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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.

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.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Jan. 24, 1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Bros.

In his review of Elmore Leonard’s 1995 novel Riding the Rap, Martin Amis wrote that “Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner’s Tales, in which Death roams the land — usually Miami or Detroit — disguised as money.”

The same could be said of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but instead of the duffel bags full of cash found in Leonard’s hard-boiled crime novels, money in this film takes the form of gold.

The gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t just a disguise for death, either; it’s the impetus for all manner of human striving and weakness, and brings out the best and the worst in the men who seek it.

As for the film itself, it mostly brings out the best in all of its actors. Neither Humphrey Bogart nor Tim Holt are completely able to shed their well-worn personas, but the same cannot be said of Walter Huston, the director’s father, who is pitch-perfect in his role. (Also, it’s likely that many people who watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre today will have never seen Tim Holt in any of his countless B westerns and therefore have little trouble accepting him in his role.)

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a man who finds himself penniless in Tampico, Mexico. He meets fellow American drifter Bob Curtin (Holt) and together they get jobs working in the oilfields, but their unscrupulous employer runs off without paying them, leaving them back where they started. However, luck smiles on them, and after winning a little money they hook up with an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and head for the Sierra Madre mountains to mine their fortune. Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin of the dangers of “gold fever,” but they both claim they’ll deal with their windfalls sensibly if they strike it rich.

No points will be awarded first-time viewers who correctly predict that the protagonists will both strike it rich and succumb to greed and paranoia.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 novel by the mysterious author “B. Traven.” Little is known about the possibly German-born novelist who probably lived most of his life in Mexico, which is where most of his fiction is set. According to the February 2, 1948, issue of Time, Traven was paid $5,000 for the screen rights to his novel. Traven was such a mysterious figure that although director Huston frequently corresponded with him, when it came time to meet Traven, a nervous translator named “Hal Croves” showed up in his place, claiming to be a close friend of Traven’s. Huston hired Croves as a technical adviser on the film, paying him $150 a week. Huston strongly suspected (but could never conclusively determine) that “Croves” was really Traven.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was nominated for four Oscars — best picture, best director, best supporting actor for Walter Huston, and best screenplay. It won every Academy Award for which it was nominated except for best picture.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film. It’s also one of those rare movies — like Casablanca — that even people who “don’t like old movies” will usually enjoy. It has excellent pacing, an involving story, and believable characters, but most importantly, it has authenticity. It was filmed mostly on location in Mexico, and the Mexican characters actually speak Spanish. It’s ironic that this is the movie that gave us the most enduringly stereotypical “Mexican” line — “I don’t have to show you any steenking batches!” — because it’s one of the few films from the ’40s in which Mexican characters actually speak Spanish, and without even subtitles to make things easier on a gringo audience.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

The Stranger (May 25, 1946)

The Stranger isn’t most people’s favorite Orson Welles film, and a lot of people even consider it his worst. (Welles did.) It’s the third film he directed, and as far as Oscar bait goes, it certainly pales in comparison with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but I think a lot of the criticism heaped upon it is unfair. The Stranger is a crackerjack thriller with tension and suspense to spare. I was drawn in by the first scene, and was completely involved throughout the film’s 95-minute running time.

Despite its sometimes hackneyed script and implausible situations, The Stranger shows a master in complete control of his craft. The first 15 minutes of the film are some of the most perfect cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals, sets free a Nazi war criminal named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and has him tailed, believing that he will lead them to the secret architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles). Kindler is living in the idyllic little town of Harper, Connecticut, under the name “Charles Rankin” and is a professor at a boy’s school.

Meinike’s journey to find Kindler is an object lesson in how to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of tension. The shots are visually arresting, the editing is rapid without ever being confusing, and the pacing is fast. As openings go, it’s not quite the bravura performance Welles would later put on with his single crane shot that opens Touch of Evil (1958), but it’s just as good in its own way. The disconnect only appears during the first lengthy stretch of dialogue. Once Meinike tracks down Prof. Rankin, the clumsy exposition that Welles grumbles through — which explains who his character is, whom he is marrying, and who his father-in-law will be — sticks out like a sore thumb.

Meinike will prove to be just the beginning of Rankin’s troubles. The noose tightens around his neck as soon as Wilson arrives in town, posing as a dealer in antiques. Robinson plays his role well, in an understated fashion that contrasts nicely with Welles’s bug-eyed histrionics. After a few extreme close-ups of Rankin’s sweaty face as he tells lies to convince his new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), that he is an innocent hounded by nefarious forces, there is no doubt about the depths of his villainy.

Not that there every really was any doubt, since Rankin behaves in such a despicable fashion throughout the picture. It’s not just his dinnertime conversation — in which he explicates the warlike soul of the German people and denies that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew — it’s his willingness to engage in wet work, killing a troublesome character without a second thought and later beating his new wife’s dog when it attempts to dig up the corpse.

In his review of The Stranger in the July 11, 1946, edition of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that Welles’s performance “gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible — another weak feature of the film.” Again, I think this is unfair. Welles got his start in the theater, and as a thespian, he never really grew out of it. His acting was always highly theatrical. He was a man who played to the back row, with grand gestures and a booming voice, but he did so extremely effectively. Not every film performance has to be subtle and understated.

It’s his work behind the camera, however, that really shows Welles in top form. The fast cutting in a scene in a diner, for instance, creates a tense subtext beneath Loretta Young’s seemingly casual banter with Edward G. Robinson by showing each character’s motivations by the looks on their faces. Mary is hiding something, Rankin is coercing her into doing so, and Wilson knows exactly what is going on. Director Welles and editor Ernest J. Nims make it all look easy, but it’s not, or more films would be this well-made.

The film also brilliantly uses sound. For instance, the tolling of the clock in the village square (which the clock-obsessed Rankin has fixed) underscores the tension in the film’s final half hour. The bonging of the clock has a peculiar timbre, and sounds more like incidental music from a ’70s or ’80s suspense or horror flick than any soundtrack from the ’40s I’ve ever heard before. The score itself, by Bronislau Kaper, is quite good, too, and is reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann.

The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Victor Trivas, was imposed on Welles by the studio. The studio and the producer, Sam Spiegel (listed in the credits as “S.P. Eagle”), made plenty of other decisions Welles didn’t like. For instance, Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the part of Wilson, but they forced him to go with Robinson. As far as the studio was concerned, however, everything worked out for the best, since The Stranger was the only film Welles directed that ever made a profit during its initial theatrical run.

The Stranger is a potboiler, to be sure, but it’s such a brilliantly edited, directed, and acted potboiler that it’s remarkable. This is one of those rare movies that I looked forward to seeing again as soon as it was over.

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