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Category Archives: 1948

Bicycle Thieves (Nov. 24, 1948)

Ladri di biciclette

Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Produzioni De Sica / Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche (ENIC)

Every decade since the 1950s, Sight & Sound magazine has polled an international group of professional film critics to assemble lists of the greatest movies ever made.

For most of the 20th century, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dominated the lists as the greatest film of all time, but in the very first critics’ poll, published in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was their choice for best film of all time, followed by two Chaplin movies, City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925). (Kane didn’t quite crack the top 10.)

In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, published in 2012, Citizen Kane was unseated as the greatest film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and officially became merely the second greatest film ever made. (Bicycle Thieves was #33 on the list of 250 films.)

“Greatest films of all time” lists are notoriously contentious and usually somewhat arbitrary, but Sight & Sound is one of the few that carries real weight.

I first became aware of De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece when I was 14 or 15 (back when it was still called The Bicycle Thief in English), but I never got around to seeing it until a few days ago.

Watching a widely acknowledged masterpiece for the first time can be a difficult experience. It’s easy to overanalyze it and constantly ask yourself, “Well, what’s so great about this really?”

So when I watch one of the “great films” for the first time, I just try to let it all wash over me and not think about it too hard until the credits roll.

Bruno and Antonio

Bicycle Thieves is based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. It’s the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man with a wife and young son and a baby. Like most of the citizens of Rome in the post-war 1940s, they are poor and struggling, and Antonio is desperate for work. (His son Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola, is only 8 years old, but even he works part time at a gas station to help the family.)

When Antonio gets a job hanging posters throughout the city, it’s the answer to his prayers, but he needs a bicycle to do the job, and he pawned his bicycle some time ago. So his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), pawns their precious dowry sheets to get the money Antonio needs to get his bicycle out of hock, which allows him to do his job and earn a regular salary.

Antonio’s joy is short-lived. As he’s standing on his ladder one day, pasting up a poster of Rita Hayworth, his bicycle is swiped from the wall where it is leaning next to him.

The rest of the film follows Antonio’s journey through Rome with his son Bruno as they search for the bicycle, the bicycle thief, and the larger network of thieves who helped pull off the theft.

When Bicycle Thieves ended, it left me with a mixture of sadness and exhilaration that I haven’t felt since the first time I watched Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950).

Bicycle Thieves is very different from Los Olvidados, and its tragedies are less earth-shaking, but it affected me in a way that cinematic death and destruction almost never does.

Antonio and Bruno

The Italian neorealist movement started with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Neorealism rejected Hollywood-style glamor in favor of nonprofessional actors working in real locations. Although neorealist films are shot in a verité style, none of them are documentaries. While De Sica’s actors were all appearing in a film for the first time, he was a seasoned director working with a professional crew. There is even a rainstorm in Bicycle Thieves that De Sica and his crew created themselves.

As Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani is not always likeable, but he is always relatable and always seems like a real person. Enzo Staiola, who plays his son Bruno, gives a deeply affecting performance. In the beginning of the film he’s a “little man,” and makes a lot of gestures and utterances that are funny because they seem so adult. But in the end, he’s just a child, and his wordless acting conveys so much.

What impressed me most about Bicycle Thieves was the way it used grandness of scale to tell a story of individuals. When Maria pawns her family’s linen at the beginning of the film, we watch it slowly disappear into a huge warehouse of pawned linen. Each bundle tells its own sad story. For the majority of the film, the number of people and bicycles in Rome is overwhelming. But we never stop thinking about that one, precious bicycle that Antonio and Bruno are searching for. The film ends with Antonio and Bruno disappearing into a crowd, just the way the linen disappeared into a warehouse of linen, and the way his bicycle disappeared into streets full of bicycles. The man and his son are just two tiny people in a sea of humanity, but when the film ended, their story meant more to me than I can express.

He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

The Boy With Green Hair (Nov. 16, 1948)

The Boy With Green Hair

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)
Directed by Joseph Losey
RKO Radio Pictures

If you only know Dean Stockwell as the craggy character actor who appeared in TV shows like Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, it might be hard to believe that he was ever an adorable little 12-year-old boy.

Well, he was. Even with a shaved head, which is how he first appears in The Boy With Green Hair, in the 1940s Stockwell was cuter than a barrel of baby pandas.

The Boy With Green Hair was Joseph Losey’s first feature-length film. It’s a lovely little Technicolor parable that opens with the song “Nature Boy.” (You know, the one about “a very strange, enchanted boy”?) Nat King Cole’s recording of the tune was a big hit in 1948, and was the #1 single in the United States for seven weeks. The melody of the song recurs throughout the film.

It’s the story of a boy named Peter Fry (Stockwell), whose parents are dead, but no one seems to want to tell him. He’s shuttled around from home to home, always carrying a letter to show his foster parents (who he refers to as his “aunts and uncles”), although he’s not aware of the contents.

Eventually he settles down with “Gramp,” a former vaudevillian and magician (and current singing waiter) played by likeable old Irishman Pat O’Brien.

Peter thrives under Gramp’s care, feeling good enough about life that he no longer has to sleep with a baseball bat (though he keeps it on the floor next to him just in case). One day, however, his school holds a charity drive for war orphans. As Peter stands in front of a poster with a black and white photograph of an “Unidentified War Orphan,” he’s forced to confront the truth about his parents. They died in the London Blitz, and Peter can no longer deny the horrors of war. All of a sudden, war orphans aren’t just “over there,” they are right here, and he is one of them.

O'Brien and Stockwell

Not long after this revelation, he wakes up one morning with bright green hair. Punks with brightly dyed hair turned heads in the 1970s, and it was even more unheard of in the 1940s. Peter is instantly ostracized by people who happily tousled his hair when it was brown. His teacher, Miss Brand (Barbara Hale), tries to make him feel OK about his condition. He may be the only kid in class with green hair, but there’s also only one boy who has red hair. But nothing stops the bullying and name-calling. The world is cruel to those who are different.

The Boy With Green Hair is told in flashback, as Peter sits in a police station with a shaved head, telling his story to kindly child psychologist Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan). The message of the film might seem simple, but Losey’s direction and Stockwell’s assured performance elevate it to something haunting and strange that can’t be boiled down to a single slogan. It’s a movie that tells a serious, allegorical story about a child that other children can understand.

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.

Blood on the Moon (Nov. 9, 1948)

Blood on the Moon
Blood on the Moon (1948)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Blood on the Moon is an RKO western directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, which was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941.

I’ve only read one of Luke Short’s western novels (he wrote more than 50), but judging by it and the two films I’ve seen that were based on his work (this one and André de Toth’s 1947 film Ramrod), dense plotting, terse dialogue, and three-dimensional protagonists were some of Short’s trademarks.

Like most protagonists of westerns in the ’40s and ’50s, the protagonists of Blood on the Moon and Ramrod are on the side of the angels. But they’re more interesting than the cookie-cutter heroes of countless B westerns. Not so much because they’re complex people, but because they’re believable people who exist in a complex world.

First-time viewers of both Ramrod and Blood on the Moon will likely have a little difficulty figuring out who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are right away, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying — at least for the first couple of reels.

The hero of Blood on the Moon — Jim Garry — is played by Robert Mitchum. Garry is a solitary cowpoke with a small herd. He’s passing through open country when his herd is run off in a stampede. Rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully), owner of the Lazy J Ranch, apologizes and offers to reimburse Garry for the outfit he lost. Even so, their exchange is tense. Lufton doesn’t trust loose riders, since he’s feuding over grazing land with Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen), a newly appointed Indian agent who’s thrown Lufton off the reservation grass, and stopped Lufton from supplying the tribe with beef, even though he’d done so for years.

When Garry turns down Lufton’s offer to work for him, the opposition comes knocking in the form of an old friend of Garry’s — a man named Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Tate represents the homesteaders who are opposed to Lufton, and he offers to hire Garry as a gunhand for $10,000. Tate tells Garry, “Lufton’s tough and my ranchers aren’t. You make up the difference.”

“I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things, Tate, but up till now I haven’t been hired for my gun,” Garry says.

“Can you afford to be particular?”

Garry thinks for a moment, then says, “No, I guess I can’t.”

Mitchum

Mitchum is perfect for this type of role. He was a laconic actor who barely ever changed his expression, but he could suggest depths of emotion with his eyes.

I’ve seen him in run-of-the-mill westerns like West of the Pecos (1945), and he’s fine in them, but he did his best work in dark, noirish westerns like this one and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947).

Robert Wise, the director of The Body Snatcher (1945) and Born to Kill (1947), keeps Blood on the Moon moving at a brisk, tense pace. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is full of darkness and shadows. It’s not full-on “noir” like James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Pursued, but Blood on the Moon still spends a lot of time in darkened saloons, lonely country at night, and the streets of a frontier town after dark. Even the exterior scenes that take place in daylight have a sense of gray desolation.

The cast is really great, too. I like seeing Barbara Bel Geddes in just about anything, and I especially liked her as one of Lufton’s two daughters, Amy. (Phyllis Thaxter plays the other daughter, Carol.) Square-jawed, gruff-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw plays a gunhand named Milo Sweet who wears one of the sweetest buffalo coats I’ve ever seen. As a homesteader named Kris Barden, Walter Brennan plays essentially the same character he played in every movie he was ever in, but he finds depths of emotion in his character that he didn’t always get to explore as a comical sidekick. And I always love seeing Tom “Captain Marvel” Tyler in any western, even if he was a pretty wooden actor. In Blood on the Moon, he appears just long enough to be effective — in a tense showdown with Mitchum that’s 10 times as exciting as most western showdowns that have more traditional outcomes.

The tough, no-nonsense screenplay of Blood on the Moon is by Lillie Hayward, from an adaptation of the novel by Luke Short and Harold Shumate.

Blood on the Moon won’t ever be counted as one of the all-time great westerns, but the western was a damned busy genre at the time of its release, and it’s a cut above the rest. It holds up to multiple viewings, and presages the many ways in which the genre would mature in the 1950s.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Oct. 30, 1948)

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Directed by Norman Foster
Norma Productions / Universal Pictures

Norman Foster’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands begins with some onscreen text that could fit at the beginning of nearly every single post-war film noir:

The aftermath of war is rubble — the rubble of cities and of men. They are the casualties of a pitiless destruction. The cities can be rebuilt, but the wounds of men, whether of the mind or of the body, heal slowly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is based on Gerald Butler’s bestselling 1940 novel of the same name, and stars Burt Lancaster as Bill Saunders, a tightly wound, violent man with a mysterious past. He says he was born in Canada and raised in Detroit, but he doesn’t go into much more detail. When the film begins, he’s alone in a pub in an unnamed city in England, hunched over the bar and nursing a pint. When the barman tells him that it’s closing time, he lashes out violently. His assault on the barman starts a fire that his uncontrollable rage will continue to stoke throughout the film.

The role of Bill Saunders seems tailor-made for Lancaster at this point in his career. He made his debut in The Killers (1946) as Ole “Swede” Andreson, a brutish former prizefighter. In his next film, Brute Force (1947), he played Joe Collins, the toughest man in a tough prison. In Desert Fury (1947), Lancaster played a sheriff’s deputy who was also a former bronco buster. In I Walk Alone (1948), he played a former bootlegger and all-around alpha male who was determined to exact vengeance on his former partner.

Subsequent roles in All My Sons (1948) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) allowed Lancaster to stretch his thespic muscles a little, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a solid return to type.

Lancaster and Fontaine

In the NY Times review of the film, published on October 30, 1948, the headline was Lancaster Fights the World Again. The first paragraph of the review was as follows: “The process of humanizing Burt Lancaster obviously is not going to be easy and it is going to take time. Mr. Lancaster is handy with his fists and speaks most eloquently when using them. But to develop fully as an actor and to come over to the right side of society he will have to make a break someday, for there are only so many variations on the theme of being misunderstood and Mr. Lancaster has just about exhausted them all.”

The reviewer praised the film, however, especially its three-act structure and strong climax, two elements which the reviewer lamented were sadly absent from most current films (apparently this is not just a 21st-century problem).

I think that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a tremendously effective film noir. What it lacks in innovative storytelling it makes up for with strong performances — not only by Lancaster but also by Joan Fontaine as the woman who grows to love him and Robert Newton as the Cockney schemer who is determined to manipulate him through blackmail. In addition to the acting, the shadowy cinematography by Russell Metty sharpens the violence and suspense of the film, and the tense, driving score by Miklós Rózsa (who also wrote the music for The Killers, Brute Force, and Desert Fury) propels the action of the film and mirrors Lancaster’s barely controlled rage that constantly threatens to boil over.

Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

Unknown Island (Oct. 15, 1948)

Unknown Island
Unknown Island (1948)
Directed by Jack Bernhard
Albert Jay Cohen Productions / Film Classics

If you liked everything about King Kong except King Kong, then I’ve got a movie for you.

Dinosaurs first made their way onto film in 1914, in both animated and live action films. The most significant early films to feature dinosaurs were probably The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).

The first dinosaurs I remember seeing on film are the animated ones in Fantasia, which was released in 1940, the same year that gave us the slightly less memorable One Million B.C. (1940), which starred Victor Mature as “Tumak” and Carole Landis as “Loana.”

During World War II, the American public’s taste for the fantastical cooled, and for the most part, science fiction elements could only be found in horror movies.

But by 1948, producer Albert J. Cohen decided we were ready for a movie about dinosaurs, and in color no less! Jack Bernhard’s Unknown Island is a low-budget film, though, so it’s shot in Cinecolor — Technicolor’s shabby cousin that makes movies look like old color photographs that have been left in the attic too long.

Nevertheless, Unknown Island will forever have the distinction of being the first live action film in color to feature dinosaurs. It borrows liberally from both The Lost World and King Kong, particularly the latter, with its mysterious island, its rampaging prehistoric creatures, its damsel in peril, its dueling male protagonists (one of whom is more interested in capturing a live specimen than he is in the girl), and a crew of vicious, rowdy seamen who ferry our cast of characters to an uncharted land where dinosaurs roam.

Unlike the stop-motion animation dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien for King Kong, which are still pretty impressive, the dinosaurs and other assorted beasties in Unknown Island appear to be puppets and actors in rubber suits, and aren’t very impressive.

But if taken in the right spirit, Unknown Island is a fun picture. Blond, tanned, square-jawed Richard Denning — the voice of Mr. Lucille Ball on the radio sitcom My Favorite Husband (1948-1951) — makes for a good hero. He plays John Fairbanks, the only person in the expedition who has first-hand experience of the Unknown Island, and who is haunted by what he experienced there. Virginia Grey is likeable and attractive as the only woman in the film, Carole Lane, and Phillip Reed is nicely unlikeable as her glory-hound fiancé, Ted Osborne. The real gem in the cast is Barton MacLane as the nasty, hard-as-nails Capt. Tarnowski, who rules his crew of Laskers with an iron fist.

Jack Bernhard previously directed the (in my opinion) overrated B noir Decoy (1946), as well as Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946), Violence (1947), Perilous Waters (1948), The Hunted (1948), and Blonde Ice (1948).

Unknown Island looks pretty good, but the shadowy jungle scenes featuring the human actors never quite jibe with the brightly lit special effects work with the dinosaurs. Still, it’s an early example of the kind of low-budget giant-monster movies that would become commonplace in the 1950s, but which were still pretty rare in the late 1940s, and for that reason alone it’s worth seeing.

Moonrise (Oct. 1, 1948)

Moonrise
Moonrise (1948)
Directed by Frank Borzage
Republic Pictures

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a surreal Southern Gothic drenched in noir atmosphere.

Based on the novel by Theodore Strauss, Moonrise stars Dane Clark as a man named Danny Hawkins who is haunted by his father’s execution for murder. Danny has grown up in the shadow of his father’s crime, both figuratively and literally (this is a noir, after all).

In nightmarish flashback scenes, we see the young version of Danny being mercilessly taunted by his schoolmates.

In the first few minutes of the film, the grown-up version of Danny finally lashes back at the worst of the bullies, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who is the son of the wealthiest man in town. Danny beats Jerry Sykes to death on the outskirts of a carnival, and leaves his body to be discovered by the authorities.

For the rest of the film, Danny is tormented by guilt but is too terrified to turn himself in. And soon after the murder, he strikes up a desperate romance with Jerry Sykes’s girl, Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher and the prettiest girl in town.

Clark and Russell

Moonrise was an attempt by Republic Pictures to break out of their Poverty Row rut and release an A picture. (The budget was $849,452, whereas the Western B pictures the studio pumped out on a regular basis usually cost around $50,000.)

It was still a modestly budgeted film by Hollywood standards, and Borzage shot the entire film on only two sound stages. Although Moonrise wasn’t a hit, I think the claustrophobic “staginess” works in the film’s favor when watched today. Lionel Banks’s art direction and John L. Russell’s cinematography give the film a dreamlike quality. Especially in the early going of the film, there are instances of dream logic — such as a terrible car accident that seems to have no consequences in the next scene — but that only contributes to the film’s hypnotic power.

Dane Clark’s performance as Danny is similar to the romantic, sad-eyed fugitive he played in Deep Valley (1947). Gail Russell is gorgeous, although her role as Gilly mostly requires her to be wide-eyed and worried.

There’s some really terrific work by the supporting cast. Lloyd Bridges only has a minute or two on screen, but his nastiness and sense of entitlement is palpable. Ethel Barrymore is wonderful, as always, as Danny’s grandmother. Allyn Joslyn grounds the film with his role as philosophical sheriff Clem Otis. And African-American actor Rex Ingram gives an amazing performance as Mose, Danny’s friend who lives deep in the swamp, raises and trains dogs, and avoids people as much as possible. The character of Mose has aspects of the “magical Negro,” but Ingram is a good enough actor — and the part is written well enough — that he mostly escapes cliché.

Moonrise is a hard film to categorize. It’s stylistically a film noir, but thematically it ranges from Southern Gothic to European art film. It’s worth seeing if you have any affinity for any of those genres, or even if you’re just someone who can appreciate a beautifully made black and white movie.