1948 is one of the hardest years I’ve ever had to rank. It might just be the greatest year in film history (at the very least, one of the top three). The sheer quality of the films in the honorable mention slots are enough to rank very high on any other 40s list and the top of any modern list. I’m embarrassed to leave some of these great pictures off my list. All I can say is that the ranking of these films is purely arbitrary, and I encourage y’all to see all of these films at some point. The honorable mentions are very honorable, indeed.
Okay, I’m going to try something different this year and muse on a theme in some way for each film. This year’s theme will be redemption, as its been on my mind heavily since watching MOONRISE and writing about JEZEBEL. This will probably fail instantly. Here goes:
While I feel that this list is mostly arbitrary, I definitely know what deserves to be number one. How could it not be THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE? One of the first classics I ever saw and fell in love with, and something I’ve continued to love unconditionally since. It’s a masterpiece about greed, self-interest, and the corruption of the human soul. No film, perhaps, has remained so timely as this, with avarice and the manipulation of others only seeming to grow more prevalent in our current global economic free-for-all. It’s a moral tale graced with great characters and writing and an ironic finale that represents one of the best and most edifying things about classic film. The irony is there to bring about a sense of acceptance and resignation from our remaining characters. The boisterous laugh they share as they are humbled and brought to their knees perhaps points the way towards moral growth or healing. There is a hope for redemption that comes with their resignation and ironic failure.
I couldn’t stop thinking about LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN after I saw it. It’s just so beautiful and tragic–it sort of burrows into your conscience and makes you reflect on how thoroughly your actions impact others. Max Ophüls’ stunning camera work and visuals aside for the moment–the content of this film is complex, truly emotional, and humbling. I think it’s his greatest film. At the end, Stefan Brand’s insouciance has resulted in the destruction of a young woman’s life. He deserves to be punished for his negligence–something we are left believing he has finally realized. Instead of backing away from the duel that will likely kill him, he has decided to embrace it, redeeming himself in the process. He may not be making up for his actions in embracing his punishment, but he has learned to take responsibility for them. A glimmer of honor and dignity are returned to his soul.
RED RIVER is one of my all-time favorite westerns. It’s a great one because it teaches you a lesson about family. Dunson and Matt are two head-strong people, brought together as surrogate father and son by a stroke of fate. There is a real unspoken connection and admiration between them, but they are both too stubborn to give in to these feelings–perhaps seeing them as a sign of weakness. The two are driven apart violently, but their relationship is ultimately (through the help of a typically strong Hawksian woman) restored after truly seeing the error of their contentious ways. The redemption of a familial relationship gone asunder is what drives the heart of his film and shows the path towards reconcillation.
I love ROPE. It’s mercilessly efficient and a breeze to watch. It also contains genius and tense scenes reflecting on Nietzschean misreadings and the nature of hubris. I don’t know how much redemption there is in ROPE, but I think Jimmy Stewart’s final rant against the boys hints at the redemption that one can always find before going over the edge. Berating the two for perverting his teaches and thinking they are untouchable is both his way of redeeming himself from their attempt to drag him into the abyss and taking them to task for refusing to see the light. If that’s a stretch, I apologize.
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is wickedly funny, and intensely creative. As funny and dark as it is, even it has themes about revealing our follies and redeeming us from the awful and vindictive places our minds are oft to go. The fact that Alfred’s attempt to carry out his schemes are completely foiled by his own blunders teaches him how silly his rage is. When he finds out his wife has been faithful all the time, his embarrassment is consummate. The fact that his wife forgives his madness is hopefully enough of lesson to Alfred not to sink down so low again. A lesson of redemption from jealously through love and forgiveness.
MOONRISE, a gorgeous, poetic, sensitive, and emotional noir is really what started this whole redemption theme in the first place. I apologize for having it so low on the list, but I’ll need to see it more or reflect on it more before I let it rise the way it probably will. The Self-Styled Siren has a nice little write-up for this film about how jarring it’s opening images are and how unusually humanistic it is for a noir (two things that stood out to me as well). It’s basically the opposite of something like CRISS CROSS or ANGEL FACE. It is actually actively seeking redemption and healing for itself. The final moments of the film are so beauitful that I couldn’t help but tear up. A broken piece of flesh is literally learning to become a human being again. He greets his fate, accepts his punishment, but takes both with a newfound dignity that has eluded him his whole life. His embrace of the dog he previously kicked pulled at my heart. His final promenade with the woman who has always believed in him made the tears grow. If the sort of redemption in JEZEBEL is rare nowadays, then the sort of redemption in this film is just nonexistent. Beautiful, beautiful movie.
PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, a beautiful and ethereal mystery, I think fits our theme quite nicely. All credit to Ed Gonzalez’s great review of the film for enlightening me about much of the film’s spiritual and artistic odyssey. Here we have a man who finds modern redemption through the help of a young girl’s wandering spirit. In re-creating the past, he learns to find spiritual fulfillment and artistic pleasure in the present. There is something very strong and poetic here about learning to redeem yourself through love and the acceptance of the past. A lovely film.
GERMANY YEAR ZERO may not fit our theme so well, but only because it purposefully wants to teach us something by NOT finding redemption. I appreciate this because I think it is necessary to reflect on permanent destruction, especially in the wake of war. GYZ is a brave film. Humanizing German civilians and depicting their squalor only a few years after WWII is bold indeed. The film doesn’t sentimentalize their devastation nor does it make excuses for what brought them to it. It’s more objective in its docu-realist look at how families can be destroyed and youth corrupted by war. I don’t know if the film’s ending provides us with redemption. I know that it’s supposed to shake us in its presentation of a young life ruined sooner than it should have been (a la IVAN’S CHILDHOOD). It might be a stretch, but their could be redemption through death. A sort of eternal respite that saves the the troubled soul from wasting away piecemeal. I don’t know. Perhaps, GYZ is one of those films, like Bresson’s MOUCHETTE, that asks us to find solace in death and the hint of comfort in the end of suffering.
There isn’t a whole lot to redeem in FOUR FACES WEST, if only because everyone is already so decent to begin with. I wrote about this before and John is a huge admirer. A western without any bullets fired, without any violence, and without any central antagonist. It’s refreshing and pleasant to say the least. A really good-natured film that I think is easy to love. The film isn’t so much a call towards redemption as it is a plea for understanding and setting things right. We all have our motivations for our actions, and we are not wholly one aspect or another. This film understands that very well.
I apologize for having ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN so low, Brandon. I believe that you are a much bigger A&C fan than I. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t love them; I could watch Lou Costello’s shtick all day. Talk about the perfect blend between horror and comedy; this is like the original AVENGERS for fans of both genres. Does my redemption theme fit this film? Probably not. This may be where I run dry. Regardless, this film is a blast.
I don’t think I have the energy to write about the honorable mentions. I think they are all really good (the first seven I’d say are actually quite great) in their own respective ways. Worth seeing and expounded over, but for another day, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the list:
1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
2. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophüls)
3. Red River (Hawks)
4. Rope (Hitchcock)
5. Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges)
6. Moonrise (Borzage)
7. Portrait of Jennie (Dieterle)
8. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
9. Four Faces West (Green)
10. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton)
HM: The Red Shoes (Powell, Pressburger), La Terra Trema (Visconti), Bicycle Thieves (De Sica), Key Largo (Huston), The Fallen Idol (Reed), Force of Evil (Polonsky), Oliver Twist (Lean), Call Northside 777 (Hathaway), Fort Apache (Ford), Hamlet (Olivier)