best film: Citizen Kane from Orson Wells. It is the year of Welles arrival and Citizen Kane. There are countless shots and sequences that are just so endlessly innovative. It’s a visual showpiece from beginning to end.
- The film is nothing less than a perfect melding of cinematic ingenuity and narrative brilliance- both perfectly executed and daringly unique
- It’s jarring how different it looks than every other film before it and nearly every one since
- New angles that cinema had never really seen before (I’ll often call something with a creative low-angle shot “Wellesian” — and experimentation with miniatures, deep focus black and white photography
- The narrative flashback structure
- Heavy on montages but none of them throwaway or half-hazard
- It begins Welles obsessions not only with windows (shots through windows and reflecting off windows) but mirrors as well (Lady From Shanghai)
- Undoubtedly could be called, along with maybe Raging Bull, the greatest biopic or character study of all time
- One of the handful of the best films of all time
most underrated: The Little Foxes from Wyler. It isn’t on the level of Kane but if you follow the site you’ll see lots of mention of Welles and Wyler in tandem when it comes to deep focus superiority. This is one of Wyler’s strongest efforts. The examples here from the film in picture here impossible to argue with. Yet, somehow, The Little Foxes can’t find its way onto the TSPDT consensus top 2000.
most overrated: There is nothing egregious here. Dumbo probably doesn’t belong in the top 700 (where TSPDT has it), and The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels are a few hundred slots higher than they should be—but nothing crazy off and all are excellent films.
gem I want to spotlight: The 47 Ronin from Mizoguchi
It was impossible to find for years (I caught in 2016) and at the time it was not on the TSPDT top 1000—it is now and I think it’ll continue to rise as it is more available via Criterion. It’s a four hour dialogue-heavy film where the film’s major action is told via a story in dialogue form rather than shown…. Sound exciting? Well it’s absolutely fantastic and surely one of the strongest films of 1941. Mizoguchi’s camerawork is superb. He floats through walls with complicated tracking shows and brings us into and out of scenes with some pretty complicated crane shots (some mirror Gone With the Wind and Intolerance). The dialogue is intelligent and the ending is very satisfying. Clearly the film is paced in such a way that it will be pretty unbearable to those who don’t enjoy cinematic style.
trends and notables:
- Again, 1941 is owned by prodigy Orson Welles (born in 1915 so he was 26 in 1941) and his first archiveable/debut film. It’s not just hype.
- 1941 also marks the debut film John Huston as a director. It’s pretty remarkable that both #1 and #2 from the top 10 of 1941 are debut films.
- All top 10 films are black and white
- The war going on – represented by 49th Parallel and Hawks’ smashing success Sergeant York
- On 1940’s page I mention “peak John Ford”- and that continues here- so that’s MP in 1939, MP in 1940, and MS in 1941 here
- Preston Sturges is on a similar run- he has two of the best six films on the top 10 below—he’d be done essentially in 1944 but if you were just to take him and Hawks until that point you’d have to give the edge to Sturges I believe.
- Continuing the trend of auteurs/directors on a roll—Wyler wins my “most underrated film” in back to back years—and with 1941 he has eight archiveable films in the past six years
- I mention it above- but the debut film from Wells, first archiveable film from Joseph Cotten as well
best performance male: It is Welles as Kane and Bogey as Sam Spade at the top here for sure. Welles wasn’t always a great actor- but between this, Touch of Evil, his few minutes in The Third Man and Chimes at Midnight— when he was on and motivated- he was spectacular. As for Bogart, with all respect to John Huston, I can’t see The Maltese Falcon being as brilliant as it is with any other actor. In 1941 Bogart successfully transitions from B-movie henchman and Warner Brothers fall guy (often to Cagney) into his own powerhouse leading man and actor. He has High Sierra here as a backup to Maltese Falcon. Henry Fonda shows his comedic acting chops opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve—how about that range doing a 180-degree turn from his straight dramatic performance as Tom Joad the year before? Lastly, though it isn’t an achievement the level of Welles’ performance—Joseph Cotten deserves some love as Kane’s oldest friend Jedediah Leland.
best performance female: Poor Bette Davis is the bridesmaid here as she’s my runner up in The Little Foxes. She’s wonderfully devilish. But, I have to go with Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. She’s the embodiment of confidence and charm. She and Fonda give one of the great all-time screen comedic performances- they should be mentioned more often alongside Hepburn and Grant in Bringing Up Baby.
- Citizen Kane
- The Maltese Falcon
- The 47 Ronin
- The Lady Eve
- How Green Was My Valley
- Sullivan’s Travels
- The Little Foxes
- Sergeant York
- 49th Parallel
- Meet John Doe
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|49th Parallel- Powell||HR|
|Ball of Fire- Hawks||R|
|Citizen Kane– Welles||MP|
|Dumbo – Sharpsteen||R|
|Here Comes Mr. Jordan- Hall||R|
|High Sierra- Walsh||R|
|How Green Was My Valley- Ford||MS|
|King’s Row- S. Wood|
|Love Crazy- Conway||R|
|Man Hunt- Lang||R|
|Meet John Doe- Capra||R|
|Penny Serenade- Stevens||R|
|Sergeant York- Hawks||HR|
|Shanghai Gesture- von Sternberg||R|
|Sullivan’s Travels- P. Sturges||MS|
|That Hamilton Woman- Korda||R|
|That Uncertain Feeling – Lubitsch||R|
|The 47 Ronin– Mizoguchi||MS|
|The Black Cat- Rogell|
|The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family– Ozu||R|
|The Great Lie- Goulding||R|
|The Lady Eve- P. Sturges||MS|
|The Little Foxes- Wyler||MS|
|The Maltese Falcon- J. Huston||MP|
|The Sea Wolf- Curtiz||R|
|The Wolf Man– Waggner||R|
|They Died With Their Boots On- Walsh||R|
|Tobacco Road- Ford||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
You say “1941 *almost* marks the debut film John Huston.” Almost? I think it is just a minor typo. Other than that, the updates are great.
@Graham– quite right- fixed it. Thank you
@Drake-Do you have Orson Welles in Citizen Kane as one of the top 10 male performances of the 1940’s?
What are your thoughts on Donald Crisp’s performance in How Green Was My Valley?
@RujK – He is good here, right? I mean this is an ensemble film and the set pieces and some of the staging is more important to the artistic quality of the film than the performances- but Crisp shines here as the patriarch.
@Drake- yes, he stands above everybody else in the ensemble. He won an Oscar here, and even if I think Cotton was more deserving, I am not really mad about it.
I am just in the middle of 1941 study and I will like to recommend The Devil and Daniel Webster from W. Dieterle- it is a strange and eccentric film that is transformed in a pretty solid HR by Walter Huston’s absolutely majestic performance as The Devil, great score from Hermann and a fantastic ending.
@RujK – Very nice- thank you for the recommend