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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.

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.

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.

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