Journeys in Darkness and Light

The Best of 2017: The 1940s


(As with all of my lists – other than the Rewatch list – these are all films I saw in 2017 for the first time.)

This has definitely the hardest list to compile so far. The 1940s is my favorite cinematic decade largely due to the fact that so many film noir titles came from this era. Yet for this list I’ve tried to avoid most of the noir movies (although you might find a few, depending on your definition of film noir). I’ve also eliminated many British films, saving most of those for a separate category later. Eliminating those two categories takes a big chunk out of what I watched in the 40s, so don’t be surprised if you find a few British films and a few noir titles.

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean
FilmStruck streaming (1:26)

So right off the bat I’ve broken my “No British Films” rule. (Here’s a spoiler: I’m about to break it again.) The reason? Brief Encounter is such a powerful well-known film that I simply had to include it here. Not only was this the very first movie I watched in 2017, it’s also a film we screened as one of our Great Movies at the Severna Park Library. Please read more.

Black Narcissus (1947) Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Criterion Blu-ray (1:40)

Why not break my “No British Films” rule again? Okay… With each Powell and Pressburger film I see, I keep thinking, “These guys just can’t top themselves any further” and yet they do. Black Narcissus certainly deserves far more space than I have time to devote to it here, so I’ll only say that this story of a group of Anglican nuns being placed in a remote Himalayan mountainside dwelling examines so many themes and emotions you could write dissertations about them. (People probably have.) The use of Technicolor combined with Jack Cardiff’s brilliant cinematography will literally steal the breath from your body.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century Fox DVD (1:43)

A woman (whose voice we hear off-screen) sends a single letter addressed to three women, Deborah (Jeanne Crain, right), Rita (Ann Sothern, left) and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell, center), informing them that she has skipped town with one of their husbands. The three women are forced to spend the day together on a school field trip, trying to maintain their composure while attempting to figure out whose husband has abandoned his wife. This is a wonderful film that you must see, one that balances drama, melodrama, suspense, comedy, and social commentary with surprising wit and effectiveness. It deserves far more space than I’m giving it here, but do watch it. As impressive as the actresses are, the men do an admirable job as well, featuring Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas. (And don’t miss an early performance by Thelma Ritter.)

All Through the Night (1941) Vincent Sherman
Warner Bros., TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Humphrey Bogart (1:47)

Tough gangster Gloves Donahue (Humphrey Bogart) is really a pretty likable guy, that is, until he discovers a cell of Nazis who knocked off the man who makes Gloves’s favorite brand of cheesecake. The comedy is madcap and absolutely infectious as Bogart and his pals take on the bad guys, led by Conrad Veidt. While certainly not Bogart’s best film, I was thoroughly entertained. A bit on the long side, but worth every minute.

Pursued (1947) Raoul Walsh
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:45)

You could certainly make a case for classifying Pursued as a film noir and many have done so, yet I’m including it here mostly as a Western. Robert Mitchum plays Jeb, an orphan traumatized by the murder of his parents. Although his foster mother Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson) and her daughter Thor (short for Thorley, played by Teresa Wright) have brought him up as part of their own family, Jeb’s trauma and sense of dread continue to build. To make matters worse, Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law Grant (Dean Jagger) holds a grudge against Jeb for something Jeb’s father did years ago. Pursued contains several very good moments but believability is often questionable. Excellent cinematography by James Wong Howe and a score by Max Steiner.

Battleground (1949) William Wellman
Warner DVD – interlibrary loan (1:58)

Before there was Band of Brothers, there was Battleground, which became MGM’s highest grossing film following the end of World War II and winner of two Oscars (Black-and-White cinematography for Paul C. Vogel, and Writing, Story and Screenplay for Robert Pirosh). The movie follows a company of infantrymen in the midst of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, but the story is more about the personalities and relationships of the men (Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, Marshall Thompson, James Whitmore and others) than anything else. Although a fictionalized account of the siege, Battleground is a film that caught the attention of audiences well after the end of the war, something that MGM head Louis B. Mayer didn’t think possible. This was a strong contender for my library Veterans Day movie, but it lost out to the film I’ll discuss next:

They Were Expendable (1945) John Ford
Warner Archive Blu-ray (2:15)

John Ford’s story of the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (or PT boat) unit defending the Philippines against Japanese forces in World War II is one of the finest (but rarely discussed) World War II films of all time. Although a fictionalized story, we see the uniqueness of the boats and the men who served on them. The film stars Robert Montgomery as the commander of a PT boat (and he actually was the commander of a PT boat during the war), John Wayne, Donna Reed, and the ever-present Ward Bond.

We were proud to present this film as the culmination of our Veterans Day events at the Severna Park Library this year. I was also pleased to be joined by my friend and author/historian Paul Stillwell, who contributed to both the introduction to the film and this discussion afterwards. (Photos by Dan Burkarth)

The Heiress (1949) William Wyler
DVD (1:55)

Olivia de Havilland won her second Best Actress Oscar for The Heiress, the story of Catherine, a young woman who stands to inherit a fortune from her father (Ralph Richardson) when she falls in love with the handsome Morris (Montgomery Clift), who may or may not love her only for her money. Set in mid-19th century New York, and adapted from the Henry James novel Washington Square (as well as the play The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz), the film version is simply magnificent, one of those great films you simply must see, made even more spectacular by the costume design by Edith Head and Gile Steele.

The Snake Pit (1948) Anatole Litvak
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:48)

Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit begins with two women conversing on a park bench. They could be any women anywhere, but they’re not. Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is confused, not realizing where she is. When she rises from the bench, things move at an alarmingly fast rate with visual clues building upon each other so quickly you probably won’t realize you’re holding your breath. A nurse walks among a group of women, barking orders at them as if she’s been doing this for years (and perhaps she has). There’s a marvelous 180° turn of the camera from one end of a long line of women to the other, a dizzying moment in which Virginia realizes that she’s trapped in a mental institution.

Capitalizing on such a powerful opening is difficult, but Virginia’s story is so compelling (as is de Havilland’s performance) we can’t look away. We learn how she got there, why she doesn’t recognize her own husband (Mark Stevens), and wonder how in the world this will all get straightened out. Or will it? The Snake Pit was one of the first Hollywood films to take a serious look at mental illness and it still packs quite a punch.

A Woman’s Face (1941) George Cukor
Warner DVD – library (1:46)

Told mostly in flashback, Joan Crawford plays Anna Holm, the leader of a group of blackmailers operating in Stockholm. Anna’s face was disfigured by a fire when she was a girl and she attempts to hide it with broad-brimmed hats pulled down over that side of her face. She guards her heart just as closely, that is, until aristocrat Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) pays her some attention, seemingly oblivious to her disfigurement. Barring also knows a plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas) whom he thinks can help Anna. All this seems to indicate deep melodrama, and there’s certainly some of that present, but A Woman’s Face also serves as an excellent early film noir with wonderful performances and excruciating suspense.

That’s it for the 1940s, a decade that’s filled with so many other films besides film noir and movies from across the pond. I hope to explore more of the dramas, melodramas, horror films, Westerns, and more from the 1940s in 2017. Stay tuned!