When it came time to put together this year’s rundown of my top 10 favorite films, I had trouble narrowing things down to a short list of even just 25 possibilities. (Consequently, this year’s list of honorable mentions is longer than usual.) Part of the problem was that I watched many more movies during 1947 than I did in previous years.
But another part of the problem is that 1947 was a good year for great films, particularly film noirs. So just because Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock didn’t make my cut for the top 10 doesn’t mean they’re not both great films. They’re two of the best noirs that the British movie industry every produced. But I wanted my top 10 list to have a bit of variety, so some great films had to go on the “honorable mention” pile, including Anthony Mann’s first really great noir, T-Men, Orson Welles’s bizarre but very entertaining The Lady From Shanghai, Elia Kazan’s wonderful Boomerang, and Edward Dmytryk’s hard-hitting Crossfire.
Picking a film for the #1 spot proved especially difficult, and I struggled with my two top choices, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. Out of the Past has been a part of my life for 20 years, and it’s one of my favorite noirs. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a film I saw for the first time this year.
But eventually I went with Body and Soul, because I love boxing, and it’s not only one of the best boxing films of all time, but also a great noir and a powerfully told story of redemption featuring a brilliant lead performance by John Garfield.
It wasn’t quite a coin flip, but it was close.
Anyway, 1947 was a significant year not only for noir but for the film industry in general. The previous year had been the most financially successful year in Hollywood history, which led to the construction of 500 new movie palaces containing half a million new seats in 1947. It was the single biggest year of movie theater construction since the boom of the ’20s, but movie attendance was beginning to fall off, and on most nights a lot of those new seats were empty.
Did the fault lie with television? It’s certainly possible, since 1947 was the year TV really started to make inroads. On November 6, 1947, the television show Meet the Press made its debut on NBC. (It’s still being broadcast, and is the longest-running program on TV.) Truman was the first U.S. president to see himself on television. And in 1947, there were roughly 12,000 televisions in Manhattan saloons, and they increased business tremendously. The day when there would be a television in nearly every living room in America was years away, but the handwriting was on the wall.
The five top-grossing films in 1947 were Road to Rio, My Wild Irish Rose, Captain from Castile, The Bishop’s Wife, and Unconquered. Three were in Technicolor and the other two were comedies, which says as much about the state of the film industry in 1947 as anything else. The days of Hollywood attempting to lure people away from the TV sets in their living rooms with spectacles like 3-D and Cinemascope weren’t too far away.
Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. John Garfield’s performance as tortured pugilist Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947. Despite a sense of familiarity to the plot elements, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh.
When Jacques Tourneur directed Out of the Past, no one knew what “film noir” was. But now that we’ve made that shifty, seductive genre a part of our vocabulary, my vote for greatest noir of all time goes to Out of the Past. The plot is often confusing for first-time viewers, but it barely matters. The situations, dialogue, performances, and black and white cinematography are pitch-perfect.
Gregory Peck plays a magazine writer who pretends to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism. Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film dominated the 20th Academy Awards, winning best picture, director, and best supporting actress. It remains one of the most powerful and thoughtful films about the “polite face” of intolerance and the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish.
4. Brute Force
Brute Force was Jules Dassin’s first film noir, and it’s still one of his best. Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn play two men on opposite sides of the prison bars. Lancaster is planning a revolt so he and his fellow prisoners can crash out, but Cronyn is the tyrannical leader of the guards who will stop at nothing to quell the riot, even if it leaves dozens dead.
In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays against type as a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets, but he has no ability to truly care for anyone but himself, which leads him down a memorably degrading path.
Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946). Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a con willing to stool for the D.A. to stay out of prison and be with his daughters after his wife dies, and Richard Widmark plays Tommy Udo, an underworld character so grotesque he seems as if he’d be more comfortable in a Dick Tracy newspaper strip than real life. The two men’s destinies intertwine in this powerful thriller that makes good use of its location footage in New York, New Jersey, and Sing Sing prison.
Nothing spices up a love triangle like murder, and nothing elevates a routine police procedural like the sure hand of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is ultimately less interested in the mechanics of unraveling a murder mystery than he is in showing human life in all of its sordid glory. Quai des Orfèvres is a meticulously crafted film that brilliantly evokes Paris in the early months of winter.
George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts. Colman took home the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Anthony John, a man who loses his grip on sanity after playing the role of Othello on Broadway for more than 200 performances.
Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as a department store Santa who claims that his name is Kris Kringle and that he really is Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday classic and a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction.
10. Black Narcissus
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order. The film is a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. Its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Bishop’s Wife, Boomerang, Brighton Rock, Crossfire, Dark Passage, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Gangster, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Lady From Shanghai, Monsieur Vincent, My Favorite Brunette, Odd Man Out, Ramrod, T-Men.
Great list, Adam! I’ve seen almost all of these, except Black Narcissus, which I feel almost embarassed to say I just can’t get into (I’ve tried twice) and Quai des Orfèvres, which I’ve never heard of but I’ll be looking for.
Thanks, Karen! I really liked Black Narcissus, but it was never a movie I was drawn to, and took me awhile to warm up to while I was watching it. I felt the same way about Quai des Orfèvres, but it just really got to me by the end and stayed with me for a long time. That’s my main criterion for judging films … how much I keep thinking about them after they’re done.
Just recently, I wachetd Mystery Street and Where Danger Lives, and not too long before that I caught Crime Wave and Decoy. I meant to keep the ball rolling, but haven’t had much time this week. I’ll pick it back up this weekend.But I have been scoring HUGE by finding those Film Noir boxsets used and in good shape. I got one for about 32 bucks (not so good now that Amazon is selling them all right now for about 25 each, but at the time it was a steal) and just last week I found another for 20.And any time I see an individual film noir or gangster DVD used, I grab it, because it won’t be there next time.