Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Top Ten Films of the Decade - The 1940s

Well, we've made it past the half-way point. Hopefully no one is bored to tears by these lists. I've got to confess, I'm enjoying re-examining these films.

Today, we're embarking on a stellar decade for American film:

The 1940s

10 - His Girl Friday - Directed by Howard Hawks - The screwball comedy genre of the 1930s and 40s remains one of the most delightful and effervescent genres ever put to celluloid. Hawks was a master, and his particular speciality was speed. That was never more evident than in this perfect comedy, a whirlwind of hilarious patter, duplicitous schemes and cynical frivolity. Rosalind Russell plays what may be the definitive "Hawks woman"; a capable, tough, brilliant and above all, sexy woman who can do anything a man does, including being a wise-cracking city reporter. Cary Grant was never more charmingly rakish than as editor/con-man Walter Burns. There are countless classic routines and moments here that make the film hysterical, but it still has something to say about the integrity of the press, corruption, and the power the media has to shape public perception.

9 - It's a Wonderful Life - Directed by Frank Capra - There are reasons a classic becomes a classic, and often that reason is that it contains pure truth, simply and beautifully expressed. Such is the case with Capra's post-war triumph. Jimmy Stewart plays his archetypal role of George Bailey, a man who only ever wanted to do great things and see the world, and who is trapped by his own sense of duty and morality in the same small town running a "penny-ante" business for his entire life. While the film's resolution is a bloodbath of sentimentality, it is irresistibly affecting, as the audience has been treated to Bailey's entire life of frustrated hopes and dreams. The happy ending is what's most often remembered, but it's the film's dark centre that makes it all work.

8 - The Maltese Falcon - Directed by John Huston - It is the supreme private eye film, based on one of the great American pulp novels by Dashiell Hammet. It's a film that accomplished much; it is considered the first film noir, it launched the career of its young writer/director, it featured the film debut of Sydney Greenstreet, and it cemented Humphrey Bogart as a major movie star. It's an amazing story of greed and its power, as a myriad of characters that aren't as smart as they think they are all try to double-cross each other to obtain the titular item. Most importantly, it's a great example of the Bogart role; a tough, anti-authority, world-weary cynic, sacrificing his own desires for a higher code he must follow. Watching it is just as enjoyable now as it must have been when it first debuted, and its ending is just as stunning as it ever was.

7 - The Philadelphia Story - Directed by George Cukor - Based on a hit play by the great Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story resurrected Katharine Hepburn's career after having been labeled "box office poison". It has one of the all-time great casts, Hepburn as cold socialite Tracy Lords, Cary Grant as her ex-husband CK Dexter Haven, and Jimmy Stewart as Macaulay Connor, cynical reporter in search of a scoop. They are all clearly delighted to be working together, and as a result, the film is one of the most fun experiences you'll have.

6 - The Best Years of Our Lives - Directed by William Wyler - Frederic March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell star as three US servicemen returning home after WWII, and the film follows them and their families as they each have their own difficulties adjusting to civilian life. Decent, humane and moving, The Best Years of Our Lives was the first American film to honestly depict the struggles of veterans. It also features some absolutely stunning deep focus cinematography from genius Gregg Toland.

5 - Rome, Open City - Directed by Roberto Rossellini - An early classic of neorealism, the film is also a dichotomy. It follows some of the tenets of neorealism (use of mostly non-professional actors, wide use of location filming, etc.), but rejects the storytelling aspects of the discipline in its clear depiction of good vs. evil and its frequent embrace of melodrama. This dichotomy renders the film more than an intellectual exercise, it is a touching, disturbing film about occupation, collaboration and the different levels of heroism and resistance.

4 - The Bicycle Thieves - Directed by Vittorio De Sica - A masterpiece of neorealism, the film tells the story of Antonio, an unemployed labourer struggling to support his family in depressing poverty-stricken post WWII Italy. After getting a job posting flyers, he finds he needs a bicycle to perform the job, for which his wife sells the wedding sheets. The bicycle is subsequently stolen, and Antonio and his young son Bruno go on a desperate search to retrieve the bike and save his job. It's as shatteringly relevant today as it was then; a tale of the frustration and isolation of the little guy as he struggles simply to makes his way through life, which seems to conspire to grind him down and strip him of his dignity.

3 -The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Directed by John Huston - If The Maltese Falcon was Huston's film about greed, then this film is about Greed with a capital G. It may the definitive film on the cancerous and corrupting influence of the American dream, namely, to get rich. Bogart plays his first non-heroic role since becoming a big star, though his Fred C. Dobbs is more of a tragic, weak figure than an out and out bad guy. Huston directed his father, Walter, to an Oscar as the sage but nuts old prospector. Together, they give two mesmerizing performances, Bogart slipping further and further into paranoia and madness as the gold piles up. A remarkable film, one of the best ever made in Hollywood.

2 - Casablanca - Directed by Michael Curtiz - Without a doubt, when people ask what the pinnacle of the Hollywood studio system was, I point them to Casablanca. It has perhaps the best cast of studio actors ever; added to leads Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, we get Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson and the incomparable Claude Rains. The story was assembled by the best writers in the Warner's stable almost be piecemeal. The bulk of the film was shot before they even had an ending. Somehow, it all comes together in this endlessly enjoyable romantic tale of nobility, cynicism vs. idealism, and sacrifice. One of the two or three absolutely perfect and immortal American films.

1 - Citizen Kane - Directed by Orson Welles - There was film before Citizen Kane and there was film after Citizen Kane. It's a baroque, bold, incredibly innovative, totally engrossing masterpiece like no other. It combined the style of the European masters with the commercial touch of Hollywood and the depth of a great novel. It brought attention to style itself in a way that American filmmakers had previously completely eschewed. It did things with a camera that are still revelations today. Welles' performance is one of the great ones, as we spend all this time with a man who slowly becomes a total bastard, and yet we still feel sympathy for him. It's beyond praise and impervious to cynics who now deride it. It's the work of a genius from start to finish, and the greatest American film ever made.

See you soon for the 1930s!

If you want a recap: 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s

No comments: