainly wouldn’t have done so, but It’s a Wonderful Life could not have existed in the ’50s either. The American studio system wasn’t built to sustain such wounded, open-hearted examinations of the everyday.
But what does set these films apart from the neorealist pictures is that they depict their characters not as faces of an infinite collective, but as individual and disparate figures, which actually causes them to become far more moving and haunting than the invective coming out of Europe, however powerful and justified it was. They are shots of life as something that, at its best, simply goes on, hideously and beautifully. Best Years in particular is astounding because of its total absence of laziness in its treatment of its characters or their relationships; there are no blanks left unfilled to explicitly argue that what we are seeing could be anywhere, anytime, because we all know that just by watching and listening. The more specific the film is, the more cognizant it seems of the vast expanse and diversity of those watching. It is the rare sort of film that I’m convinced could rescue a person. As with Dodsworth, my fondest wish is that Hollywood had made far more like it.
PART SEVEN: POSTWAR EUROPE & ASIA
National cinemas on the continents directly involved in World War II from its inception began to rebuild themselves at the middle of the decade. We’ve already discussed Italy, which produced the most significant film movement of the time and probably the most influential works of the era. Other formerly occupied, or formerly Axis, nations exhibited a similar feeling of hung-over trauma and terror, with the exception of France which bounced back to a discernible identity and a high quality of output with surprising speed. Britain isn’t heavily represented on this list, and with the seminal works of the Ealing studio criminally absent, most of the British pictures here from the final half of the decade are works of the same directorial team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose masterpiece Black Narcissus and wildly imaginative The Red Shoes will be under the microscope shortly.
Prior to those films, however, the team made a film that seems to exist wholly out of time, in direct contrast to their Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death (which, if anything, belongs in some sort of grouping with The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life, combining the two films’ sensibilities and subjects in a fashion). Wendy Hiller stars in I Know Where I’m Going! as a headstrong woman who’s forced to pause on the way to a practically arranged marriage to an aged industrial magnate, where she becomes intoxicated with life on the Isle of Mull. At bottom, it’s just another version of the love story we have seen hundreds of times in any number of contexts: she’s persuaded away from a wealthy life with a powerful figure long past his days of glory in favor of a fun, scrappy, youthful human being who causes her to rediscover parts of herself long suppressed. Yet the Archers, as Powell & Pressburger called themselves, are masters of persuasion, and thus able to present this as a unique moment in emotional time, something that never happened before and could never happen again, and in crafting a film that’s as much about a place as it is about people, whose narrative hinges entirely on the effect one’s surroundings can have on their wants, needs, psyche, they set the table brilliantly for Black Narcissus. Yet I Know Where I’m Going!, full of creative restlessness and clever cinematic trickery that calls Orson Welles to mind, is a singular achievement in itself, a valentine to the lovely and forbidden transformations that comprise pivotal moments in life — and even today, it seems to surround you. This and Letter from an Unknown Woman (below) affected me the way Brief Encounter seems to affect others.
The Soviet Union is equally underreported on here, after being a mainstay of the two previous lists. It’s slightly unfair to try and judge the two parts of Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda classic Ivan the Terrible separately; it’s never easy with this kind of film to understand either the director’s true intentions — since the covert rebelliousness and dry humor seems to run radically against the narrative thesis of nationalistic fervor — or the response a modern audience should or even can have to such material. It’s so over the top it starts to run toward camp, more so than Eisenstein’s silent works or even Alexander Nevsky, which makes the complete descent into depravity in the second part all the more satisfying.
Sweden was neutral in the war, but it was also a well-known refuge for Jews and crusaders against fascism during the midst of German tyranny. Sweden disappears from this version of film history following Victor Sjöström’s departure for Hollywood in the 1920s, where he made He Who Gets Slapped and The Wind; but the rise of one of Sjöström’s great acolytes, Ingmar Bergman, begins in the late ’40s with his first “major” film, the appropriately dour Prison, which shows off a more directly angsty mood than even the wartorn Italian pictures while also demonstrating an obvious affluence — centering on the love lives of urban bohemians, plus much philosophical chitchat — and thirst for life despite its horrific depictions of murder, suicide and specters of romantic misery. Bergman’s work is divisive even among devoted cinephiles, but to those attuned to his particular impressions of interpersonal relationships and tragic private lives, there’s something curiously irresistible about his endlessly tortured characters and stories. You have to give a nod to anyone who’s not only willing to live inside of his emotions and sprawl it out for the public to see, but also able technically and logistically to do so with such competence and enthusiasm.
Post-occupation France sees the flourishing of several artists who’d prove deeply influential and important in the decades to follow. 1949 brings the whimsical Jacques Tati’s first feature Jour de Fête, a cleverly mounted comedy about a postman carting around a small town on his bicycle, getting into trouble and developing absurd ambitions after learning about how quickly the mail operates in America. It’s silly, sweet and buoyant. Robert Bresson’s second film, Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne, is none of those things and despite its historical renown and the cooperation of Jean Cocteau on the script, it’s one of the weakest films I viewed for this project, a joyless and dated bed-hopping melodrama taken from a Denis Diderot novellette and hinging on various Dangerous Liaisons-style conspiracies while taking no amusement from them whatsoever. Of Cocteau, however, we have much more to say: if you’ve seen any montage of the greatest moments in French cinema you are surely familiar with the closing shot of Beauty and the Beast, and what comes before that is easily the most sumptuous version of the fairy tale put on screen, and one of the finest of all live action fantasies, one that seems as gorgeously unreal and dreamlike as these stories do to us as children, rendered as monumental but tangible imagery by Cocteau using the same playful, surrealistic methods displayed in his other works like Blood of a Poet and, of course, Orpheus.
Technically a 1950 film and probably collected on this list only because of a vintage IMDB quirk, Orpheus is one of the best films I saw for the first time this year; and it’s as lively and enveloping as The Best Years of Our Lives for exactly the opposite reasons. An erudite, passionately artful and endlessly adventurous expression of the agony and ecstasy in the act of creation, it is as pure a work of technique as a Welles picture and as clearly a freshly bleeding part of the director’s own person as a Bergman picture. The excitement of its expressive vision of the titular legend — a poet swept into Hell itself, here via limousine — sees no logic to stopping to let us catch our breath from amazement; all of the beguiling moments force us to confront the idea of an alternate history in which special effects and high-level cinematic trickery were used for art films rather than blockbusters.
Lastly we come to the Axis, and thus to Japan; there are no German films on this list at all, and while many movies were made under the Nazi regime, virtually none have survived with any degree of repute apart from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries from the ’30s. The most famous directors of narrative films who continued working, at least for a time, under Hitler’s rule were probably Douglas Sirk, who fled for Hollywood by the late 1930s, and G.W. Pabst, who continued directing in Germany during the war. In Japan, however, the three masters (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa) all kept going and in certain cases flourished (though all three ran up against the limitations imposed by government censorship). That specifically applies to Mizoguchi, who made his most famous film — The 47 Ronin, parts one and two — as wartime propaganda. Kurosawa actually began his directorial career in the war with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and by the end of the decade had advanced enough to create the masterful Stray Dog and to be on the verge of international breakthrough with Rashomon in 1950. Ozu was the most reluctant propagandist of the three, taking an Oskar Schindler-like approach to the movie he was assigned to make in Singapore; ironically, he’s said to have fallen in love with American cinema during this unproductive sojourn.
When the war ended, Mizoguchi and Ozu each doubled down on former fixations in their work, yet with a gravity and sadness clearly impacted by the earlier events of the decade. (Kurosawa was younger, newer, more of a hotshot, and moved toward more commercial, Western-influenced ideas.) Mizoguchi’s nod to an eighteenth century printmaker in Utamaro and His Five Women has the same yearning for and suspicions of the past as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939); and his neorealism-inspired Women of the Night, a stunningly acted and directed treatise on the poverty and desperation suffered by two sisters in the time immediately following the war, carries forward cohesively from the cries against injustice toward women in his magnificent Sisters of the Gion (1936). Like the iconic European works of the late ’40s, Mizoguchi here presents the aftermath of WWII as the story’s backdrop; the death and pestilence of war hangs over the film like a fog. Perhaps needless to say, Ozu is somewhat more philosophical, less angry. Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a cautionary tale about casting attention on a nation of orphans in the wake of the intense losses they suffered, and an honest examination of how an adult’s basically understandable lack of selflessness leaves her oddly empty — a film with a clear-cut, even didactic moral compass despite plenty of humor related to the day-to-day behavior of children even in such squalor.
Ozu’s Late Spring, however, owes less to its time period, shooting for agelessness despite its cultural specificity, and is the most heartrending and — for all its stoic denial of catharsis — emotionally crushing of the later Japanese titles on the list. In a way, the film is about communication breakdowns just like Rossellini’s Paisan because it covers the mutual, unspoken pain between a father and daughter, each of whom fears telling the other their true feelings for fear of causing pain or disappointment. A woman named Nuriko, played by Setsuko Hara, tends to and dotes on her widower father, whose only child she is, and balks at his insistence that she find a husband and start her own life. She does not want to leave; and deep down, he does not want her to, but leave she does, at his insistence. It’s really about sacrifice, and the weight of the unstated in familial relations, which calls over to Ford and Wyler in America; and in all its sense of grief that can never be directly acknowledged or expressed, it also nods toward Ozu’s eventual signature film, Tokyo Story. Yet there is breathtaking joy to be found here, however muted it is: when Noriko first appears onscreen in her traditional wedding costume, the effect is overwhelming, the familiarity we feel with the bruising permanence of this specific moment is as striking as the closing wedding of The Best Years of Our Lives. It is a gift, in its fashion, for anyone who ever laid down half their life for their family — a moment to shine for those most reluctant to shine.
PART EIGHT: SOME TALK ABOUT COLOR
In a review of Blackmail for this blog I said “The advent of sound pictures in the late 1920s was the first sudden and complete transformation of the film industry, and thus far the last.” This was not at all an original observation. In fact I think I stole it from somewhere. But it remains a grave truth. And somewhere in the list of false revolutions with 3D, widescreen Cinemascope, “interactivity” and IMAX is three-strip Technicolor. Some have survived. None changed the fabric of cinematic storytelling. Two-strip films had existed since long before silent cinema ended (see The Toll of the Sea for an early example); other primitive forms of color and tinting preceded that. Color as we know it begins with 1935’s Becky Sharp (directed by Rouben Mamoulian for RKO), and remained a touchstone of high-budget, top-prestige films such as MGM-Selznick’s Gone with the Wind until the 1950s, with color remaining outside the norm but not necessarily an automatic marker of class (see Leave Her to Heaven) throughout the ’40s.
In an example of one of those eccentric opinions that makes me sound like an insufferable curmudgeon, I don’t think color photography has been especially good for film. I don’t have a problem with it exactly, but I find it hard to take seriously the idea that films in the last several decades are as aesthetically beautiful, on average, as those shot on black & white film stock were nearly by default. Part of this is simply timing; most of the career cinematographers of the era had essentially invented the form, and despite the hoards of gifted artists in the field since then, there’s little hope of another perfect storm to bring us a Gregg Toland or a Karl Freund for our own day. Additionally, however, it seems to me that black & white demands something extra from the audience that color rarely does: a direct submission to unreality. This is why it’s so fascinating that so many of the films viewed as most realistic (The Battle of Algiers, for example) deliberately eschew color as a means of revisiting a certain gritty mobility that feels more immediate than color, for whatever reason, ever can. We see everything in color all through the day, and there is nothing a color film can teach or manipulate us to view differently; and manipulation, while a loaded term, is another factor. Brian Wilson was one of several pop producers of the ’60s, when mono and stereo sound coexisted, who preferred the less HiFi-friendly mono methodology because it left the producer and artist with full control of what their audience heard, and how they heard it regardless of speaker placement or setting. In a similar sense, the black & white film can craft its own vision of the world from top to bottom and can reconfigure reality for the observer, can make a real setting look like something entirely different, in a way that color cinematography generally cannot. (Keep in mind that I would not apply this necessarily to films that transfer the viewer to otherworldly settings in separate fashions; Snow White, Vertigo and 2001: A Space Odyssey are three excellent examples of movies that could only exist in color. I mean only to speak to the general quality of photography, and the participatory factor of film viewing, as a wedge between the two mediums.)
That being said, color is like any other tool: the master director can make resourceful, exciting use of it that others cannot. Technicolor is not the first element that comes to mind when one describes or thinks of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, his first color film, but even if it’s clearly less beautiful and striking than The Paradine Case or Notorious or Spellbound, it contributes to the feeling that we have no escape available from the claustrophic drama playing out before us, a startling dramatization of the Leopold & Loeb murder case depicted in real time and with almost no cuts. This incredible example of experimental cinema hitting the mainstream is also fascinating for its then-shockingly frank treatment of homosexuality, centering around two murderers (Farley Granger and John Dall, the latter so different here than in his equally iconic part in Gun Crazy) who are clearly implied to be a queer couple, and a professor (James Stewart) with a shady past and what looks implicitly like an understanding of some covert second life shared with his former charges. Rope turned out to be the rare box office failure that eventually became an overwhelmingly popular film, celebrated today as one of Hitchcock’s masterworks; I wouldn’t go that far, but it is an extraordinary example of the Master’s endlessly inspiring restlessness.
A stronger example of how color could be used as a tool to explicitly drive a film’s narrative is Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, the loveliest-looking color film (shot by the great Jack Cardiff) since The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Based on Rumer Godden’s stark but sumptuous novel about nuns setting up a mission in India where they find themselves increasingly thrown into disarray by the pace and openness of the world they encounter (“I look out there, then I can’t see the potato I’m planting”), the film is another that rides almost entirely on the unstated, and in the case of the nuns, that which cannot be stated — so much so that, with each enraptured viewing, new secrets emerge. Flashback sequences in the film, wherein Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, who abruptly moved toward a life of religion after the unexpected end to a presumptive engagement, finds herself remembering and longing for the presence of her former lover, capture an urgent, indistinct longing of almost sexual force that even Godden’s novel cannot entirely convey, at least not in the haunting manner achieved here by the directors; that’s because they capture something — the attack of memory on the present, in all of its agonizing haziness and proximity — that no words can express, that only a visual medium can even attempt to show. Reading the novel, you can be intrigued and can even idly apply your own life to Clodagh’s plight. But watching the film, you actively become Clodagh, and feel the pull of the past on your lips, in your body.
But how does Black Narcissus posit that color is as necessary to its narrative as celluloid itself? After all, the Archers flawlessly and confidently projected similar nonverbal yearnings in I Know Where I’m Going! two years earlier. And to shift slightly forward in time, India’s own Satyajit Ray would display the unique character of his country on location and in black and white in Pather Panchali with no feeling of inefficiency compared with the British film’s studio-based Technicolor photography. Rather, I think that what matters in Black Narcissus is that Powell & Pressburger have elected to use the color process as a mirror of the progression in the characters themselves, a progression that clearly shakes them but isn’t necessarily a pleasure to them. An early convent scene that establishes the nuns’ individual identities before charting the move to the Himalayas is shown to us in drastically staid grays and whites that aren’t readily apparent as limited or dim except in the sense that, well, this clearly isn’t The Sound of Music. But when the mountainside nunnery is established and the wind and the world begin to blow their way in, the colors seem to burst out in loving, lively fullness and only more so as the film progresses — to the point that eventually, as the story descends into an unexpectedly vivid psychological netherworld of actual horror, they become threatening: popping with the red of blood and lipstick. (A similar descent into madness rendered by color comes in the second half of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, but in that case it is so extreme it becomes an act of surrealism, not of terrifyingly closely read truth.) And as resignation and departure come, and the sense of unstated and unresolved things swells in one’s heart, the colors only continue their inevitable routine: in one of the final shots, when the rains finally come, the directors focus on droplets falling upon large leaves as a party of nuns trudges by in the unfocused background, every element of the picture distinct from the other, every detail oddly stunning. And this goes back to Wyler again: life going on when we want it to, life going on when we do not, life going on when we aren’t at all sure. Godden meant her story as one about colonialism and its necessary end; in Powell & Pressburger’s hands (to her disdain, apparently) it became one about an awakening spirit that, despite attempts to put it back in its bottle, could never possibly be contained.
The Archers would have their own struggle with this kind of impulsive daring in their next film, The Red Shoes; as far as Cardiff is concerned, the picture is a tour de force. Chronicling the performance of a ballet lifted from Hans Christian Andersen’s story that slowly takes over the life of protagonist Moira Shearer, it embodies its own narrative genie that cannot be bottled. The directors maintain tension well up to the midpoint, when they must show us the ballet itself; and at that point, all hell breaks loose. The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is one of the greatest scenes in cinema; perhaps if Welles’ cut of The Lady from Shanghai existed, the climax of that film could be a match for it, but otherwise it’s also the finest moment of any film on this list. Its display of innovation and spirit of unfettered creativity is all but impossible to describe, but maybe it’s enough to simply say that the movie chooses not to straightforwardly present a performance of a ballet but to embody, again with Technicolor and also with production design (in the manner of German Expressionism) and film editing, the inner feelings of the character performing that ballet as she finds herself wholly subsumed in the moment. That very statement, as direct as anyone has managed, of the ability of anyone to be totally lost in a work of art is transcendent and profound in a way that the simplistic ironies of the remainder of the film cannot hope to match; in fact, they struggle even to maintain interest. It’s as if God and the cosmos and whatever else have been touched for a twenty-minute stretch, and once that has happened it is quite difficult to care about much else, at least for a while (a refractory period, perhaps). It’s akin to watching an episode of Star Trek after going and seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in IMAX.
In this manner, color has worked against the directors, but Powell & Pressburger were among the very few who understood color’s power within the framework of cinematic language, much as few (Buñuel and Hitchcock and almost no one else) understood the potential of sound until it was too late to reform the technique in their favor. Color would wreck many films. It helps many others. But not many use it to render worlds as vivid and complex as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, and the power of both, especially the latter, to forever alter one’s dreams speaks for itself.
PART NINE / FINALE: POSTWAR AMERICA – ROMANCE, BLACK COMEDY & INTENSE DESPAIR
On May 3, 1948, the United States Supreme Court declared in an antitrust case against Paramount that it was unlawful for movie studios to own their own theaters and to thereby control their own distribution from top to bottom. Everything was thrown into upheaval; it was the beginning of the end of the studio system, which would linger on in name only for another decade before becoming a distant memory. The entire functionality of Hollywood was changed. This in combination with the McCarthy era’s Blacklist and the advent of television produced an era of cynicism, pandering, gimmickry, fragmentation, and big dumb moneymakers — which had always existed, but would soon dominate on a grand scale.
U.S. vs. Paramount probably has nothing to do with the prevailing tone of the Hollywood films on this list from the late ’40s, but there is an odd consistency to the way that comedies abruptly seem to become more acerbic (the wide-eyed romancing of Cluny Brown and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek quickly dissipated), and even conventional non-noir dramas more world-weary and sardonic. The latter was exemplified by two consecutive Best Picture winners that pulled the rug out from under any notion of old MGM-style syrup: Columbia’s All the King’s Men (1949 but not on this list, directed by Robert Rossen) and Fox’s All About Eve (1950, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). We were only three years removed from the Checkhovian directness of The Best Years of Our Lives, five from the golly-gee-whiz stupidity of the religious Bing Crosby vehicle Going My Way, six and seven from the deeply sincere wartime morale boosters Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca. But now, authority — show business authority as well as political authority — was to be questioned. Audiences rather than shareholders were to be pleased, and audiences were savvier now.
Once again, Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be the director most on top of the game, even though the late ’40s were his least successful period commercially: he had long since angled toward films that were designed to make their audiences feel intelligent and exhilarated while simultaneously staying a step ahead of them. His work wasn’t exactly “cynical,” but one quick look at Rebecca compared to the two adjacent Best Picture winners — Gone with the Wind and How Green Was My Valley — reveals how cunning he already was about nudging his audience into a realization and acceptance of harsh, difficult truth that had the ring of hard-won authority. Yes, Rebecca will be vanquished from Manderley, but Manderley itself will then be destroyed. Yes, there is a union of a new couple, but the vague air of gruff incompleteness in Laurence Olivier’s face and voice has meaning, and the vague fears you hold about him are destined to be confirmed and then confronted. This is audience-friendly cynicism, not pandering cynicism — movies like Rebecca, All About Eve and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. cater to the smart viewer because they know their audiences are smart, but they also know their audience knows they’re smart. This pattern reappears even today, in movies that require a reasonable knowledge of how most movies “work” in order to assert their uniqueness.
That’s why Max Ophüls’ beautiful and fluid Letter from an Unknown Woman, a truly enveloping romance of continually unrequited affection held by Joan Fontaine toward a childhood crush, telegraphs the futility of its entire narrative at the outset, by informing us before anything else happens that its heroine is already dead. That’s why we thrill at watching Humphrey Bogart systematically dismantle his nonchalant-good-guy persona in John Huston’s brutal Treasure of the Sierra Madre, about a fated pursuit of gold by three clueless drifters, and why in the same film a letter from a man’s wife is read out loud moments after we watch him killed, Huston twisting the knife of the soul-destroying nature of violence here as effectively as he did when chronicling the actual fight for the Italian peninsula. That’s why the reliably humane, good-hearted Wyler ends his wonderfully wicked The Heiress with an endlessly put-upon spinster (Olivia de Havilland) smugly wandering further into stubborn solitude while her former suitor, Montgomery Clift, bangs desperately on a door that will never open.
And that is why Preston Sturges and Charlie Chaplin both lose their souls, or maybe just forego the temptation to pretend they have optimistic answers for the human race after the preceding decade; for both filmmakers, iconic architects of film comedy, the course of the decade is really the movement from loving generosity to oblique dread, a cycle somehow completed entirely via comedy by both. Sturges began the ’40s with Christmas in July, in which Dick Powell earnestly shoots for the winning prize in a contest that will finally let him marry his girlfriend and start a real life for himself; when the money comes his way, he knows of no response except utter generosity. When it’s taken from him, he knows only to move onward, oddly at peace with his false taste of success. It could be a cycle of arresting melancholy, sofa beds bought on credit being systematically repossessed and all that, some embodiment of Ezra Furman’s lyric “We can sit on my back steps and intertwine our fingertips while you talk about the nice things you once had.” Instead, each setback somehow seems a further expression of the indomitable human spirit in Sturges’ eyes.
But Sturges ends the decade with Unfaithfully Yours, a pitch-black and sadistic comedy in which an orchestra conductor begins to fantasize about the revenge he will take on a suspicion — merely a suspicion — that his wife has cheated on him. The conductor is portrayed by Rex Harrison, the human gaslight, whose smarmy treatment of everyone he encounters makes it difficult to believe he would be able to sustain a romantic relationship in the first place. His ego seeps out of everything. In one of his fantasies, he plays the “bigger man,” the old Casablanca specter, with full audience awareness of what a self-serving put-on it is. One, reliant on covert tape-recorder espionage, descends into slapstick with Sturges’ usual lack of delicacy on that front. But the film’s most famous scene sets his fantasy of joyously murdering his wife to the strains of the Rossini piece he is conducting. Sturges never bothers to show any redemptive qualities in the character, or to spend much time on the aftermath and resolution of all this. It just sort of sits there as an oddly vindictive portrait of baseless violence, and seems perversely gleeful in its status as such.
The more radical and troubling transformation is Chaplin’s, largely because his is much more understandable. (Neither career really recovered.) In 1940 he ended The Great Dictator by turning directly to his camera and begging his worldwide audience to resist division and fascism. It was seven years before his next film, Monsieur Verdoux which was met with a confused public that might very well have been more prepared for it a few years later. The Chaplins of the two pictures are wholly incompatible. Verdoux is an Ealing Studios-like narrative in which he portrays a pseudo-gentleman and actual family man who compensates for his long-term unemployment by seducing and killing aged women. The film’s poster promised “Hysterical LAUGHTER! Haunting ROMANCE! Shocking DRAMA!”; the actual movie offers none of the above, except perhaps “shocking drama,” whereby we get the full scope of the Verdoux character’s cruel methodology and glean suspense from our instinctive need to be in his corner even as he seems to be violently pushing us away. The movie constitutes nothing less than the active, aggressive deconstruction of the Chaplin persona, and his longtime audience’s attachment to said persona. We’re made entirely privy to Chaplin’s frustration with hypocrisy, first via the touching scenes he inserts in which Verdoux cavorts and plays with his loving wife and children in between his crimes, and then with the punchline of the film, which is not a joke but rather, virtually a rebuke to the entire world from the man who once was the most famous and beloved film artist in that world. He gives another speech, like in The Great Dictator, but this time, the statements come ostensibly from a character — a murderer on trial speaking for himself one last time — rather than the “good guy.” And yet, they still come unmistakably from Chaplin himself:
However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you Monsieur, I have. And for thirty five years I used them honestly; after that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces, and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all very soon. Very soon.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
During the course of this project, Filmstruck shut down, and it’s worth mentioning how much more difficult the whole thing would’ve been without that service, with a few films otherwise entirely elusive. Fortunately, Criterion — the co-operator of Filmstruck with Turner Classic Movies — has plans to unveil a new channel with their library, which will fill many of the gaps hopefully for good. Not to editorialize, but please subscribe to it when it comes.
Below I’ve listed the films that are, at this writing, unavailable to rent online in any of the standard places (Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Video/Youtube). Keep in mind that I primarily use local libraries, Netflix’s still invaluable DVD by mail service, and various streaming subscriptions to complete these projects, so be sure to check those sources as well. Also, my assessment of what films are available on DVD is very centered on Region 1; when I mention “other regions,” I’m talking about beyond the U.S. Sorry for the America-centric viewpoint!
– Day of Wrath was only viewable on Filmstruck; the Criterion DVD (in a boxed set with other Dreyer films) is out of print.
– Notorious was completely absent on the internet. Criterion is about to release a new edition. Spellbound, currently out of print, is likely to follow.
– Ivan the Terrible was only viewable on Filmstruck; the Criterion DVD (in a boxed set with other Eisenstein sound films) is out of print.
– I Know Where I’m Going!, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Stray Dog were only viewable on Filmstruck; Criterion’s DVDs are in print.
– Meshes of the Afternoon is streamable on Vimeo. It’s also in print on DVD as part of a set of Maya Deren’s experimental films. I can’t speak to that disc’s quality.
– Letter from an Unknown Woman and Force of Evil are out in physical editions from Olive Films.
– To Be or Not to Be, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Orpheus and The Great Dictator were only viewable on Filmstruck, but Criterion’s physical editions are in print.
– Fantasia was streaming on Netflix last time I checked but isn’t rentable anywhere and the DVD — as far as I can tell; the morass of different versions is very confusing — is out of print.
– The three Tex Avery cartoons are on various free video streaming sites, probably illegally. As far as I know, their most comprehensive physical release is in a collection of Avery’s post-WB work only sold overseas, which I don’t have although it’s been recommended by various review sites.
– The Reckless Moment and Cluny Brown are only available on DVD in other regions.
– The Best Years of Our Lives is purchasable via Vudu but you can’t rent it online.
– The DVD of Christmas in July is out of print. I saw the film through Netflix’s mail service.
– The three films in Rossellini’s war trilogy (Rome, Open City; Germany, Year Zero and Paisan) are in a physical set from Criterion; they were part of Filmstruck’s collection.
– Le Corbeau was only viewable on Filmstruck. Criterion’s DVD is out of print.
– Women of the Night was only viewable on Filmstruck and can be found in the fine Eclipse boxed set Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women.
– I only found Louisiana Story on Prime Video, in terrible quality. It seems to be public domain, so there may be other sources.
– Leave Her to Heaven is out of print except in a Fox Studio Classics boxed set — which is surprisingly cheap.
– The Record of a Tenement Gentleman was only viewable on Filmstruck and there seems to be no legitimate physical edition released to date. Same for Utamaro and His Five Women, though there is apparently a Mizoguchi boxed set in another region that includes it.
– The Heiress is in print on DVD from Universal.
– The Little Foxes is in print on DVD from Warner Bros.
– Criterion’s physical editions of A Matter of Life and Death and Rebecca are in print.
– The Battle of San Pietro is a government-sanctioned film and thus basically public domain; it streams in various places. If you want a disc source, seek out Treasures from American Film Archives.
– Prison is available in Region 2 on a Tartan DVD, which is very high quality and recommended. (I had to purchase it to see the film.) It’s one of the few notable Bergman films not in Criterion’s huge new box.
– The Southerner is in print physically from Kino.
– Image’s DVD of Ossessione is out of print and not exactly affordable.
APPENDIX: BY COUNTRY
U.S.: Christmas in July; Fantasia; The Great Dictator; His Girl Friday; The Philadelphia Story; Rebecca; The Shop Around the Corner; Citizen Kane; The Devil and Daniel Webster; How Green Was My Valley; The Lady Eve; The Little Foxes; The Maltese Falcon; Sullivan’s Travels; Suspicion; Casablanca; Cat People; The Magnificent Ambersons; To Be or Not to Be; I Walked with a Zombie; Meshes of the Afternoon; Red Hot Riding Hood; Shadow of a Doubt; Double Indemnity; Laura; Lifeboat; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Screwball Squirrel; To Have and Have Not; The Battle of San Pietro; It’s a Wonderful Life; Leave Her to Heaven; Scarlet Street; Spellbound; The Best Years of Our Lives; The Big Sleep; Cluny Brown; My Darling Clementine; Notorious; King-Size Canary; The Lady from Shanghai; Monsieur Verdoux; Out of the Past; Force of Evil; Key Largo; Letter from an Unknown Woman; Louisiana Story; The Pirate; Red River; Rope; Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Unfaithfully Yours; Gun Crazy; The Heiress; I Was a Male War Bride; The Reckless Moment; The Southerner; White Heat
Denmark: Day of Wrath
France: Le Corbeau; Children of Paradise; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne; Beauty and the Beast; Quai des Ofevres; Jour de Fete; Orpheus
United Kingdom: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; Brief Encounter; I Know Where I’m Going!; A Matter of Life and Death; Black Narcissus; Odd Man Out; The Red Shoes; The Third Man
Italy: Ossessione; Rome, Open City; Paisan; Bicycle Thieves; Germany, Year Zero; La Terra Trema
Soviet Union: Ivan the Terrible
Japan: Utamaro and His Five Women; Record of a Tenement Gentleman; Women of the Night; Late Spring; Stray Dog
APPENDIX: U.S. BY STUDIO
Paramount: Christmas in July; The Lady Eve; Sullivan’s Travels; Double Indemnity; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; The Heiress
RKO Radio Pictures: Fantasia [prod. by Disney]; Citizen Kane; The Devil and Daniel Webster; The Little Foxes; Suspicion; Cat People; The Magnificent Ambersons; I Walked with a Zombie; It’s a Wonderful Life; The Best Years of Our Lives; Notorious; Out of the Past
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: The Philadelphia Story; The Shop Around the Corner; Red Hot Riding Hood; Meet Me in St. Louis; Screwball Squirrel; King-Size Canary; Force of Evil; The Pirate
20th Century Fox: How Green Was My Valley; Laura; Lifeboat; Leave Her to Heaven; Cluny Brown; My Darling Clementine; Unfaithfully Yours; I Was a Male War Bride
Warner Bros.: The Maltese Falcon; Casablanca; To Have and Have Not; The Big Sleep; Key Largo; Rope; Treasure of the Sierra Madre; White Heat
Columbia: His Girl Friday; The Lady from Shanghai; The Reckless Moment
Universal: Shadow of a Doubt; Scarlet Street; Letter from an Unknown Woman
United Artists: The Great Dictator; To Be or Not to Be; Monsieur Verdoux; Red River; Gun Crazy; The Southerner
Selznick International: Rebecca [dist. by UA]; Spellbound [dist. by UA]
APPENDIX: SIGNIFICANT GAPS
That’s major gaps in my knowledge and some major holes in this particular list. For those I’ve seen and reviewed, my writeups are linked; capsuled films are italicized.
Air Force (1943, Howard Hawks)
Ball of Fire (1941, Howard Hawks)
Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, Yasujiro Ozu)
Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin)
A Canterbury Tale (1944, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Caught (1949, Max Ophuls)
The Chase (1946, Arthur Ripley)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944, Robert Wise & Gunther von Fritsch)
Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer)
Dumbo (1941, Ben Sharpsteen)
The Fallen Idol (1948, Carol Reed)
Fires Were Started (1943, Humphrey Jennings)
Fort Apache (1948, John Ford)
The 47 Ronin, Part I (1941, Kenji Mizoguchi)
The 47 Ronin, Part II (1942, Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Fountainhead (1949, King Vidor) [for the lolz]
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Good News (1947, Charles Walters)
Great Expectations (1946, David Lean)
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944, Preston Sturges)
Hangover Square (1945, John Brahm)
Heaven Can Wait (1943, Ernst Lubitsch)
A Hen in the Wind (1948, Yasujiro Ozu)
The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)
Kiss of Death (1947, Henry Hathaway)
The Leopard Man (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
Le Silence de la Mer (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942, Marcel Carne)
The Murderers Are Among Us (1946, Wolfgang Staudte)
The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin)
Nightmare Alley (1947, Edmund Goulding)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, William A. Wellman)
The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)
Pattes Blanches (1949, Jean Gremillon)
Pinocchio (1940, Ben Sharpsteen)
Pursued (1947, Raoul Walsh)
Raw Deal (1948, Anthony Mann)
The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)
The Shanghai Gesture (1941, Josef von Sternberg)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)
Shoeshine (1946, Vittorio De Sica)
The Small Back Room (1949, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Spring in a Small Town (1948, Mu Fei)
There Was a Father (1942, Yasujiro Ozu)
They Live by Night (1948, Nicholas Ray)
Thieves’ Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)
T-Men (1947, Anthony Mann)
Under the Bridges (1946, Helmut Kautner)
Went the Day Well? (1942, Alberto Cavalcanti)
The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
At Land (1944, Maya Deren)
Bad Luck Blackie (1949, Tex Avery)
Begone Dull Care (1949, Norman McLaren & Evelyn Lambart)
Blood of the Beasts (1949, Georges Franju)
Fireworks (1947, Kenneth Anger)
Le Tempestaire (1947, Jean Epstein)
Listen to Britain (1942, Humphrey Jennings & Stuart McAllister)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946, Maya Deren)
APPENDIX: THE LUMINARIES
As a refresher: these are quick filmographies covering the 1940s careers of major cast and crew members whose names appear twice or more among the 88 films in this list. This time I’ve expanded the scope a bit, both in terms of the types of artists covered (not just actors and directors) and also by not just underlining films in this canon project but linking full reviews of films that have them, and italicizing those with capsules in the database. This covers feature films only, except those shorts that were specifically a part of this project.
Judith Anderson (actor, 1897-1992): Rebecca [review]; Forty Little Mothers (1940); Free and Easy; Lady Scarface (1941); All Through the Night; Kings Row (1942); Edge of Darkness; Stage Door Canteen (1943); Laura [review] (1944); And Then There Were None (1945); The Diary of a Chambermaid; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; Specter of the Rose (1946); Pursued; The Red House; Tycoon (1947).
Dana Andrews (actor, 1909-1992): Lucky Cisco Kid; Sailor’s Lady; Kit Carson; The Westerner (1940); Tobacco Road; Belle Star; Swamp Water; Ball of Fire (1941); Berlin Correspondent (1942); Crash Dive; The Ox-Bow Incident; The North Star; December 7th (1943); Up in Arms; The Purple Heart; Wing and a Prayer; Laura [review] (1944); State Fair; Fallen Angel; A Walk in the Sun (1945); Canyon Passage; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Boomerang!; Night Song; Daisy Kenyon (1947); The Iron Curtain; Deep Waters; No Minor Vices (1948); The Forbidden Street; Sword in the Desert; My Foolish Heart (1949).
Mary Astor (actor, 1906-1987): Turnabout; Brigham Young (1940); The Great Lie; The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); The Palm Beach Story; Across the Pacific (1942); Young Ideas; Thousands Cheer (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis; Blonde Fever (1944); Claudia and David (1946); Fiesta; Desert Fury; Cynthia; Cass Timberlane (1947); Act of Violence; Little Women; Any Number Can Play (1949).
Tex Avery (animator/director, 1908-1980): Red Hot Riding Hood (1943); Screwball Squirrel (1944); King-Size Canary (1947).
Lauren Bacall (actor, 1924-2014): To Have and Have Not (1944); Confidential Agent (1945); The Big Sleep (1946); Dark Passage (1947); Key Largo (1948).
George Barnes (cinematographer, 1892-1953): Rebecca [review]; Free, Blond and 21; Maryland; Girl from Avenue A; The Return of Frank James (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Meet John Doe; That Uncertain Feeling; Ladies in Retirement; Unholy Partners; Remember the Day (1941); Rings on Her Fingers; Broadway; Once Upon a Honeymoon; Nightmare (1942); Mr. Lucky; Jane Eyre (1943); Since You Went Away; Frenchman’s Creek; None But the Lonely Heart (1944); The Spanish Main; Spellbound [review]; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); From This Day Forward; Sister Kenny (1946); Sinbad, the Sailor; Mourning Becomes Electra (1947); The Emperor Waltz; Good Sam; No Minor Vices; The Boy with Green Hair; Force of Evil (1948); Samson and Delilah (1949).
Lionel Barrymore (actor, 1878-1954): Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case; Dr. Kildare Goes Home; Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940); The Penalty; The Bad Man; The People vs. Dr. Kildare; Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day; Lady Be Good (1941); Dr. Kildare’s Victory; Calling Dr. Gillespie; Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant; Tennessee Johnson (1942); Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case; A Guy Named Joe (1943); 3 Men in White; Since You Went Away (1944); Between Two Women; The Valley of Decision (1945); Three Wise Fools; It’s a Wonderful Life [review]; The Secret Heart; Duel in the Sun (1946); Dark Delusion (1947); Key Largo (1948); Down to the Sea in Ships; Malaya (1949).
Joan Bennett (actor, 1910-1990): Green Hell; The House Across the Bay; The Man I Married; The Son of Monte Cristo (1940); She Knew All the Answers; Man Hunt; Wild Geese Calling; Confirm or Deny (1941); The Wife Takes a Flyer; Twin Beds; Girl Trouble (1942); Margin for Error (1943); The Woman in the Window (1944); Nob Hill; Scarlet Street (1945); Colonel Effingham’s Raid (1946); The Macomber Affair; The Woman on the Beach; Secret Beyond the Door… (1947); Hollow Triumph (1948); The Reckless Moment (1949).
Ingrid Bergman (actor, 1915-1982): June Night (1940); Adam Had Four Sons; Rage in Heaven; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); Casablanca [review] (1942); For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943); Gaslight (1944); Spellbound [review]; Saratoga Trunk; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); Notorious [review] (1946); Arc de Triumphe; Joan of Arc (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Humphrey Bogart (actor, 1899-1957): Virgina City; It All Came True; Brother Orchid; They Drive by Night (1940); High Sierra; The Wagons Roll at Night; The Maltese Falcon [a href=”https://dustyflix.wordpress.com/the-maltese-falcon”>review] (1941); All Through the Night; The Big Shot; Across the Pacific; Casablanca [review] (1942); Action in the North Atlantic; Sahara; Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); Passage to Marseille; To Have and Have Not (1944); Conflict (1945); The Big Sleep (1946); Dead Reckoning; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; Dark Passage (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Key Largo (1948); Knock on Any Door; Tokyo Joe (1949).
Walter Brennan (actor, 1894-1974): Northwest Passage; Maryland; The Westerner (1940); Nice Girl?; Meet John Doe; Sergeant York; This Woman Is Mine; Swamp Water; Rise and Shine (1941); The Pride of the Yankees; Stand By for Action (1942); Hangmen Also Die!; Slightly Dangerous; The North Star (1943); Home in Indiana; To Have and Have Not; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Dakota (1945); A Stolen Life; Centennial Summer; My Darling Clementine; Nobody Lives Forever (1946); Driftwood (1947); Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!; Red River; Blood on the Moon (1948); The Green Promise; Brimstone; Task Force (1949).
Nigel Bruce (actor, 1895-1953): The Blue Bird; Adventure in Diamonds; Rebecca [review]; Lillian Russell; Susan and God; A Dispatch from Reuters (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Play Girl; Free and Easy; This Woman Is Mine; The Chocolate Soldier; Suspicion [review] (1941); Roxie Hart; This Above All; Eagle Squadron; Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror; Journey for Margaret; Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942); Forever and a Day; Sherlock Holmes in Washington; Sherlock Holmes Faces Death; Lassie Come Home; Crazy House; The Spider Woman (1943); The Scarlet Claw; The Pearl of Death; Gypsy Wildcat; Frenchman’s Creek (1944); The House of Fear; The Corn Is Green; Son of Lassie; The Woman in Green; Pursuit to Algiers (1945); Terror by Night; Dressed to Kill (1946); The Two Mrs. Carrolls; The Exile (1947); Julia Misbehaves (1948).
Jack Cardiff (cinematographer, 1914-2009): The Great Mr. Handel (1942); Scottish Mazurka (1943); Western Approaches (1944); Caesar and Cleopatra (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review]; Scott of the Antarctic (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Maria Casares (actor, 1922-1996): Children of Paradise; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945); Roger la Honte; The Revenge of Roger (1946); La septième porte; L’amour autour de la maison (1947); La Chartreuse de Parme; Wench (1948).
Charles Chaplin (director/actor/writer, 1889-1977) [excluding anthologies]: The Great Dictator [review] (1940); Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
Montgomery Clift (actor, 1920-1966): The Search [review]; Red River (1948); The Heiress (1949).
Henri-Georges Clouzot (director, 1907-1977): The Murderer Lives at 21 (1942); Le Corbeau [review] (1943); Quai des Orfèvres (1947); Manon (1949).
Jean Cocteau (writer/director, 1889-1963) [as director]: Beauty and the Beast (1946); L’aigle à deux têtes; Les Parents Terribles (1948); [Orpheus (1950)] / [as writer]: Comedy of Happiness (1940); The Phantom Baron; Love Eternal (1943); Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945); Ruy Blas; The Eagle with Two Heads; The Emperor’s Nightingale (1949).
Patricia Collinge (actor, 1892-1974): The Little Foxes (1941); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Tender Comrade (1943); Casanova Brown (1944).
Tom Conway (actor, 1904-1967): Sky Murder (1940); The Trial of Mary Dugan; Free and Easy; The Bad Man; The People vs. Dr. Kildare; Lady Be Good; Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941); Mr. and Mrs. North; Rio Rita; Grand Central Murder; The Falcon’s Brother; Cat People (1942); The Falcon Strikes Back; I Walked with a Zombie; The Falcon in Danger; The Seventh Victim; The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943); The Falcon Out West; A Night of Adventure; The Falcon in Mexico; The Falcon in Hollywood (1944); Two O’Clock Courage; The Falcon in San Francisco (1945); Whistle Stop; The Falcon’s Alibi; Criminal Court; The Falcon’s Adventure (1946); Lost Honeymoon; ‘Fun on a Week-End’; Repeat Performance (1947); The Challenge; 13 Lead Soldiers; The Checkered Court; One Touch of Venus; Bungalow 13 (1948); I Cheated the Law (1949).
Gladys Cooper (actor, 1888-1971): Rebecca [review]; Kitty Foyle (1940); That Hamilton Woman; The Black Cat; The Gay Falcon (1941); This Above All; Eagle Squadron; Now, Voyager (1942); Forever and a Day; Mr. Lucky; Princess O’Rourke [review]; The Song of Bernadette (1943); The White Cliffs of Dover; Mrs. Parkington (1944); The Valley of Decision; Love Letters (1945); The Green Years; Beware of Pity; The Cockeyed Miracle (1946); Green Dolphin Street; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); Homecoming; The Pirate (1948); The Secret Garden; Madame Bovary (1949).
Joseph Cotten (actor, 1905-1994): Citizen Kane [review; Lydia (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Journey into Fear; Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Hers to Hold (1943); Gaslight; Since You Went Away; I’ll Be Seeing You (1944); Love Letters (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946); The Farmer’s Daughter (1947); Portrait of Jennie (1948); The Third Man [review]; Under Capricorn; Beyond the Forest (1949).
Hume Cronyn (actor/writer, 1911-2003) [as actor]: Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Phantom of the Opera; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); Lifeboat [review]; The Seventh Cross (1944); Main Street After Dark; Ziegfeld Follies; The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945); A Letter for Evie; The Green Years; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); The Beginning or the End; Brute Force (1947); The Bride Goes Wild (1948); Top o’ the Morning (1949). / [as writer]: Rope [review] (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
John Dall (actor, 1918-1971): The Corn Is Green (1945); Something in the Wind (1947); Another Part of the Forest; Rope [review] (1948); [Gun Crazy (1950)].
Linda Darnell (actor, 1923-1965): Star Dust; Brigham Young; The Mark of Zorro; Chad Hanna (1940); Blood and Sand; Rise and Shine (1941); The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942); City Without Men (1943); It Happened Tomorrow; Buffalo Bill; Summer Storm; Sweet and Low-Down (1944); Hangover Square; The Great John L.; Fallen Angel (1945); Anna and the King of Siam; Centennial Summer; My Darling Clementine (1946); Forever Amber (1947); The Walls of Jericho; Unfaithfully Yours (1948); A Letter to Three Wives [review]; Slattery’s Hurricane; Everybody Does It (1949).
William Demarest (actor, 1892-1983): Wolf of New York; The Farmer’s Daughter; The Great McGinty [review]; The Golden Fleecing; Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain; Christmas in July; Little Men (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; The Devil and Miss Jones; Rookies on Parade; Ride on Vaquero; Country Fair; Dressed to Kill; Sullivan’s Travels [review]; Glamour Boy (1941); All Through the Night; True to the Army; My Favorite Spy; Pardon My Sarong; The Palm Beach Story; Behind the Eight Ball; Life Begins at Eight-Thirty; Johnny Doughboy (1942); Stage Door Canteen; Dangerous Blondes; True to Life; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943); Nine Girls; Once Upon a Time; The Great Moment; Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); Salty O’Rourke; Along Came Jones; Duffy’s Tavern; Pardon My Past (1945); Our Hearts Were Growing Up; The Jolson Story (1946); The Perils of Pauline; Variety Girl (1947); On Our Merry Way; The Sainted Sisters; Night Has a Thousand Eyes; Whispering Smith (1948); Sorrowful Jones; Jolson Sings Again; Red, Hot and Blue (1949).
Dan Duryea (actor, 1907-1968): The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Pride of the Yankees; That Other Woman (1942); Sahara (1943); Ministry of Fear; Man from Frisco; Mrs. Parkington; None But the Lonely Heart; The Woman in the Window (1944); Main Street After Dark; The Great Flamarion; The Valley of Decision; Along Came Jones; Lady on a Train; Scarlet Street (1945); Black Angel; White Tie and Tails (1946); Black Bart; River Lady; Another Part of the Forest; Larceny (1948); Criss Cross; Johnny Stool Pigeon; Manhandled; Too Late for Tears (1949).
William Faulkner (writer, 1897-1962): To Have and Have Not (1944); The Big Sleep (1946).
Federico Fellini (writer, 1920-1993): Before the Postman; 3/4 of a Page; I cavalieri del deserto (1942); The Peddler and the Lady; Apparition; The Last Wagon (1943); Rome, Open City; Chi l’ha visto? (1945); Paisan [review]; Return of the Black Eagle (1946); Flesh Will Surrender; Bullet for Stefano (1947); L’amore; Without Pity (1948); In the Name of the Law; City of Pain; The Mill on the Po (1949).
Henry Fonda (actor, 1905-1982): The Grapes of Wrath [review]; Lillian Russell; The Return of Frank James; Chad Hanna (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Wild Geese Calling; You Belong to Me (1941); The Male Animal; Rings on Her Fingers; The Magnificent Dope; Tales of Manhattan; The Big Street (1942); Immortal Sergeant; The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); My Darling Clementine (1946); The Long Night; The Fugitive; Daisy Kenyon (1947); On Our Merry Way; Fort Apache (1948).
Joan Fontaine (actor, 1917-2013): Rebecca [review] (1940); Suspicion [review] (1941); This Above All (1942); The Constant Nymph; Jane Eyre (1943); Frenchman’s Creek (1944); The Affairs of Susan (1945); From This Day Forward (1946); Ivy (1947); Letter from an Unknown Woman; The Emperor Waltz; You Gotta Stay Happy; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948).
John Ford (director, 1894-1973): The Grapes of Wrath [review]; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Tobacco Road; How Green Was My Valley [review] (1941); How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines; German Industrial Manpower; December 7th (1943); They Were Expendable (1945); My Darling Clementine (1946); The Fugitive (1947); Fort Apache; 3 Godfathers (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Arthur Freed (producer, 1894-1973): Strike Up the Band; Little Nellie Kelly (1940); Lady Be Good; Babes on Broadway (1941); Panama Hattie; For Me and My Gal (1942); Cabin in the Sky; Du Barry Was a Lady; Best Foot Forward; Girl Crazy (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Ziegfeld Follies; Yolanda and the Thief (1945); The Harvey Girls; Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); Good News (1947); Summer Holiday; The Pirate; Easter Parade; Words and Music (1948); Take Me Out to the Ball Game; The Barkleys of Broadway; Any Number Can Play; On the Town (1949).
Judy Garland (actor, 1922-1969): Andy Hardy Meets Debutante; Strike Up the Band; Little Nellie Kelly (1940); Ziegfeld Girl; Life Begins for Andy Hardy; Babes on Broadway (1941); For Me and My Gal (1942); Presenting Lily Mars; Thousands Cheer; Girl Crazy (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Ziegfeld Follies (1945); The Harvey Girls; Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); The Pirate; Easter Parade; Words and Music (1948); In the Good Old Summertime (1949).
Samuel Goldwyn (producer, 1879-1974): The Westerner (1940); The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Pride of the Yankees (1942); They Got Me Covered; The North Star (1943); Up in Arms; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Wonder Man (1945); The Kid from Brooklyn; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); A Song Is Born; Enchantment (1948); Roseanna McCoy; My Foolish Heart (1949).
Cary Grant (actor, 1904-1986): His Girl Friday; My Favorite Wife; The Howards of Virginia; The Philadelphia Story [review] (1940); Penny Serenade; Suspicion [review] (1941); The Talk of the Town; Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942); Mr. Lucky; Destination Tokyo (1943); Once Upon a Time; Arsenic and Old Lace; None But the Lonely Heart (1944); Night and Day; Notorious [review] (1946); The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; Every Girl Should Be Married (1948); I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
Sydney Greenstreet (actor, 1879-1954): The Maltese Falcon [review]; They Died with Their Boots On (1941); Across the Pacific; Casablanca [review] (1942); Background to Danger (1943); Passage to Marseille; Between Two Worlds; The Mask of Dimitrios; The Conspirators; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Pillow to Post; Conflict; Christmas in Connecticut (1945); Three Strangers; Devotion; The Verdict (1946); That Way with Women; The Hucksters (1947); Ruthless; The Woman in White; The Velvet Touch (1948); Flamingo Road; Malaya (1949).
Porter Hall (actor, 1888-1953): His Girl Friday; Dark Command; Arizona; Trail of the Vigilantes (1940); The Parson of Panamint; Sullivan’s Travels [review] (1941); Mr. and Mrs. North; The Remarkable Andrew; Butch Minds the Baby (1942); A Stranger in Town; The Desperadoes; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; The Woman of the Town (1943); Standing Room Only; Going My Way [review]; Double Indemnity [review]; The Great Moment; The Mark of the Whistler (1944); Bring on the Girls; Blood on the Sun; Murder, He Says; Week-End at the Waldorf; Kiss and Tell (1945); Miracle on 34th Street [review]; Singapore; Unconquered (1947); You Gotta Stay Happy; That Wonderful Urge (1948); Chicken Every Sunday; The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend; Intruder in the Dust (1949).
Cedric Hardwicke (actor, 1893-1964): The Invisible Man Returns; Tom Brown’s School Days; The Howards of Virginia; Victory (1940); Sundown; Supicion [review] (1941); Valley of the Sun; The Ghost of Frankenstein; Invisible Agent; Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942); Forever and a Day; The Moon Is Down; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); The Lodger; Wing and a Prayer; Wilson; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); Sentimental Journey; Beware of Pity (1946); The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; The Imperfect Lady; Ivy; Lured; Tycoon (1947); A Woman’s Vengeance; Song of My Heart; I Remember Mama; Rope [review]; The Winslow Boy (1948); A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; New Barabbas (1949).
Howard Hawks (director, 1896-1977): His Girl Friday (1940); Sergeant York; Ball of Fire (1941); Air Force (1943); To Have and Have Not (1944); The Big Sleep (1946); Red River; A Song Is Born (1948); I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
Ben Hecht (writer, 1894-1964): Angels Over Broadway; Comrade X (1940); Lydia (1941); Tales of Manhattan; The Black Swan; China Girl (1942); Spellbound [review] (1945); Specter of the Rose; Notorious [review] (1946); Kiss of Death; Ride the Pink Horse; Her Husband’s Affairs (1947); The Miracle of the Bells (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Bernard Herrmann (composer, 1911-1975): Citizen Kane [review]; The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, refused credit); Jane Eyre (1943); Hangover Square (1945); Anna and the King of Siam (1946); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).
Alfred Hitchcock (director, 1899-1980): Rebecca [review]; Foreign Correspondent [review] (1940); Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Suspicion [review] (1941); Saboteur [review] (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review] (1943); Lifeboat [review] (1944); Spellbound [review] (1945); Notorious [review] (1946); The Paradine Case (1947); Rope [review] (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Tim Holt (actor, 1919-1973): Laddie; Swiss Family Robinson; Wagon Train; The Fargo Kid (1940); Back Street; Along the Rio Grande; Robbers of the Range; Cyclone on Horseback; Six-Gun Gold; The Bandit Trail; Dude Cowboy (1941); Riding the Wind; Land of the Open Range; Come on Danger; The Magnificent Ambersons; Thundering Hoofs; Bandit Ranger; Pirates of the Prairie; Red River Robin Hood (1942); Hitler’s Children; Fighting Frontier; Sagebrush Law; The Avenging Rider (1943); My Darling Clementine (1946); Thunder Mountain; Under the Tonto Rim; Wild Horse Mesa (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Western Heritage; The Arizona Ranger; Guns of Hate; Indian Angent; Gun Smugglers (1948); Brothers in the Saddle; Rustlers; Stagecoach Kid; Masked Raiders; The Mysterious Desperado (1949).
Trevor Howard (actor, 1913-1988): Johnny in the Clouds; Brief Encounter (1945); I See a Dark Stranger; Green for Danger (1946); I Became a Criminal; So Well Remembered (1947); The Passionate Friends; The Third Man [review] (1949).
John Huston (director, 1906-1987): The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); In This Our Life; Across the Pacific; Report from the Aleutians (1943); The Battle of San Pietro (1945); Let There Be Light (1946); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Key Largo (1948); We Were Strangers (1949).
Walter Huston (actor, 1883-1950): The Devil and Daniel Webster; Swamp Water; The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Always in My Heart; Yankee Doodle Dandy [review] (1942); The Outlaw; Edge of Darkness; Mission to Moscow; The North Star; December 7th (1943); Dragon Seed (1944); And Then There Were None (1945); Dragonwyck; Duel in the Sun (1946); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Summer Holiday (1948); The Great Sinner (1949).
Deborah Kerr (actor, 1921-2007): Major Barbara; Love on the Dole (1941); Courageous Mr. Penn; Hatter’s Castle; The Avengers (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); Vacation from Marriage [review] (1945); I See a Dark Stranger (1946); Black Narcissus [review]; The Hucksters; If Winter Comes (1947); Edward, My Son (1949).
Val Lewton (producer, 1904-1951): Cat People (1942); I Walked with a Zombie; The Leopard Man; The Seventh Victim; The Ghost Ship (1943); The Curse of the Cat People; Mademoiselle Fifi; Youth Runs Wild (1944); The Body Snatcher; Isle of the Dead (1945); Bedlam (1946); My Own True Love (1948).
Roger Livesey (actor, 1906-1976): Spies of the Air; Girl in the News (1940); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Vice Versa (1948); If This Be Sin (1949).
Peter Lorre (actor, 1904-1964): Strange Cargo; I Was an Adventuress; Island of Doomed Men; Stranger on the Third Floor; You’ll Find Out (1940); The Face Behind the Mask; Mr. District Attorney; They Met in Bombay; The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); All Through the Night; Invisible Agent; The Boogie Man Will Get You; Casablanca [review] (1942); The Constant Nymph; Background to Danger; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); Passage to Marseille; The Mask of Dimitrios; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Conspirators; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Hotel Berlin; Confidential Agent (1945); Three Strangers; Black Angel; The Verdict; The Chase; The Beast with Five Fingers (1946); My Favorite Brunette (1947); Casbah (1948); Rope of Sand (1949).
Ernst Lubitsch (director, 1892-1947): The Shop Around the Corner (1940); That Uncertain Feeling (1941); To Be or Not to Be (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Cluny Brown (1946); That Lady in Ermine (1948).
Jean Marais (actor, 1913-1998): Le pavillon brûle (1941); Le lit à colonnes (1942); Love Eternal; Voyage Without Hope (1943); Carmen (1944); Beauty and the Beast (1946); The Royalists (1947); Ruy Blas; The Eagle with Two Heads; Aux yeux du souvenir; Les Parents Terribles (1948); The Secret of Mayerling (1949); [Orpheus (1950)].
James Mason (actor, 1909-1984): The Patient Vanishes (1941); Hatter’s Circle; The Night Has Eyes; Alibi; Secret Mission; Thunder Rock (1942); The Bells Go Down; The Man in Grey; They Met in the Dark (1943); Candlelight in Algeria; Man of Evil; Hotel Reserve (1944); A Place of One’s Own; They Were Sisters; The Seventh Veil [review]; The Wicked Lady (1945); Odd Man Out; The Upturned Glass (1947); Wild Calendar; Madame Bovary; The Reckless Moment; East Side, West Side (1949).
Virginia Mayo (actor, 1920-2005): Jack London (1943); Seven Days Ashore; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Wonder Man (1945); The Kid from Brooklyn; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Out of the Blue; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947); Smart Girls Don’t Talk; A Song Is Born (1948); Flaxy Martin; Colorado Territory; The Girl from Jones Beach; White Heat; Red Light; Always Leave Them Laughing (1949).
Vincente Minnelli (director, 1903-1986): Cabin in the Sky; I Dood It (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Yolanda and the Thief (1945); Undercurrent (1946); The Pirate (1948); Madame Bovary (1949).
Kenji Mizoguchi (director, 1898-1956): Naniwa onna (1940); Geidô ichidai otoko; The 47 Ronin (1941); Danjuro sandal; Miyamoto Musashi (1944); Meitô bijomaru; Hisshôka (1945); Josei no shôri; Utamaro and His Five Women (1946); Joyû Sumako no koi (1947); Women of the Night (1948); Flame of My Love (1949).
Agnes Moorehead (actor, 1900-1974): Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons; The Big Street (1942); Journey into Fear; The Youngest Profession; Government Girl; Jane Eyre (1943); Since You Went Away; Dragon Seed; The Seventh Cross; Mrs. Parkington; Tomorrow, the World! (1944); Keep Your Powder Dry; Our Vines Have Tender Grapes; Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945); Dark Passage; The Lost Moment (1947); Summer Holiday; The Woman in White; Station West; Johnny Belinda (1948); The Stratton Story; The Great Sinner; Without Honor (1949).
Alfred Newman (composer, 1901-1970): The Blue Bird; Little Old New York; Vigil in the Night; Earthbound; Foreign Correspondent [review]; Brigham Young; They Knew What They Wanted; The Mark of Zorro (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Blood and Sand; Man Hunt; Charley’s Aunt; Wild Geese Calling; Belle Starr; How Green Was My Valley [review]; Remember the Day; Ball of Fire (1941); Son of Fury; Roxie Hart; To the Shores of Tripoli; This Above All; Ten Gentlemen from West Point; The Pied Piper; Girl Trouble; The Black Swan; Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942); Claudia; The Moon Is Down; My Friend Flicka; Heaven Can Wait; The Song of Bernadette; December 7th (1943); The Purple Heart; Wilson; Sunday Dinner for a Soldier; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; A Royal Scandal; A Bell for Adano; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Dragonwyck; Margie; The Razor’s Edge (1946); Gentleman’s Agreement [review]; Captain from Castile (1947); Call Northside 777; Sitting Pretty; The Walls of Jericho; That Lady in Ermine; Cry of the City; the snake pit; Yellow Sky (1948); Chicken Every Sunday; A Letter to Three Wives [review]; Down to the Sea in Ships; Mother Is a Freshman; Mr. Belvedere Goes to College; Thieves’ Highway; Pinky; Princes of Foxes; Twelve O’Clock High (1949).
Max Ophüls (director, 1902-1957): Sarajevo; L’école des femmes (1940); The Exile (1947); Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948); Wild Calendar; The Reckless Moment (1949).
Yasujirô Ozu (director, 1903-1963): The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941); There Was a Father (1942); Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947); A Hen in the Wind (1948); Late Spring (1949).
Marcello Pagliero (actor/writer, 1907-1980) [as actor]: Rome, Open City (1945); Les jeux sont faits; L’altra (1947); Dédée d’Anvers (1948); La voix du rêve (1949) / [as writer]: Confessione; Le due tigri (1941); Anime in tumulto (1942); La danza del fuoco (1943); Si chiude all’alba; 07… Tassi (1945); Desire; Paisan [review]; The Devil’s Gondola; Roma città libera (1946).
Michael Powell (director, 1905-1990): Blackout; The Thief of Bagdad (1940); 49th Parallel [review] (1941); One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Volunteer; A Canterbury Tale (1944); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); Hour of Glory (1949).
Emeric Pressburger (director, 1902-1988): One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Volunteer; A Canterbury Tale (1944); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); Hour of Glory (1949).
Vincent Price (actor, 1911-1993): The Invisible Man Returns; Green Hell; The House of the Seven Gables; Brigham Young (1940); Hudson’s Bay (1941); The Song of Bernadette (1943); The Eve of St. Mark; Wilson; Laura [review]; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); A Royal Scandal; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Shock; Dragonwyck (1946); The Web; The Long Night; Moss Rose (1947); Up in Central Park; Rogues’ Regiment; The Three Musketeers (1948); The Bribe; Bagdad (1949).
Claude Rains (actor, 1889-1967): Saturday’s Children; The Sea Hawk; Lady with Red Hair (1940); Four Mothers; Here Comes Mr. Jordan [review]; The Wolf Man (1941); Kings Row; Moontide; Now, Voyager, Casablanca [review] (1942); Forever and a Day; Phantom of the Opera (1943); Passage to Marseille; Mr. Skeffington (1944); Strange Holiday; This Love of Ours; Caesar and Cleopatra (1945); Notorious [review]; Angel on My Shoulder; Deception (1946); The Unsuspected (1947); The Passionate Friends; Rope of Sand; Song of Surrender (1949).
David Raksin (composer, 1912-2004): Dr. Renault’s Secret; The Undying Monster (1942); City Without Men (1943); Tampico; Laura [review] (1944); Where Do We Go from Here?; Don Juan Quilligan; Fallen Angel (1945); Smoky (1946); The Homestretch; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Forever Amber; Daisy Kenyon (1947); Fury at Furnace Creek; Apartment for Peggy; Force of Evil (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Carol Reed (director, 1906-1976): The Stars Look Down; Girl in the News; Night Train to Munich (1940); The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941); The Young Mr. Pitt (1942); The Way Ahead (1944); Odd Man Out (1947); The Fallen Idol (1948); The Third Man [review] (1949).
Edward G. Robinson (actor, 1893-1973): Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet; Brother Orchid; A Dispatch from Reuters (1940); The Sea Wolf; Manpower; Unholy Partners (1941); Larceny, Inc.; Tales of Manhattan (1942); Destroyer; Flesh and Fantasy (1943); Tampico; Double Indemnity [review]; Mr. Winkle Goes to War; The Woman in the Window (1944); Our Vines Have Tender Grapes; Journey Together; Scarlet Street (1945); The Stranger (1946); The Red House (1947); All My Sons; Key Largo; Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948); House of Strangers (1949).
Roberto Rossellini (director, 1906-1977): A Pilot Returns (1942); The Man with the Cross (1943); Rome, Open City (1945); Desire (1946); Paisan [review] (1946); Germany, Year Zero; L’amore (1948).
Miklós Rózsa (composer, 1907-1995): Ten Days in Paris; The Thief in Bagdad (1940); That Hamilton Woman; New Wine; Lydia; Sundown (1941); The Jungle Book; Jacaré (1942); Five Graves to Cairo; Sahara; So Proudly We Hail!; The Woman of the Town (1943); The Hour Before the Dawn; Double Indemnity [review]; Dark Waters (1944); The Man in Half Moon Street; Blood on the Sun; Lady on a Train; The Lost Weekend [review]; Spellbound [review] (1945); Because of Him; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; The Killers (1946); Song of Scheherazade; The Red House; The Other Love; Time Out of Mind; The Macomber Affair; Brute Force; Desert Fury; Secret Beyond the Door…; A Double Life (1947); A Woman’s Vengeance; The Naked City; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands; Command Decision (1948); Criss Cross; The Bribe; Madame Bovary; The Red Danube; Adam’s Rib; East Side, West Side (1949).
Erskine Sanford (actor, 1885-1969): Pop Always Pays (1940); Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Wife Takes a Flyer; The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Ministry of Fear (1944); Girls of the Big House (1945); From This Day Forward; Crack-Up; Angel on My Shoulder; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Possessed; Mourning Becomes Electra; The Lady from Shanghai [review]; The Voice of the Turtle (1947); You Were Meant for Me; Letter from an Unknown Woman; Macbeth; Kidnapped; Wake of the Red Witch (1948); Impact; Night Unto Night (1949).
David O. Selznick (producer, 1902-1965): Rebecca [review] (1940); Since You Went Away (1944); Spellbound [review] (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946); The Paradine Case (1947); Portrait of Jennie (1948); The Third Man [review] (1949).
Simone Simon (actor, 1910-2005): The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941); Cat People (1942); Tahiti Honey (1943); The Curse of the Cat People; Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Mademoiselle Fifi (1944); Pétrus (1946); Temptation Harbor (1947).
Walter Slezak (actor, 1902-1983): Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942); This Land Is Mine; The Fallen Sparrow (1943); Lifeboat [review]; Step Lively; Till We Meet Again; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Salome Where She Danced; The Spanish Main; Cornererd (1945); Sinbad, the Sailor; Born to Kill; Riffraff (1947); The Pirate (1948); The Inspector General (1949).
Barbara Stanwyck (actor, 1907-1990): Remember the Night (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Meet John Doe; You Belong to Me; Ball of Fire (1941); The Great Man’s Lady; The Gay Sisters (1942); Lady of Burlesque; Flesh and Fantasy (1943); Double Indemnity [review]; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Christmas in Connecticut (1945); My Reputation; The Bride Wore Boots; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946); California; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; The Other Love; Cry Wolf; Variety Girl (1947); B.F.’s Daughter; Sorry, Wrong Number (1948); The Lady Gambles; East Side, West Side (1949).
Max Steiner (composer, 1888-1971): Dr. Ehrlick’s Magic Bullet; Virginia City; All This, and Heaven Too; City for Conquest; A Dispatch from Reuters; The Letter; Santa Fe Trail (1940); The Great Lie; Shining Victory; Sergeant York; The Bride Came C.O.D.; Dive Bomber; One Foot in Heaven; They Died with Their Boots On (1941); Captains of the Clouds; In This Our Life; The Gay Sisters; Desperate Johnny; Now, Voyager, Casablanca [review] (1942); Mission to Moscow; Watch on the Rhine (1943); Passage to Marseille; The Adventures of Mark Twain; Since You Went Away; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Conspirators (1944); Roughly Speaking; The Corn Is Green; Mildred Pierce; Saratoga Trunk; San Antonio (1945); Tomorrow Is Forever; My Reputation; A Stolen Life; One More Tomorrow; The Big Sleep; Cloak and Dagger; The Beast with Five Fingers (1946); The Unfaithful; Pursued; Love and Learn; Cheyenne; Deep Valley; Life with Father; The Voice of the Turtle (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; My Girl Tisa; Winter Meeting; The Woman in White; Silver River; Key Largo; Johnny Belinda; Fighter Squadron; Adventures of Don Juan; The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948); South of St. Louis; A Kiss in the Dark; Flamingo Road; The Fountainhead; White Heat; Beyond the Forest; Without Honor; The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949).
James Stewart (actor, 1908-1997): The Mortal Storm; No Time for Comedy; The Philadelphia Story [review] (1940); Come Live with Me; Pot o’ Gold; Ziegfeld Girl (1941); It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946); Magic Town (1947); On Our Merry Way; Call Northside 777; Rope [review]; You Gotta Stay Happy (1948); The Stratton Story; Malaya (1949).
Preston Sturges (director, 1898-1959): The Great McGinty [review]; Christmas in July (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Sullivan’s Travels [review] (1941); The Palm Beach Story (1942); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943); The Great Moment; Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947); Unfaithfully Yours (1948); The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949).
Jo Swerling (writer, 1893-1964): The Westerner (1940); Blood and Sand; New York Town; Confirm or Deny (1941); The Pride of the Yankees (1942); Crash Dive; A Lady Takes a Chance (1943); Lifeboat [review] (1944); Leave Her to Heaven (1945); It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946).
Gene Tierney (actor, 1920-1991): The Return of Frank James (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Tobacco Road; Belle Starr; Sundown; The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Son of Fury; Rings on Her Fingers; Thunder Birds; China Girl (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Laura [review] (1944); A Bell for Adano; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Dragonwyck; The Razor’s Edge (1946); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); The Iron Curtain; That Wonderful Urge (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Dimitri Tiomkin (composer, 1894-1979): Lucky Partners; The Westerner (1940); Meet John Doe; Scattergood Meets Broadway; Flying Blind; The Corsican Brothers (1941); A Gentleman After Dark; Twin Beds; The Moon and Sixpence (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; The Unknown Guest (1943); Strange Confession; Ladies Courageous; The Bridge of San Luis Rey; When Strangers Marry (1944); Forever Yours; Dillinger; China’s Little Devils; Pardon My Past (1945); Whistle Stop; Black Beauty; Angel on My Shoulder; The Dark Mirror; It’s a Wonderful Life [review]; Duel in the Sun (1946); The Long Night (1947); Tarzan and the Mermaids; The Dude Goes West; So This Is New York; Red River (1948); Champion; Home of the Brave; Canadian Pacific; Red Light; D.O.A. (1949).
Gregg Toland (cinematographer, 1904-1948): The Westerner; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Citizen Kane [review]; The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Outlaw; December 7th (1943); The Kid from Brooklyn; Song of the South; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Bishop’s Wife (1947); A Song Is Born; Enchantment (1948).
Jacques Tourneur (director, 1904-1977): Phantom Raiders (1940); Doctors Don’t Tell (1941); Cat People (1942); I Walked with a Zombie; The Leopard Man (1943); Days of Glory; Experiment Perilous (1944); Canyon Passage (1946); Out of the Past (1947); Berlin Express (1948); Easy Living (1949).
Henry Travers (actor, 1874-1965): Primrose Path; Edison, the Man; Anne of Windy Poplars; Wyoming (1940); High Sierra; A Girl, a Guy and a Gob; The Bad Man; I’ll Wait for You; Ball of Fire (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review]; Pierre of the Plains; Random Harvest (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; The Moon Is Down; Madame Curie (1943); None Shall Escape; Dragon Seed; The Very Thought of You (1944); Thrill of a Romance; The Naughty Nineties; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); Gallant Journey; The Yearling; It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946); The Flame (1947); Beyond Glory (1948); The Girl from Jones Beach (1949).
Luchino Visconti (director, 1906-1976): Ossessione (1943); La Terra Trema (1948).
Anton Walbrook (actor, 1896-1967): Gaslight (1940); Suicide Squadron; 49th Parallel [review] (1941); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Man from Morocco (1945); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); The Queen of Spades (1949).
Walter Wanger (producer, 1894-1968): The House Across the Bay; Foreign Correspondent [review]; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Sundown (1941); Eagle Squadron; Arabian Nights (1942); We’ve Never Been Licked; ‘Gung Ho!’ (1943); Ladies Courageous (1944); Salome Where She Danced; Scarlet Street (1945); Night in Paradise; Canyon Passage (1946); Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman; The Lost Moment; Secret Beyond the Door… (1947); Tap Roots; Joan of Arc (1948); Tulsa; Reign of Terror; The Reckless Moment (1949).
Franz Waxman (composer, 1906-1967): Strange Cargo; Rebecca [review]; Florian; Sporting Blood; Boom Town; The Philadelphia Story; Flight Command (1940); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Honky Tonk; The Feminine Touch; Suspicion [review]; Kathleen; Design for Scandal (1941); Woman of the Year [review]; Tortilla Flat; Her Cardboard Lover; Seven Sweethearts; Journey for Margaret; Reunion in France (1942); Air Force; Edge of Darknesss; Old Acquaintance; Destination Tokyo (1943); In Our Time; Mr. Skefftington; The Very Thought of You (1944); Objective, Burma!; Hotel Berlin; God Is My Co-Pilot; The Horn Blows at Midnight; Pride of the Marines; Confidential Agent (1945); Her Kind of Man (1946); Nora Prentiss; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; Possessed; Cry Wolf; Dark Passage; The Unsuspected; That Hagen Girl; The Paradine Case (1947); Sorry, Wrong Number; No Minor Vices; Whiplash (1948); Alias Nick Beal; Night Unto Night; Rope of Sand; Task Force; Johnny Holiday (1949).
Orson Welles (director/actor/writer) [as director]: Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); The Stranger (1946); The Lady from Shanghai [review] (1947); Macbeth (1948) / [as actor only]: Journey into Fear [also uncred. director]; Jane Eyre (1943); Follow the Boys (1944); Tomorrow Is Forever (1946); Black Magic [also uncred. director]; The Third Man [review]; Prince of Foxes (1949).
Teresa Wright (actor, 1918-2005): The Little Foxes (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review]; The Pride of the Yankees (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review] (1943); Casanova Brown (1944); The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Pursued; The Imperfect Lady; The Trouble with Women (1947); Enchantment (1948).
William Wyler (director, 1902-1981): The Westerner; The Letter (1940); The Little Foxes (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review (1942); The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944); The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Heiress (1949).
That’s all I’ve got for now. Before moving on to the 1950s chapter of this project, I’ll be making a brief foray into the annual They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregate, filling in the films in the top hundred that I haven’t seen or reviewed yet. Thanks as always for reading.