The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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Rayon Vert
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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#651 Post by Rayon Vert » Wed Nov 13, 2019 12:24 am

HinkyDinkyTruesmith wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 1:25 pm
I've just finished The Man in Grey (1943), and it might find itself on my list now! While I'd seen The Wicked Lady before, I hadn't found it anything especially phenomenal––it reflected the reputation of the Gainsborough melodramas: scandalous, entertaining, and fluff (although that word feels inappropriate for such acidic material). Grey, however, not only felt just, if not more, entertaining than Lady, but also by virtue of its racial and war components, stranger, more unruly. The framing, of an estate sale during the blackout of WWII, at first seems incidental, but as we come around to the end, becomes ironically a means of hope, of uncanny resurrection, not only in terms of the characters, but in terms of England/London itself, with a final shot of a clear London morning, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of war. As for race, between Stewart Granger's plantation's slave revolt, the centerpiece of Othello, and a young white boy playing a black boy in blackface, who repeatedly calls the performer in Othello (Granger) the black-white man, the text is absolutely schizophrenic, but it lends itself to a half-camp surrealism that makes for very entertaining viewing. The melodrama of it, while distinctly less interesting than these two other components, predicated on the whore-madonna complex, is complicated enough not only by class considerations but also by relatively nuanced characterization that gives the whole narrative considerably more weight and emotion. All four leads are excellent, with Mason especially grotesque and Granger especially charming. Definitely might find its way onto my list––and I'll also have to check out Madonna of the Seven Moons!
Glad you really liked it, and love your write-up. I'll be surprised if you find Seven Moons anywhere near the same league though.

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barryconvex
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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#652 Post by barryconvex » Wed Nov 13, 2019 1:07 am

Rayon Vert wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 12:29 am
barryconvex wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 12:16 am
Rayon Vert wrote:
Mon Nov 11, 2019 11:55 pm
...and especially saddened at the orphaning of the Becker film, which was my highest-rated among the virgin viewings for this project.
How can I watch the 40s films of Jacques Becker? He's one of my all time favorites.
You definitely need to be Region 2 or have an all-region player. I noted in the write-ups that both the Pathé blu-ray of Goupi Mains Rouges (It Happened at the Inn) and the Gaumont blu of Rendez-vous de juillet (another excellent film) both have English subtitles and both also look great. The Gaumont of Antoine et Antoinette also has them, but the image kind of stinks. The DVD of Falbalas (Paris Frills) that I saw didn't have any.
Thanks, I will order all ASAP..

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#653 Post by Lowry_Sam » Wed Nov 13, 2019 5:28 am

swo17 wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 7:00 pm
and here are some more new orphans
Since you didn't mention it, can we also assume none of the orphans from the previous list became un-orphaned by the new lists?

I hate to be a party pooper, but with well over 200 titles in contention, even if you recruit someone to vote for your orphan, (except for The Ghost & Mrs. Muir) it will still end up below the top 100 films & probably near or below #200.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#654 Post by swo17 » Wed Nov 13, 2019 11:18 am

Oh, like 10 films have now been unorphaned from the original list, though I'm not going to name them.

So the current threshold for making the top 100 is 114 points, with an appearance on at least 3 lists and 2 top 10s. If you merely trade orphans you're not going to meet this threshold, but if you write a compelling enough defense that convinces a few other people to put your favored film even halfway down their lists, hey, anything's possible

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#655 Post by hearthesilence » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:02 pm

swo17 wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 7:00 pm
So there was actually another early submitted list that I had missed as well. Which I don't feel terrible about because submitting that early is sort of contrary to the spirit of the thread. In any case, they're all counted now, we have 34 lists, and here are some more new orphans:

Adam's Rib (George Cukor, 1949) 35
Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges, 1948) 38
With Woman of the Year orphaned too, the Hepburn/Tracy films obviously didn't fare too well. For me, Adam's Rib is the jewel: it's one of my favorite Cukor films, the supporting cast is uniformly excellent and it's the best example of Hepburn and Tracy's chemistry. By now they had been a long-time couple in real life, and there's a level of comfort and familiarity here between the two that's beautiful.

Pat Graham of the Chicago Reader admits he's never "gotten" Preston Sturges, but the one film that he actually enjoys is Unfaithfully Yours. I've never seen it immediately before or after his other films, but in memory the humor and tone does stand out as darker and more vicious - the defining moment is when Rex Harrison laughs publicly as he relishes the image of his wife getting killed. On paper it sounds like distasteful stuff, and I believe the film was close to a career killer, but time has been kind and Sturges makes it work hilariously.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#656 Post by domino harvey » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:09 pm

I mean, we’ve talked about this before, but I’m not surprised the Tracy/Hepburn films are non-present because on the whole they just aren’t very good

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#657 Post by Toland's Mitchell » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:20 pm

If trading orphans is frowned upon and unlikely to make a difference, then we don't have to do it. Anyway I see from the update my orphans are Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia, Adam's Rib, and Passport to Pimlico.

Prelude to War and The Battle of Russia don't surprise me. I love history and documentaries, so I find the Why We Fight series highly interesting to watch. They are propaganda films, but they are filled with a lot of accurate and timely information on the news of the war. And the graphics are very good for the time. I've been informed I can just put the entire Why We Fight series as one. But I don't know. A couple of them are just rehashes of their predecessors. And if they're not getting any other votes anyway, I may just scrap them in favor of something else.

Adam's Rib and Passport to Pimlico are a little surprising. I figured at least one other person would have them on their lists. From the recent posts, I see Tracy/Hepburn aren't much adored around here. I agree they're overrated. But I think Adam's Rib is the one that takes the cake. As for Passport to Pimlico, it's a pretty good Ealing comedy (though not quite Kind Hearts and Coronets). Give it a shot if you haven't already. Or if you have and don't feel it's list-worthy, that's cool too.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#658 Post by movielocke » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:22 pm

Hmm I just watched Cluny Brown and now I probably have to make room for it!

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#659 Post by swo17 » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:46 pm

Toland's Mitchell wrote:
Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:20 pm
And if they're not getting any other votes anyway, I may just scrap them in favor of something else.
Just for the record, having some orphans is nothing to be ashamed of. Emptying an orphanage can be a worthy goal if it means sending them all to loving homes, but less so if it means turning them out into the streets or slaughtering them or wherever I was going with this metaphor

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#660 Post by bottled spider » Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:59 pm

I won't mount a defence of Boulting's Brighton Rock for those who've seen it and don't consider it top 50, but I will advocate seeing for those who haven't. It has one of the most clever and thrilling conclusions of any movie. (Maltin writes "Notable for incredibly cynical trick ending" -- but isn't it the direct opposite of cynical?).

Kael's review:
Graham Greene's 1938 novel about a man who goes to hell was filmed with the young and chilling Richard Attenborough as the vicious teenage leader of a gang of slashers. In this tense thriller, the suspense is indistinguishable from dread-everything is tinged with evil. With Hermione Baddeley as the blowsy singer, Harcourt Williams as the dilapidated lawyer, and William Hartnell and Carol Marsh. Boulting and Roy Boulting produced and directed; adapted by Greene and Terence Rattigan

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#661 Post by barryconvex » Thu Nov 14, 2019 1:41 am

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz 1947)

Has there ever been a film actress as radiant as Gene Tierney? In everything I've ever seen her in she makes even the most beautiful people surrounding her look like they're slathered in pancake batter. To paraphrase from the narration of Apocalypse Now she has a "weird glow around her" but in her case it is of an otherworldly beauty. And she can act. Sometimes the mark of a great actor isn't measured by their most difficult roles but by the those times where they're not called upon to carry an entire movie by themselves. This is really Harrison's film and Tierney goes about her business quietly and admirably. She may be the first lead but her's is really more of a supporting part and her performance is never showy or hysterical (it so easily could've been in lesser hands) but deferential and lady like. In her scenes opposite Harrison, Tierney gives him his space but as the verbal sparring ratchets up between the two she's not afraid to stand her ground. She will not be bullied and makes her points with an eloquence that moves him. Harrison's ghost character may respect her for being the first person to not be terrified of him but he falls in love with her because of that eloquence. I did too and that's also a pretty good word to describe the whole movie.

I have some minor complaints, mostly about Harrison. He's a fine actor but I thought he was miscast here. The part could've used someone a little more shopworn from the years at sea. Someone with a more natural gruffness. Someone older. Someone like...Walter Huston. He would've been particularly memorable in this role. But as it is this is still a magical film and a classic romance.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#662 Post by Satori » Thu Nov 14, 2019 6:50 am

Here is a brief pitch for one of my orphans:

Canyon Passage (Tourneur, 1946)
I think this is one of the great 40s westerns because of its ramshackle narrative structure that brings together elements of the frontier film, the Roy Rogers-style cowboy musical, and the populist westerns about an evil banker. It’s casting is also perfect: Susan Hayward plays a Hawksian woman, Ward Bond plays a psychotic fascist—a role he was born to play and did in real life during the McCarthy era—Brian Donlevy is a sad-sack banker whose fantasies of upward mobility are his undoing, Andy Divine gets just the right amount of screen time before he becomes too obnoxious, and Dana Andrews is a great everyman lead, avoiding the excesses of a John Wayne-style hero. But I think the key character is the musician played by Hoagy Carmichael, who functions exactly like the calypso singer Sir Lancelot in I Walked with a Zombie. He is the moral voice of the film: removed from the action, he observes and comments through his music. The film is as much a musical as a western: like Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown, music brings a frontier town community together. The film also comments on the conflict between settlers and indigenous people, placing the blame for an Indian attack squarely on the shoulders of the white invaders: the setup to the Ward Bond character’s attack of two indigenous women is surely one of the most disturbing moments of any western.

And my thoughts on a first viewing of someone else's orphan:

The Web (1947)
This is exceptionally well-plotted and has a great performance by Vincent Prince as the dandy capitalist whose scheming eventually gets the better of him. My main interest in the film is the tension between its class politics and its sexual ones: the film seems to straddle the boundary between the psychosexual noirs and the ones more interested in economics and realism. This question turns on who exactly is seducing Edmond O’Brien: Vincent Price’s promise of great wealth, or Ella Raines as the sexy but surprisingly wholesome personal secretary. Indeed, because Raines functions as both a potential femme fatale and the “good girl helper” of some noirs (Phantom Lady is perhaps paradigmatic), she is ultimately sidelined in the narrative, making this more of a story about O’Brien’s working class consciousness reasserting itself and realizing that he is just a pawn in the game of the rich. William Bendix plays the angel on his shoulder, a police Lieutenant who knew O’Brien’s father, who seems to be several moves ahead of everyone else in the film. A side note: the scene in which the writer who supplies some backstory to O’Brien clearly comes onto him while waving his cigarette holder around has to be one of the most delicious gay seduction scenes of the 40s!

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#663 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Thu Nov 14, 2019 4:31 pm

Summer Storm––this wasn't my orphan but, as a major Sirk fan, I decided to revisit it. I'd seen it a couple years ago when writing my thesis on Sirk, and while I liked it then, I preferred it much more now. Sirk's command of composition, lighting, and tone is excellent, and while the pacing of the story is unfortunately muddled (most likely due to the mishmash of melodrama and Chekhov, which, again, is less an issue of tone than of time), it is a great achievement and may make it onto my list with reconsideration. It's a thoroughly mature story of class and capital. Linda Darnell is marvelous as a young peasant woman who desires more than she has, and is willing to get it however she can (think femme fatale without the urban sophistication), and Edward Everett Norton is truly outstanding as the slimy aristocrat. I just saw Parasite for the first time last night and so it's on my mind, but it's remarkable to me how much more knowledgable and insightful Sirk's examination of wealth and its impacts on human behavior is, even with all the gloss that classic Hollywood inevitably brings. And some of the costuming, for Darnell especially, is breathtakingly idiosyncratic, so rich and with such a feeling of rural Russia. It's begging for a better home video release than it currently has.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#664 Post by Lowry_Sam » Thu Nov 14, 2019 5:41 pm

hearthesilence wrote:
Wed Nov 13, 2019 2:02 pm
...and it's the best example of Hepburn and Tracy's chemistry. By now they had been a long-time couple in real life, and there's a level of comfort and familiarity here between the two that's beautiful.
Hepburn & Tracy's relationship was that of a lesbian & a gay man who were extremely good friends. Like Doris Day & Rock Hudson, the studios played up the relationship using their publicists & tabloids to masquerade the truth about the sexuality of their stars. So the "chemistry" between the two was largely contrived & comes through as such in all the films they appear together. It may have passed for romantic involvement in Hollywood's heyday, but they just don't hold up as well for contemporary audiences.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#665 Post by hearthesilence » Thu Nov 14, 2019 6:07 pm

I had to look this up because this is all news to me, but I completely missed Scotty Bowers's tell-all book and film. Honestly can't judge the credibility of this story having just heard about it, but regardless, we'll have to disagree how Tracy and Hepburn's portrayal of Adam and Amanda's marriage comes across on-screen. Even if it's no reflection on what they were like together in real life, I can't agree it plays like it's contrived.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#666 Post by barryconvex » Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:05 am

Satori wrote:
Thu Nov 14, 2019 6:50 am
The Web (1947)
This is exceptionally well-plotted and has a great performance by Vincent Prince as the dandy capitalist whose scheming eventually gets the better of him. My main interest in the film is the tension between its class politics and its sexual ones: the film seems to straddle the boundary between the psychosexual noirs and the ones more interested in economics and realism. This question turns on who exactly is seducing Edmond O’Brien: Vincent Price’s promise of great wealth, or Ella Raines as the sexy but surprisingly wholesome personal secretary. Indeed, because Raines functions as both a potential femme fatale and the “good girl helper” of some noirs (Phantom Lady is perhaps paradigmatic), she is ultimately sidelined in the narrative, making this more of a story about O’Brien’s working class consciousness reasserting itself and realizing that he is just a pawn in the game of the rich. William Bendix plays the angel on his shoulder, a police Lieutenant who knew O’Brien’s father, who seems to be several moves ahead of everyone else in the film. A side note: the scene in which the writer who supplies some backstory to O’Brien clearly comes onto him while waving his cigarette holder around has to be one of the most delicious gay seduction scenes of the 40s!
Great write-up Satori. I just recently watched this as well, it's a shame I can't find a spot on my list for it as it's so well done. About that seduction scene I highlighted-as O'brien leaves the room he says something from the doorway that I wasn't able to make out. Anybody know what exactly he said?

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#667 Post by Satori » Fri Nov 15, 2019 6:06 am

"Someday you'll give a party and we can talk about anything you like. Whither away mankind." Earlier the librarian tells him that the writer's bestseller is called Whither Away Mankind, so he is just referencing that, perhaps punning on whither/wither and making a subtle jab about the writer's decadence and sexuality!

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#668 Post by denti alligator » Fri Nov 15, 2019 9:54 am

damn, I get wrapped up in things for about 2 weeks and forget the deadline.... oh, well, next time.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#669 Post by swo17 » Fri Nov 15, 2019 10:19 am

denti alligator wrote:
Fri Nov 15, 2019 9:54 am
damn, I get wrapped up in things for about 2 weeks and forget the deadline.... oh, well, next time.
You still have a little over a week to submit a list

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#670 Post by TMDaines » Fri Nov 15, 2019 11:09 am

Can we get a banner or announcement on the main part of the forum alerting people to this? Seems like there is always people unaware of it.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#671 Post by swo17 » Fri Nov 15, 2019 11:17 am

There's this stickied thread if that helps

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#672 Post by theflirtydozen » Fri Nov 15, 2019 4:44 pm

Thanks to other members who helped make these part of the new films on the block!
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Akira Kurosawa, 1945), Stormy Weather (Andrew Stone, 1943), Strange Victory (Leo Hurwitz, 1948), Rotation (Wolfgang Staudte, 1949, The Blood of Jesus (Spencer Williams, 1941) -- I thought this last one was surely locked in as one of my orphans so I'm pleasantly surprised!

Now to claim my orphans and shop some of them around with some blurbs (in order of what I consider their chances of being unorphaned):
Native Land (Leo Hurwitz & Paul Strand, 1942) - sounds like this will be orphaned no more thanks to movielocke? Others who have seen Strange Victory (probably due to Milestone's recent edition) should absolutely check this out. In the same style but focused on organized labor and unions at the beginning of last century. And narrated by Paul Robeson!

La main du diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943) - A deal with the devil goes wrong, as they tend to do. This one featuring a dismembered left hand talisman and weird masks. Maurice Tourneur brings plenty of silent film style to the table.

La perla (Emilio Fernández, 1947) - A Mexican diver finds an unexpected windfall in the form of a large pearl, a turn of events not welcomed by a wealthy foreign doctor. A screenplay co-written by Steinbeck and some excellent cinematography!

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941) - I'm a sucker for film-blanc type stuff (see La main du diable above), and it was a go-to comfort film a couple years back so was a natural for my list. Not a surprise that it's not that well loved as I remember the lukewarm reception its Criterion edition announcement had.

Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al, 1945) - I'm surprised this horror anthology was orphaned, as I thought it was one of the more popular Ealing productions. Maybe it's because people shy away from voting for the film as a whole rather than the segments?

The Rocking Horse Winner (Anthony Pelissier, 1949) - weird that this had a couple posts of discussion earlier in the thread and yet I'm the only one who voted for it, and I wasn't even part of that earlier discussion!

Dreams That Money Can Buy (Hans Richter, 1947) - Another anthology film, the premise being a man sets up shop concocting strange dreams for sale. Surrealism figureheads Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Darius Milhaud and Fernand Léger collaborated with Hans Richter for the segments. [Edit: I apparently hallucinated Orson Welles -- who I thought was the blue man -- was in this.]

Špalíček (Jirí Trnka, 1947) and The Emperor's Nightingale (Jirí Trnka, 1949) - Trnka continues to be nearly nonexistent on home video, especially in R1, despite his consistent mastery of puppet animation. I'm sure there are some familiar with Nightingale, since it was part of that old Trnka VHS collection and an American version exists with Boris Karloff narration. Had to watch Špalíček, which is really a compilation of several short film vignettes from a year in a traditional Czech village, without English subtitles and not in the best AV quality, but still I could appreciate it as a masterwork.

La dama de la muerte (Carlos Christensen, 1946) - Was consistently reminded of the work of Raúl Ruiz during this oneiric thriller/mystery of a man who gets in over his head in a suicide game with a London secret society.

Kalpana (Uday Shankar, 1948) - This film is definitely ripe for rediscovery. Hopefully the World Cinema Project or another org can get a hold of this for a restoration as I'm sure all of the dance sequences would be stunning. I think there are also cultural and historical barriers to appreciating this film fully -- I myself gleaned absolutely none of the subtext, but YMMV -- but it was able to coast onto my list with the style and the scale of the whole thing alone.

Rakkauden risti (Teuvo Tulio, 1946) - For those who appreciate melodrama and lighthouses! Similar in flavor to the same director's The Way You Wanted Me, which is probably more well known, but I prefer this story and some of the mise en scène with obvious setting backdrops were daringly painterly. That is, I appreciated the different approach from the more "realistic" paintings you might see in Black Narcissus... I don't know, but it weirdly worked for me.

I think all of these are pretty short, save for Kalpana. Even if I didn't give these much fleshed-out writeups, I hoped it piques people's interest enough or at least can get these on people's radar.

I'm also going to do my best to check out/rewatch these other orphans, but can make no promises:
It Had to Be You (Don Hartman & Rudolph Maté, 1947), Christ in Concrete (Edward Dmytryk, 1949), Vigil in the Night (George Stevens, 1940), A Night Before Christmas (Lloyd Bacon, 1942), The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger et al, 1940), The Web (Michael Gordon, 1947), A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth Century Painting (Norman McLaren, 1946), Alouette (Norman McLaren & René Jodoin, 1944)
Last edited by theflirtydozen on Fri Nov 15, 2019 4:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#673 Post by denti alligator » Fri Nov 15, 2019 6:39 pm

swo17 wrote:
Fri Nov 15, 2019 10:19 am
denti alligator wrote:
Fri Nov 15, 2019 9:54 am
damn, I get wrapped up in things for about 2 weeks and forget the deadline.... oh, well, next time.
You still have a little over a week to submit a list
Wait, I do? It looked like it was over. OK, when's the hard and fast deadline?

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#674 Post by swo17 » Fri Nov 15, 2019 6:49 pm

End of the day on the 24th. We're currently doing Round 2, which is a relatively new thing, the idea being to give people a chance to rally others around their orphans. During Round 2, anyone that submitted a list during Round 1 is welcome to revise their list, and anyone that hasn't yet submitted a list is welcome to do so

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Re: The 1940s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#675 Post by Satori » Sat Nov 16, 2019 8:52 am

I was just going to post a defense of another of my orphans, T-Men, but I might as well put it into a larger context with some notes I've been working on about the relationship of noir and realism.

I have been thinking a lot this year about the relationship between film noir and the idea of “realism” (broadly defined), largely due to an encounter with Foster Hirsch’s great study of noir The Dark Side of the Screen and my ongoing obsession with the writings and films of Thom Andersen, who half-jokingly coined the term "film gris" to describe some social realist noirs mostly written by blacklisted screenwriters.

While I’m not sure how interesting this will turn out to be, I thought that I would try to develop some of these thoughts here in case anyone finds this to be a productive framework to engage with some of these films.

Newsreel Aesthetics
Hirsch’s most interesting argument in Dark Side of the Screen is that film noir not only draws on the aesthetics of German expressionism, but also forms of realism (this seems particularly notable given that expressionism is an intensely anti-realist aesthetic, something that goes back to film studies 101 with Kracauer).

He calls this the newsreel-like “documentary flavor” of some noirs, especially those shot on location, including films like The House on 92nd Street and Call Northside 777. Not only do these films depart from the aesthetics of expressionism, but this aesthetic shift to realism has narrative consequences: “instead of probing neurotic characters, the realistic policiers emphasized the process of detection” (67). While Hirsch doesn’t develop this argument, there are political consequences as well: instead of highlighting the neuroses of society, they focus on the police who uphold law and order. This makes sense when we consider the political purpose of the newsreel itself.

The most interesting films of this cycle are the ones that combine the expressionist and neorealist forms, like the films of Anthony Mann. These films highlight the tension between Expressionism and the newsreel, using the former to undermine the stability (aesthetic and political) of the latter.

For example, T-Men:
While essentially a propagandistic celebration of the treasury department’s ingenuity, Mann and cinematographer John Alton shroud the world in an expressionistic darkness that serves to undercut the documentary portion’s appeal to stable government authority. The realist newsreel components—flat stable lighting, an awkward opening speech by a treasury agent reading from prepared marks, and the constant voiceovers assuring the audience that the T-men are always one step ahead of the crooks—suggest stability, authority, and faith in order. But the more properly cinematic segments unveil a shadowy world in which undercover agents are murdered because they happen to run into an acquaintance; a world of brutal murders in steam baths, gangsters stabbed with ice picks, and millionaire criminals roaming free. Like horror films in which normality is restored in the final reel, Mann’s cinema lingers so effectively on disruptions to that normality that its ultimate restoration rings hollow. It is the inky black void at the center of postwar America that we remember, not the assurances of law and order.

Neorealism
My main issue with Hirsch’s argument is that he seems to collapse the newsreel-style aesthetic and neorealism together, whereas I think these need to be treated separately, especially if we are asking the kinds of political questions that most interest me. (It is also worth pointing out, as many critics have, that neorealism is not nearly as “realist”—in terms of documentary style—as it is often considered to be.)

I’d like to develop some of these issues through a reading of Visconti’s Obsession, in which both noir and neorealism exist in embryonic form. While Hirsch talks about this film in the same section as the newsreel ones, it is different because it has more in common with the psychosexual dynamics that would come to characterize mainline American noir than the newsreel police procedural strain.

It is also decidedly different from both the novel and the later American version of Postman.

(Some spoilers ahead, although I can’t imagine that anyone who is actually reading this doesn’t know the plot of Postman.)

By slowing down and focusing on the rhythms of the character’s lives, Visconti de-emphasizes the action of the plot. Even the way the murder occurs makes it seem as though it just “happens” without the direct intervention of the couple. Above all, though, it is the way that fate seems to continually catch up to Gino. He has successfully escaped from Giovanna’s temptation, only to run into her and her husband and get sucked back into the murder plot. Later in the film, when he hides out with the prostitute, it is as though he is just passively waiting for his fate.

The most interesting change that Visconti makes to the novel is the addition of the traveling performer, who represents a genuine alternative to Gino’s fate. He is clearly gay, suggesting that homosexuality is the one way to escape from Giovanna. Since the murder is Oedipal in that Gino kills the father figure in order to take his place, Visconti suggests that homosexuality is outside of the psycho-sexual structure that dooms Gino. Secondly, the traveling performer is outside the rigid class system of the gas station, in which the proletarian Gino must kill the bourgeois owner, only to eventually be killed by the (fascist) class forces aligned against him. So Visconti is distinguishing between two kinds of transgressive sexual desire: those that take place within the existing order (Gino’s murder, which functions both within the dominant psychosexual paradigm as well as the class system), and the action to leave this system, suggesting the potential for a kind of gay communist utopia.

In this sense, Obsession seems to me a good deal more radical than the later neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves, which just tend to depict social reality without any sense of how it could be changed. This is perhaps because of its crime narrative content: Thom Andersen argues that noir’s depiction of social content has an advantage over neorealism in that it lacks the latter’s sense of political paralysis. Its characters weren’t just observers; they could be doers as well, even if such doing often led to their demise.

Film Gris
Which leads me to the third conjunction of noir and realism, the cycle that Thom Andersen calls “film gris,” which he develops through an analysis of blacklisted writers and directors in his essays "Red Hollywood," and “The Time of the Toad” and the indispensable film Red Hollywood.

Here is Andersen on how these films differ from traditional noir:
[T]hese films belong to a tradition of critical social realism, and they replaced the psychological deliriums of film noir with a concrete depiction of material conditions…Like the protagonists of film noir, the anti-heroes of film gris may ask themselves, what have I done? Or, how did I get here? But the answers they might find implicate society at large, not just a single evil woman or a small cast of killers.
Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949) is the thesis film of the genre: it uses a Mildred Pierce structure to show the social determinants of a crime.

I want to tackle the two Polonsky/Garfield collaborations from the 40s: Body and Soul and Force of Evil. Both films require the same reading strategy: the critique of capitalism is not found in the ostensible lead (Garfield in both), but in a secondary character whose death is through no fault of his own, but rather the material conditions of existence.

(Some spoilers ahead)

Body and Soul
There are at least two stories about capitalism being told here. The most obvious one is the story of the poor but honorable kid who gets corrupted by money and greed, throwing away his family, friends, and true love (Peg) in favor of fancy nightclubs, upscale commodities, and the attentions of Alice, a nightclub singer whose interest in Charley is mostly monetary. This is Hollywood’s standard approach to class issues: let the audience vicariously enjoy the conspicuous consumption and fantasies of wealth for an hour or so, but leave them with the idea that they are really better off being poor and happy than rich and miserable.

Hollywood films get away with this because they are able to end at the moment of victory: Charley does the right thing and walks out of the ring poor and happy. But what happens now?

It is now that we enter the territory of film gris:

If the first story the film is telling about capitalism is the one with the happy ending, the real one is found in the story of Ben. Ben was in the same position as Charley: a champion who became more profitable as a loser than a winner. Ben has nothing, so he is forced to fight one last time despite the fact that there is a good chance he will die because of his cerebral hemorrhage. While he survives the fight, he dies on the eve of Charley’s final bout. The film is about how people become commodities; how the body itself becomes a commodity. When a commodity is used up, it is thrown away. Charley is able to save his soul in the final fight, but there is no telling what will happen to his body. After all, Ben too saved his soul, but it did his body no good.

Force of Evil

In addition to being another masterpiece of the Hollywood left, Force of Evil is probably the greatest study of alienation in all of 40s cinema.

It not only incorporates the classic noir opposition between German expressionism and the 30s crime novel, but also elements of postwar art cinema (the ending in particular, in which John Garfield becomes a wandering Antonioni-style protagonist), allowing it to approach the concept of alienation from at least three different directions: 1) the psychological alienation of Expressionism; 2) the economic alienation of capitalism; and 3) the urban alienation of postwar art cinema.

From the lens of film gris, the second is the most important. This is a film obsessed with economic processes: the process of the numbers racket, the process of building a monopoly, and the process of orchestrating an economic collapse.

It is steadfast in its refusal to separate capitalism from criminality: when Leo’s wife tries to remind him that he is a businessman, not a crook, Leo replies: “A lot you know. Real estate business... living from mortgage to mortgage... stealing credit like a thief. And the garage - that was a business! Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas: two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me. Penny for one thief, two cents for the other. Well, Joe's here now - I won't have to steal pennies anymore. I'll have big crooks to steal dollars for me!”

The plot plays out like a materialist tragedy, with none of the characters able to extricate themselves from their impending doom. The difference between a movie like Force of Evil and, say, Detour (another masterpiece of existential despair and absurd fate), is that this doom is explicitly tied to the machine of monopoly capitalism started by the combo.

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