By James David Patrick
The post-World War II climate inspired a great shift among global filmmakers. The world had changed, likewise the movies that represented that world. The year 1949, now seventy years young, brought us one of the single greatest years in the immediate post-war cinema. These seven films look closely at the world through hazy shades of grey (with the exception of one film, which aims for pure escapism from recent horrors).
These seven films – and one could argue easily for the inclusion of another four or five on this list – represent the must-see essentials for anyone looking seriously at post-war cinema, both at home and abroad. These selections might have reached the big 7-0 in 2019, but they’ve never been more relevant.
A master class in filmmaking technique, atmosphere, performance, and audience manipulation, Carol Reed’s shadowy film noir masterpiece works as a quietly subversive piece of pure cinematic entertainment.
Graham Greene’s script details the dark underworld that has sprung up in post-war Allied-occupied Vienna where the four quadrants of the city are controlled by the Americans, the British, the French, and the Soviets. American pulp author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) comes to Vienna seeking his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles in his most iconic role this side of Citizen Kane). Lime, however, has already met with a tragic demise – but all is not as it seems.
In his book “Great Movies,” Roger Ebert said of The Third Man, “Of all the movies that I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” If you watch no other movie from 1949, make it this one.
One of James Cagney’s signature performances as Cody Jarett, a psychopathic criminal with a mommy complex. While Cagney chews the scenery, it’s remarkable that every hyperbolic gesture and spoken line of dialogue falls into the rhythm of the densely plotted narrative. White Heat doesn’t break new ground, but it does elevate the gangster/police procedural film, reveling in a few standout setpieces like an early car chase that’ll have you checking the date on the disc. Could that possibly have been filmed in 1949?
Best known, perhaps, for directing Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Raoul Walsh was a director that understood how to entertain and elicit a specific response from the viewer. He’s probably not often considered one of the great directors of the era due to his overwhelmingly prolific output (that produced its share of mediocrity) throughout his 40-year workmanlike, directorial career.
The great Stanley Donen recently passed at age 94. How better to honor his memory than with a watch of one of his many eminently watchable musical comedies – On the Town. Sailors Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly mug, croon, romance and hoof their way through New York City on a 24-hour pass.
On the Town offers terrific on-location New York City vistas, light-as-air comedy, smart pop culture references, and a rather progressive finale (for 1949, anyway). Vera-Ellen (White Christmas) and Betty Garrett hold their own against the wattage of Kelly and Sinatra, but Ann Miller especially showcases a memorable comic touch.
You could call On the Town “corny” or “inconsistent” and you’d probably be right, but you could also choose to embrace the spectacle of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in a 1949 time-capsule love-letter to New York City.
This early minor (perhaps underappreciated) classic from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa follows police detective Murkami (Toshirô Mifune) as he doggedly tracks down a stolen gun that’s fallen into the wrong hands. The movie explores causality and consequences through the perspective of our weathered detective.
Though not known for his police procedurals, Kurosawa elevates the genre into art through the use of the advanced cinematic tools of the trade – dissolves, jarring cuts and camera angles, overlapping dialogue, etc. As with many films of the period, Stray Dog grapples with the aftermath of the war, and how the fallout has turned men into animals – capable of right but drawn perpetually to wrong.
Based on the William James novel, “Washington Square,” The Heiress offers a sharp criticism of the patriarchy and lays bare the complexity behind every intention – both good and bad. At face value, The Heiress appears to be no more than another Hollywood melodrama, but Wyler’s film deviates from the standard script in many subtle and surprising ways.
The blood of Shakespearean tragedy flows through The Heiress’ veins; its wounds laid bare by the performances of the great Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland. Wyler’s camera lingers on the face of Olivia de Havilland and in return, she gives arguable her finest performance, full of grace and nuance.
An entirely all-too-relevant film noir about corruption in politics and how a likeable rural politician (a seemingly effortless Broderick Crawford) becomes soulless governor. John Wayne dismissed the film as unpatriotic at the time of its release – but it’s impossible to overlook how deeply Rossen’s Oscar-winning film cuts through the graft and solipsism of American politics. Everyone’s got their own agendas and something to hide.
All the King’s Men won’t leave you feeling optimistic about the state of affairs in 2019. It’s rather clear that after 70 years nothing much has changed, and the ending will leave scars as only some of the best noirs can do.
In post-war Japan, an only daughter, Noriko, remains at home with her widowed father Shukichi rather than find a husband. Knowing Noriko will never leave him as long as he’s alive and alone, Shukichi concocts an elaborate lie to sacrifice his own happiness and force his daughter into happiness.
Ozu captures emotion better than almost any director in the history of cinema. His camera lingers on faces and vignettes with immaculate, broad composition. He dives into the lives of his characters and elevates the mundane into the divine. Ozu’s quietly personal poetry transcends language. If you were looking for an entry into Ozu’s filmography, you couldn’t go wrong with the devastating, poignant Late Spring.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music, and ‘80s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter @007hertzrumble, Instagram, and Facebook.