Tough choicesAug 11, 2002 (Updated Apr 12, 2006) Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line quite a decade in many film genres
Some of my favorites that didn't make it (in several instances because other films by the same director did):
Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright
George Cukor's "Gaslight" with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten
George Cukor's "Adam's Rib" with Judy Holliday, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn
John Huston's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston
Howard Hawks's "To Have and Have Not" teaming Bogart and Bacall and "The Big Sleep" reteaming them
Fred Zinneman's "The Search" with Montgomery Clift
Robert Rossen's "All the King's Men" with Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge
Joseph Mankewiecz's "Letter to Three Wives" with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, and the voice of Celeste Holm
Sabu in "Jungle Book," Drums", and "Thief of Badghdad"
Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau's "Orphé" (Orpheus) and "La belle et la bęte" (Beauty and the Beast)
Akira Kurosawa's "Yoidore tenshi" (The Drunken Angel) starting his collaboration with Toshiro Mifune
Michael Powell's"I Know Where I'm Going" with Wendy Hiller
"Mr. Skeffington" (directed by Victor Sherman, written by Julius Epstein of "Casablanca" fame) with Claude Rains and Bette Davis
I indulged myself by allowing a tie between two incomparable films neither of which I could bear not to include:
(10) "Les enfants du paradis" (Children of the Paradise) is too long, but Arletty and Jean-Louise Barrault are compelling, more so than the performers in "The Red Shoes."
(10) Howard Hawks's "Red River" prefigured the 1950s westerns with complex heroes with a less superheroic John Wayne being outwitted (and outpunched!) by Montgomery Clift as his son. The film had problems with the censors, but is one of the greatest exemplars of the most distinctly American genre of films.
(9) John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" seems like a 1930s agit-prop movie. It remains powerful and visually striking (as are the greatest of Ford's 1940s westerns, "My Darling Clementine" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"). For an Americana slot on the list, some of Preston Sturges's satires could be considered, but my pick is Orson Welles's "Magnificent Ambersons" even as edited by others. (I prefer it to "Citizen Kane.")
(8) The 1930s were the era of the great screwball comedies. Preston Sturges directed a series of great satires during the 1940s. I think "Palm Beach Story" is particularly hilarious, but am going to split the comedy slot on my list three ways with Barbara Stanwyck in two of them: "Ball of Fire" written by Sturges and directed by Howard Hawks with Barbara Stanwyck discombobulating Gary Cooper and a group of encyclopedia entry writers, "The Lady Eve" written and directed by Sturges with Stanwyck seducing Henry Fonda under the benign gaze of Charles Coburn; plus Sturges's last masterpiece "Unfaithfully Yours" with Rex Harrison as an orchestra conductor overcome with jealousy
(7) There's gotta be a "woman's picture" in a decade in which they were a staple. Joan Crawford defined the genre and scored an Oscar as "Mildred Pierce." I'm not sure that Olivia de Haviland was better as "The Heiress," but William Wyler's film of Henry James's Washington Square has a more impressive cast (Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson) and a great musical score by Aaron Copland. De Haviland also was impressive in other 1940s films ("Hold Back the Dawn" "The Snake Pit," and her other Oscar-winner weepie "To Each His Own"). As much as I prefer de Haviland to her sister, I have to tap a film with Joan Fontaine. Fontaine is perfect, but it is the vision of Max Ophuls and his famed swirling camera that gives "Letter from an Unknown Woman" this slot. (Louis Jordan as the oblivious object of obsession is perfect, too.)
(6) The noire to pick is also tough with Howard Hawks's exuberant "The Big Sleep," Otto Preminger's "Laura," Jean Renoir's "Woman on the Beach," John Huston's memorable "Maltese Falcon" and two versions of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, but that most fatale of the femmes fatales of 40s cinema noire is Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." Fred MacMurray is perfect as the complicit dupe (but so was John Garfield) and Edgar G. Robinson also helps make "Double Indemnity" the most essential 40s cinema noire.
(5) Roberto Rossellini's "Paisŕ" is episodic and not all the episodes are equally powerful, but the G. I. MP seeing where the street urchin/thief lives and the final agonizing campaign in the reeds of the Po are so heartbreaking that I am picking if over the other early masterpieces of Italian neorealism (Open City, Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, and Ossessione). (For an American WWII movie, "Twelve o'clock High" would be my pick with superb performances by Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger.)
(4) I don't think that "Casablanca" is the most romantic film of the 1940s, let alone ever (that is the Sternberg/Dietrich "Shanghai Express and "Notorious" is the most romantic film of the 1940s). Nonetheless, "Casablanca" is a confection of superb characterization, both in writing and in performance.
(2 and 3) Carol Reed's portrait of American innocence (Joseph Cotten) and American corruption (Orson Welles) in the ruins of Vienna in "The Third Man" is as great an anti-romantic film as Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" is a romantic film. Each has very memorable scenes (Alida Valli's final stroll and the sewer chase and the first glimpse of Harry Lime in "The Third Man"; the famous zoom to the key and Cary Grant's final stroll in "Notorious"). "The Third Man" has the musical edge, but for charisma Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman trump Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli (and Claude Rains is more heartbreaking than Orson Welles).
(1) The top spot was easy to pick, especially after agonizing about what to include in lower ones. I know that various polls have anointed "Citizen Kane," which has some bravura acting from the Mercury troupe and deep-focus camera work, but the most ambitious and visually striking film from the 1940s, with a musical score by Sergei Prokofiev is Sergei Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible," particularly the end of part one and the beginning of part two.
The actors who recur: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift, Joseph Cotten, Henry Fonda, Claude Rains, and Barbara Stanwyck. (Apologies to Cary Grant from "His Girl Friday" through "I Was a Male War Bride," Laurence Olivier from "Rebecca" and "That Hamilton Woman" through "Henry V" and "Hamlet," and Bette Davis helmed by William Wyler in "The Letter" and "The Little Foxes," but whose greatest roles were before and after the 1940s--as were Katherine Hepburn's.)
For triumphs in multiple genres, the champions were Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder.
I have also posted lists of
the ten best movies ever,
my favorite films,
best non-English-language movies by country,
romantic movies with happy endings,
best romantic movies in which the lovers do not end up together because one or both are dead, best romantic movies in which the lovers are separated by someting other than death
best westerns not set in the American west,
best religious movies celebrating a religious figure,
best movies portraying the dark side of religion,
best holidaze (Christmas and Thanksgiving) movies,
best rock-n-roll movies,
best gay feature film,
best gay documentary film,
best cult movies,
best black comedies,
best World War II movies,
best post-WWII German films,
and best anti-epics,
best movies of the 1980s,
1939, 2000, and 20001.
and my favorite tearjerker songs.
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