11. Double Indemnity, 1944. Once again, a Barbara Stanwyck performance that is nothing less than perfection. This time Stanwyck plays bad blond Phyllis Dietrichson, a hard-boiled tramp—her gold anklet speaks volumes—who wants her husband dead. Fred MacMurray is the cynical insurance salesman who steps libido-first into Dietrichson’s web of deceit. This is the movie that sets the standard for Film Noir, that most influential genre.
12. Kitty, 1945. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, who could do everything and do it well, Goddard was an earthy presence with limited range. At the genesis if her career Charlie Chaplin molded every inch of her performance in “Modern Times.” To a certain extent, she never quite recovered from his fanatic methods and controlling hand. It took the great director Mitchell Leisen to cast her in the best role of her career as an 18th century guttersnipe who gets the full Pymalion treatment from Ray Milland. Goddard spits cockney dialogue and angrily flashes her eyes at the snobs who look down on her even as they scheme to remove her petticoats. Leisen’s attention to period detail is stunning. The film was a huge hit, but for some reason, sank into obscurity until recently programmed by Robert Osborne on TCM.
13. The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946. World War II is over and three Americans return home and try to piece their lives back together again. The three servicemen, Dana Andrews, Fredric March and the non professional Harold Russell, are clearly damaged by their experiences in combat, but they are fully human, not the hateful psychos so beloved by todays’ Hollywood. In a movie that is rich in brilliant performances made possible by a beautiful script, it is the lovely Cathy O’Donnell as Wilma who, with each viewing breaks my heart with her decency and determination to continue loving and adjust to life with a double amputee.
14. Cluny Brown, 1946. England, right before World War II. Cluny Brown, played by the lovely Jennifer Jones, is the niece of a London plumber. But when her uncle can’t do a job, Cluny gleefully rolls up her sleeves and does a plumbing job at a posh home. There she meets a handsome and suave author, Charles Boyer — a refugee from the Nazis who lives with a snobbish British family. When we think of Jennifer Jones, b. Phylis Lee Isley, comedy does not come to mind. Rather, a sultry yet vulnerable image is burned into our consciousness through her starring role as the teenage saint in The Song of Bernadette, 1943 the provocative, bi-racial babe in Duel in the Sun, 1946, the ghostly apparition in Portrait of Jenny, 1948, and the working class adulteress in Ruby Gentry, 1952. But it’s her zany comic turn as Cluny Brown, a girl obsessed with the pleasures of plumbing that, for me, is the best performance of her career. Director Ernst Lubitsch slyly pokes fun at British class consciousness, yet at the same time he does not neglect the provincialism of the servants. I’ve often said that all great films are, at the core, love stories. Cluny Brown is a touching love story animated by a gentle wink and smile in every frame.
15. Black Narcissus, 1947. As a central storyline, sexual repression can all too easily descend into embarrassing fits of hysteria and self parody. In Black Narcissus, a group of Anglican Nuns are cloistered on a Himalyan mountaintop where the thin air and the sensuality of the locals conspires to turn them and their leader, a love-haunted Deborah Kerr, into a hive of emotionally crazed women. It’s a conceit fit for pulp fiction. But the production is so lush—this is one of the most gorgeous films ever produced—so steeped in its own internal logic that what could have been a smutty joke ends up a masterpiece that explores love, passion, jealousy and faith. Kathleen Byron’s fearless performance as the pathological Sister Ruth is absolutely riveting. In fact, Deborah Kerr gets blown off the screen at every turn. When Byron applies crimson lipstick she is transformed from a bride of Christ into the angel of death. I recommended this film to a former Catholic nun. Her reaction: “It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s exactly how I felt.”
Next week, we’ll wrap up the 1940’s with the last five greatest films.