best film: The Third Man from Carol Reed has so many superior elements to praise: the Ferris wheel set piece, post-war Vienna as the film’s backdrop. On top of that it is written by freaking Graham Greene, it features the zither-based Anton Karas score, the spectacular chase in the sewers, the Welles cuckoo clock monologue, and one of cinema’s truly great endings.
most underrated: White Heat from Raoul Walsh at #630 on the TSPDT consensus list irks me. It belongs solidly in the top 500 (I have it in the top 150)— I don’t know how some of the critics that are lower on it get past the blowout of an ending.
most overrated: Kind Hearts and Coronets is clever and well-made—but clever and well-made probably doesn’t belong at #224 of all-time which is where it sits on the TSPDT list.
gem I want to spotlight: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon from John Ford is one I was late to come around on. It is the second leg of the Calvary trilogy (Ford Apache and then Rio Grande as the final installment in 1950). It is really a rough draft for The Searchers in a lot of ways visually. It is jaw-droppingly painterly—Ford’s first true triumph in color. It is also Ford’s fifth top-10 film of the 1940’s. If I can cheat a little and pick two for this category for 1949– try D.O.A. if you haven’t seen it and love film noir. People are right to point out Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Touch of Evil first for noir of course- but if you’ve seen those and love film noir and want to keep going—try out D.O.A. It boasts, amongst other things, an ingenious premise.
trends and notables:
- The lead story for 1949 is the full-on arrival of Ozu and Kurosawa—master Japanese auteurs. Of course by 1949 Ozu and Mizoguchi have already had really great careers but 1948-1949 is when Ozu and Kurosawa start becoming a mainstay in the top 10— I mean we’re talking nearly every year—and they don’t really let up until the early 1960’s. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made their best film to date in 1949. Stray Dog is Kurosawa’s best film to date (which he would top quickly in 1950 with Rashomon) and Late Spring is Ozu finding his finished aesthetic rhythm. Really the rest of his work from here on would just be variations on this mode.
- Career-best work from second-tier auteurs like Carol Reed and Raoul Walsh would be the next big story in cinema for 1949. It is particularly disappointing Reed never really came close to this again.
- If I expanded the top 10 to top 15 – you’d see it is a very good year for Joseph L. Mankiewicz- both A Letter to Three Wives and House of Strangers would be #11-15
- 1949 marks the first archiveable films for Sam Fuller (I Shot Jesse James– debut), Jacques Tati (Jour De Fête – yet another true debut), Stanley Donen (On the Town– yes a third true debut) and Don Siegel (The Big Steal)
- On the acting side- both Janet Leigh (Act of Violence and Little Women) and Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead) make a splash in their first year in the archives
best performance male: James Cagney is great as one of the original cinema gangsters in The Public Enemy and as the song and dance man in Yankee Doodle Dandy but his finest moments are on screen are as Cody Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. When he roars: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” – you should, rightly, have goosebumps. Just behind Cagney is Chishû Ryû in Late Spring. Talk about the polar opposite of Cagney’s brash performance. Ryu’s minimalist approach is perfectly befitting for Ozu’s cinematic world. He has these little grunts of acknowledgement and vocalizations—and then bestowing thoughtful, measured wisdom to his daughter. You can’t talk about 1949 without The Third Man and I think both Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles deserve mention here. Cotten is our vehicle for the narrative, and Cotten often gets unfairly overlooked altogether in the film. Welles gives probably THE sub-10-minutes-of-screen-time performance of all-time (I’m not sure there’s a better per/minute performance period). His Harry Lime gets talked about for the entire film leading up to his very brief appearance. He slays it with one of cinema’s great monologues, and then gets the epic chase through the sewer. Edmond O’Brien (who would disappear behind makeup (and great acting) into character in films like The Wild Bunch and Liberty Valance) is front and center (and recognizable) as the film noir narrator and central character in D.O.A. He in fifth place here in 1949—but worthy of at least a quick note.
best performance female: Alida Valli gives the best female performance of the year in The Third Man. I think you could argue she out-acts Cotten, and she’s just a bigger part of the film than Welles. She has the bulk of the big emotional swings in the film (and nails them all). I also love that she gets the final walk-off. Setsuko Hara actually had like 50+ credits under her belt by 1949 (including one archiveable one with Kurosawa)—but it is her partnership with Ozu (starting in 1949’s Late Spring) for which she’d be remembered. She’s Ozu’s greatest female acting collaborator—just like Ryu is Ozu’s greatest male acting collaborator.
- The Third Man
- Late Spring
- White Heat
- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
- Stray Dog
- The Reckless Moment
- All the King’s Men
- Kind Hearts and Coronets
- The Fountainhead
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Letter to Three Wives – Mankiewicz
|Act of Violence- Zinnemann
|Adam’s Rib- Cukor
|All the King’s Men- Rossen
|House of Strangers – Mankiewicz
|I Shot Jesse James – Fuller
|Intruder in the Dust- C. Brown
|Jour De Fête- Tati
|Kind Hearts and Coronets- Hamer
|Late Spring – Ozu
|Little Women – LeRoy
|On the Town- Donen, Kelly
|Sampson and Delilah- DeMille
|Sands of Iwo Jima- Dwan
|She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – Ford
|Stray Dog – Kurosawa
|Take Me Out to the Ball Game – Berkeley
|The Big Steal- Siegel
|The Fountainhead- K. Vidor
|The Heiress- Wyler
|The Inspector General- Koster
|The Reckless Moment-Ophuls
|The Secret Garden- Wilcox
|The Set-Up- Wise
|The Third Man- Reed
|The Window– Tetzlaff
|Twelve O’Clock High- H. King
|We Were Strangers- Huston
|White Heat- Walsh
*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