We continue our series of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade. Here are our our picks for the last five great movies of the 1940’s.
16. Notorious, 1946. No American actor has tampered with his own charming image more successfully than Cary Grant. In Only Angels Have Wings (1939) he is the tough boss of a suicidal jungle mail service. In Suspicion (1941) one is forced to ask: Is Grant playing his usually charming self but capable of cold-blooded murder? In None But the Lonely Heart (1944) a film I loathe, Grant convincingly plays a Cockney tough with mother issues. And in Notorious, Hitchcock, who understood Grant’s image better than any other director, cast Grant as a sexually repressed government agent who recruits bad girl Ingrid Bergman, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Grant’s dark side is brilliantly exploited as his character initially treats Bergman with contempt but gradually falls in love with the damaged, vulnerable beauty. Notorious succeeds, not because of the plot—tedious spy stuff—but because the love story is central and brilliantly convincing.
17. The Killers, 1946. Try and remember the first time you saw this film. It’s first impressions that Seraphic Secret tries to recapture when evaluating great movies. Like a Rembrandt portrait, Burt Lancaster, making his spectacular screen debut, is framed by shadows in a miserable rented room—a weary man awaiting his executioners. It’s a noir nightmare that touches us because we have all experienced that feeling, that existential exhaustion. With a structure spinning as finely as a Breguet watch, The Killers unfolds in flashback as we learn how the Swede, Lancaster, ended up in that room. Ava Gardner as the femme fatale doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time, but the image of Lancaster and Gardner entwined like hungry beats, lingers in our collective consciousness.
18. Great Expectations, 1946. I’ve read the book and loved it. But I have to confess that David Lean’s film, a slimmed down version of the sprawling Dickens tapestry, is the work that defines Dickens imagery and language for me. The first act, in which Pip runs into Magwitch, the escaped convict, and then becomes entangled with Mrs. Havisham and Estella, are so vivid that almost every scene is alive in my memory. In fact, I imagined myself as Pip when I first laid eyes on my wife Karen—she looked so much like Jean Simmons it was scary—when we were nine years old. Dickens adaptations are a minor industry but this Great Expectations is, in my opinion, still the most fully realized and satisfying.
19. Red River, 1948. Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Montgomery Clift’s cowboy hat looks about two sizes too big. Monty’s head looks lost. Okay, this was the least of the troubled actor’s problems while shooting Red River, but what an actor feels during production and what an audience sees on the screen are very different. Clift, a serious NY method actor, schlepped his acting coach to the Red River set essentially usurping director Howard Hawks’ authority. But the wily Hawks quickly undermined the meddling coach. Playing opposite the great John Wayne, Clift feared getting blown off the screen. Hawks wisely counseled Clift not to compete with the big guy but to underplay his scenes with a “pensive cool.” Hence, Clift’s quiet performance is perfectly calibrated against Wayne’s larger-than-life ferocity. The movie, centering on a desperate post Civil War cattle drive, is really about the love and rivalry between an older man and his adopted son. Most critics fault the movie for a meandering love story between Clift and the lovely Joanne Dru. But let me dissent. The moment when Clift sucks the blood—she’s been shot with a poisoned arrow—out of Dru’s shoulder is one of the most eloquent expression of love ever filmed. Hawks claims that after screening Red River, John Ford, in a pique of professional jealousy, said something like: “You son of a bitch, you got a performance out of Wayne.” Hawks was a notorious liar, but in away he was telling the truth because John Wayne’s performance in Red River is brilliant.
20. Gun Crazy, 1949. Produced as a B movie, Gun Crazy has emerged as one of the most important films of the noir genre. It’s unusual in that it does not take place in a cold, impersonal urban environment. Rather, Gun Crazy finds its darkness in small American towns and its dirt roads. Second tier stars, John Dahl and Peggy Cummins, intelligent and gifted actors, turn in the best performances of their careers, as sharp shooters who fall in love and then turn to crime. Dahl plays Bart, a confused kid who gets mixed up with Laurie, a carnival Annie Oakley. Cummins wants money so she can buy nice stuff. And she’ll do anything to get what she wants. They both have a passion for guns, but this passion plays itself out in a deadly, obsessive relationship that can only end in tragedy. Joseph H. Lewis pulls out all the stops in a bank robbery sequence that is one of the most thrilling and suspenseful ever filmed. So impressive is this sequence that Billy Wilder asked Lewis how he did it. Truth is, Lewis didn’t have enough money to shoot the sequence in the traditional shot-counter-shot method and so he improvised a one-take scene with the camera fixed in the car’s back seat. The post-modern guy-girl crime-spree story is the blood drenched Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Gun Crazy, deeply restrained by today’s standards, is thematically a far more ambitious and profound film.
Seraphic Secret will take on the 1950’s in a few weeks, after we’ve had a chance to refresh our memory by screening that decades most memorable films.