#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

Advertisements

#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

#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

#127 (tie) – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), dir. Vincente Minnelli

Image

Clang! Judy Garland sings up a storm in Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic musical romp about growing up white and privileged in Middle America at the turn of the 20th century.

The first major sound film — The Jazz Singer (1927) — was a musical. And this is hardly a surprise; early talkies took their cues from the theatrical stage, and singing and dancing have long been a staple of plays and vaudeville. But despite the vast array of musicals that would grace the silver screen over the next several decades, they don’t feature all that prominently on the Sight & Sound list, with perhaps just five making the cut. In our exploration of the list so far, the only musicals we have encountered are a parody of the form (Duck Soup) and a children’s film (The Wizard of Oz). But that changes now with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the first honest-to-goodness adult musical on the Sight & Sound list. Directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, a young woman pining for the boy next door ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. The film pretty much evenly divides itself between Esther’s grasp for romance and the tomboy antics of her youngest sister Tootie, striking a tone of nostalgia for a bygone age that is celebrated through the use of period songs and a number of original compositions that have themselves become popular standards. Meet Me in St. Louis also features some of the most eye-poppingly vivid Technicolor cinematography ever captured on film, highlighting the movie’s already fever pitch energy and melodrama. (113 min.) Continue reading

#81 (tie) – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), dir. Orson Welles

Image

Faith, hope, and charity. Tim Holt stars as the spoiled sociopath George Minafer in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, a film many believe to have been decimated by studio tinkering behind the director’s back.

Poor Orson. With his first film (Citizen Kane), Orson Welles knocked it out of the park, but only really in the eyes of later film scholars and enthusiasts. At the time of its release in 1941, Kane was a failure at the box office and actually booed at the Academy Awards (although it did pick up a screenwriting Oscar). So the pressure was on for Welles to deliver a hit with his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It was not to be. The Magnificent Ambersons follows the decaying fortunes of the Amberson family from Victorian elites to forgotten relics in the 20th century. The journey is largely chronicled through the story of Amberson scion George Minafer, a vicious, entitled lout with a pretty serious mother fixation. George clings tenaciously to the former glory of the Amberson name while courting Lucy, the daughter of an inventor and automobile entrepreneur who happens to be in love with George’s mother. Though gorgeously and meticulously shot, the dark drama went over terribly with preview audiences. While Welles was overseas on a project, the studio ruthlessly cut about 50 minutes from the film and tacked on a happy ending, essentially destroying the original vision of the movie. Sadly, only this truncated version remains today, and it became the first of many occasions where the genius behind Citizen Kane would see his films slashed or undermined by studio hacks. (88 min.) Continue reading

#102 (tie) – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid

Image

Samsara. Maya Deren and Maya Deren sit at a table waiting for Maya Deren to pull up a chair in Meshes of the Afternoon, a circular, surrealist dive into the outer edges of American wartime cinema.

A flower, a key, a knife, a phone with its receiver off the hook, and a mysterious figure in black. It is remarkable what one can achieve with a few stray images and a lot of imagination. This handful of components are remixed and repurposed in an inventive, circular narrative in the experimental Surrealist short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Made by the husband and wife team of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid on a minuscule budget, Meshes is frequently cited as the film that really kicked off American experimental cinema and as a major influence on later filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. Much like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s avant-garde image-fest Un Chien Andalou (1929), Meshes of the Afternoon taps into the imagery and feel of dreams, but its vision is less confronting and more meditative. It also has something closer to an actual narrative thread: A woman steps into a house and falls asleep in a chair, at which point multiple dream selves enter the same house and encounter different experiences with the five items listed above. The result is a cyclical narrative wherein the story repeats itself in different variations as dream clones of the woman begin to pile up in the house. Meshes of the Afternoon gives the viewer no quarter, drawing you in through its wild imagery and offering no explanation of the meaning of it all — if there even is one. (13 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Image

Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading