SASY Rank – The 1940s

Another decade down, another SASY Rank mini-post. With the 1940s now behind us it is time for the two of us to scrawl down the films that impressed us the most from the decade. There are 36 films from the 1940s on the Sight & Sound list, but as it happens we are largely on the same page with regard to our selections. Neither of us could resist throwing 11 films into our respective Top 10s and we share nine films. That’s a good indication of how strong these nine films were, because this was a particularly satisfying decade for the both of us. There were quite a few filmmakers boasting multiple list films during the decade (Powell & Pressburger, Howard Hawks, Roberto Rossellini, John Ford, Orson Welles) but nobody dominated our Top 10 lists the way that Jean Renoir did in the 1930s. No, we’ve spread the love around on this one and can’t wait to move into the 1950s with our next yammer.

We’ve already yammered about all of the films below, so we’ll leave the lists to speak for themselves. But if you want more, then click on a film title to be magically transported to our conversation.

S.

J.

1. Casablanca (1942) 1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. Late Spring (1949) 1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
3. Brief Encounter (1945) 3. Late Spring (1949)
4. Citizen Kane (1941) 4. Out of the Past (1947)
5. Out of the Past (1947) 5. Casablanca (1942)
6. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) 6. Day of Wrath (1943)
7. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) 7. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
8. A Canterbury Tale (1944) 8. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
9. Bicycle Thieves (1948) 9. My Darling Clementine (1946)
10. My Darling Clementine (1946) 10. A Canterbury Tale (1944)
10. The Third Man (1949) 10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

#15 – Late Spring (1949), dir. Ozu Yasujiro

Late Spring (1949)

So happy together. Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are quietly powerful as a father and daughter living together in post-war Japan in the Ozu Yasujiro masterpiece Late Spring.

This is it for the 1940s at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and we had the pleasure of finishing off this decade of Sight & Sound films on pretty much the highest of high notes. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) is the second list film from acclaimed director Ozu Yasujiro, and also the first post-war Japanese movie to make the list. Japanese cinema is going to play heavily in our viewing of 1950s films, and it seems singularly appropriate that Ozu would be sending us off into that decade in grand style. Late Spring is a deceptively simple tale of a young woman resisting family and friends who are pushing her to marry. That is basically the whole of the plot, but Ozu and his exceptional cast imbue the scenario with a depth of feeling and provide such intimate shading of the core characters. Precise but never fussy, heartfelt and sad, but hopeful and very funny, Late Spring captures the essence of the human condition with confidence and a generosity of spirit. (107 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), dir. Robert Hamer

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder on his mind. Dennis Price stars as a distant heir to a dukedom intent on dispatching all the relatives keeping him from his inheritance in the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.

There’s a certain morbidity to post-World War II cinema. That darkness has frequently manifested itself in the Sight & Sound movies of the late-40s, which traffic in tragedy, brutality, and the twisted morality and shadowy settings of film noir. So perhaps it is all too fitting that director Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — the first post-war comedy on the Sight & Sound list — is black as pitch. The film follows the exploits of Louis Mazzini, a man whose aristocrat mother was unceremoniously ousted from her noble family for marrying an opera singer. Feeling cheated of his birthright and indignant over the treatment of his mother, Louis decides to eliminate as many relatives as necessary to inherit the title of Duke of D’Ascoyne. Not the typical stuff of comedy, but with a wicked playfulness and the benefit of having the great Alec Guinness playing the entirety of the D’Ascoyne clan, Kind Hearts and Coronets finds a way to charm in its cool, delightfully urbane take on murder. (106 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – Spring in a Small Town (1948), dir. Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

A house divided. A woman prepares medicine for her husband while trying to ignore the stares of her former lover in director Fei Mu’s tense domestic drama Spring in a Small Town.

We’ve been stuck here of late at FWAMY. So far we’ve yammered about 73 Sight & Sound list films, all of which come from just eight countries. So it is very nice to welcome a new nation to the fold: China. Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn, 1948) was filmed in the short window between the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in China in 1949. As such it captures a very unique — if very brief — chapter of China’s history, and offers insight into what the country thought of itself before Chairman Mao. But the epic turbulence of this period is kept well to the background in Spring in a Small Town, which is a domestic melodrama that contains a grand total of five characters. An ailing man lives in the ruins of his family’s mansion with his wife, sister and a servant. One day the man is visited by a friend — a friend who used to be romantically attached to the sick man’s wife. It is a simple set up, but evocatively constructed to be a slow burn of passion versus duty; romance versus friendship. And while set in a society that lasted all of a few years, the beautifully shot Spring in a Small Town reaches for something universal and timeless. (98 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

The Third Man (1949)

The League of Shadows. Set amid the devastation of post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a twisted take on the noir thriller — a black-and-white canvas for some very grey morality.

I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?

Apparently in Vienna.

Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

You’ll never walk alone. Joan Fontaine stars in director Max Ophüls’ melodrama of manners about a young woman whose obsession with a philandering musician leads to heartbreak and ruin.

The Sight & Sound list films of the latter half of the 1940s tend to either dwell in down and dirty realism or reach for the heightened realities of fantasy or film noir. This being the case, director Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman almost feels like a relic from the 1930s, with its upper-class sophistication and gorgeous, overstuffed settings. But there is a dark undercurrent running through the movie that seems more in keeping with post-war cinema, and the restrained but emotionally rich performances are hard to imagine from the more loquacious characters that populated the first decade and half of talkies. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, Letter from an Unknown Woman follows the obsessive love of Lisa Berndle, a Viennese girl, as she pines for her neighbor Stefan, a womanizing pianist. Beautifully shot and a featuring a tremendous lead performance by Joan Fontaine, Ophül’s first entry on the Sight & Sound list can be thought of as an anti-melodrama — the rare film that thrums our rawest nerves by focusing not on our outbursts but our constraints. (86 min.) Continue reading

#33 – Bicycle Thieves (1948), dir. Vittorio de Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I want to ride it where I like. Antonio and his son Bruno suffer the indignity of poverty and desperation — but also enjoy connection and understanding — in the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves.

We’ve already taken a rather precipitous dive into Italian Neorealism with a trilogy of movies by the genre’s founder, Roberto Rossellini. But the most famous and most highly lauded film from that school of movie-making is director Vittorio de Sica’s deceptively simple masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri de bicicleta, 1948). So potent was the film’s impact — at least among critics — that it topped the first Sight & Sound list in 1952 — yes, just four years after the movie came out it was hailed as the greatest film ever made. And while Bicycle Thieves no longer hangs about in the vaunted Top 10 of the Sight & Sound list, it is still easy to see how the film captured the hearts and minds of the critical establishment back in the day (and its current rank of 33 is nothing to sneeze at either). Like Rossellini’s Neorealist Trilogy, Bicycle Thieves makes pointed use of location shooting and non-professional actors to tell a story that is grittier and more grounded in the real world than filmic spectacle. But unlike Rossellini’s work, which uses extreme violence or an uncompromising narrative bleakness to make its points, Bicycle Thieves is a simple story about a simple family. It follows a man and his son as they scour Rome looking for the man’s stolen bicycle, which he desperately needs to keep his job. But in sticking with this father/son duo, de Sica offer up a wealth of commentary on poverty, family, the plight of the working class, religion, and Italian society in general but always in a manner that feels organic, funny, and emotional resonant. So let’s go for a ride! (Just make sure you lock up that bike up when we’re done.) Continue reading