TEN BEST FILMS OF THE 1940s

It will not surprise you what is at the top of my list of the ten best films of the 1940s:

1. CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles, U.S., 1941). Rosebud.
     The attempted deconstruction of a man’s life by an investigative reporter, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is a fascinating film. Nearly intolerably moving, it’s a titanic, dark, dense canvas of American sociology, history and politics that sums up as waste the crammed life of a newspaper magnate, who, disconnected from family and his own past, “buys things.” With its infinite reflexivity, the hall of mirrors in the elderly Kane’s mansion suggests his attempt to extend time and space, that is to say, defy mortality. But life exhausts even such illusionary extensions; like the rest of us, Kane reaches a last deadline. It is here—at Kane’s end—that the movie begins.
     Except for us, no one is present to hear Kane’s deathbed utterance: “Rosebud.” This signals the absurdity of any attempt to “solve the mystery” of a human life. What is “Rosebud”? At the last, one of the countless possessions of Kane’s that’s tossed into an insatiable furnace is the childhood sled bearing that name and image. Rather than this, though, “Rosebud” suggests the accumulated thought, feeling and memory that Kane attached to the discarded object. Ultimately, perhaps, it signifies loss, which Kane’s solitudinous egotism has monstrously enlarged into his own province, his Xanadu.
     Rather than the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, “Rosebud” remains an elusive clue in a mystery too vast to admit solution. Thus the film is self-critical, its zigzagging time structure at every point undercutting the straight line of inquiry that the reporter’s investigation tries to impose.
     Citizen Kane haunts and astounds, as in the case of the closing visual pun of a man’s whole life going up in smoke, preceded by a sweeping crane shot of Kane’s accumulated stuff—an apotheosis of American material obsessiveness that fills loneliness.

2. DAY OF WRATH (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1943). Although based on a play by Wiers Jensen, Dreyer’s Vredens Dag is apt to remind Americans of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anne (Lisbeth Movin, wondrous), a parson’s much younger wife, falls in love with her stepson. After hearing her heart’s confession, her husband dies, and her beloved guiltily joins those denouncing her as a witch—a designation that she, broken, accepts.
     Dreyer discloses a seventeenth-century world of dark, spare interiors, where, like the stiffly dressed souls inhabiting them, light appears molded, constrained. Outdoors, the young clandestine couple steal respites of fresh, sunlit air amidst beauteous Nature. The “Dies Irae,” which opens it, also closes the film; on the latter occasion, the “day of judgment” is Anne’s. To her public confession, before she is burned to death, we bring our memory of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Whereas he showed us Jeanne’s execution, however, Dreyer leaves Anne poised in the direction of hers; because she lacks Jeanne d’Arc’s sure consolation of a heaven-to-come, Anne is trapped and uncertain on eternity’s brink—like Occupied Denmark, which she embodies. Anne’s unquarrelsome move toward her terrible end makes comprehensible, as nothing else in cinema, the countless wartime acts of civilian courage and sacrifice committed by Europeans who, like Anne, felt certain that they also were on their way to the stake. Under their eyes, Dreyer took aim at his nation’s captors; but refusing this as his own day of judgment, he managed to escape to neutral Sweden. Anne’s fatalistic impulse to die, by its spiritual integrity, thus informed Dreyer’s impulse to live.
     Somber, spiritually radiant, almost unendurably moving, Day of Wrath is a work whose gravity and deliberate pace suggest human responsibility as it is perfectly weighed in the mind of God.

3. GERMANY, YEAR ZERO (Roberto Rossellini, East Germany, Italy, France, 1947). Filmed in German in Berlin with a nonprofessional cast, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero is the single greatest work of neorealismo. It is the clinically observed case study of Edmund (Edmund Meschke, shattering), a 12-year-old child coping with the Second World War’s aftermath. It pursues a generalization of the war’s civilian toll, then, through his example.
     Rossellini’s aim is to foster the kind of social consciousness that searches out remedies for appalling social conditions. Opening commentary presents facts: Berlin is “almost totally destroyed”; there, “3.5 million people live desperate lives”; “German children need to relearn to love life.” This orientation steadies us for events we are unlikely to anticipate: the boy kills his father with poison before dropping to his own death from a gutted neighborhood building. Locating Edmund in this milieu early on, a panning shot of the city finds him digging graves because he is, we learn, his family’s sole support, apart from government rations. But he is deemed too young for the job and dismissed. Edmund is between a rock and a hard place.
     The grave digging introduces two themes. One is war’s disruption and theft of childhood. The other is war’s relegation of human life to the discardable and disposable. The course of Edmund’s experience, culminating in his suicide, will bring this theme to fruition, but, in the meantime, its principal agency is Edmund’s elderly, ailing father. “I’d be better off dead,” he tells Edmund, his youngest. “I have to watch all of you suffer without being able to help.” Such remarks also burden Edmund beyond what he can comprehend or bear. A child is lost before our eyes.
     The most dynamic “character” in the film is Rossellini’s camera: darting, sweeping, probing, burrowing—and catching illimitable tragedy.

4. THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (John Ford, U.S., 1940). Drawn from four sea plays by Eugene O’Neill, here is John Ford’s most poetic and affecting film—this, despite a slip or two into island native-exotica that, ridiculous, the original texts do nothing to discourage. Noble and humane, and rich with a sense of “the pity of war” (Wilfred Owen’s phrase, not O’Neill’s), The Long Voyage Home transcends (as Ford films often have to do) all manner of blemishes, including bad acting by John Wayne and Ward Bond, two normally reliable Ford regulars. (Wayne fumbles with a Swedish accent and doesn’t seem quite dumb enough—a frightening prospect.) On the other hand, there is marvelous acting by Thomas Mitchell, Wilfred Lawson, Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, Fitzgerald’s brother.
     The film is set during the First World War but addresses the time in which it was made, reflecting Ford’s unease over the world’s then-current unsettled state, which for Ford and others the bombing of Pearl Harbor, less than two years away, would bring to a point of decision. The mood pervading The Long Voyage Home is of dispossession and homelessness, of irresolution, disquieting uncertainty. Sailors onboard the merchant ship Glencairn, like those in Ford’s Mister Roberts (1955), inhabit a suspended state; a time-erasing fog envelops the Glencairn. This cargo vessel becomes a target of war; is nothing safe? Survivors and lost hands equally seem ghosts of the past: souls lost either to war or to time—souls “lost” in the very moment of their lives.
     Incalculably aided by a virtuoso script by Dudley Nichols (which removes almost all of O’Neill’s use of dialect), Gregg Toland’s shimmeringly beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Richard Hageman’s haunting music, Ford thus distills an elegiac lament for us all. Especially in the last movement, his filmmaking achieves powerful, sweeping results.

5. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (Orson Welles, U.S., 1942). Along with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), studio-mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons, from Booth Tarkington, is one of the two great “lost works” of American cinema. It is still phenomenal, though: a dark, sober, penetrating meditation on a country in perpetual growth and transition. Nostalgia nearly coincides with experience, rather than waiting on the passage of time, amidst kaleidoscopic changes in fashion and—embodied in the “horseless carriage”—technology. An old-money family, the Ambersons, is tripped by these changes and, eventually, left behind.
     Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful sequence Welles ever shot is the Amberson ball. The camera follows guests in through the front door, winds of recollection rushing by; when guests dance in the echoing hall, an intricately choreographed long take discloses the last gasp, prior to bankruptcy, of the family’s integrated high life. Later on, these exceptionally fluid shots reach an ironic impasse on the town’s new, flat-sounding city street, where Welles’s superimpositions of upheaval, denoting progress, find the insular family dream, along with the bones of its youngest, sturdiest member (Tim Holt, excellent), broken (by an automobile) into bits—metaphorically, the price exacted from those unable to adapt to growth’s rapid changes. Welles’s voiceover is grimly prophetic as a dollying camera—a pedestrian—tours a town that now consists of profuse power lines, new tall buildings and low, abandoned ones: “George Amberson Minifer walked homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city. The town was growing and changing. It was heaving up in the middle, incredibly. It was spreading, incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself, and darkened its sky.”
     The Magnificent Ambersons identifies America with stunted emotion. Consider George’s frustrated Aunt Fanny, soul-sister to Trina in Greed, and brilliantly acted by Agnes Moorehead.

6. HENRY V (Laurence Olivier, Great Britain, 1944). Drawing visually on The Book of Hours, Paolo Ucello’s paintings, and Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see above), Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, from Shakespeare, was his contribution to Britain’s war effort against Nazi Germany: a pageant and a battle film full of patriotic fervor and stirring rhetoric. Ingeniously, it shifts from the Globe Theater in Elizabethan London to the fifteenth century and, at the end, back again, all the while reflecting on the present (1944).
     In a stupendous performance, Olivier is the young king whose heroism we see in the calm he exhibits the night before the big battle with France, and in his rousing St. Crispian’s Day speech to his battered troops, exhorting them to fight.
     The 1415 Battle of Agincourt is the film’s great set-piece: the cascade of English arrows given amazing flight to reduce the French army to a more manageable number. The day turns out to be Harry’s; and, after the reading of the names of the dead, come the play’s most poignant lines, rendered by Olivier with devastating irony:

Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,
The dead with charity enclosed in clay.
And then to Calais, and to England then,
Where ne’er from France arrived more happier men.

     At Agincourt, the camera passes through a palace window to survey, in one long tracking shot, conquered France: a bleak, inconsolable landscape punctuated by two lone persons, a girl and a boy. The shot is so achingly desolate that it chastises Harry for the flippancy of his remark to Princess Katherine, the French king’s daughter whom he is wooing for a politically advantageous wife, that he loves France so much he will not part with a village of it!
     Olivier brought us all “a little touch of Harry in the night.”

7. CITY STREETCLEANERS (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1948). Rome, 1948. Night evaporates as dawn’s light steals in. Human figures are dense shadows and anonymous. A train, marking time and infinity, passes through; substance translates into evanescence beneath a solemn sky. Slight camera movements suggest time’s sweep. An angled overhead shot shows men sweeping steps in a public square. Influenced by Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the delightful, rhythmic magic of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Nettezza urbana, starkly photographed in black and white, and jazzily scored by Giovanni Fusco, has begun.
     With daylight, our view becomes clear. We see the faces of individual streetcleaners, as well as the faces of others in the streets. We also take in the integral role that streetcleaners play—their interaction with the rest of the city. Someone throws something out of her apartment window and it becomes part of what the streetcleaner sweeps up below.
     In the course of the film, we see persons at other mundane work in the streets, with everyone contributing to the great symphony of Rome. Antonioni’s film is poetic, associative, elastic. It purges its glimpse of laboring men of the overt socioeconomic context, relegating this to an invisible realm of inference—the maintenance we observe accumulates into a metaphor for Italy’s postwar reconstruction—and thereby creating a complex double vision of (implicit) economic hardship in the present and (explicit) nuts-and-bolts activity that looks ahead, quietly and without fanfare or heightened rhetoric, to an employed, stabilized Italy in the future.

8. MONSIEUR VERDOUX (Charles Chaplin, U.S., 1947). Henri Landru had been guillotined for murdering eight women. Fifteen years later, in 1937, Henri Verdoux met the same fate, with a half-dozen more victims to his credit—or debit. From the grave, this “mass killer” speaks to us as disembodied voiceover, describing himself as having been “for thirty years an honest bank clerk until the Depression of 1930, in which year I found myself unemployed. It was then I became occupied in liquidating members of the opposite sex. This I did as strictly a business enterprise, to support a home and a family,” that is to say, wheelchair-bound wife and young son. This modern Bluebeard, actually, juggled numerous marriages simultaneously, all to those whom he murdered for their money so that the only marriage and family that he cared about could survive in these “desperate times.” Henri was too old to find other employment.
     From an idea by Orson Welles, Chaplin’s tartly funny black comedy, with slapstick interludes, reflects on the recently ended Second World War; looking ahead ten years past Verdoux’s execution, it assumes the form of a political statement. Its centerpiece is yet another dazzlingly brilliant Chaplin performance, this time as a dapper, world-weary cynic who ultimately believes that he did not murder enough people, because, as he puts it (echoing Stalin), “[n]umbers sanctify.” Through Verdoux, Chaplin is taking aim at war, in particular, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Relatedly, he is aiming at capitalism, which ruthlessly cuts employees loose when it has no further use for them. Business and war are combined in an unseen figure in the background of the plot: a munitions manufacturer.
     “I’ve never had rum!” En route to his beheading, Henri thus has a new experience: Chaplin’s quiet affirmation of the beauty of life.

9. LATE SPRING (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1949). Every girl should get married, and every father is doing the right thing by seeing to it that this happens—in letting go his daughter. This conventional wisdom, though, does not describe how Shukichi and Noriko Somiya, in Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun, feel. Although no spring chicken (she is 27), Noriko has no interest in marriage and is as content remaining with her widowed father, a professor, as he is content in having her remain. But society takes a different view, and Masa, the professor’s sister, is especially meddlesome in her determination to get Noriko married. If her getting married is the way things ought to be, Shukichi comes up with a scheme to push Noriko out of the nest: he will pretend that he is about to get remarried. Noriko, whose smiles conceal disappointment, finally accepts a suitor’s proposal, and Shukichi ends up alone in his kitchen, peeling an apple. It drops to the floor. This, now, is the way life will be.
     Based on a novel by Kazuro Hirotsu, Late Spring benefits from a brilliant script by Ozu and Kôgo Noda. Social comedy and familial tragedy brush across one another. Self-determination is hard to come by; disappointment results from the compromises one makes in the course of one’s life. At the same time, however, Ozu hasn’t made an adolescent film decrying how bad things are. His is a film of acceptance. Ozu’s resigned acceptance, which is philosophical, not defeatist, derives from the contemplation that permeates his postwar films. As usual, Ozu is peerless at capturing another intersection: the rush of emotion; the passage of time.
     And his two perfect actors give tremendously moving performances: Chishu Ryu as Shukichi, whose smiles conceal as much as his daughter’s, and Setsuko Hara as Noriko.

10. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART TWO (Sergei M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R., 1946) (THE BOYARS’ PLOT). Ivan Groznyy II: Boyarsky zagovor finds Ivan, back in Moscow, under “the burden of power.” His increased paranoia is not without reason; in his absence the Boyars replaced him, and now their efforts to replace him permanently double. Cinema’s greatest flashback shows that Ivan the boy’s mother, like Ivan the man’s wife, was poisoned by the Boyars, orphaning him. (“I am alone,” he says, meaning, “I am alone again.”) The Boyars had meant to replace his most trusted advisor with themselves. But even as a child Ivan opposed their schemes to sell Russian lands to foreigners; one day he will reclaim all Russia and unify it. This pact with himself shows his integrity of spirit. However, a brilliant shot underscores the limit that childhood imposes on his will: Archduke Ivan’s feet do not reach their ceremonial cushion. Trust Eisenstein to show politics and sexuality converging.
     The immense shadow on the wall, in the first part, of Ivan’s bearded head projected the essence of Tsar Ivan’s power, along with its burden of responsibility and loneliness—humanity beyond humanity. Ivan’s boyhood past dictates his present for the sake of Russian history.
     Lonely Ivan befriends a priest, conceding to him a measure of political power. Moreover, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as the Boyars’ plot expressionistically closes in on him—by a stroke of irony, a plot to replace him with a young idiot, a perpetual child whom the Boyars hope to manipulate as they once tried doing with him. Eisenstein’s one passage in color reflects an insulated waking phantasmagoria.
     Stalin, who felt reassured in his own power grab by the first part, now suppressed the second and terminated filming of the third. Eisenstein’s unaccepted pleas contributed to his fatal heart attack at fifty.

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One thought on “TEN BEST FILMS OF THE 1940s

  1. So pleased to see THE LONG VOYAGE HOME on your list. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and it immediately became my favorite Ford film. I like Ford when he’s at his most Modernist and expressionistic — FOUR SONS (1928) is another favorite — and the O’Neill material, combined with Toland’s photography, brought out the best in him.

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