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Category: 1940s

The Best 10 Films of the 1940s (That I Have Seen)

Today, we continue the best of the decade feature. Two down, seven to go. This week, please accept my picks for the ten best/favorite/top/whatever films from the 1940s. Enjoy and feel free to comment with your own picks.

10. The Philadelphia Story

This past weekend, I had a chance to see The Descendants, which was excellent. When it came time to draw up this list, and I selected The Philadelphia Story as one of my nominees, I kept getting reminded of the craziness and chaos in The Descendants. Both movies perfectly capture the little misunderstandings that happen daily. It also helps (again, I’m talking about both films) if you have a talented all around cast. Runner-up: The Spiral Staircase.

9. Casablanca

Why so low? I actually think Casablanca is overrated. It doesn’t currently hold my highest star rating (****), but instead the second-best (***1/2). But I’m not saying it’s a bad movie… not at all. It’s classically gorgeous and beautifully emotional, but I feel how much you’ll like the film is based on how much you believe the one flashback scene served up near the beginning of the film.

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1944

8. Gaslight/Gaslight

No, that’s not the title of the film. I’m referring to two separate films. (Sorry, Prozac Paul!) The 1944 edition of Gaslight was my favorite film for years. And then I saw the 1940 version, and didn’t know what to think. Now, I just lump them together, because no one wants to see the same film on the list twice. (Note: if they’re available on Netflix, they’ll definitely be a double-feature in a film festival in April.)

Caption contest, anyone?

7. Double Indemnity

I’m not sure if I’ve told you this before, but Billy Wilder is one of my two favorite directors of all-time (we’ll get to the next one in a little while). While this isn’t my favorite film of his (it might actually just miss a Top 3 list), I still love it. It makes a near-perfect double-feature with Sunset Blvd., and I would definitely suggest checking out all of Wilder’s other work if you happen to like Double Indemnity.

6. Shadow of a Doubt

The reason making a favorite/best films of all-time list is so hard is this movie. Not necessarily only this movie, but movies like this one. Shadow of a Doubt is a film I’ve seen about six times, and it’s one of Hitchcock’s harder movies to stop watching in the middle (even if you know what’s going to happen, it’s addicting). Just like with DI, it’s not the best movie one of my favorite directors ever made, but I have an extraordinary attachment to it. Fun fact: bestness is in the eye of the beholder, because it is Hitchcock’s personal favorite.

5. The Bicycle Thief

I rewatched Never Let Me Go, one of my favorites from 2010, two weeks ago; and just as I was reminded of The Descendants by The Philadelphia Story, I was reminded of Never Let Me Go by The Bicycle Thief (just now, when I started writing this sentence). These films are, by far, the two most tragic I have ever seen. I’m a sucker for tragedy, but I really appreciate it when a movie is subtle, like the ending of these two. But let’s settle this one: is it The Bicycle Thief, A Bicycle Thief, or Bicycle Thieves?

4. Brief Encounter

This is just a beautiful movie. Plain and simple. Please look it up now. I’d tell you what it’s about, but you’d just call it sappy.

3. The Great Dictator

This is one of my favorite all-time Chaplins. I can’t pick my single favorite scene from it because I have no single favorite scene. This is surprising because, like most of Chaplin’s better work, The Great Dictator is a coherent that has plenty of memorable single moments.

There has been some criticism, though, of the film’s ending, and I’d like to defend it. (It’s been almost 72 years since it was released, so I’ll just assume everyone has already seen it.) In the end, the barber/tramp gets mistaken for Hynkle/Hitler, and is forced to make a speech. In this speech, Charles Chaplin presents his own views to the camera and to the world. It’s not funny and some would say it doesn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the piece. But this is Hitler we’re not-so-subtly talking about. The whole movie skewers him anyway. Chaplin said what he thought had to be said and he was right (by me, at least) to include that.

2. The Best Years of Our Lives

1. Citizen Kane

It was a close one between The Best Years of Our Lives and Citizen Kane for #1, and I cannot promise that the reason I chose Kane wasn’t because I saw it last. But this is my list: flawed and imperfect. Some, including me, would say that there is no perfect film. If forced to choose a film to argue that it is, however, I would probably choose one of these. Neither is a particularly short or easy work to watch, but somehow the hours seems to melt away gladly. I don’t know if dramas are supposed to be fun, but when their quality is this high, I don’t know how they can’t be.

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Citizen Kane (1941)

****

Citizen Kane is the definition of visually striking. The way it transitions between scenes is something I’ve never seen before. The visual tricks are stupefying.

The shadows and smoky atmosphere of the early newsroom scene are wonderful. Shadows are used in other scenes to emphasize other parts of the shot. But the reporter is always in the dark. This world is not about the people who write the news, it’s about the people who are the news.

Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), who is sent away from his home at a very early age. He soon becomes a newspaper tycoon, and has more power than he knows what to do with. His story is told through various flashbacks.

This giant character starts off in his place. He’s just another character in another movie. But then he derails (oh, don’t worry, that’s a good thing). He’s bigger than the movie. He’s bigger than news. He’s bigger than his own giant palace (demonstrated clearly when he destroys part of it).

There are so many things to see in each scene. You can’t even check Twitter for two seconds to see who won what Emmy. The way the film tells the story through imagery is amazing. It shows time passing by showing a sled that has gathered snow. It shows how big and frightening Mr. Thatcher is to a young Kane by comparing him visually to a Christmas tree (I loved the mirrored sequence much later in the film, too). We see the Inquirer men reflected through the Chronicle window, and we see how the circulation of the papers differ. (The movie in general makes good use of windows and mirrors.) We see the campaign headquarters from the ground, where streamers are laying in piles of major disappointment. I would love to go on and on, which I will, when I do my “Required Viewing” on it.

The dialogue is often chaotic (again, in a good way), but the foreshadowing lines carry gravitas. There appears to be a lot of drama in the newspaper business. In the incredible breakfast time-lapse scene, we see that all Kane and his new wife talk about is the newspaper. During that two minute-long scene, we see Kane go from good-humored to bitter.

His looks evolve as he becomes more and more obsessed with power, and it’s not just regular aging. There’s something more there. He doesn’t become more evil with age, just grumpier. The younger Kane uses media to fight corruption and help the average person. He’s very humble. The older Kane jumps outside of the media business altogether, seeking power elsewhere.

I never cease to be amazed by the power and beauty of cinema. I had heard how wonderful Citizen Kane was. Words can’t really describe the awe I felt while watching it. It is truly unique. Before I saw this, I wasn’t able to pick just one best picture of all time. And now I am. You must see this movie.

Notes:

  • “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a good man.”
  • “Don’t tell me you’re sorry.”
  • The second Mrs. Kane is overwhelmed.
  • I would like to mention the giant palace once again.
  • Citizen Kane is being re-released now in a 70th Anniversary version.
  • If you see and enjoy Citizen Kane, you might also enjoy Gone with the Wind and The Social Network.
  • Next time: my review of Moneyball

Double Indemnity (1944)

****

The screen is dark. A man, that we can barely see, is covering himself with his jacket. The music is mysterious. It makes us curious.

Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray as Neff (an insurance salesman) and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (a mysterious client Neff takes a liking to), is a narrative set in Los Angeles, much like the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Both were made by the legend himself, Billy Wilder. The crazy back-and-forth between MacMurray and Stanwyck in their first scene together is aided by their chemistry (an idea, by the way, I don’t believe in while talking about basketball, but its existence here is irrefutable). Only a few scenes later, they’re kissing in his apartment.

Mrs. Dietrichson and Mr. Neff come up with a plot to kill Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. And then they follow through on it. The scene in which the Dietrichsons leave the house, not giving too much away, is very dark, just like the opening shot. After the deed is done, the getaway car doesn’t start for awhile. Neff panics. Dietrichson panics. I paniced along with them.

I really enjoyed these characters. Edward G. Robinson was right when he said, in the middle of the movie, that all these insurance claims have a story, a “drama.” This “accident” has an impact on everyone of them, but in different ways. Neff is portrayed incredibly well during the narration. His whole face is sweaty, he breathes heavily, and he’s shaking a little (I don’t think all of that was from the bullet). Phyllis is cool, but somehow passionate all the same, and I would never trust her entirely. If Neff had a choice, he shouldn’t have either.

The movie is genius. I can’t say more than that. The performances are so nuanced that there wasn’t a character I didn’t like. They were all deserving of my sympathy. The shots themselves are noir (French for black, if you didn’t know) and moody. And the humor has a bitter aftertaste that only Billy Wilder can pull off.

(Double Indemnity is available now on Netflix Instant. If you see and enjoy it, you might also want to check out Sunset Boulevard and Casablanca.)

Stray notes:

  • “Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” “I love you too.”
  • “We gotta have some of that pink wine that goes with it. The kind that bubbles.”
  • “What was his name?” “Jackson, probably still is.”