Critical opinion has settled pretty solidly on the “best” films of the cinematically prolific 1940s; look at ten lists and you’ll see a lot of overlap. The second World War was, of course, a heavy thread through the first half of the decade, providing fodder for stories on the one hand and on the other, a desire for the escapist balm of comedies and musicals. The 1940s saw the emergence of the auteur, filmmaking led by the director as opposed to the writer. Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were doing some of their best work. The 1940s saw the rise of Technicolor but also of film noir with its dark, cynical, moody and fatalistic stories of hard-boiled detectives and treacherous women. At the same time, screwball comedies proliferated. This was the decade of Hepburn and Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, of nostalgia and neo-realism, star-crossed lovers and double-crossing villains.
To a large extent, “best” is a meaninglessly subjective term. We love what we love, and for some of us it’s romantic comedies and for others it’s monster movies, while for others it’s about this cinematic innovation or that groundbreaking foray into previously unexplored subject matter. We distilled our list based on a little bit of each of those things, but overall, it’s a suggestion of required viewing material for anyone who aspires to cultural literacy. Also, we just think these are some damned fine films.
Widely regarded as one of the finest ghost stories of the ’40s, The Uninvited carries itself with a dignity not seen in most Universal monster movies or Poverty Row cheapies. On some level it’s more of a mystery/romance, with the veracity of the ghosts in real doubt—not unlike Guillermo Del Toro’s modern Crimson Peak, without all the visual bluster. A brother and sister move into a crumbling seaside manor to discover restless spirits with a connection to the young granddaughter of the former owner. But who are the spirits truly interested in, and are they truly malevolent? With evocative, moody cinematography that presages the likes of The Innocents 15 years later, the film succeeds as a serious, suspenseful mystery in an era when “ghost stories” were much more likely to be comedic or campy. —Jim Vorel
A melodrama set in a convent in British-ruled Himalayan India, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and starring Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, Black Narcissus provides a recipe for … well, strangeness. And it’s a beautiful kind of strangeness. Five nuns are sent to establish a convent, school and hospital in a former harem. It’s difficult to adapt to the new surroundings. And the agent who’s on call to help them do it is, well, he’s a bit of a temptation. There are tragic consequences, naturally. The story’s compelling enough, but what really blows me away about this film is the otherworldly visual sensibility. Powell’s camerawork is mesmerizing and the film is steeped in supersaturated color, underlining the exoticism and confusion faced by the nuns. It’s one of those films that really send you to another dimension. —Amy Glynn
If you want to know what an artist’s critique of postwar censorship in Allied-occupied Japan looks like, just watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and keep your eyes peeled for the Coca Cola sign. Late Spring isn’t about American control of Japanese territories in the 1940s; rather, it’s about a father and daughter going about their business within that world, a film that honors minutiae and celebrates the mundane with superlative grace. (It’s also the blueprint for an entire niche of movies, the shomin-geki, a genre in Japanese film, television and theater that favors realism and which portrays the lives of working class Japanese families.) But folded within the tale of Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) and Noriko Somiya (Setsuko Hara) lie a handful of barbs aimed at censorship protocols imposed upon Ozu during Late Spring’s production, which is itself a nod to the kind of tension Japanese citizens had to live with every single day of the occupation. The truest mark of the film’s brilliance is its accessibility: Even if you know zip about postwar history, you’ll be dazzled by Ozu’s unparalleled discipline as a filmmaker, charmed by Hara’s wonderful performance, and moved by the themes present in the fabric of the narrative, especially its painful depiction of what it means to let go of the ones we love most. Such is Ozu’s skill as a director that he can devastate us just by filming a man peeling an apple, a perfect image that captures Late Spring’s compassion with heartbreaking clarity. —Andy Crump
Wolf Man Larry Talbot, along with Frankenstein’s Monster, represents the more sympathetic side of the Universal monster movie canon, although some viewers would doubtlessly substitute the word “whiny” in its place. Regardless, poor Larry never asked to turn into a werewolf, and he spends most of the sequels trying to figure out a way not only to be cured, but to kill himself and end his long suffering in the process. The 1941 original remains the best and most earnest film in the series—a portrait of a man who has no power over the raging beast within. It’s the film that made Lon Chaney Jr. a household name on par with his father, throwing him into the same career of genre films as the famed “Man of a Thousand Faces” during the silent film era. Famed for the groundbreaking FX of its iconic transformation scene, and aided by the same top-notch makeup that Jack Pierce employed in Frankenstein, it raised the bar for horror FX substantially. Like other Universal horror films from the classic era of monster horror, it’s heavy on the atmosphere and old-fashioned spooky settings: Fog-wreathed graveyards, dark forests and gothic dwellings, while taking to heart some of the lessons learned by superior Frankenstein sequels such as Bride and Son of Frankenstein. Throw it on at your next Halloween party, and you’ll see that it holds up remarkably well. —J.V.
The first commercial film-animated or live-action-ever to be shown in stereophonic sound. A collection of eight short pieces intercut with live-action intros by Deems Taylor, Fantasia is set to classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, mostly with the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the origin of the film’s concept was fairly mundane (Disney wanted a star vehicle for Mickey Mouse, whose ratings were flagging). What ended up happening, though, was a really interesting investigation into how music could be represented visually in the animated medium. Rather than writing storyboards and creating a soundtrack, the production team sat in meetings listening to Paganini and Stravinsky and Mussorgsky until Disney connected the sounds with images and built on it from there. Disney, who wasn’t much of a classical music buff, found his famously boundless curiosity piqued by the concept of using animation to support music rather than the other way around, and plunged into the project with enthusiasm, believing it would open people’s ears (like his own) to classical music they had previously ignored. An amazing collection of experts and performers were assembled to consult on science, animal movement and different types of dance. (Disney scrapped a portion of the Rite of Spring sequence that showed the discovery of fire out of concern that it would provoke angry Creationists; but biologists, paleontologists and astronomers, for example, were consulted.) Similarly, animators were given tickets to the Ballet Russe, and reptiles were brought into the studio to be studied. Fantasia ran at New York’s Broadway Theatre for 49 consecutive weeks, the longest film run ever at the time. Shows sold out across the country, yet Fantasia initially ran at a loss due to the expense of the state-of-the-art Fantasound systems along with theater lease and other production costs. RKO cut the film from two hours, five minutes to one hour, twenty minutes and showed it in mono to trim costs. It was restored partially in 1946 and to its original condition in 1990. Weird, beautiful, orgiastic, abstracted, wildly colored and meticulously recorded, the film was a critical darling and considered to be an incredibly bold move on Disney’s part, though many in the classical music community nitpicked Stokowski’s arrangements. (Everyone’s a critic.) Overall, the film is more a distance runner than a sprinter and a brilliant example of Disney’s strange, maverick, expansive imagination. —A.G.
Developed in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, Day of Wrath was Carl Th. Dreyer’s first film in more than a decade, a tense and measured reaction to the overwhelming forces oppressing him and his country, filtered through the systemic corruption that has both plagued and defined civilization since its Edenic Fall. Taking up the themes he’d turned over in his two previous films—the now-iconic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932)—Dreyer brought his soul’s concerns onto an international stage by heading once again into the past, telling of a pastor (Thorkild Roose) and ersatz witch hunter in 1623 who’s spared a woman accused of witchcraft in order to wed her daughter, Anna (Lisbeth Movin). When the pastor’s son (Preben Lerdorff Rye) from his first marriage returns home, Anna is smitten, and the two carry on a clandestine love affair amidst a time in which every action, however benign, can be dissected to reveal supernaturally nefarious doings. As one might imagine, things don’t go well for Anna. And yet, upon its U.S. release in 1948, on the eve of the Red Scare, critics liberal and not mostly crapped all over it, unwilling to penetrate Dreyer’s dense pace and denser obsession with an immaculate visual language. Today, with the rest of Dreyer’s oeuvre to reflect on (especially Ordet, which was his only commercial success, despite being just as ponderous and obtuse as Day of Wrath), this film is simpler to parse. Regardless, Day of Wrath stands as a masterfully composed, exquisitely compelling glimpse at what happens when austerity is left to its own devices. (Hint: It weaponizes.) —Dom Sinacola
As is the case with many films of the 1940s, especially those foreign selections made or released in the shadow of World War II occupation—by the Axis or otherwise (see also: Kurosawa’s navigation of American censors during the U.S.’s squatting in Japan)—Le Corbeau is a morally thorny tale, infatuated more with the indelible darkness of all human beings than in exploring any sense of hope that the world need not be a crappy place. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot treats as a given that the world is a crappy place, through and through, detailing how the denizens of a small French town (“anywhere”) are pitted against one another through a series of “poison pen” letters sent by the titular Raven. Everyone, it seems, has something devastating to hide, not the least of whom is Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a man known for his lusty dalliances, which feels ironic given that he also conducts illegal abortions in the area. As the letters pile up and one cancer patient (Roger Blin) commits suicide (due to a letter from the Raven informing him that his cancer is terminal), the town grows increasingly desperate to find the culprit, sparking a witch hunt that catches Dr. Germain in the midst of his many lies. While his plot is the stuff of soap opera pulp, Clouzot masterfully mounts paranoia on top of tension on top of existential guilt, winding his players so tightly that when the film inevitably erupts into violence, the viewer is left with nothing but a bleak sense that nobody ever gets what they deserve. —D.S.
“By the time you read this letter, I might be dead.” This haunting romance by Max Ophüls is
one of those star-crossed love stories that, if it doesn’t tug at your heart, you might want to check to make sure you have one. Joan Fontaine plays a young woman in 1900 Vienna who falls in love with a concert pianist. Stefan, the pianist (Louis Jourdan) is remarkably clueless, and, reading the letter as he’s preparing to leave town to evade a duel, follows Lisa through a series of flashbacks starting when she was 14, progressing through an episode where they’d had a brief tryst, to her marrying someone else and giving birth to Stefan’s child, to him trying to seduce her at a chance encounter without realizing she was the same woman, to their child’s death from typhus, which is threatening to carry her off as she writes the letter. A paean to the ungodly power of unrequited love, a gut-wrenching treatise on self-centeredness, and in the deft hands of Max Ophüls, more contemplative and penetrating than melodramatic. Seriously, if this doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, see your opthalmologist. —A.G.
A film stuck in time, place and temperament, Miracle on 34th Street is one of the two heavy favorites, along ith It’s a Wonderful Life, in the battle for the title of “greatest Christmas movie ever,”. Your preference will come down to how well you like your schmaltz: Those with a taste for unadulterated sentimentality will likely lean more toward Capra, while those who like a healthy sprinkle of cynical realism on their holiday fare will probably go for George Seaton’s Miracle instead. Not that it’s completely cynical, mind, but it is a surprisingly frank and thoroughly practical demonstration of the stress Christmas customs—particularly shopping—visit upon us year in and year out. By showing its audience the positive side of capitalism in action, the film reminds us of its negative side, too, posturing about Christmas’s true meaning and capturing New York City at the peak of its bustling consumerist culture. That makes Miracle on 34th Street sound both drier and jaded than it actually is, of course, and more than 70 years on, it’s still one of the most effectively hokey pieces of holiday entertainment the industry has ever produced. —A.C.
Inspired by Niezsche’s Ubermensch concept and the idea of the “perfect murder,” two college students kill a classmate simply to prove they can and then host a dinner party for their victim’s friends and family to see if they’ll catch on. Rope is notable for its extremely long takes and for taking place in real time, making it one of Hitchcock’s more experimental movies. —Bonnie Stiernberg
Before there were Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing animated, animate household items, there was Jean Cocteau. This story’s been with us since the 18th century and rendered in countless iterations, so I’ll forego the plot summary and just say that from the fourth-wall-breaking preamble in which the director entreats the audience to approach the film with inner-child-forward faith in the magic of fairy tales, to the end, this film remains a treasure of subtle imagery and mesmerizing music, baroque opulence, sexual intensity and total indulgence in fantasy. Jean Marais (Beast) and Josette Day (Belle) deliver enchanting performances. The themes explored here are classics of fairy-tale literature: Innocence and greed, the transformative power of love, the fear of the unknown, and magic. Cocteau was a poet as well as a filmmaker, and this is a strong example of how the two crafts inform one another, in the way it harnesses imagery to create metaphorical connections. Weird and wonderful and powerful filmmaking. —A.G.
Some films are artistically groundbreaking and writ-large Important. Some are just such a good time that they last decade after decade. Frank Capra’s adaptation of this darkly comedic Broadway play (some of the Broadway cast reprised their roles in the film) stars Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, one of a family of Mayflower bluestocking WASP types who have, over the generations, become—I think the phrase is criminally insane? Brewster, an author of many tomes on the stupidity of marriage, gets married. On the eve of the honeymoon he drops by his family home to meet check in with his loony and sweetly homicidal aunties, a charmingly delusional uncle who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, and his brother, Jonathan, who has bodies to bury and a flat-out crazy alcoholic plastic surgeon in tow. Peter Lorre plays the surgeon, who has altered Jonathan’s face to make him look like Boris Karloff (naturally). And that’s just the setup. More than seven decades after its release, this film is still snort-soda-out-your-nose funny. Even though it’s tame, and a bit hammy by contemporary standards, the endurance of this film is a testament to both the wonderful script and the magic of Frank Capra with a stable of really talented comedic actors at his disposal (and not in the “bodies in the basement” sense). —A.G.
When you think of Italian neorealist cinema, your mind probably zips straight right on over to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a beautifully made movie about the harsh realities of life in postwar Italy. Bicycle Thieves marries sober observations about its time and place with an abiding sense of optimism that’s fully realized in the film’s climax. By contrast, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City denies its viewers the admittedly mild succor granted us by Bicycle Thieves, offering instead a raw, righteous outrage that stems from Rosselini’s national pride. The film understands wartime trauma in ways most war films simply don’t; it captures Italy’s emotional, and sociopolitical fragility in the aftermath of World War II on celluloid like an insect trapped in amber, indulging in slight degrees of wish fulfillment while staging a credible representation of Italian resistance to German occupation in 1944. Rossellini contrasts Italian fear with Italian heroism, creating opportunities for the movie’s German characters to look inward and realize that force of arms isn’t the same thing as force of courage. It doesn’t take much to do violence upon others. It takes much more to show honest to goodness bravery on pain of death. —A.C.
An act of genre deconstruction and muted political critique all in one. Akira Kurosawa plays with noir tropes more than he plays to them, deflating film noir’s inherent machismo by revealing the chief heavies of his cast as scrabbling cowards. Depending on your mood, Drunken Angel’s climactic brawl between Toshiro Mifune’s Matsunaga and Reizaburô Yamamoto’s Okada may either read as hilarious, pathetic or tragic. Aren’t mob heavies supposed to be intimidating? Like Rashomon, Drunken Angel puts male toughness on trial and makes it look ridiculous, but the study of manliness might be a smokescreen for Kurosawa’s veiled jabs at the board of censors installed by the U.S. government in post-World War II Japan. Note the Western clothing. Observe the recurring image of the bubbling muck that serves as one of the film’s central locations. The American occupation whitewashes and corrupts Japanese culture in equal measure, and Drunken Angel captures it all with deft humanism. —A.C.
Like Double Indemnity, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce succeeds on the strength of its leading lady; in this case that’s the immortal Joan Crawford, who plays the film’s central character, not to mention all of its heart and soul. (Next to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at least, it’s the most definitive Crawford performance of all time.) Mildred Pierce is a strong woman driven by an inexhaustible love for her children, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), but she’s also stymied by the restricting grasp of a patriarchal society. Even Veda is contemptuous of Mildred for daring to have the moxie to have it all. The film is about more than prickly mother-daughter relationships, of course, specifically the murder of Mildred’s second husband. But sandwiched in between this probing whodunit lies one of noir’s most sympathetic and purely humanist tales. —A.C.
How much does an artist need to suffer for their art? Can a storyteller tell a story that isn’t their own? When are you making an honest-to-goodness piece of art, and when are you just playing a sick game of nostalgie de la boue? Sullivan’s Travels doesn’t exactly answer these questions as much as it wields them like blunt instruments for punishing its protagonist, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a hot ticket in Hollywood known for churning out money-making flicks with no substantive value. He’s a fraud, his work is empty, and he knows it, so like any hack who desperately needs artistic validation to assuage his feelings of creative guilt, he hefts a hobo stick over his shoulder and hits road in the guise of a down-on-his-luck tramp, followed all the while by a lavish double-decker bus as well as the inescapable grip of his own prestige. If you’re a fan of the screwball niche of comedy filmmaking, you have to know Sullivan’s Travels, one of the best examples of its category; screwball movies aren’t simply about zaniness but energy, inertia, momentum, the snowballing power of a silly premise when backed by an intelligently designed madness. —A.C.
George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib is a curio of a time when misogyny wasn’t so much a fault as a societal given, which may be why the dynamic between married lawyers Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn, whose character thankfully wasn’t named Eve) feels at once well-balanced and hilariously unreal. A prototypical “war of the sexes” comedy in which each side represents the status quo for his or her respective gender, Adam’s Rib transcends its dumbest Mars-vs-Venus trappings by portraying Tracy’s Bonner as a stuffy turd too caught up in his derision of women to do anything about the fact that a famous musician lothario (David Wayne) is getting mighty close to cuckolding him, were Amanda Bonner a dunce susceptible to shameless advances. She’s not, and not once does Hepburn—perfectly cast—give any impression that she’ll fall for it, being clearly the smartest person in any room and fully aware of what kind of effect her extra-marital flirting has on her wussy husband.
The plot is simple: A woman (Judy Holliday) shoots and injures her cheating husband (Tom Ewell) after catching him in the act, so District Attorney Adam must represent the prosecution (cheating asshole) while Amanda, energized by her husband’s blindness regarding a woman’s helplessness when it comes to adultery, takes up the defense. The trial goes as one might expect, with Hepburn’s charisma holding the attention of every scene, but the real surprise in Cukor’s film comes within its final moments, when the rocky marital fall-out between our leads ends in an almost nihilistic bit wherein Adam reveals he can be just as emotionally manipulative as he expects all women are. Which may be screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s funniest joke: Adam’s Rib is about how men and women are equal only in how equally terrible they can be to each other. —D.S.
William Wyler directed this adaptation of a stage drama by Lillian Hellman, who also wrote the screenplay. Bette Davis stars as Regina Giddens, a Southern aristocrat living in a world where only sons were considered legal heirs—Regina’s been subverted by her greedy brothers and there are multiple conniving marriage plots around the consolidation of wealth. It’s a story of the malignancy of lust for wealth, and if you’re looking for a happy ending, this movie’s not your go-to; Davis ends up very, very alone. Hellman’s script is caustic and relentlessly grim, Wyler’s camera work is high-strung and spooky, and Davis plays the main character as an icy villain. Despite the basic unlikability of the majority of the characters, it’s a remarkably riveting film; a testament to Wyler’s directorial choices, in which we see character surehandedly reflected in small physical details and hard angles. A ruthlessly cynical tale of backstabbing and avarice, and one that might not increase your love for humanity, but riveting. —A.G.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.” Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner at the typewriter. Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall in her first feature film appearance, in front of the camera, and Howard Hawks behind it. To Have and Have Not is loosely adapted from Hemingway’s novel of the same name. (Hawks, though a fan of Hemingway’s, felt that To Have and Have Not was his worst novel, and reportedly told him so.) The rewrite was strongly influenced by the War (for example, the setting was moved from Cuba to Martinique to avoid provoking ire from the Roosevelt administration) and beyond the beginning of the book, the film veers off in its own direction—specifically in directions that made it resemble Casablanca since it had been so popular. This is the film where Bogart and Bacall met, sparking one of Hollywood’s most legendary love affairs, and that chemistry is very much in evidence in their crackling on-screen interactions. Apolitical fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (Bogart) is living in the Marquis Hotel, and fending off friend-smuggling requests from the French hotelkeeper, when he meets Marie Browning (Bacall), a charming pickpocket, in the hotel. Erotically supercharged hijinks ensue. This is at once classic Howard Hawks and quite emotionally driven compared to many of his films. The story is direct and crisply told—what makes this film a must-see classic is that it might be the ultimate in dazzling on-screen chemistry. —A.G.
You might have to watch Stray Dog under cover of air conditioning: It’s a hot film, not in the sense of carnality but in the sense of temperature. Akira Kurosawa shoots every scene in the pursuit of making his audience swelter, yanking us into the frame and effectively immersing us in his neorealist depiction of Tokyo. The city is nearly a character more than it is a backdrop, though of course the hero is Murakami (the great Toshiro Mifune, here appearing in the third of his sixteen eventual roles in Kurosawa’s filmography), a coltish young detective who is obsessed to the point of detriment with retrieving his stolen service gun. In Stray Dog, Kurosawa emulates the central feat of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, the marriage between the stylized trappings of film noir and cinematic realism, but Stray Dog doesn’t copy Dassin’s work; rather, it absorbs and applies lessons taught by The Naked City in ways that only a filmmaker like Kurosawa could. The film overemphasizes minutiae of its mise en scène, extends scenes past their natural end points, and hoovers any sense of gratification out of its climax. The effect of Kurosawa’s technique is dizzying, all the better to reinforce Stray Dog’s central theme, in which the line between lawmen and criminals is irrevocably blurred. —A.C.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, derived almost wholesale from the outsize life of Louisiana governor Huey Long, Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, despite its expansive scope, wastes no time in plunging its seemingly idealistic characters into the deep morass of moral gray. It’s a trajectory that will seem pretty traditional when it comes to stories like this—a clear progenitor is Citizen Kane, replete with Rossen’s dedicated eye to following the film’s god-like politician, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), as he both attains and, especially, freefalls from grace—but with a contemporary sense of cynicism when it comes to the American political landscape, it helps to get a reminder, if melodramatic, that corruption and power have always been blasphemous bedfellows. Crawford’s performance as the phony voice of the common “hick” is especially captivating—and not only because he so closely resembles a certain nascent president who espouses the same flimsy schtick, openly lying to the people he supposedly represents. Crawford’s face holds multitudes: Even in the beginning of the film, when we briefly court a humble, hardworking Stark, we can see in Crawford’s eyes and jowls the beginnings of something deeply troubling. That this cherubic plebian finds public success only through discarding his teetotaling tendencies and becoming a much-loved, bloviating alcoholic is about as clear as the film can get with its fatalistic feelings toward American politics: They’ve always been this polluted, and that will never change. —D.S.
Orson Welles’ third feature film was the first to feature documentary footage of the Holocaust. This film noir follows a UN War Crimes Commission agent, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) who’s hunting down fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Wilson releases a repentant former associate of Kindler’s, hoping the man will lead him to the fugitive. Kindler has has moved to a small New England town and married the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, teaches at a prep school—essentially has erased every possible trace of his former identity, save one: a longtime obsession with clocks. The former associate does find him, but Kindler’s a little reluctant to confess, opting to strangle his former friend, instead. Wilson continues to prove Kindler’s identity, and Kindler goes to greater and greater lengths to conceal it. Ultimately, of course, his undoing is a clock—literally. The producer was originally planning to hire John Huston to direct The Stranger; Welles got the job because of an ill-timed military tour that took Huston (literally and figuratively) out of the picture. Welles hadn’t directed a film in four years and was so eager for the work that he took a contract stipulating that if he went over-budget he’d be paying the studio out of pocket. It’s possible that Welles’ inventiveness was partially forged by the constraints under which he found himself working on all of his early films. He was dogged by cut-happy producers (it’s not even clear how much footage was removed but Welles was relieved of the first 16 pages of his script before principal photography even started) and contrarian casting and locations choices (Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the investigator; the studio cast Robinson; likewise he got a budget-driven “no” on filming the prep school scenes at The Todd School in Illinois, his own alma mater). The desire to personalize this film despite so many interventions were probably fundamental to the development of its nightmare-like tone and the use of reflective surfaces to provide depth and dimension in his constructed set. (Check out the drugstore scene where Wilson plays checkers with Billy House.) But perhaps most striking is the use of actual footage from concentration camps, which are still shocking to look at today but were exceedingly potent in the 1940s when large numbers of Americans still did not understand that the camps really existed. In typical Welles-versus-studio fashion, the producers backed out at the last minute on the promise of a four-picture deal to follow this film—-they had become convinced it would run at a loss and Welles was incapable of directing a mainstream hit movie. As it turned out, it was Welles’ only significant box office success on release, and remains a canonized film noir. —A.G.
The fourth and final film teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall doesn’t rank with their other onscreen pairings—the real dance here is between Bogie, as a returning veteran, and Edward G. Robinson, as a gangster who has Bogie’s war buddy’s island resort in a stranglehold, just in time for a hurricane to make landfall. Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s hit Broadway play, the resulting chamber piece swaps the Spanish Civil War for the second World War. Also exchanged are the typical noir streets for Florida’s coastal environs, every bit as claustrophobic and oppressive as the barometric pressure drops. Though only the film’s opening scenes were shot on location (the rest on the Warner Bros. lot), the exotic setting and meteorological fate render isolation to an extreme degree. Robinson is electrifying as the ex-bootlegger, whose hostages include John Barrymore as the wheelchair-bound father of Bogart’s deceased war colleague, Bacall as the soldier’s widow, and Academy-Award winner Claire Trevor as Robinson’s mistreated moll. As with Bacall here, it’s not Bogart’s finest collaboration with director John Huston, but the palpable sense of atmospheric dread and post-war disillusionment make this a trip worth taking. —Amanda Schurr
“The Great American Novel made one of the few enduring Great American Motion Pictures,” John Springer wrote of The Grapes of Wrath in The Fondas, his chronicle of the Fonda family dynasty. Maybe his words read as the wildest of exaggerations back in 1970, but in 2017 they ring as genuinely as John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel. The Grapes of Wrath endures for good reason: It’s the truth, an authentic dramatization of how American industry chews up working families and spits them out, leaving them to die in the soil they once tilled, which means that as long as agents of commerce go about the grim business of screwing people out of their livelihood, offering no apology but rather a shrug and an excuse, the film will stay relevant. “Don’t go to blaming me—it ain’t my fault,” an employee of the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company tells a group of farmers as he casually evicts them from their own land. The fault goes all the way to the bank in Tulsa, but really, knowing who’s to blame for your misfortunes doesn’t put a roof over your head, and The Grapes of Wrath proclaims boldly its belief in people before profit right up to Henry Fonda’s iconic closing speech, a poetic dedication to the need for social justice in a nation caught under the heel of corporate greed. If you’ve heard Bruce Springsteen’s tribute to the film but you haven’t seen the film yourself, carve out two hours and bask in the undying power of one of the most important movies produced by the American film industry. —A.C.
To this day, it doesn’t seem entirely fair that so much credit for Cat People is almost universally given to producer Val Lewton, rather than director Jacques Tourneur or writer DeWitt Bodeen, but it’s true of the entire run of low-budget horror films that Lewton produced at RKO. Regardless, Cat People was a populist hit in its day before being reevaluated decades later as a landmark of ’40s horror. Creeping in stark contrast to Universal’s monster movies of the same era, it leans on suspense and carefully constructed shots rather than Jack Pierce makeup to make an impression. The story of a young Russian immigrant with a dark family past, it combines aspects of film noir and mystery movies with Hitchcockian suspense, while pioneering several staple tropes of horror cinema that have been used hundreds if not thousands of times since. The scene with a young woman walking home on a dark night, stalked by an unseen presence, builds to an unexpected conclusion that must have made audiences in 1942 come jumping out of their seats. —J.V.
Broadly considered to be one of the greatest of the genre, Red River is the story of the first cattle drive down the Chisholm Trail and the film that made director Howard Hawks exclaim “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” The big son of a bitch was John Wayne, who stars as Tom Dunson, a stubborn and conflicted man on a mission to start a cattle ranch in Texas. As one would expect from any Western of the mid-20th century, there are a lot of violent “Indians” to fend off; Dunson’s love interest is slaughtered along with most of a California-bound wagon train, and in one scene where Dunson and his codger-companion Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) are in retaliatory combat, Dunson finds one of the Indians is wearing a silver bracelet that had belonged to his own mother. A traumatized boy named Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn as a child; Montgomery Clift as an adult) who survived the attack on the wagons finds Dunson and Groot and joins them; Dunson basically adopts him (along with the cow he’s got with him). Cattle ranch established, along with serious father-son issues. Chaos, stampedes, duels, shifting loyalties-and an unfortunately pat ending in which both men are basically chastened by a woman and forced to remember that they love each other. The other thing that is likely to grate upon the sensibilities of modern viewers is the tacit understanding (whether Hawks deliberately placed it there or whether it happened by default) is the “white guys can take whatever they want” attitude that pervades the minds of the characters. What holds up beautifully is Wayne’s fascinating slow fade from strapping man in the prime of life to defeated old guy, placed against Matt’s ascendancy. And, of course, some of the most beautiful and evocative scenes of endless skies and endless prairies to be found. —A.G.
Joan Fontaine stars as a woman haunted by the memory of her husband’s (Laurence Olivier) first wife. Like most of Hitchcock’s work, what makes it truly spooky are its relatable themes—in this case, living in someone else’s shadow and worrying that a loved one’s hiding something. As a result, it took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940. —B.S.
Orson Welles just couldn’t catch a break sometimes. His first feature, Citizen Kane earned him the ire of the influential media mogul William Randolph Hearst. His second, a period drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, was destroyed (in Welles’ view) when he lost control of the editing to RKO. An hour of the original film was cut and the ending re-shot, and though Welles had left detailed instructions on how it should be edited, the studio overrode him and the excised footage from his rough cut was trashed. Nevertheless, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Mutilated or not, the film continues to be lauded for its inventive mise-en-scène and its superlative performances by Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello and Agnes Moorehead. The story of a proud, well-off Midwestern family whose position and stability are compromised by the advent of the automobile, The Magnificent Ambersons was itself a victim of the vicissitudes of mass production-but that hasn’t stopped it from being an enduring and masterful Welles classic. —A.G.
Seven years before his powerhouse turn in The Big Heat, Glenn Ford played second fiddle to Rita Hayworth—how the hell could you not?—in Charles Vidor’s exotic thriller. From the moment Hayworth whips her sultry tresses into frame—to this day, a disarmingly forward, come-hither introduction made more so by her bare shoulders—we’re as gobsmacked as Ford’s drooling puppy dog. An American thug in Buenos Aires, our narrator Johnny Farrell (Ford) cheats, and then cheats some more: first at the casino of an older businessman involved in a Nazi cartel, and then with the businessman’s young new wife, his ex, Gilda (Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda hurl emotional and physical hostilities as they love-hate on each other, both felt in equal measure. But when the businessman—now Johnny’s boss—seems to meet an untimely end, the guilt-stricken employee is determined to cruelly punish both himself and Gilda for their deceit. (Sadomasochism much?) The Argentinean intrigue is marked by crackling dialogue and cast in lush shadows by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, but Vidor wisely recognizes the film belongs to Hayworth, a femme fatale of epic proportions. With a beauty for the ages as his star, Vidor doesn’t have to do much, and his static, voyeuristic direction shows in fact he didn’t. Gilda represents the oft-discussed male gaze of noir at its most blatant—she’s largely a fetishized object. But at times the framing makes Hayworth’s erotic physicality all the more charged, and dangerous. She’s not bound (at least briefly, repeatedly) to the mise en scène, a rebellious force keenly aware of her charms. She’s also more than a little desperate, as it turns out. Just watch the visual motif of that boudoir introduction recur in the “Put the Blame on Mame” musical number-turned-striptease. Gilda taunts Johnny throughout the film, goading him with her sex appeal, and for his part, Vidor teases us, too—“Gilda, are you decent?” Define decent. —A.S.
The oedipal and criminal collide yet again with James Cagney’s psychopathic mama’s boy Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, whose deadly train-robbing exploits ultimately land him in jail. While there he befriends an undercover fed (Edmond O’Brien, whose other noirs include The Hitch-Hiker) bent on nailing him for greater crimes. After Jarrett’s plottingly protective ma (Margaret Wycherly) get killed—by his equally scheming wife (Virginia Mayo), though she convinces him his right-hand man did the deed—he stages a break, and his next heist. In one of his darkest roles, 50-year-old Cagney is at his unhinged best, a powder keg of neuroses and sadistic impulses who can feign insanity—as he does in the prison infirmary—for only so long before his delusions overtake him completely. Prone to throbbing headaches, he’s a dangerously troubled tough guy who still retreats to his mother’s lap, and declares “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” as the bottom falls out from under him. This postwar psychic landscape is subversive as hell—and suburban too, no longer confined to metro limits. On that note, the damage is no longer rooted in his environment; Jarrett’s a disaster from the inside out, dysfunctional in his very wiring (thanks, ma!). Director Raoul Walsh, reuniting here with Cagney after The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde, echoes the off-the-rails energy of his leading man, infusing the film with an incendiary nihilism and amorality. The bookending set pieces, shot on location in industrial California, pulse with realism. The cumulative effect represents a primal deviation—make that devolution—from social conformity and civilization. So, yeah, of course he’s gotta get blown up, noir-comeuppance style. Still, Cagney is mesmerizing to watch self-destruct. —A.S.
In an era where your Labradoodle probably has its own therapist it’s easy to forget that psychoanalysis was a relative rarity, reserved for people of significant means … and people in mental hospitals, which is where this psychological thriller by Alfred Hitchcock takes place. When Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) takes over as director of the hospital where the remote and emotionally null Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) works, Petersen quickly realizes something is amiss with Edwardes, and it quickly comes to light that he isn’t Edwardes at all and that he is suffering amnesia. The real Dr. Edwardes is missing and feared dead. Bergman’s quest to restore his memory and figure out what happened takes a number of classically Hitchcockian turns, but the centerpiece of this film is a dream sequence, rife with psychoanalytical symbolism, that was designed by Salvador Dali. The imagery of the dream ends up helping to resolve the case (go, psychiatry!), Bergman’s Dr. Petersen isn’t as emotionless as she seems, and justice is served in the end-all good. But certainly for its day, and quite equally so now, this film is a pretty astute and sophisticated look at post-traumatic dissociative compartmentalization, and it’s really fun to watch it unfold. —A.G.
If you’re of the impression that Quentin Tarantino invented the concept of a nonlinear crime story involving boxers and hitmen, Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated short story is a must-watch. The story commences with two assassins entering a small-town gas station and executing “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster), a former professional boxer. A life insurance investigator is subsequently sent to piece together the events that led to the Swede’s demise. From here, Siodmak and his screenwriters (which included future legendary directors John Huston and Richard Brooks) weave a fascinating story that, while not always the most inspired, more than picks up the slack with the help of dynamic performances and some tensely directed set pieces. According to Hemingway’s biography, The Killers marked one of the only times the author was legitimately impressed by an adaptation of his work. —Mark Rozeman
Most of us probably associate The Third Man with Orson Welles, and why not? He’s a titan of cinema, casting his shadow over American film from the time his career began until the day he died, and though he’s been gone for over thirty years his influence is still felt in movies the world over. (You might even believe, given both the passage of time and enough viewings of The Third Man under your belt, that Welles himself is the architect of the piece, but of course you’d be 100% wrong if you did.) We should, however, think not of Welles but of Carol Reed, The Third Man’s bizarrely under-sung director, who fought for Welles’ casting as the shockingly amoral Harry Lime, ensured that the film would be shot on location in Vienna, and fused its aesthetic with expressionist flair, using light and shadows in ways that at the time had yet to be attempted (and which since have yet to be as stunningly replicated). You may not be able to imagine this film without Welles, but try imagining it without Reed: You’d have no film at all, and we’d be robbed of one of the most significant archetypes of filmmaking in the medium’s short lifespan. —A.C.
The great granddaddy of all convoluted noirs, The Big Sleep fully embodies every single identifying feature of Raymond Chandler’s writing: dialogue that sears itself into viewers’ brains, rough-cut men, seductive femme fatales, plenty of violence, a respectable body count, and enough plot curveballs to give even the most accomplished noirs twist envy. The film almost demands to be seen twice for the sheer volume of slants and revelations. Truthfully, you’ll want to watch it more than once for Howard Hawks’ direction, Sidney Hickox’s dread-inducing cinematography, and Chandler’s barbed exchanges, not to mention the raw chemistry and animal magnetism of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Production codes at the time of The Big Sleep’s release prohibited it from being as graphic as Chandler’s novel, but maybe thrillers of today can learn a valuable lesson from the restrictions: Less can so often mean much, much more. —A.C.
Considered by many to be a major turning point in Hitchcock’s career, this film, still very much in the spy/noir realm, is his first serious attempt at a love story. In another example of how the repressive Production Codes of the time gave rise to a much more exciting scene than he might otherwise have made, Hitchcock got around the “no kisses longer than three seconds” by breaking the performers apart every three seconds for some kind of embrace and then resuming the kiss. In the end it’s a two-and-a-half-minute kiss and probably much more intimate and entrancing than it would have been without the constraints he was fighting. There’s espionage. There are split loyalties. There are Claude Rains and Cary Grant both ass over teakettle for Bergman (and how could you not be?). There are disastrous miscommunications and something suspicious hidden in the wine cellar and a couple of Hitchcock’s most iconic shots and a hell of a lot of drinking. This is a movie—as are many spy movies—that is essentially about trust. Trust is a choice, a leap of faith—and not always rewarded. Sexual blackmail and postwar espionage: A classic cocktail and one that packs a punch. —A.G.
Everyone’s in love with Gene Tierney—even the guy who’s come to investigate her murder. Otto Preminger’s masterful orchestration of convoluted twists and turns, and stellar performances by Tierney, make Laura a great film noir. There were a lot of great noirs in the ’40s. What sets Laura apart is the music. David Raskin’s score is a haunting chromatic tune that plays in some variation through the entire film-perhaps the first and certainly one of the best uses of music to advance a theme in the film (obsession, in this case) and influence how we see characters. It not only dominates the background music, but it pops in in the narrative of the film—it’s the record on the phonograph; it’s the song the band is playing at the coffeeshop; it’s playing at the journalist’s party. This monothematic approach underscores the characters’ shared fascination with this dead (or is she?) woman, and it is one of the most brilliant soundtracks of its day. (And it’s pretty brilliant now, for that matter.) The film has so much going for it beyond the music—sleek, stylish, twisted Otto Preminger direction, and great performances by Tierney, Dana Andrews as the detective, Vincent Price as Laura’s waste-of-space fiancé, and Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, the journalist who claims to have been Laura’s mentor. —A.G.
The Wizard of Oz gets more populist attention, but Meet Me in St. Louis is the best Judy Garland musical by an easy margin. It was the film where the young starlet met director Vincente Minnelli, her future husband and father of Liza, and it’s a formative production in the history of the American musical in general. Not many films can say they introduced one standard, let alone multiple ones, a la “The Trolley Song” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which was later ranked as the third most-performed Christmas song of all time—you can thank Garland for the initial take on it, and she seems considerably more comfortable in her own skin here than in The Wizard of Oz. Sporting a glorious Technicolor palette of vibrant hues, it feels every bit the prestige picture that it is, but on a more inherent level it’s one of the most purely charming and universally entertaining musicals of this era, regardless of the audience it’s playing to. The opening number, as we drift through the Smith household meeting each member as they pass off bars of “Meet Me in St. Louis” to each other, instantly establishes the warm, familial tone while implanting an ear worm into your subconscious that you’ll find yourself humming days later. —J.V.
Not infrequently dubbed the best French film of all time, this is the movie Truffaut said he’d revoke his entire oeuvre to have directed. The very fact of its existence (it was filmed in 1945 during the Nazi occupation of France, which of course created significant obstacles for director Marcel Carné ) seems to contribute to its rather magical quality. A historical piece set in the 1820s Paris theater world, it centers on an enigmatic performer named Garence (Arletty) and four men who are drawn to her, each for slightly different reasons. Only one, a mime named Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), has pure intentions: Naturally, he’s the one who gets hurt. This is a tale of grand passion both between men and women and between actors and audiences, and actors and the stages they inhabit. Epic, lavish, tragic and enchanting, this film has enormous style and a kind of poetry to it. —A.G.
There’s no better way to describe Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past than “perfect.” For many, this is the epitome of all things noir, a sprawling, rambling examination of betrayal and seduction peppered with shrapnel-sharp dialogue. Out of the Past looks about as bleak as it feels. It’s savage and sexual, deeply unsettling in its nihilism and yet not utterly without hope; the final shot offers a respite of sorts from Tourneur’s otherwise unblinking sobriety. Out of the Past’s cheerlessness towers from the shoulders of its cast, a coterie of acting giants each at the top of their game. Robert Mitchum dominates, whether in his tête-à-têtes with Kirk Douglas or his simmering flirtations with Jane Greer. Together they pop, but no matter how brightly they might shine, Out of the Past remains a masterwork coated in darkness from page to screen. —A.C.
Greed is not good. John Huston’s treasure-hunt adventure is less about mining gold than mining the human psyche through action and distrust and conflict. Three unlikely comrades pursue a cache of gold, and the resulting obsession turns them against each other with tragic results. Huston uses a light hand to illuminate some pretty dark corners of human instinct, and Humphrey Bogart is marvelous as Fred Dobbs, a man destroyed by lust and paranoia as we watch. The film is lively and dynamic and visually arresting. It’s both a classic and a somewhat unconventional Western, and it’s a killer drama. —A.G.
Frank Capra’s Christmas fantasy actually kind of flopped at the box office when it was released, and put Capra on the out-to-pasture list as the studio decided he was no longer capable of scoring a hit. Then it was nominated for five Academy Awards and has become known as one of the most acclaimed films ever made. On Christmas Eve, suicidal George Bailey (the sublime Jimmy Stewart) receives a visit from a sort of junior angel who calls himself Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence is charged with pulling Bailey off the ledge, in return for which he will be granted wings. So he shows Bailey visions of his life, progressing from his childhood, showing Bailey all the times he made someone’s live better (or outright saved it). Ultimately Clarence jumps into the river before George can do it; activating the suicidal man to save Clarence rather than kill himself. It’s not enough, so Clarence shows him what the world would look like if he’d never been born. When George sees that his existence has had and continues to have a positive impact on the world, he goes home to his family, Clarence gets his wings and happiness ensues. Yup, it’s a Christmas story. And it’s one of the most enduring ones for a bunch of reasons, including Stewart’s amazing performance and a beautiful script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett along with Capra. (Both Stewart and Capra commented that it was their favorite of all the films they’d respectively worked on.) Timeless, big-hearted and disarmingly sincere, this film is one I defy you to have one cynical comment about. Go on: be cynical. You can’t, right? Right. Because it’s not possible. —A.G.
It was always a fantastic film; a tale of sadistic psychological torture, murder and greed. But today George Cukor’s suspense-gem has also attained mandatory-viewing status because it is the source text for the term “gaslighting.” The word has been swept into public discourse and mass misuse and misunderstanding. What gaslighting is (and isn’t) is defined by this film. You arguably need to see it before you can use that word and understand what you’re saying. But that alone wouldn’t be just cause in a bad movie. This is not a bad movie; in fact it’s a treasure. Mysterious, rich in feeling, deliciously creepy, and with jewel-tone supporting performances by Angela Lansbury and Joseph Cotten, it was a great psychological thriller in its day and it remains one now. So, yeah-come for the psychopathology lesson, but stay for the stunning “God’s-eye” style direction by Cuckor (no unreliable narrators here!), and wonderful performances by Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as a traumatized woman and a sociopath determined to drive her out of her mind. —A.G.
Special effects have become so sophisticated that many of us have probably forgotten how much pure amazement you can wreak with a great story and a script that doesn’t let up for one second. This amazing, dizzyingly paced screwball comedy by Howard Hawks stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and takes us back into two of the decade’s hallmark preoccupations: The “remarriage comedy” and the intrigue and obsessiveness of the newspaper world. The minute Russell’s Lindy Johnson stalks into the newspaper office run by her ex-husband Walter Burns (Grant), you know it’s to tell him she’s getting remarried and leaving journalism to raise a family, and you know that’s not how it’s going to end. No high-suspense mystery here. What puts you on the edge of your seat in this film is how you get there. Hilariously acted and expertly filmed, His Girl Friday derives much of its comedic impact from the incredibly clever and lightning-fast banter of the characters. Don’t even think about checking your phone while you’re watching this. In fact, try to blink as little as possible. —A.G.
Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie” was a biting satire that he wrote, directed, produced, scored, and starred in-as both of the lead roles, a fascist despot who bears a rather marked resemblance to Adolf Hitler and a persecuted Jewish barber. Good satire can be powerful, and this film was: Released while the United States was still formally at peace with Germany, it stirred greater public attention and condemnation of the Nazis and Mussolini, anti-Semitism and fascism. (That said, Chaplin later recounted that he could never have made the satirical film even a year or two later, as the extent of the horrors in German concentration camps became clearer.) The choice to play both the tyrant and the oppressed man was an inspired one, underscoring the frightening but inescapable truth that we all contain a little bit of both characters. This is a strikingly pertinent film for our particular moment in history, and well worth dusting off and queueing up not only for its incredible craft but for its resonance as a study in projection. —A.G.
Referred to by many as the first major noir (after the more obscure 1940 film Stranger on the Third Floor), this John Huston classic set the bar for the archetypal detective, the subgenre as a whole, and the rest of star Humphrey Bogart’s career. On the surface a murder mystery revolving around yet another archetype, that of the titular MacGuffin, The Maltese Falcon is in essence a character study, a definitive assurance of masculinity and the cool objectivity it entails, by way of one Sam Spade. Bogart’s antihero is a man of honor, as it suits him—he has no qualms about kissing his dead partner’s widow while the body’s still warm, or turning in the guilty woman he loves to the police. He’s nobody’s “sap.” Interestingly, Spade’s creator, Dashiell Hammett—who once worked as a P.I.—called the character “a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” In Bogart’s brusque yet smooth hands, that sounds about right. Likewise, this is the adaptation to which vastly inferior attempts, including a 1931 version of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, could only aspire. It is impeccable in every sense. Huston also penned the screenplay, on Howard Hawks’ advice, almost verbatim from Hammett’s hard-boiled novel. He painstakingly storyboarded the drama to include complex camerawork and lighting schemes, evocative POVs, and an uninterrupted seven-minute take whose logistics boggle the mind. The violent, stylized set pieces are as visceral as the verbal confrontations. Aside from Bogie’s legendary turn, the other performances are spot-on: among them, an already scandalized Mary Astor as the femme fatale; Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca) as hulking baddie Kasper “Fat Man” Gutman—astonishingly, his film debut; and Peter Lorre as an obviously gay associate of Gutman’s whose homosexuality was muted for the folks at the Hays Code. One of the first titles to be preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, The Maltese Falcon is landmark filmmaking. —A.S.
Long before the Boomers came to know Fred MacMurray as the kindly father on My Three Sons, the actor essayed his best performance in Double Indemnity as the deplorable, hard-boiled Walter Neff, who falls for a married temptress (Barbara Stanwyck) who talks him into killing her husband. Whether in film or on television, MacMurray normally played the nice guy, but for Double Indemnity he turned his everyman decency into a mask—perfect for a character who can barely conceal what a lustful, conniving bastard he is. One of the great noirs, this early effort from Billy Wilder revealed the filmmaker’s talent for wonderfully thorny, unapologetically rotten characters—and it doubles as one of the definitive mid-century Los Angeles movies. —Tim Grierson
Can you believe there was a time when Katharine Hepburn was known in Hollywood as “box office poison”? This adaptation of a Broadway hit was a vehicle to get her career back on track after a series of flops. Her performance as icy heiress Tracy Lord in this “remarriage” comedy is a force of nature. Happily, her no-longer-drunken ex is played by Cary Grant, who is a fabulous foil. Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey round out the cast as reporters in not-so-clever disguise. Pretty much everything about this movie is a pure delight, and the script is a masterpiece. —A.G.
This neo-realist film is has been considered by many to be “the greatest film of all time.” It received a special Academy Award for Most Outstanding Foreign Film several years before the category officially existed. The story’s simple enough: a poor man and his son search postwar Rome for the man’s stolen bicycle, without which he cannot work. Vittorio de Sica’s vision hits all the notes of the Italian Neorealist style Pioneered by Roberto Rossellini – the story is simple, the characters are relatively simple (some aren’t actors at all; Enzo Staiola, who plays the man’s son and cohort, was plucked off the sidewalk), and there is a focus on the quotidian lives of working class people and the unemployment and poverty that plagued Italy in the postwar years. The Bicycle Thief is both a sentimental portrait of a father and son, and a dramatization of the social issues of its era. —A.G.
There are probably a decent number of auteur-theorist types who’d quibble with me for saying Casablanca is a perfect film. The production team didn’t consider it a big deal, in fact; just one of hundreds of films being made that year (despite a major league cast and great writers). It performed solidly at the box office, though not spectacularly. Then it won a bunch of Academy Awards. Then its reputation began to grow. One of the many interesting things about Casablanca is its epic durability – the story feels as fresh and real today as it did in 1945. A romantic drama with political tones and a ton of wit, it features superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Paul Henreid (for starters). Doomed love, self-sacrifice, Bogie one-liners galore, and one of the most quintessential cinematic moments of its age (both of my kids were born after 9/11 and even they cheered when that chorus of La Marseillaise drowned out the Nazis). Smart, sweet, and witty; probably the quintessential film of the 1940s, and one of the best feel-good movies of the 20th century. —A.G.
Orson Welles was only 24 when he made this cinematic masterpiece-his first feature, and considered by many to be the greatest film of all time-a rather chilling portrait of an enigmatic, narcissistic newspaper tycoon. (William Randolph Hearst was not pleased, and tried to have the movie suppressed. When that didn’t work he had Welles thoroughly libeled in all his papers.) Innovative cinematography, intriguing storytelling and great acting are all reasons to watch this dramatic mystery, in which journalists race to unspool the mystery of the absurdly wealthy and tyrannical Kane’s mysterious dying word, “Rosebud.” The way the plot unfolds is fascinating, the shifts in point of view are superb, and the mirroring opening and closing sequences are beautiful. But in addition, you might notice that the film remains eerily timely in an age in which the influence and power of the mass media (and the accrual of gauche, pointless wealth) is a topic of constant discourse. —A.G.