#183 (tie) – Out of the Past (1947), dir. Jacques Torneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Like Dylan in the movies. Robert Mitchum stars as a former private detective whose old life comes back to haunt him in director Jacques Torneur’s noir thriller Out of the Past.

We’ve had a few list films of late that have latched onto the visual dynamics of film noir. But for all the canted angles and exaggerated shadows, the 1940s entries on the Sight & Sound list have been rather light on actual noir movies. Thankfully that changes with our latest viewing experience: Out of the Past (1947), a tale of devilish dames, compromised detectives, and the inescapable pull of fate. And also badass dialogue, with the film dropping a host of noir patter that should leave Phillip Marlowe green with envy. Out of the Past marks the sole entry on the list by director Jacques Torneur, a filmmaker otherwise best known for helming some early horror classics like The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). This horror background serves him well in the noir genre, bringing a deeper darkness to the cinematography than most other such movies, but also finding the crowd-pleasing humor in the sudden violence and double dealing. Out of the Past also marks the first list appearance by actor Robert Mitchum, who brings a laconic cool to the role that seems like much less of an affectation than with most other noir anti-heroes. Throw in a spectacular femme fatale in Jane Greer and a wonderfully smarmy early performance by Kirk Douglas, and you get a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is as existential as it is exuberant. (97 min.) Continue reading

#202 (tie) Paisà (1946), dir. Roberto Rossellini

Paisa (1946) directed by Roberto Rossellini

I like this plane! An American soldier drunkenly rants to a thieving Neapolitan street kid in a vignette from Paisà, Roberto Rossellini’s anthology of stories examining the effects of WWII on the Italian people and the Allied soldiers who fought against the fascists.

In 1945, during the closing months of World War II, Roberto Rossellini kicked of the neo-realism film movement in Italy with Rome, Open City, his look at Nazi oppression and the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Rossellini’s follow-up, Paisà (aka Paisan, 1946), is in much the same vein and serves as the second of a trilogy of neo-realist films examining aspects of the Second World War. (The third film — Germany, Year Zero — is also on the Sight & Sound list.) Like in Rome, Open City, Rossellini makes use of on-location shooting and a cast populated largely by amateur actors or non-actors, but the director tries to work on a much larger canvas for this film. Or perhaps that should be canvases, as Paisà is actually a collection of six stories that track the progress of the war as Allied troops move ever northward up the boot of Italy. Each story is an autonomous block, completely separate from the other tales, but they share the common thread of focusing on moments of interaction between Allied personnel and Italians either fighting in or affected by the conflict. Though spiked with humor, romance, and devout expressions of faith, Paisà is not a film that revels in the downfall of fascism. Instead it is unflinching in its presentation of the brutality of oppression and the violence and sacrifice it took to liberate a still-stricken nation. But through all the suffering Rossellini never preaches, it is left to the audience to decide upon the grand purpose of these tales. (120 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus

Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.

After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – My Darling Clementine (1946), dir. John Ford

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Opposites attract. Henry Fonda (left) and Victor Mature (right) star as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in director John Ford’s classic re-imagining of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

John Ford is a definite candidate for greatest American director of all time. He’s the only director to win four Academy Awards, and he was a man of seemingly endless creative energy, directing some 140 films over a 50-year career. He also has the rare distinction of being a filmmaker who almost single-handedly defined an entire genre of film: the Western. Westerns have been around since essentially the beginning of narrative movie-making. Indeed, one of the first big hits in American cinema was The Great Train Robbery, a short that kicked off the endless parade of movie outlaws holding up trains in the Old West. Heck, even the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was essentially an Australian Western about the bush outlaw Ned Kelly. But it was Ford who really codified the form, particularly with 1939’s rip-roaring action-melodrama Stagecoach. With My Darling Clementine (1946), however, Ford offered up a different sort of Western. Though the movie is very loosely based on the true story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, My Darling Clementine is more a movie about relationships and the inevitable march of modernity than it is about quick draws and outlaw/lawman honor. Modest in scope but emotionally earnest, Clementine is also one of the best-looking Westerns ever made, further elevating the proceedings by applying the atmosphere and compositional daring of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. (97 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – Notorious (1946), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious

Crooked dealings. Alfred Hitchcock gets noiry with his angles and lighting in the post-WWII political thriller Notorious, starring Cary Grant (pictured), Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.

And lo! Fan With a Movie Yammer has finally reached its first film by arguably the most famous director who ever lived. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock takes the stage in this yammer with his oldest entry on the Sight & Sound list: Notorious (1946). The British director certainly made a name for himself in his native land, getting into the directing biz back in the silent era, but it was in Hollywood where the “Master of Suspense” principally made his mark. And Notorious is a very Hollywood production in many ways, with its A-list stars, pro-America plotting, and Edith Head costumes. But the film runs darker than a lot of American studio productions, incorporating noir elements in its story of a federal agent (Cary Grant) enlisting the daughter of a Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a ring of Nazi émigrés up to some sort of shady business down in Brazil. Though set after World War II, the film harnesses the trauma of that conflict and the brand new concerns of the nuclear age to craft a clockwork espionage thriller. And the movie largely lives up to its title, dealing in murky ethical waters with some very unsavory or emotionally damaged characters who are working to balance love and duty — even if the duty part may be quite distasteful indeed. (101 min.) Continue reading

#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.) Continue reading

#202 (tie) – The Big Sleep (1946), dir. Howard Hawks

The Big Sleep (1946)

Somebody’s always giving me guns. Humphrey Bogart stars as the iconic private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawks’ shadow-drenched adaptation of the classic detective novel of the same name.

In 1939, at the age of 51, former businessman Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, a dark, complex mystery following hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe as he wends his way through a series of murders and disappearances tied to a blackmail and pornography racket. Chandler is one of the great stylists in American literature and a giant in the genre of detective fiction, but there is no doubt that a solid measure of his fame stems from director Howard Hawks’ film noir adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946). The film capitalizes on the tough, anti-hero charisma of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Philip Marlowe and spices up the mix by pairing Bogie with Lauren Bacall. The two were then in the midst of a torrid affair and that chemistry is splashed all across the screen — in some ways it actually saved the movie from potential box office disaster (we’ll get into that below). In many respects The Big Sleep is a tangled mess of a film. It’s not really the best place to go for a coherent narrative or earned plot twists, but it is blessed with some of the best dialogue of any noir fiction. And while the film as whole might not make much sense, individual scenes sparkle with sexual tension or slang-ridden bravado. It’s the rare murder mystery where it doesn’t really matter a damn who done it. Being along for the ride is more than enough. (115 minutes) Continue reading