Category Archives: 1940’s

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The Philadelphia Story (1940) 4.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.1
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Duration: 112 mins
Director: George Cukor
Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her next marriage to one of the “new money”, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and the deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play.

Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart in top form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and, while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one more responsible for the movie’s straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynic and indeed the funniest moments are the product of their dynamic. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior.

George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the drama from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome while simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the primary driver. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it’s lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.

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High Sierra (1941) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis

The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.

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Tension (1949) 3.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.3
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 95 mins
Director: John Berry
Stars: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Barry Sullivan

Wonderful if obscure thriller capturing much of the cleverness which defined the best film-noir but perhaps missing out on the genre’s overall dexterity. Richard Basehart is the meek pharmacist working the long night shift to keep his materialistic and altogether distasteful wife (Audrey Totter in true vixenish form) happy. When she brazenly leaves him for a wealthier man, he creates an alter ego who he intends to ultimately kill the interloper and then promptly disappear. To say it all goes pear-shaped and that unintended homicide is involved isn’t giving much away but the audience is dealt an engaging series of twists and turns along the way. Basehart is as good as his limited craft typically allowed him to be while Totter channels the latter side to the femme fatale trope with relish. Pure vinegar and no wine, she might not grasp the necessary complexity of the great cinematic tradition but she nonetheless makes for one hell of a nasty steak of self-regard – and director John Berry and composer André Brevin don’t waste an opportunity to build the movie’s darker more sultry moods around her. Barry Sullivan is great fun as the homicide detective who wines and dines his suspects until he gets what he wants out of them – even if he is central to a bemusing introduction which seems to serve no other purpose thank to explain the relevance of the title.

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The Letter (1940) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.6
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 95 mins
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!

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T-Men (1947) 3.86/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 92 mins
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Wallace Ford, Alfred Ryder

Ignore the propagandist and rather wooden introduction to the “six fingers of the Treasury Departments’s fist” and that completely unnecessary narration and what emerges within these 92 minutes is a gritty, cleverly written detective noir with a winding plot and more hardbitten dialogue than you can shake a blackjack at. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder are the two Treasury Agents (or “T-Men”) infiltrating a counterfeiting ring operating between LA and Detroit. But, as they increment their way to the top of the organisation, they find it increasingly difficult to guard against discovery especially with Wallace Ford’s crafty “schemer” in the mix. With the great John Alton operating the camera and Anthony Mann orchestrating, T-Men is as sharp looking a noir as you’ll find. Whether it’s the neon signs reflecting in pools of rain water or their run-down backstreet locations, the grime of the city seems to be veritably painted into the cracks of the walls. Virginia Kellog’s story is a crime thriller dandy in its own right but John C. Higgins’ screenplay gives it a dynamism that rivals the most slippery of noirs. Ford steals the show as the panicky self-serving old-time crook and Ryder is every bit the wise guy/detective. While O’Keefe is perfectly solid, he’s undeniably missing the personality of the genre’s heavyweights. Throw a Mitchum, Bogie, or Widmark into that role (and remove that godawfully stilted narration) and T-Men would’ve been as good as anything the genre had to offer. As it is, well, it’s still a peach.

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The Dark Corner (1946) 2.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.1
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix

Mark Stevens stars as a private dick picked as a fall-guy by Clifton Webb’s ruthless art dealer when he decides to knock of the man stepping out with his wife. Leo Rosten’s cracking story is every bit on the level of the genre’s classics but a litany of rewrites and imported screenwriters does it no justice as the dialogue struggles dismally for the lyrical wit and cynicism of the hardboiled greats. Stevens too turns in a typically flat performance and while Lucille Ball adds personality, her lines are just as weak as the rest. The villains fare a little better with William Bendix giving us another memorable version of his rough-house henchman and Webb, though not spitting nearly as much venom as his Waldo Lydecker, is fittingly acidic. Henry Hathaway brings his modest touch to the movie’s directing and, while not proving memorable, the movie remains a wholly decent picture to look at.

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The Street With No Name (1948) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.9
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 91 mins
Director: William Keighley
Stars: Mark Stevens, Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan

Thrilling undercover detective noir that sees Mark Stevens’ FBI agent infiltrate Richard Widmark’s methodical gang of thieves and murderers only to find himself in a highly organised underworld where every recruit is screened and validated through illicit access to confidential police files. Joseph McDonald (he who shot My Darling Clementine) brings an irresistible neon glow to the damp and murky streets of the fictitious Central City that ranks with the seminal look of that noir classic Murder My Sweet. Director William Keighley utilises every bit of it too as he frames many a dramatic moment around that glitzy grey world. Perhaps even more remarkable is Harry Kleiner’s script that, when enacted through McDonald’s lens and Keighley’s conceptualisation, was to become a major influence on everyone from Scorsese to David Chase. And it’s the inimitable Widmark who is chiefly responsible for its most potent realisations. As the quirky kingpin with a serious distaste for draughts and colds, Widmark’s “Alec Stiles” was to personify a new kind of American mobster whose intelligent yet impatient control over his gang led to many a violent reprimand and foreshadowed that of Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway and later on, one Tony Soprano. As the thorn in his side, Stevens is actually quite strong given that he could sometimes fall flat in the lead. Even if one is left with the impression that a more substantial actor would’ve made more of the role, it remains a playful turn as the streetwise detective and nicely complements the sophistication of Stiles’ clever helmsmanship. Where this piece of crime fiction falls short of the classics, however, is in its hokey championing of the FBI as a glowing beacon of honesty in the criminal justice apparatus. It was a feature of a peculiar type of movie being made at the time where the cooperation of the justice system in providing locations and on-set advice seemed to be repaid with an unabashed adulation.

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Thieves’ Highway (1949) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 94 mins
Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb

Unique noir drama courtesy of one of the genre’s great directors follows a couple of truck drivers as they attempt to sell a consignment of apples to a cutthroat retailer while at the same time wrangle the money he cheated from one of their fathers during a previous sale. Richard Conte stars as the offended party determined to stand up to Lee J. Cobb’s hardened chiseller and, if possible, exact some revenge for his role in his father’s paralysis. The pair cultivate a fine antagonism that Jules Dassin slow cooks for most of the film while he goes about showing us the ins and outs of the backstreet produce trade. As Conte’s partner, the craggy Millard Mitchell adds a worldly presence to contextualise Conte and Cobb’s personal duel while providing a tense subplot involving Millard and a couple of competitors. With Dassin behind the camera, take it as a given that Thieves’ Highway looks every bit the classic but for a story outside the traditional noir territory of murder and detectives – a tradition that lent itself to a raw visual aesthetic – it’s particularly accomplished in its execution. Norbert Brodine’s polished photography and Thomas Little’s set design are especially stunning to behold and fit for the purposes of A.I. Bezzerides’s unusual take on the doomed inertia of the noir hero. Adapting his own novel, the latter strikes a delicate balance between the intimacy of the working man’s plight and the hard edge of criminal ethics but it’s Dassin exquisite orchestration that brings it all together in such riveting fashion.

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All the King’s Men (1949) 3.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

John Ireland takes a rare centre billing as the passionate young reporter who is determined to make it without the help of his step-father’s wealth. When he learns of a local hick come political candidate standing up to the power brokers of a small town, the journalist and that politician’s paths become one, not to mention, a cautionary tale of the temptations of power. A more gritty and serious take on the subject matter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King’s Men is a pull no punches look at the yearning for power and the Shakespearian demise inherent in its pursuit. Broderick Crawford is the headstrong politician Willie Stark with the baseball bat ambition and total absence of scruples and he dominates the film. Ireland is unsurprisingly weak in the lead and is probably the primary reason why this movie’s popularity failed to display the longevity of other classics. But outside of the acting and Robert Rossen’s (adapted from Penn Miller’s novel) cynical screenplay which simply exudes unapologetic exploitation, it’s Rossen’s cultured touch behind the camera that marks this movie above most. Allowing context to breathe and grow, his film is defined by the power of setting-influenced perspective. This is best seen in the contrast between Ireland’s childhood home, Burden’s Landing, an island of wealth and security aloof from the sharp consequential world of politics which its most wealthy inhabitants still manage to determine. Rossen strikes a fine tuned balance between the otherworldly qualities of Burden’s Landing and the cut throat political scene. The former hazy with childlike mythos and naive optimism, the latter strewn with the grit and deceit of the great noirs. With an island named “Burden’s Landing”, it will come as no surprise that metaphor plays a sometimes heavy handed role in exacting the movie’s themes but it seems to curiously resonate with the naivety of the place rendering their harshness more forgivable. On the dramatic front, Rossen’s film is flush with political intrigue and offers a an up close and personal examination of the mechanism of US politics that probably hasn’t changed much since the era of its making.

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Hidden Gems

Whirlpool (1949) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.6
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer

Otto Preminger’s minor classic of psychological suspense has Gene Tierney playing the troubled wife of Richard Conte’s famous psychotherapist who is hypnotised into implicating herself in a murder by quack therapist José Ferrer. Preminger’s rich and sophisticated touch is all over this appealing little thriller and, from frame one to the close, Whirlpool looks wonderful. But what it boasts more loudly is an elegant story and some truly excellent performers at its centre. Tierney is a beautiful picture of nervous energy and strikes a delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability. Conte is surprisingly believable as the famed intellectual she is fervently dedicated to and Charles Bickford is fantastic as the grisly old detective whose sympathy for the married couple drives him deeper into the case. However, this is the great Ferrer’s film. It’s a devious little turn full of charm, malice, and well disguised pettiness. Yet another villain on his resume but completely different to anything he or anyone else had previously (or since) given us. Guy Endore’s novel provides the intriguing premise but the legendary Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt bring it to the screen with so much grace. Yes, it approaches the world of psychotherapy with a little too much respect and even fear but such mystique does a tricksy thriller like this no harm whatsoever. Highly recommended.

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My Darling Clementine (1946) 4.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.3
Genre: Western
Duration: 97 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature

Few if any directors had an eye for scene composition and linearity like the master John Ford had and this here classic is about as good an example of it as you will find. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play the legendary duo of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who along with Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford regular Ward Bond) Earp get drawn into a blood feud with the nasty Clanton clan. That genial old soul, Walter Brennan, plays their murderous patriarch is just one of several factors that makes Ford’s treatment of Earp’s time in Tombstone arguably the most memorable of the lot. Another is Fonda who compliments his oak exterior with all manner of playfulness that gives the Old West legend a genuine humanity and, with that, the edge on the likes of Russell or Costner (to name but a few). Mature didn’t always seem comfortable in his acting skin but he too counts as one of Ford’s aces as he captures the contradictory mystique of his character with presence and pathos alike. Holt and Bond are nothing more than bit players but Linda Darnell turns in a typically brash performance that further embellishes the movie’s emotional quotient.

They’re all aided considerably by Samuel G. Engels’ script which is a veritable peach of mouth watering turns of phrase but, also, seems a little conflicted in how it incorporates the titular Clementine into a plot that inevitably builds towards the showdown at the OK Corral. Cathy Downs does what she can as the woman caught between two friends but her character remains of side interest only. Needless to say, all fall in the shadow of Ford on this one for My Darling Clementine is just a spellbinding testament to the art of the visual pattern. If there was one film that could, on its own, instruct film students in composition, it would be this one. Sight lines that expand the psychological space by drawing our gaze out into the vastness of the desert, dusty light that silhouettes the famed characters of western lore in all of their immortal glory, and action sequences staged with a sniper’s eye for detail not to mention his/her patience. An aesthetic not easily matched nor ever forgotten.

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Hidden Gems

I Love Trouble (1948) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Film-noir
Duration: 88 mins
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Stars: Franchot Tone, Janet Blair, Janis Carter

l_i-love-trouble-1948-dvd-franchot-tone-janet-blair-2f8bDig into the archives of film-noir and it’s not long before you unearth a forgotten jewel. I love Trouble is one such dusty gem. Franchot Tone is the smart quipping gumshoe, Stuart Bailey, hired by a concerned husband to investigate his wife’s history. A complicated mystery unravels as Bailey moves between Baltimore and California putting the pieces together and juggling one shrewd lady character after another. Don’t get too hung up on the jovial title nor that playful introduction which counts as the first of many bluffs, this is a hard boiled sidewinder of the Raymond Chandler variety. That it’s not Chandler but Roy Huggins who penned it isn’t as much of a disadvantage as some might think for it’s an astute reproduction of the former’s work, in particular, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell My Lovely/Murder My Sweet. The dialogue burning with caustic wit drives the plot forward one baby step at a time until you won’t know where it’s headed. And it’s cast reasonably well too. Tone is more Powell than Bogart but he can dust himself off and crack wise with the best of ’em. John Ireland scores well as the sinister henchman of Steven Geray’s shady nightclub owner but it’s the ladies who share Tone’s limelight. Janet Blair is suitably suspicious as the potential love interest while Janis Carter’s highly secretive lady of leisure makes for an even more ambiguous presence. S. Sylvan Simon offers an assured touch behind the camera and keeps the tension balanced despite the twists and turns. Alas, what came natural to Chandler was a tad mechanical to Huggins and the second-third act transition labours because of it. Simon reigns it in with enough time to spare however and presents us with a wry old ending that Chandler himself would be proud of.

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