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Category Archives: 1948

The 10 Best Films of 1948

Hamlet Oscar

When the 21st Academy Awards were held on March 24, 1949, it marked the first time a non-Hollywood production won best picture. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet was nominated for seven Oscars and took home four — best motion picture, best actor, best art direction (black & white), and best costume design (black & white).

Olivier was nominated for best director, but that award went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Nevertheless, the evening represented a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for several Oscars, but only received a special award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

In another “Oscar first,” Jane Wyman won the Academy Award for best actress for her role as a deaf-mute girl in Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda, becoming the first person since the silent era to win an Oscar for a role with no spoken lines.

Whether or not you take the Academy Awards seriously, there’s no denying that 1948 was a great year for movies.

I always have trouble narrowing down my favorites from any year to just 10, but it was especially hard this year. Do you agree with my picks? Violently disagree? Leave a comment.

Ladri di biciclette1. Bicycle Thieves

Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece is the story of a man whose livelihood depends on his bicycle. When it’s stolen, he and his son embark on a journey through Rome to find the thieves.

Rope2. Rope

Alfred Hitchcock’s film about two thrill-killers who throw a dinner party with the food served over the body of the man they’ve just murdered is a tour de force of suspense, and one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts.

The Fallen Idol3. The Fallen Idol

Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s short story “The Basement Room” is a twisty tale of lies, deception, and half-truths as seen through the eyes of a young boy who lives in the French Embassy in London, and who thinks he’s seen the butler he idolizes commit a murder. It’s tragic and moving, but not without doses of humor and irony.

Force of Evil4. Force of Evil

Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil stars John Garfield and Thomas Gomez as brothers on opposite sides of a criminal conspiracy. It’s one of the greatest film noirs of all time, and a scathing critique of America’s financial system.

Hamlet5. Hamlet

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in this dark, macabre, and expressionistic psychodrama that owes as much to film noir and Universal horror films as it does to the traditions of the theater. Hamlet is a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, and one of the best versions of a Shakespeare play ever filmed.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The search for gold in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre brings out the best and the worst in the men who seek it. Humphrey Bogart turns in one of the best performances of his career as a treasure hunter who succumbs to greed and paranoia. It’s a film with excellent pacing, an involving story, believable characters, and great location shooting.

Drunken Angel7. Drunken Angel

Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel stars Takashi Shimura as an alcoholic physician with good intentions but a terrible bedside manner and Toshirô Mifune as a cocky young gangster dying of tuberculosis. Drunken Angel is Kurosawa’s first really great film; a brilliantly acted and mesmerizing portrait of a filthy, decimated, and recently defeated nation.

Red River8. Red River

Howard Hawks’s Red River is the story of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail up from Texas. It features Montgomery Clift in a star-making turn and John Wayne in one of the best performances of his career. It’s a rousing adventure film about men on a dangerous mission, as well as a timeless story of fathers and sons.

The Naked City lobby card9. The Naked City

The second and final collaboration between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin defined the genre of the police procedural. It’s a tremendously entertaining, well-made picture, and a love letter to New York City.

He Walked by Night10. He Walked by Night

What The Naked City did for New York, Alfred L. Werker’s He Walked by Night does for Los Angeles. It’s a stylish, suspenseful police procedural that helped give birth to the genre-defining radio and TV show Dragnet.

Honorable Mentions:

Act of Violence, Anna Karenina, The Big Clock, Blanche Fury, Call Northside 777, Canon City, Fort Apache, Fury at Furnace Creek, I Remember Mama, Johnny Belinda, Key Largo, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Louisiana Story, Moonrise, Music in Darkness (Musik i mörker), Pitfall, Portrait of Jennie, Raw Deal, The Red Shoes, The Search, The Snake Pit, Spring in a Small Town, State of the Union, They Live by Night.

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun (1948)
Directed by Fei Mu
Wenhua Film Company

Like every good story about a love triangle, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is more about desperate longing and the subterranean passions that threaten social order than it is about the tawdry mechanics of infidelity.

Based on a short story by Li Tianji, Spring in a Small Town stars Wei Wei as Zhou Yuwen, a 26-year-old woman living in the ruins of post-war China. Her husband, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), comes from a family that was once prosperous, but is now penniless. Parts of their home are uninhabitable following the ravages of war, and Liyan is stricken with a vague but consuming ailment. Their marriage is passionless. Yuwen performs her wifely duties — shopping for groceries, giving her husband his medicine — but they barely speak to each other and do not sleep in the same bed. They share their house with the elderly servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) and Liyan’s teenaged sister, Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei).

One day, the couple’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) appears at their home in a brazen but friendly manner. He has been gone for the past 10 years, and is now a well-traveled doctor. He brings joy to all the members of the household, although Lao Huang, the servant, is mystified by his nontraditional habits (he doesn’t drink tea, and he doesn’t wash before going to bed; not even his face).

But before long, Liyan can’t help noticing that his wife is happier around Zhichen than she has been in years. And Yuwen herself is torn between loyalty to her husband and the happiness and passion that Zhichen could offer her.

Wei Wei

After the Chinese Communists declared victory in 1949, this film was rejected because of its apolitical story, but its reputation has grown since the China Film Archive struck a new print in the early 1980s. In 2002, Zhuangzhuang Tian produced a remake, called Springtime in a Small Town, and in 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named the original Spring in a Small Town the greatest Chinese-language film of all time.

It’s an intimate film without a lot of overt symbolism, but it’s hard not to notice that the members of the Dai household wear more traditional clothing than Zhang Zhichen, who wears a western suit and tie, as well as a wristwatch. He is modernity incarnate, and full of life and promise, while Yuwen’s husband is a moribund symbol of the past.

Spring in a Small Town is a simple but elegant and affecting film. I especially liked Wei Wei’s dreamlike voiceover narration.

Unfortunately, I felt as if I wasn’t able to completely appreciate the film because the print I watched was lousy. The only version of the film currently available in the United States on DVD is from Cinema Epoch, and it’s plagued with problems. (It appears to be the source for the complete version of the film uploaded to YouTube that I’ve linked to below). The picture is softly focused, there are missing frames, there’s a constant background hiss on the soundtrack, some of the cuts seem jumpy, and the subtitles are poorly timed. I was still able to enjoy the film, but when you compare this DVD with the presentation of films from the same period by the great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu that the Criterion Collection has put out on DVD and Blu-ray, well … there’s no comparison. Spring in a Small Town is a great film, and it deserves a better presentation than this.

Ladies of the Chorus (Dec. 30, 1948)

Ladies of the Chorus
Ladies of the Chorus (1948)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Columbia Pictures

Unless you’re a massive fan of low-budget musicals and comedies from the 1940s, the only reason to watch Ladies of the Chorus is to see Marilyn Monroe in her first big role.

Well, OK. There’s one more reason. If you’re a massive film nerd like I am, it’s also worth watching because it was directed by Phil Karlson. From 1944 through 1947, Karlson directed more than a dozen B movies for Monogram Pictures (later Allied Artists). In 1948, he moved up to making B features for Columbia Pictures. After lensing two westerns for Columbia — Adventures in Silverado and Thunderhoof — he directed Ladies of the Chorus.

Karlson’s best work lay ahead of him. He would go on to direct tough, taut film noirs like Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), and The Phenix City Story (1955), as well as one of my favorite tough-guy vigilante movies of all time, Walking Tall (1973).

But Ladies of the Chorus really has nothing in common with those movies. The only connection is Karlson’s professionalism and attention to detail. It’s a fun little movie, just an hour long, with plenty of music and songs. Musicals and corny comedies aren’t really my thing, but I appreciate any well-made film. And I absolutely love Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe 1948

Marilyn Monroe turned 22 years old in 1948. This movie was the first time she got her name in the credits.

She plays a girl named Peggy who was born into a life of burlesque. Her mother, Mae Martin, was a burlesque queen back in Boston. When she married a wealthy young man whom she loved, the wealthy young man’s father had him shipped off to Europe and the marriage annulled. But Mae was already pregnant with Peggy.

Mae is played by Adele Jergens, who turned 31 on November 26, 1948. She’s obviously not old enough to be Marilyn Monroe’s mother, so the makeup department put a few gray streaks in her hair.

When the star of the burlesque show, Bubbles (Marjorie Hoshelle), insults Mae’s gray hair and the wig she wears on stage, Peggy attacks her. The stage manager breaks up the fight and shouts, “Fightin’ like a couple of alley cats. What are you tryin’ to do, give burlesque a bad name?”

He sends Mae in to replace Bubbles, but Mae pulls a switcheroo and sends in Peggy instead. Naturally, she kills on stage and becomes a new queen of burlesque. And of course history repeats itself when a young man from a blue-blooded family falls for her.

Peggy’s wealthy suitor is played by Rand Brooks, who’s a bit of a drip. He doesn’t have any chemistry with Monroe, but like I said, she’s the main reason to see this movie. (Although I really like Adele Jergens, too.) Monroe doesn’t quite have the breathy, “baby doll” voice she developed later in her career, but every bit of her megawatt star power is in evidence here. She does a bunch of song and dance numbers, and they’re all wonderful. Well, maybe all of them except “Every Baby Needs a Da Da Daddy,” which has to be seen to be believed.

When Ladies of the Chorus first came out, Adele Jergens got top billing, but Columbia re-released the film in November 1952 to capitalize on Marilyn Monroe’s growing fame. A lot of times when studios do this, the newly minted star whose name gets top billing actually only has a little bit of screen time, but that’s not the case here. This was a star-making turn for Marilyn Monroe, and it’s a lot of fun to watch if you’re a fan.

Ladies of the Chorus 1952

Force of Evil (Dec. 25, 1948)

Force of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Enterprise Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.

Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).

A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.

Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.

Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.

Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

Garfield upstairs

Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.

Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.

On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776” as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.

Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.

Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.

Gomez and Garfield

Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.

All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.

Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.

There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.) You can watch that scene in the clip below, although it should go without saying that it contains spoilers:

Portrait of Jennie (Dec. 25, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Directed by William Dieterle
Vanguard Films / The Selznick Studio

William Dieterle directed one of my favorite romances of the 1940s, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), which starred Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers.

Cotten also starred for Dieterle in his film Love Letters (1945), and again in Portrait of Jennie, a romance with elements of magical realism.

Portrait of Jennie is based on Robert Nathan’s 1940 novel, and takes place in New York in 1934. Cotten plays an artist named Eben Adams who is cold, hungry, and poor. Worst of all, he is only painting competent but uninspired still lifes. He is desperate to paint something truly meaningful.

One wintry evening in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She wears old-fashioned clothes and speaks of things that happened decades ago as if they were current events.

Jennie inspires Eben to create a sketch of her. The sketch impresses an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Her partner, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway), tells her they won’t turn a profit at the price she paid Eben, and Miss Spinney informs him that she didn’t buy it for the gallery, she bought it for herself.

Eben investigates the mystery of Jennie Appleton while working on his portrait of her. She appears to him at various times, and is years older each time, even though only days or weeks have passed.

Cotten and Jones

I liked Portrait of Jennie, especially the first half, which is one of the most darkly magical lensings of Central Park in winter that I’ve ever seen. Cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died shortly after completing work on the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for his black and white cinematography. The film was also nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects, which it won.

Cotten was 44 when he made this picture, which is a little old to be playing a “young artist,” as he’s described by Ethel Barrymore, but he’s a great actor, so I didn’t mind so much.

Eben’s portrait of Jennie Appleton, which appears in full Technicolor at the end of the film, was a commissioned piece by Ukrainian-American artist Robert Brackman. It became one of David O. Selznick’s most prized possessions, and hung in his home after he married Jennifer Jones in 1949. (They remained married until his death in 1965.)

In my recent review of Act of Violence (1948), I mentioned how rare films from the 1940s were that didn’t open with a full set of credits. Portrait of Jennie goes one step further by not even putting a title card at the beginning of the film, which contributes to its sense of dreamlike fantasy.

Robert Brackman

Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

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