Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number One

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#1 — Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Back when I had my first opportunity to share my opinions on the vast swath of cinematic offerings, foisting thick clusters of film criticism upon the defenseless radio listeners of Central Wisconsin, I took the task of crafting lists very seriously. The only time that particular duty really came into play was as one film year gradually gave way to the next (for those of us well-removed from the major metropolitan areas and the eager attention of studios and publicity agents hoping for consideration for timely awards seasons accolades, we were lucky if the required viewing for the preparation of a proper top ten list was completed by February), but I agonized over my tally, tinkering with the procession of titles, as if trying to land on the sequence that would disarm a cluster bomb surreptitiously nestled in the heart of Times Square. I have, it’s fair to type, gotten far more relaxed about it, usually proceeding with something that bears a marked resemblance to my first pass at the ranking.

The above is an acknowledgment that I would very possibility wind up with a noticeably different ranking on any one of these Top Fifty lists were I to start them over from scratch, allowing myself no reference check against what was posted previously. But then there are the consistencies, the placements I know would remain as true and unyielding as King Arthur’s sword pin-cushioned into rock. Those are largely, as might be expected, the titles at the upper reaches of the lists, especially those nestled into the top spots. Even then, some are more certain than others. There was never a doubt — not even for a millisecond — that I’d end this year of tracking through my favored films of the nineteen-forties by writing about Citizen Kane. While I’ve occasionally been somewhat out of step with the broader critical consensus in the arrangement of my lists, leaving revered offerings such as The Godfather and Vertigo below their commonly expected heights of praise, with the placement of Citizen Kane I am so stolidly conventional that my selection is almost quaint, borderline antiquated. After decades as the default choice when identifying the pure pinnacle of cinematic achievement, the directorial debut of Orson Welles has been sliding from favor just a bit, seemingly a result of critical boredom rather than an actual reassessment of its merits. I think that’s ridiculous. To my mind, Citizen Kane remains the best film ever made.

The story of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) anticipates the career path that would be taken by the man who helped invent his life (though there are disputes about authorship, the Oscar-winning screenplay is credited to both Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz), from meteoric rise fueled by charm, luck, and fearless ingenuity through tumultuous success and melancholy failure before finally settling into broken loneliness with shadows of the lost past dancing in the corners. Welles, given a generous contract and nearly unprecedented creative control following his radio production of The War of the Worlds which became a sensation, approaches the standard “great man” story with an devilish impulse to tear it apart to its rickety pieces. In doing so, Welles takes the same approach to the narrative structure of cinematic storytelling, no longer in its infancy but still young enough that it teetered a bit as it strode forward. Welles was hardly the first to follow an experimental impulse in his filmmaking, but I can’t think of an earlier example of a film that so expertly deployed the grammar of cinema while simultaneously deconstructing it with ruthless glee. It’s now been over seventy years since the release of Citizen Kane. Portions of it still feel revolutionary.

Welles packs so much story into the movie that it moves like a cyclone, and yet it is also fully tamed. Welles measures out the turns in the story shrewdly and with care, shifting between punchy theatricality and tender subtlety. Maybe more than anything else, Welles was a showman, an impresario with a gift for high art and a weakness for moments of melodrama. At times, Citizen Kane seems like a showcase for every possibility that cinema holds, like it could be broken down to about two dozen demo reels. Even so, the flow of the story and the cunningly drawn characters prevent it from devolving into nothing more than a technical marvel. The justly vaunted cinematography of Gregg Toland can be studied as its own towering achievement, but it never threatens to outpace the film itself. It is a critical piece, another component of the magic trick Welles is patiently pulling off.

Citizen Kane, famously and sadly, was not considered a success in its day, and RKO regretted the latitude they’s provided to Welles. Across the rest of his life, even after Citizen Kane achieved elevated status in the critical community, Welles never again operated with the freedom he had on this film. From then on, every work was compromised, one way or another. There a satisfying bleak romanticism to that, the tale of the perpetually thwarted artistic genius. It suits the rueful assessment of life that threads through the film. Much as Welles would have probably preferred an easier professional path, at least he left this one flawless rendering of all the possibility he could muster. He made other excellent films, but he didn’t need a roster of achievements to secure his place in movie history. He made Citizen Kane.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Two

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#2 — Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Casablanca is the quintessential Hollywood film of its era, so completely shaped by the strictures of the time and grounded in the established mechanics of narrative cinematic storytelling that it very nearly transcends itself to become a movie about what movies can achieve. It intermingles hope and cynicism, romance and sorrow, stirring patriotism and nomadic isolation. Filmed and released after the United States was wrenched into the tumult of World War II, it serves as an effective avatar of the somewhat ambivalent view towards international engagement that still defined the national sentiment. The theme of the weary, self-protective, wounded individual within the sea of humanity pulses through the film. With no real suggestion that anyone involved in the production was striving intentionally for the goal, Casablanca takes a simple, almost theadbare story — or, really, about three or four of them woven together — and makes it so shrewd, so heartfelt, so nuanced, and so specific that it becomes a compelling thesis statement of the workings of the world. All that, and it’s a resounding entertainment, too.

The power of Casablanca is such that delicate myth-making has grown up around it, in largely subconscious attempts to imbue fortuitous magic on its creation, to make the roil of its production mirror the curving path of its fiction. The screenwriting assignment passed through several different hands, alternate casting ideas were proposed, and the director wasn’t locked in from the very beginning, but none of that uncertainty was especially uncommon for a studio production in the nineteen-forties, especially at Warner Bros., where there was always tinkering on the assembly line. While the oft-repeated notion that the film began production without a decided outcome to the central love triangle is alluringly romantic, setting the actors in the same emotional swirl as their characters, it’s also apocryphal. The ending of Casablanca basically matches that of Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the unproduced stage play upon which it’s based, and the strictures of Motion Picture Production Code, which weighed in strongly about the choices of married women on screen, insured that it would be unpalatably convoluted to reach just about any other denouement. Casablanca had no fated path to the screen. It was made like any other movie. For me, that mundane progression makes for an even better story, allowing Casablanca to serve as one of the most glorious reminders of the tumbling dominoes of fortuitous turns, all largely impervious to intentional manipulation of events, required to reach the destination of movie masterpiece.

Director Michael Curtiz is sometimes dinged for a lack of overt personality in his visual choices for the film (critic Andrew Sarris famously deemed Casablanca “the most decisive exception to auteur theory”), but there’s an undervalued elegance to the way he glides the camera through the film, especially in the scenes within Rick’s Café Américain. He smartly makes the camera, and by extension the audience, a keen observer of everything going on, parceling out details in a manner that slyly sets up complications to follow. He serves the screenplay (credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch) with a evident appreciation for its bountiful charms and casual insights. Similarly the actors meet the words with a joy-inducing vigor, especially in the film’s craftiest scenes, such as a conversation across drinks at a club table that quickly turns into a magnificent realization of verbal brinksmanship.

I haven’t bothered to spell out the players or their parts, because who needs that at this point? Casablanca is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of popular culture. I’m certain there are some who question its greatness, but, apart from reactionary contrarianism, I can’t fathom why. To me, its excellence is clear enough and so reflective of the underpinnings of why movies touch us in the first place, that it is practically the yardstick of cinema, at least for a certain, classically-grounded type of filmmaking. Casablanca, in a way, explains the greatness of all great films.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Three

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#3 — Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Double Indemnity is the film that convinced me of Billy Wilder’s ability to full off just about anything within the borders of a movie screen. Admittedly, this represented, in part, my own personal shortsightedness, a unlearned tendency to always categorize directors in terms of the genre in which they were most prolific, of at least crafted their best known triumphs. If Alfred Hitchcock struggled somewhat artistically the further he strayed from the splendid spectacles of suspense that made his fame, surely it was worth marveling at Wilder’s ability to make a film far darker and more morally twisty than the shrewd comedies that were more commonly highlighted by those celebrating his artistry. Or so I reasoned, not fully accounting that Wilder had plenty of rough contemporaries — Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Cukor among them — who were equally adept at filmmaking without genre borders. In my feeble defense, I was still fairly young when I landed on this conclusion, at the very beginning of the long arc of my film education. The following is maybe more convincing: Double Indemnity is so fantastic it inspires the search for effusively exuberant proclamations of greatness.

Based on a slender novel by James M. Cain, the film’s title references a stipulation in a life insurance policy that will lead to a claim yielding double the payout. In this instance, the policy in question lists Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) as the beneficiary if her husband (Tom Powers) meets his demise, and the deposit into her bank account goes up dramatically if that end happens to occur because he’s fallen from a train. It is the duplicitous handiwork of Phyllis that this protection for her longtime livelihood is even in place, thanks to her conspiring with insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a pliable fellow who literally showed up on her doorstep one day. The film traces the mechanics of how Phyllis and Walter approach their scheme, but it’s ultimately more interested in the fallout, specifically all the ways that complicity itself can lead to irredeemable rot.

Wilder wrote the adapted screenplay with no less than Raymond Chandler. The fractious nature of their partnership — Wilder thought discord was more productive than happy synchronicity when it came to the writing process — comes through in the thrilling tension of the film. Line of dialogue snap like leather belts being presented as possible weapons, especially when they’re laced with wry comedy. Double Indemnity seems always ready to buckle under the pressure of its own plot. Wilder’s careful direction, quietly intruding on the mounting concerns of the characters, further charges the film. He impishly traffics in the shadowy gloom of film noir trappings without fully succumbing to the sometimes bludgeoning tropes. That extends to the femme fatale. At first glance, Stanwyck seems to be playing the same sort of cunning, troublesome dame that can be found in any number of films from the era, but she’s too crafty an actress to stick with that one pounding note. Without ever letting up on the obvious villainy of the character, Stanwyck shows how her motivation and intent have complications greater than those that are needed to drive the narrative. Movies can afford to be simple and straightforward, especially when spinning morality tales. Part of the great achievement of Double Indemnity is that creators like Wilder and Stanwyck refuse to settle for the suitably pat methods sitting right before them.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Four

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#4 — The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

The Philadelphia Story is all about Katharine Hepburn. More specifically, the enigma code that unlocks why The Philadelphia Story is so great begins with Hepburn as the key. In the late nineteen-thirties, Hepburn’s struggles to generate consistent mass appeal among the moviegoing public led to the coining of the persistent dismissive “box office poison” (though the term has historically hung around Hepburn’s neck, other future unquestionaed icons of the silver screen such as Fred Astaire and Mae West were name-checked in the same infamous article). As headstrong in her professional navigation as she was on screen, Hepburn took matters into her own hands, helping to develop a stage play intended to showcase her particular talents, specifically the mixture of daffy charm and forceful self-assurance that would effectively stand as her defining screen persona.

The plot is locked into the era. Hepburn plays Tracy, a privileged high society doyenne who is about to married to an upstanding man named George (John Howard). Complications arise through the continued attention of her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cart Grant) and the newfound kindling of emotion from the cynical reporter assigned to cover her wedding, a fellow named Mike Connor (James Stewart). The film lovingly follows the play’s farcical rhythms while wisely developing a more cinematic ease designed to find the sweet spot that would allow audiences to find the chaotic romantic combat endearing rather than aggressive or needlessly fussy. Director George Cukor had the advantage of playing to his specialty: making complicated storytelling feel frisky and buoyant. The Philadelphia Story alternates between earthy honesty and blissed out playfulness, always without sacrificing a connection to the casual realities of the piece.

And then there’s Hepburn. Of course the prime showcases for the actress involved her pairings with Spencer Tracy, the onscreen acting dance that practically defines chemistry. But there’s an argument to be made that Cary Grant was actually her ideal foil, bringing out an unpredictable looseness in the actress. The Philadelphia Story represented their fourth big screen pairing, and the combative comfort they exhibit perfectly suits a perpetually smitten couple still nursing old wounds. The exhibition of otherwise untapped strengths is on display throughout the film, as Grant finds a onscreen partner with a similarly revelatory dance in Stewart. Grant needs to focus a little more sharply than usual with the skilled, slightly off-kilter Stewart, and the piercing earnestness of Stewart is given a tousle by Grant’s disaffected charm. The film then provides exactly what should result from any vehicle that provides a convergence of major stars: a chance to see them in a new light, one that shines quite differently from that cast upon any of their other familiar roles. If The Philadelphia Story was notable in its time for rescuing Hepburn’s career, it endures because it shows how a smartly written, perfectly executed film can fully open up the possibilities for every actor that strides through its inventive glories.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Five

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#5 — Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

I wouldn’t necessarily term Out of the Past the best film ever made that clearly qualifies as film noir (at least one film above it on this personal tally fits squarely into that cinematic subcategory), but it is without question the work of art that I would project onto a wall to answer any questions about what makes that amazing convergence of shadow, cynicism, and fang-sharp dialogue so enthralling. It slaloms expertly around every last milestone of the form, formulating into a picture that could have been used as a template. It’s sharp enough that even pallid imitators would wind up looking borderline ingenious. The movie itself strides with an amused swagger.

The thrill of it begins with the dialogue. The screenplay was credited to Daniel Mainwaring, adapting his novel with the amazing title Build My Gallows High (which was the name given to the film in some territories outside the United States), and it is a procession of hard-boiled wonders. When I first saw it, I felt the only method available to properly convey the immense pleasures of the film was an eager transcription of some of the devilishly good dialogue, a tactic I’ll cave into again. When Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum, because a film noir cannot be quintessential without Robert Mitchum in it), the former private eye who’s trying to escape the seedy world in which he once ran by serving as the proprietor of an out-of-the way-filling station relates his new chosen lot in life, he explains, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.” He dismisses a disingenuous claim of helplessness by saying, “You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” And then there’s the exchange in the film that remains my favorite: when Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), the woman Jeff’s been courting, meekly stands up for someone by arguing, “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” Jeff’s quick retort is “Well, she comes the closest.” This isn’t how people actually talk, but it damn well should be.

Jacques Tourneur directs the film with a unerring feel for using the shadows to enrich every element of the story: the sexual allure, the threat, the encroaching gloom of bad men doing bad things for bad reasons. Every bit of inky artistry he mastered as one of the most gifted members of horror producer Val Lewton’s stable comes through in the film, with the added heft of the danger coming from the corrosiveness of human nature. It’s hard to argue with the pithy pointedness of the novel’s original title, but the comparatively bland Out of the Past — a title that’s as clear a case of studio timidness as anyone is likely to find — actually works quite well, offering the simple, clear reminder that the most troubling parts of an individual’s history aren’t likely to stay distant and contained. Shadows shift in size and direction, but they’re never fully gone.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Six

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#6 — Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

This particular fifty film list should make it abundantly clear that I have a pronounced appreciation for the singular cinematic voice of writer-director Preston Sturges. I’d argue that no other filmmaker quite pulls together his collection of traits on the same piquant combo. Billy Wilder probably comes closest, with his mixture of bleakly brilliant comic cynicism and fundamental decency. Yet Wilder doesn’t have the same propensity for pointed social commentary nor a similar weakness for daffy pratfalls, presented not to deviously undercut the more serious subtext but for the far simpler reason that Sturges found them as funny as the trenchant witticisms. He had a decidedly egalitarian methodology to his films. All the tools at his disposal were worthy of the task at hand. Sullivan’s Travels, then, is the Sturges Doctrine condensed into a single film, pressed into a delectable ninety minutes.

In the film, Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a successful Hollywood movie director who has aspirations of putting aside the lighter fare with which he made his fortune. Instead, he wants to direct a feature called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which will illuminate the plight of the common man. An immersive aspirant to cinematic veracity before his time, Sullivan decides the only way he can make a truthful film is to take to the rails himself, posing as a vagrant to deeply learn the travails of the beset modern man. Naturally, complications ensue, including Sullivan eventually finding himself in trouble with the law without means to prove his real identity. There is an upside, too. Out in the real world, Sullivan also meets a beautiful young woman (Veronica Lake), who provides insight into the challenges of those removed from wealth and fame, all while winning his heart. In a satisfying meta tweak of the conventions of the standard Hollywood material Sullivan is fleeing, Lake’s character is billed only as “The Girl.”

The layers of added awareness run through the entire film, leading straight to the satisfying moral of the story, one of the most famed in all of movies. Though Sullivan has been glumly set on making important movies, he comes to realize that the pure entertainment he’d churned out before has greater value than he previously believed. He sits with fellow prisoners sentenced to time in a labor camp as they enjoy a rare respite from their punishing work. As the men around him roar with laughter as a Walt Disney cartoon, Sullivan has an epiphany. The frivolity flickering before him provides at least as much relief to the downtrodden as any anguished explication of their shared plight. From Sturges, a maker of comedies, this could come across as defensive, but it is instead a celebration of the embedded power of all art, no matter how lofty it is deemed by the intellectual elite. With a deft narrative turn, Sullivan’s Travels becomes a great film that celebrates the greatness in all films.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Seven

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#7 — The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)

I stand by my longtime belief that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the tome most deserving of the well-worn honorific The Great American Novel. The appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the default choice, is completely understandable given the way it weighs the toxicity of craving upper mobility along with the hollowness of wealth itself, but I find the gut-punch grimness of Steinbeck’s story to hold greater, more resonant truths. Gatsby has added layers, which tickles the inner intellect of literature aesthetes. The Grapes of Wrath gets down in the dust, almost literally, and simply relays the crushing challenges faced by those held outside of the pathways to prosperity. The Great Depression was still smarting when Steinbeck published the book, in 1939. Less than a year later, when John Ford’s film version arrived, the bruise was still aggressively purple.

At this point, I might be tempted to muse about how different this movie must have felt seeing it while the agony it depicted was still desperately fresh. That sort of mental exercise isn’t necessary with Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. The film fairly trembles with immediacy, demonstrating that nothing instills timelessness within the veins of a film quite like a ferocious commitment to telling a tale with accuracy and unwavering honesty. The pains and minor, easily thwarted triumphs within the film have correlate to those in vastly different eras because of the fearless precision brought to the depiction. As in the book from whence it sprung, Ford’s film keeps a sharp focus on the Joad family of Oklahoma, farmers who flee their dried out, desolate homeland for the feeble promise of opportunity in California. The moral core of the film is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled from prison and joining his clan for the journey. Injustice is something others are still adapting to, but Tom has had it pounded in to him with a uncompromising brutality. He sees the world for what it is, spotting every barrier that will keep him and his from ever succeeding, at least beyond the very limited boundaries that have been drawn by a power structure intent on preserving their rarefied place.

Ford works from a script credited to Nunnally Johnson, finding the harsh poetry within the story. The marvelous cinematography by Gregg Toland bathes the screen in shadow, as if darkness has swarmed in to take over the entirety of the national terrain. He is patient and serene, letting the indignation inherent in the work build slowly from a simmer to a boil. That’s a major reason why The Grapes of Wrath remains smart drama without ever becoming maudlin or a leaden treatise. As with the famed James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which arrived one year later, Ford’s take on The Grapes of Wrath makes its persuasive argument by presenting a stern, clear-eyed portrait of the dire situation faced by those left behind in the United States rather than through delivery of some feverishly angry treatise. A well-told story, imbued with empathy, carries more weight that any political diatribe.