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Monthly Archives: August 2014

The 10 Best Films of 1949

22nd Academy Awards

Here’s the countdown of my 10 favorite films from 1949.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment…

The Window

10. The Window

Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window is a film noir version of “the boy who cried wolf” in which no one believes a boy who claims to have witnessed a murder. The Window is a wonderful suspense thriller with great performances all around.

A Letter to Three Wives

9. A Letter to Three Wives

In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, a trio of women nervously wait to find out which of their husbands has run away with the town hussy. Told mostly in flashback, it’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the 1940s about marriage and the American class structure.

On the Town

8. On the Town

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly’s third all-singing, all-dancing collaboration is the enduring classic of the bunch. On the Town is a joyful, whirlwind journey through New York City about three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave who paint the town red.
The Third Man

7. The Third Man

Director Carol Reed’s second collaboration with writer Graham Greene stars Joseph Cotten as a writer lost in a labyrinth of secrets and lies in postwar Vienna. Orson Welles has a relatively small amount of screen time, but his character dominates the film like a specter. The Third Man is a haunting, beautifully filmed thriller.

Adam's Rib

6. Adam’s Rib

It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for the talents of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn than Adam’s Rib, a hilarious comedy written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon whose take on the war between the sexes is still relevant.

Whisky Galore

5. Whisky Galore!

Whisky Galore is a hilarious British film about a group of islanders who “liberate” hundreds of cases of liquor from a shipwreck. It’s a great film that wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life that’s warm and deeply human.

Stray Dog

4. Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa’s police procedural Stray Dog is the tale of an older, experienced detective (Takashi Shimura) and a younger, more impulsive detective (Toshirô Mifune) on the trail of the younger detective’s stolen pistol, which is being used in a series of increasingly violent crimes. It’s one of Kurosawa’s earliest masterpieces, and a film I can watch over and over.

White Heat

3. White Heat

Raoul Walsh’s White Heat ended the classic cycle of Warner Bros. gangster movies with speed and fury, and featured a blistering performance by James Cagney as one of Hollywood’s most memorable psychopathic criminals.

Late Spring

2. Late Spring

Yasujiro Ozu’s tale of a father emotionally letting go of his beloved adult daughter is beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, and quietly devastating. Ozu is the acknowledged master of the understated Japanese domestic drama, and his films are treasures to be discovered and rediscovered.

The Set-Up

1. The Set-Up

In 1949, the Kirk Douglas vehicle Champion was the boxing movie that got all the praise, but the truly enduring classic is Robert Wise’s lean, mean The Set-Up. A masterpiece of brutal efficiency, it’s one of the all-time great noirs, without a single slack moment.

Honorable Mentions:

All the King’s Men
Battleground
Blood of the Beasts
Border Incident
Criss Cross
I Shot Jesse James
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Knock on Any Door
Mighty Joe Young
Side Street
Tension
Thieves’ Highway
Twelve O’Clock High

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Blood of the Beasts (1949)

LeSangDesBetes
Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des bêtes) (1949)
Directed by Georges Franju
Forces et voix de la France

This review originally appeared earlier this year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on the Rue Morgue Podcast’s 100 Essential Alternative Horror Films.

Ever since I saw Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais’s short film about the Holocaust, I have been haunted by a section of the film’s opening narration, which describes the building of the concentration camps:

Architects calmly design the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away.

This narration has haunted me because it gets to the heart of what is terrifying about life.

There is a place being prepared for all of us.

It could be a comfortable bed, where if we are lucky we will expire without much pain or anguish, or — better yet — in our sleep. It could be a patch of soil in a foreign land, and we will be hailed after our death as a hero. It could be a street corner, and we won’t even know what hit us. If we are unlucky, it will be a place of unimaginable horror and misery.

But no matter what the manner of our passing will be, there is a place being prepared for all of us.

LeSangDesBetes1

The places that were prepared for the horses, cows, calves, and sheep we see slaughtered in Georges Franju’s short film Blood of the Beasts were the Vaugirard and La Villette slaughterhouses on the outskirts of Paris.

Vaugirard is an abattoir that specialized in the slaughter of horses, the first animal we see die in Blood of the Beasts. The bleeding and preparation of the horse’s corpse is gruesome, but the horse’s death itself is not particularly cruel. The magnificent animal is led to its place of execution placidly, is killed with a bolt gun, and appears to die instantly.

If you are a vegetarian for ethical reasons, the footage in Blood of the Beasts will probably sicken and horrify you. If you have ever worked in a slaughterhouse or have hunted and dressed the animals you have killed, it will probably not.

I don’t think this is the point.

Franju did not make Blood of the Beasts as an exposé of conditions in Paris’s abattoirs, or as a polemic against the consumption of meat. In an interview, Franju admitted that he had little interest in the subject of slaughterhouses when he made the film. Franju described himself as a realist who sought to depict reality, but in a surreal way.

Franju chose the Vaugirard and La Villette slaughterhouses because of their proximity to the placid Ourcq canal and the bucolic vacant lots where children played and vendors sold trinkets. He wanted to juxtapose the tranquility of human life with the gruesomeness of the abattoirs. Franju said that people later told him that he should have filmed Blood of the Beasts in color, because that would have been even more horrifying, but he responded that it was not his intention to be repulsive, it was his intention to make a work of art.

LeSangDesBetes2

Blood of the Beasts is composed entirely of documentary footage, but it is unquestionably an existential horror film. Franju unsettles the viewer by not only exposing that which is normally hidden, but by doing it in such a beautiful manner.

The transitions in this film would look more at home in a film based on a fairy tale; there is a shimmering fan that moves across the screen to cut from one scene to another, and the first scene of slaughter is ended by what appears to be the ornate covers of a story book closing over the frame. Later, there is a low-angle shot of a barge on the Ourcq canal as it passes from the left side of the frame to the right. It is a documentary shot, but since the camera is so low that we can’t see the water, the barge resembles a piece of moving scenery in a stage play.

Blood of the Beasts is a short film that leads the viewer to ponder the fine line between humans and animals. Unless you still cling to quaint notions like the existence of the soul or the sanctity of human life, what separates us from the animals?

LeSangDesBetes3

The history of the first half of the 20th century is one of mechanized slaughter. We may be the dominant predator on planet earth, but we are still flesh and blood. If our throats are slashed and our heads sawed off, we die in the same manner as the cows do in Blood of the Beasts. If, like the horse in the beginning of the film, a bolt gun is shot into our forehead, we will drop to the ground with a similar kind of rag-doll finality.

Our bodies are all equally vulnerable if exposed to the right conditions (as we learn from the narrator, one of the slaughterhouse workers depicted in the film accidentally severed his own femoral artery and had to have his right leg amputated).

Toward the end of the film, the narrator ponders how life and death are inextricable, which is as close as the film comes to having a mission statement:

“I will strike you without anger and without hate, like a butcher,” wrote Baudelaire. Without anger, without hate, with the simple cheerfulness of killers who whistle or sing as they slit throats, for they must earn their own daily bread and that of others with the wages of a difficult and often dangerous profession.

On the Town (Dec. 30, 1949)

On the Town
On the Town (1949)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

For me, On the Town is joy. Pure joy.

I loved the first film Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly made together, Anchors Aweigh (1945). I also enjoyed their second collaboration, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), but On the Town is the enduring classic of the bunch. It takes everything that worked about their previous two pairings and adds more comedy and a dizzying parade of New York City locations.

Normally musicals aren’t my favorite genre, but I love Gene Kelly’s dancing (who doesn’t?) and I love Frank Sinatra’s singing (I know not everyone does, but if you don’t, let’s just agree to disagree), so Anchors Aweigh was a pleasant surprise when I first watched it several years ago.

Since then, I’ve warmed up to the Technicolor musical extravaganzas of the 1940s. Musicals still aren’t my thing, but the candy-colored singing and dancing spectacles from Hollywood’s golden age are extremely impressive. At their best, like On the Town, they weave a magic spell that enthralls even a curmudgeon like me.

On the Town stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie, a trio of sailors who have 24 hours of shore leave to tear through New York City and paint the town red.

Chip is waylaid by an amorous cab driver with the unlikely name of “Brunhilde Esterhazy.” She’s played by Betty Garrett. It’s similar to the man-crazy character she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but her pursuit of Frank Sinatra in On the Town hits sexually suggestive heights that were only hinted at in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. All Chip wants to do is tour New York, from the Bronx to the Battery and everywhere in between, but Brunhilde responds to every single one of his touristy suggestions with an emphatic counteroffer, “Come up to my place!”

Ozzie is pursued by a beautiful anthropologist named Claire Huddesen, who’s played by Ann Miller, whose dancing I found mesmerizing. She thinks Ozzie is a perfect example of “primitive man,” and wants to study him. The song and dance routine in the Museum of Natural History treats anthropology as the study of “ooga booga” stuff, which is potentially offensive in these more enlightened times, but I found it all tongue-in-cheek enough to be entertaining.

And finally, Gabey is overtaken by romantic infatuation when he falls in love with a girl named Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). She is “Miss Turnstiles of the Month,” and Gabey assumes she’s the biggest celebrity in the city, since her face is plastered all over every subway car. (Incidentally, “Miss Turnstiles” is an obvious play on Miss Subways, which was a real program that featured women on New York City subways from 1941 to 1976. I looked at a bunch of the posters the last time I was at the New York City Transit Museum.)

On the Town is based on a Broadway play that premiered in 1944. The book and lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. There’s a bit in the film that pays tribute to the original play, when Gene Kelly imagines his New York adventures set to music on stage, and it’s a wonderful moment that focuses solely on choreography.

On the Town is an exuberant romp that had me smiling from beginning to end. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so unreservedly.