Friday, December 17, 2010


During the 1940s, powerful movies were finally being consistently released.  Perhaps with the lingering depression, the Second World War and the beginnings of the Cold War, moviegoers were asking questions and expecting more from moviemakers.  And some producers and directors actually came up with some original answers.
Here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:
(1) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): Based on the popular James Cain novel, the movie is much better than the book.  The forgotten John Garfield and unforgettable Lana Turner playing disturbed individuals give powerful and steamy performances.  The boredom and seediness of unhappy working class individuals (a role in which Turner surprisingly fits into) is magnificently portrayed.
(2) All the King’s Men (1949): Broderick Crawford is the best at playing the hard hearted villain.  This fictionalized portrait of Huey Long is not meant for admirers of the great populist, but it does show both the good and the bad of the Louisiana governor.  I’ve never cared for the ending in either the book or the movie, however; the moviemakers seem to have only mild regret for an assassination of an elected official.

(3) Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948): Based on a novel written by the anarchist, B. Traven, and directed by the great John Huston, this movie shows Bogart going from a tough working man stiff to a paranoid and pathetic loser who has been driven mad by his greed for gold.  The famous line before Bogart is about to meet his end (“Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!") has been repeated ad nauseam by people trying to showoff their knowledge of movies.
(4) Lifeboat (1944): My favorite Hitchcock movie, it all takes place with a bunch of shipwrecked survivors in a rowboat.  One of the survivors happens to be a Nazi, but we only find out about that later.  It’s based on a Steinbeck story showing his typical emphasis (and perhaps overstatement) on the lousy treatment dished out to the lower classes.  Somehow Tallulah Bankhead never runs out of makeup and keeps looking good, despite the many days of exposure to the elements.
(5) Body and Soul: As in most boxing movies, the fight scenes are not convincing.  However, Garfield is believable on the outside of the ring as a gritty fighter who will do what’s needed to become champion (including cheat).  His newly found integrity at the end of the movie also proves to be his undoing.

(6) Blood on the Moon: One of my favorite westerns of all time and starring one of my favorite actors, Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum is great as the good guy with integrity who is tough enough to take on all villains.  I’m not much impressed with most fight scenes that take place in the saloons, but the one in this movie is worth watching.
(7) The Big Sleep (1946): Again, this is a great movie based on an inferior book.  This first movie matching up Bogart and Bacall is probably their best.  Bogart as the Private Investigator Marlow drives everyone crazy with his insistence on finding out the truth.  The way he disposes of the villain in the end is telling because it sends a clear message that you don’t mess with this man.
(8) The Grapes of Wrath (1940): It’s understandable why some people think this movie (and the novel) is overrated because it gets to be pretty damn preachy.  John Ford’s ability to make the dust bowl era seem real and Henry Fonda’s projection of a likeable ex-con make all the difference.
(9) The Sea Wolf (1941): Adventure movie of the sea based on the Jack London novel, the strange casting of Edward G. Robinson as Wolf Larsen almost doesn’t work.  Robinson is not believable as someone who is supposed to be so physically strong, but he projects the philosophical musings and the sadistic impulses of the sailor down perfectly.  John Garfield, as the character duped to serve on board with Robinson, is superior to the character in the book because Garfield is believably tough.
(10) Out of the Past (1947): A typical 1940s film noir (love, murder, mystery and betrayal) that is only made better because Robert Mitchum plays the lead.

There are many honorable mentions.  The Lost Weekend (1945), a Billy Wilder' movie about alcoholism, if somewhat out of date is at least intelligently made.  Sergeant York (1941), if not particularly well acted by Gary Cooper, at least presents an interesting story of a pacifist turned war hero.  Key Largo (1948) is another great teaming of Bogart and Bacall, and contains a memorable scene when Edward G. Robinson slaps Bogart several times across the face.  Twelve O’Clock High (1949) is probably my favorite war movie to come out of the era, and for once I even like the acting of Gregory Peck.  The Wolf Man (1941) is one of my favorite horror movies because I remember it so vividly from when I saw it as a child.  For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) does an excellent job of filming the Hemingway novel (not nearly as good of a novel as The Sun Also Rises or Farewell to Arms, but still worth reading), but Ingrid Bergman as a peasant girl living with a bunch of rebels in a cave that are engaged in gorilla warfare is a bit of a stretch.  Gaslight (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Razor’s Edge (1946) are all worth watching if you are in the mood for a soap opera.
An obvious significant omission is Citizen Kane (1941).  The film technique and use of black and white photography, the point of view of the story telling and the symbolism (Rosebud!) are about all you ever hear when reviewers speak of this movie.  The movie reminds me of All the King’s Men except All the King’s Men seems much less self-conscious.  There is a good powerful story being presented, but it is paced so slowly that the viewer thinks of the movie as being much longer than two hours.  Casablanca (1942) is another omission of note.  Bogart plays a decent role as Rick in this movie, but I just don’t believe in Ingrid Bergman as his love interest.  She seems much too brittle and flighty to capture Rick’s imagination.  Nor do I believe in Paul Henried as the great underground leader.  He seems fairly bland.  I do like the role played by Claude Rains as Louie, however.
I still would like to see the war movie directed by John Ford, They Were Expendable (1945); Intruder in the Dust (1949), based on the great William Faulkner novel; and try to make my way through the Laurence Olivier Shakespearian roles and see if these movies lived up to all of the hype.

November 20, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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