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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.

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

The Snake Pit (Nov. 13, 1948)

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
20th Century-Fox

The Snake Pit wasn’t the first film about mental illness, but it’s one of the most significant.

German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931) are powerful films about mental illness, but they’re more horror films than they are dramas, and they don’t explore the day-to-day reality of life in mental asylums. Films like Maniac (1934) and Dead of Night (1945) are at least partially about “crazy people,” but again, mental illness is used as a horror trope, not a sad and difficult fact of life.

The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945) both dealt with psychoanalysis, but they were designed to appeal to a public newly interested in Freudian theory, and didn’t touch on the facts of life in state mental institutions.

In fact, the only movie I can remember seeing before The Snake Pit that really dealt with life inside a mental institution was Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946), but the fact that it was both a horror film and a period piece gave audiences a comfortable sense of remove.

Olivia de Havilland

The Snake Pit changed all that. It was based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who spent eight and a half months in a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia, which was possibly misdiagnosed. The Snake Pit was rejected by several publishers. When it was eventually released in a small print run in 1946 it became an unexpected bestseller and was reprinted many times. It was a novel, not a memoir, but it contained autobiographical elements and most of the characters were based on people Ward had known in Rockland State Hospital.

The film version of the the novel stars bona fide superstar Olivia de Havilland in an unglamorous, makeup-free performance as Virginia Stuart Cunningham. The film drops us into Virginia’s schizophrenic experience in media res. She’s sitting on a park bench, looking up at the sun shining through the branches of a tree. On the surface, it’s idyllic, but we soon notice that her clothes are threadbare and her nylons have a run in them. Her voiceover conveys how confused she is about where she is and what she’s doing there.

Her fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm), is more aware of what’s going on and guides Virginia into the group of women when the noontime break is over. They are shuttled inside by the nurses, and Virginia’s surroundings resemble a prison. There are even iron bars.

This is a major theme in the film. Virginia is locked in a prison of her mind’s own making — her mental illness. But she is also locked in a very real prison — a mental institution where electroshock treatments, cruel staff, and harsh conditions are the norm.

Snake Pit 1948

The one bright spot for Virginia inside the institution is Dr. Mark van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who is only ever referred to as “Dr. Kik,” because Americans find his surname too hard to pronounce. Dr. Kik has a picture of Freud hanging in his office, and believes psychoanalysis is the key to Virginia’s recovery.

I had some uncharitable things to say about Leo Genn in my review of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but that was more about his miscasting than anything else. He’s perfectly cast in The Snake Pit, and his performance is wonderful. His Freudian explanation of Virginia’s condition is a bit too neat, but audiences in the 1940s liked their stories with every T crossed and every I dotted.

The other man in Virginia’s life who cares for her is her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), but there’s very little he can do for her. Through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks, we see her grow increasingly fearful of him and confused about reality.

The Snake Pit was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian director who became an American citizen in 1940. Litvak’s previous couple of films, The Long Night (1947) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), were both beautifully crafted, but they weren’t as powerful or as resonant as The Snake Pit. The scene in which the title of the film is realized visually is one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

Litvak’s direction is wonderful, but none of it would work without Olivia de Havilland’s phenomenal performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but she lost out to Jane Wyman for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948). The Snake Pit actually had an extremely high portion of its budget devoted to hiring seasoned and professional actors, since Litvak wanted even the small roles in the film to be convincing. It paid off.

In addition to de Havilland’s nomination, The Snake Pit was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score, and best sound recording, which is the only Oscar that it actually won.

Joan of Arc (Nov. 11, 1948)

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (1948)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Sierra Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

Joan of Arc was always a force to be reckoned with.

In life, she had heavenly visions, led the French army to several victories against the English during the Hundred Years’ War, paved the way for Charles VII to become King of France, and was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. When she died, she was only 19 years old.

In death, she exerted a powerful influence over the imaginations of artists and writers. From Shakespeare’s largely unflattering portrayal in Henry VI, Part 1 to Mark Twain’s largely forgotten historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans was a devil to some, and a saint to others.

Over time, the English decided to stop caring so much, and she came to be seen by more and more people as a holy figure. In 1920 the Catholic Church decided to make it official, and canonized her, which reignited interest in her life. Her trial for heresy, which was held in 15 sessions from February 21 to March 17, 1431, was exhaustively recorded. Most fictional portrayals of Joan of Arc, like George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923), drew from these official records.

Maxwell Anderson’s play Joan of Lorraine opened on Broadway on November 18, 1946, and played for 199 performances at the Alvin Theatre. The last performance was on May 10, 1947. The original production starred Ingrid Bergman as Mary Grey, an actress playing Joan of Arc who struggles with her director, Jimmy Masters (played by Sam Wanamaker), over how Joan should be portrayed.

Joan of Lorraine was the basis for the 1948 film Joan of Arc, which also stars Ingrid Bergman, but the “play within a play” concept was jettisoned in favor of straight historical drama. Much of Anderson’s original dialogue was retained, however, with additional scripting and added characters by Andrew Solt.

Ingrid Bergman

Joan of Arc was the last film that Victor Fleming directed. The man who directed The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939), as well as many other memorable films, died of a heart attack on January 6, 1949. He was 59 years old. While it might not be as fondly remembered as some of his other films, it’s still a pretty good one to go out on. It’s a big, sprawling, Technicolor costume drama (although there is a cut version that is just 1 hour and 40 minutes, the original cut of the film is 2 hours and 25 minutes long). Most importantly, Joan of Arc features a brilliant lead performance by Bergman. Most of the other actors are pretty good, especially José Ferrer (in his first film role) as the Dauphin, later Charles VII. With a cast of thousands, however, there are bound to be a few duds, and there are, although Ward Bond, whom I more closely associate with westerns than European historical dramas, was better than I was expecting. John Ireland? Not so much.

Joan of Arc is also heavy on dialogue and light on spectacle. With the film looks great, there’s only one big battle scene, and it doesn’t come close to matching similar scenes that Fleming directed for Gone With the Wind. While Joan of Arc is by no means a bad film, without Bergman’s performance it would lose most of its impact.

It’s certainly worth seeing, but if you’re only going to see one film about Joan of Arc in your lifetime, it should be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which stars Maria Falconetti in one of the most hypnotic film performances of all time. With spare sets and simple costumes, Dreyer achieves effects Fleming could only dream of. Falconetti’s performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc walks the fine line between madness and mysticism. Religious faith is a tricky thing to depict on film, but Dreyer’s film is one of the few that gets it exactly right.

The fiery finale of Fleming’s Joan of Arc is powerful, too. And as far as visual depictions of religious martyrdom go, I think both films are more powerful statements than the geek-show excesses of The Passion of the Christ (2004).

In the run-up to the 21st Academy Awards, Joan of Arc was the first film to receive seven nominations without a nomination for best picture. Ingrid Bergman was nominated for best actress, José Ferrer was nominated for best supporting actor, Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for best dramatic or comedy score, Richard Day was nominated for best art direction in a color film, and Frank Sullivan was nominated for best editing. The film won in two categories; Joseph Valentine, William V. Skall, and Winton Hoch won the Oscar for best cinematography in a color film, and Dorothy Jeakins and Barbara Karinska won for best costume design in a color film.

Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

The Red Shoes (Sept. 6, 1948)

The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a girl who can’t stop dancing after she puts on a pair of magical red shoes. An angel appears and tells her she will continue to dance after death as a warning to vain children everywhere. Her feet keep dancing in the red shoes even after they are amputated.

It’s a potentially wonderful parable for the way ballet dancers suffer for their art, but as a cinematic experience, The Red Shoes left me wanting. I’ve been hearing for most of my life about how wonderful this film is, but for me it was the most disappointing production from Powell and Pressburger that I’ve seen so far.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but I had very high expectations, and I felt let down.

In terms of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, The Red Shoes lacks the warm, human drama of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the sublime comedy of a film like A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s most similar to Black Narcissus (1947), in which lush visuals eroticized a slight story.

The Red Shoes is beautiful to look at, and the dancing is marvelous, but the story never completely captured my interest, and I found the performances of the actors campy and overblown.

The intense, youthful-looking 51-year-old Austrian actor Anton Walbrook plays composer and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, the head of the Ballet Lermontov. For him, dance is a religion, and when Lady Neston (Irene Brown) tries to get him to watch her niece dance at a party, he witheringly replies that he doesn’t care to see his religion practiced “in an atmosphere such as this.”

Her niece has real talent, however, and she soon becomes one of Lermontov’s principal dancers. Her name is Victoria Page (“Vicky” for short), and she’s played by the beautiful red-haired ballerina Moira Shearer.

Shearer

Powell and Pressburger wisely chose to cast real ballet dancers who could act a little, rather than actors who could do a little ballet. For the most part it works, but except for Shearer — whose performance in The Red Shoes I find quite wonderful — the ballet dancers don’t have a lot of range as actors.

When there’s no dancing going on in The Red Shoes, things feel a little lifeless. The film is ostensibly about Vicky being torn between her love for the “attractive brute” Lermontov and her love for the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose creativity is burgeoning as Lermontov’s is failing. I never felt compelled by either of these relationships, however, and it didn’t help that I found Goring utterly devoid of charisma. It also doesn’t help that this plot device kicks in too late in the film to feel authentic.

The Red Shoes is a visual feast with some wonderful ballet sequences, but dramatically, I found it sodden and overlong.

Key Largo (July 31, 1948)

Key LargoJohn Huston’s Key Largo was the fourth and final film Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.

Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.

The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.

Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).

When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”

Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.

The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.

Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.

Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.

Hamlet (May 4, 1948)

Hamlet
Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Two Cities Films / Universal Pictures

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)

It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)

These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”

Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.

Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.

Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.

There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that [grown] too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—
that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.

And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.

Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)

If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.

The Search (March 23, 1948)

The Search
The Search (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s The Search premiered in New York City on March 23, 1948, and went into wide release on March 26.

It wasn’t the first film the slim, haunted-looking heartthrob Montgomery Clift starred in, but since the release of Howard Hawks’s Red River, filmed in 1946, was delayed due to legal troubles until August 1948, The Search was the first film many moviegoers saw him in.

Clift doesn’t appear until more than 35 minutes into the picture. The first section of the film follows a group of emaciated, frightened children liberated from concentrations camps and then processed through U.N.R.R.A. (The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

U.N.R.R.A. is in place to help the children, but after years of living in a state of fear, they’re unable to trust adults wearing uniforms. These scenes involve a mixture of languages with no subtitles. The important details are conveyed with voiceover narration in the style of a documentary.

Ivan Jandl

When the children are being transported in ambulances to a new location, one of the ambulances has a broken exhaust pipe. Gas leaks in, and the terrified children break through the glass in the rear doors and escape. Two of the kids, Karel (Ivan Jandl) and his French friend, successfully evade the U.N.R.R.A. soldiers but then are separated when the French boy crosses a river.

Before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Karel’s family — his parents and his sister — led the happy life of intellectuals, reading and playing music together. But now little Karel carries a tattoo on his left arm from Auschwitz while his mother (Jarmila Novotna) wanders desolate German highways, searching for her son. She lost her husband and daughter during the war, and she desperately clings to the belief that her son is still alive.

Montgomery Clift

Much of the exterior footage in The Search was filmed in the American zone of West Berlin, and it has elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), a style of filmmaking that began with Wolfgang Staudte’s 1946 film Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) and that used the desolated, bombed-out post-war landscape of Germany as a backdrop.

The emotional core of The Search is the relationship that develops between the nine-year-old Karel and American G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Clift). Slowly but patiently Stevenson gains Karel’s trust and helps him come out of his emotionally shellshocked state. Ironically, he tries to help Karel accept the fact that his mother is dead when she is in fact alive.

The Search is a beautifully made, emotional drama that’s fairly restrained. It would have been easy for director Zinnemann to be manipulative, but he trusts his actors. The character of Karel could have been a real disaster if an adorable Hollywood moppet had played him, but Ivan Jandl was really Czech, and he brings as much authenticity to his role as Clift does to his. Clift’s character also could have been a stereotype, but he’s completely believable as a typical young American.

The Search was nominated for four Academy Awards — best director for Fred Zinnemann, best actor for Montgomery Clift, and best story and best screenplay, both for Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler. Ivan Jandl was given a special award for outstanding juvenile performance.

The Naked City (March 4, 1948)

The Naked City
The Naked City (1948)
Directed by Jules Dassin
Universal Pictures

The Naked City was — sadly — the second and final collaboration between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin. Their first collaboration was the hard-hitting prison drama Brute Force (1947), and we can only imagine what their third collaboration might have been had Hellinger not died on December 21, 1947, at the age of 44.

Hellinger was a hard-living, hard-drinking newspaper columnist. At the height of his popularity, he reportedly had 18 million readers. Like his friend Walter Winchell, Hellinger had an instinctive knack for writing what people wanted to read, and his insight into the criminal demimonde was unparalleled.

Unparalleled except, perhaps, for his love of New York City and all its inhabitants, from Lower East Side deliverymen to Park Avenue titans of industry. In his review of The Naked City in the March 5, 1948, issue of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film was “a virtual Hellinger column on film. It is a rambling, romantic picture-story based on a composite New York episode, the detailed detection of a bath-tub murder by the local Homicide Squad. And it is also a fancifully selective observation of life in New York’s streets, police stations, apartments, tenements, playgrounds, docks, bridges and flashy resorts.”

By “fancifully selective,” of course, Crowther meant that the film was Hellinger’s vision, and Hellinger was more drawn to mugs, thugs, and crooks than he was to schoolteachers or veterinarians. On the other hand, The Naked City is a police procedural (arguably the very first of its genre), and cops spend more time rousting crooks than they do schoolmarms.

The film is so thoroughly Hellinger’s vision that he narrates the film himself. After a guided nighttime tour of the city that never sleeps, full of his trademark witticisms and wry observations, he tells the viewer that his film will attempt to show “…the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”

The opening sequence introduces us to most of the film’s major players. (Whether or not the first-time viewer will catch everything, however, is another matter.) The two mugs murdering a beautiful young woman at 52 West 83rd Street, the charming Frank Niles (Howard Duff) and his fiancée Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart) out at a nightclub, young NYPD detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) and his wife Jane (Anne Sargent) and their young children at home in Jackson Heights, Queens, and the crotchety old Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), whom we see in his undershirt and suspenders, preparing breakfast.

Most of Hellinger’s narration is engaging and fun to listen to. Some of it is even necessary, especially considering that The Naked City was released before Dragnet existed, even on the radio, and the finer points of police procedure might have been unknown to the average viewer. But there are aspects of his narration that don’t play so well. For instance, the images of the city and its inhabitants are powerful on their own. The overlay of Hellinger’s voice-over “thoughts” and “dialogue” for a variety of average New Yorkers captured on film just comes off as hokey.

The film’s biggest weakness, however, is its two leads. Some people find Barry Fitzgerald charming, but I find his whole grumpy leprechaun shtick as Det. Lt. Muldoon — essentially the same role he played as a priest in Going My Way (1944) — annoying. But at least he has a personality, unlike Don Taylor, who plays Muldoon’s young partner and protégé Det. Halloran. Taylor has a “golly gee shucks” attitude and not much else. He also doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face when he’s on camera but doesn’t have any lines.

Taylor and Fitzgerald and their dialogue undercut much of the vérité quality of the film, but certainly don’t ruin anything. As a cinematic experience, I don’t think The Naked City is as satisfying as Brute Force, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining, well-made picture. When Dassin and Hellinger allow the action to speak for itself, as they do in the final, bravura chase along the Williamsburg Bridge, the film is untouchable.

The Naked City was nominated for three Academy Awards; Best Story (Malvin Wald), Best Cinematography, Black and White (William H. Daniels), and Best Film Editing (Paul Weatherwax). It won in the categories of Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

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