The Grapes of Wrath, USA, 1940, 129 min. Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine. Directed by John Ford. John Steinbeck’s novel of the Depression (and the politics it helped foster) gets top flight treatment by Ford. The director continues his study of the move westward while effectively portraying Tom Joad’s struggle to understand the forces that he and his kin are up against.
Rebecca, USA, 1940, 130 min. Starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s first American film is, humorously, about as British as you can get. Newlywed Fontaine, upon moving into new husband Olivier’s house finds that the memory of his previous wife hasn’t quite faded as of yet. Intense gothic atmosphere aided by Anderson’s forcefully chilling performance as Mrs. Danvers.
Citizen Kane, USA, 1941, 119 min. Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton. Directed by Orson Welles. There’s not much to say about this that hasn’t already been said, but just in case: Welles was only twenty-five years old when he made this groundbreaking work. That he did so in the face of considerable adversity – something that regrettably plagued just about every project he conceived – makes it all the more impressive.
The Magnificent Ambersons, USA, 1942, 88 min. Starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead. Directed by Orson Welles (with uncredited work by Fred Fleck, Jack Moss and Robert Wise). Welles’ follow-up to his classic Citizen Kane was this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a young man from a privileged family who seeks to undermine a wealthy suitor’s attempts to woo his widowed mother and brings disaster down on the family in the process. As dramatic as what was on screen may have been, what happened off screen was just as so. In Welles’ absence the studio chopped the film down from its original 134-minute running time to 88 minutes and brought in other directors to shoot new material, an unfortunate occurrence that was characteristic of the troubles that would plague the masterful filmmaker for the rest of his career.
Ossessione, Italy, 1942, 140 min. Starring Massimo Girotti, Clara Calamai. Directed by Luchino Visconti. Fairly faithful, if decidedly European, version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is widely considered to be the first example of the burgeoning neo-realist movement in Italy. Visconti made the film without rights to the book, the unfortunate result of which was Americans didn’t get to see this until the mid-’70s.
Shadow Of a Doubt, USA, 1943, 108 min. Starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Macdonald Carey. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. One of the Master’s personal favorites of his own work has an adolescent girl happy to have her favorite uncle come for a visit…until she begins to suspect that he may not be the man she thought him to be. Hitchcock whips up a terrific blend of small town life and nerve-wracking suspense.
Children Of Paradise, France, 1945, 195 min. Starring Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty. Directed by Marcel Carné. It would be enough that the film, about drama amidst a group of theater performers, works its poetic magic as well as it does. But when you take into consideration the fact that it was made under the noses of the German invaders, well, the achievement becomes nothing less than utterly stunning.
Rome Open City, Italy, 1945, 105 min. Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Achingly tragic look at the life of resistors in the title city during the occupation. Rossellini’s politics are all over the screen as he blends neo-realism with symbolism to tell a story of catastrophic misfortune that nonetheless does leave room for hope.
Brief Encounter, UK, 1945, 85 min. Starring Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson. Directed by David Lean. Howard and Johnson play two people who strike up an extramarital affair only to find themselves drawn into love far more quickly and deeply than either expected. Noel Coward adapted his own play for this classic and classy romance.
The Lost Weekend, USA, 1945, 101 min. Starring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman. Directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script broke new ground in its unflinching portrayal of chronic alcoholism, buoyed by Milland’s courageous performance. This was the first film to use the Theremin on its soundtrack, an instrument usually associated with science fiction films.
The Big Sleep, USA, 1946, Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks. Raymond Chandler’s novel – so complex one murder never even gets solved – becomes a triumph of film noir style, replete with the hard-boiled dialogue, treacherous women and gun-toting toughs the genre demands, along with one of Bogie’s two great private eye roles.
The Bicycle Thief, Italy, 1947, 90 min. Starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Lianella Carell. Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Heartbreaking story of poor out-of-work man who finally gets a job, only to have the bicycle he needs for it stolen on the first day. He and his son walk the streets of Rome looking for it. Not the first film of the Italian neo-realist movement, but considered by many to be the ideal example of it.
La Terra Trema, Italy, 1948, 165 min. Narrated by Luchino Visconti. Directed by Luchino Visconti. By constructing a story and then having it played by people whose lives actually reflected that story, Visconti blurs the line between documentary and fiction filmmaking. To watch the desperate struggle of the poorer than poor Sicilian fisherfolk as they try to survive is to receive one of the finest educations in what neo-realism was all about.
Letter From an Unknown Woman, USA, 1948, 86 min. Starring Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Max Ophüls. Bittersweet story of a woman who tries to connect with the love of her life over a long period of time, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem able to remember her at all. Luxuriant romanticism mixes poignantly with unforgettable drama.
The Third Man, UK, 1949, 104 min. Starring Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles. Directed by Carol Reed. Grahame Greene’s novel of post-war suspense is masterfully realized in this dark tale of misplaced loyalty. Includes the famous chase through the sewers of Vienna and Welles’s purportedly improvised “cuckoo clock” speech.
rpheus, France, 1949, 112 min. Starring Jean Marais, François Périer, María Casares, Marie Déa. Directed by Jean Cocteau. Multi-faceted French artiste Cocteau puts his own spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus by positing the musician as a poet living in contemporary Paris who meets and becomes obsessed with a woman who is in fact the embodiment of Death. Soon events lead to his having to choose between her and his wife Eurydice. As with his earlier films, The Blood of a Poet and Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau brings a lyricism and magical quality to his story with remarkable simplicity, relying on little more than uncomplicated visual tricks and his own penchant for symbolism and boundless imagination.