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A Journey Through My Collection: The 1940's

It was quite fun to get into the films of the ‘40’s, I feel like this is the first decade that is highly populated with movies that I keep going back to time and time again. Here I get into a few favorites, there are a few sightings of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock starts to really hit his stride matching effects with storytelling, and Powell and Pressburger emerge as an incredible team out of England. Many of these films were shot with the limitations of filming during World War II, the medium is used to drum up support for the war in the audience, and the second half of the decade deals with life after the war, whether it’s a new split in Europe or the emotional toll of the war on the characters as well as the filmmakers.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

I first saw this in a college propaganda class. I knew a few Hitchcock movies but I had never heard of this. It's a pretty standard Hitchcock movie for much of the runtime, a man on the run and a nebulous international mystery. As things seem wrapped up, the main character is on a flight back to the US when his plane crashes into the ocean and the survivors are attacked in the ocean before being saved. This sequence is so incredibly well shot, great special effects and the tone change is so dire that this film that seemed middle of the road really takes a leap into something special. This was the movie that really started my love of Hitchcock and was the first of a twenty year deep dive.

Citizen Kane (1941)

I hadn't intended on this being the next on my watchlist, I thought my 1941 movie was going to be Suspicion, only to realize that that is one of very few Hitchcock movies that I don't have a physical disc of. I'm quite relieved for the mix up, Suspicion is not my favorite and Citizen Kane is one of my most watched films. I think this film is really well mode, incredible sets, incredibly shot and a punk rock sensibility to mess with one of the richest men in America. I'm just not sure I get why this was #1 on the Sight And Sound list for as long as it was. I think it's likely a result of being very easy to watch, and is an American movie made to look like a European film. It's definitely ahead its time, I have been thinking of the films that seem to have the greatest influence on film and literature for decades like Metropolis, Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia or 2001, or maybe just John Ford films in general. And yet, Citizen Kane is incredibly prescient in a range of ways from Hitler to Trump with a bit of Rupert Murdock in the middle. Kane's influence my be best seen in its filmmaking, but its looks into the future are brilliant observations of the landscape of society from then to now.

Casablanca (1942)

I've never really connected with this movie, and for whatever reason, it is always available with either extremely bargain priced discs, and I think I also have a digital version that was free from opening an account of some sort. It seems that the timing of the initial release of this film was both a challenge in filmmaking, filming entirely on set in California, under war-time restrictions and being forced to keep casting to local players for an international story, and that it was one of the first World War II movies that was actually released during the US involvement in the War. This was very resonating with the audience of the time and the writing is so strong that the film has lived on, especially with critics, for generations. For me, this movie is fine. It's doesn't stick with me like so many war adjacent films of the '30's and '40's, it just doesn't have the kind of suspense as well as fun that I tend to enjoy.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I have to admit that I'm perplexed on the "and death" part of this title... I assume it is to bring a little discussion to the viewers. Although, that "death" is perhaps not to be taken as Colonel Blimp's death, or the end of his career, but as a statement of his life being filled with death, whether it's from the concentration camp at the beginning of his soldiering story, or the great sequence of the mounted heads on the wall of his study and the German helmet at the end, or just the constant wars that he engaged in, that may not have entirely been deaths by his hand or that he was in direct contact with.

This movie is a perfect example of the odd schism between US and UK movie fandom. I think a recent example of this is from the TV airings of Shawshank Redemption in the US and The Bourne Identity in the UK in the early 2000's that propelled each movie into being the most viewed and loved in the respective countries, but they don't hold the same regard in the opposite direction. I feel like the Archers are at the same level or higher than American based directors at the time, Hitchcock, Ford and Capra, but they are hardly known in the US as being of the same stature, honestly, I hadn't heard of them until I was in my 30's. This isn't their best film, it isn't my favorite of their films, but it is a perfect entryway to their movies and might be the most epic of their movies, spanning decades, continents, and wars. They're such great directors for making incredibly will directed and written movies that are very accessible to casual and highbrow viewers alike.

I didn't realize this would be the first color film of my 100 years of my collect project, but it's a nice first to have. It isn't quite as striking of a color film as The Red Shoes, but nothing is.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

This little tale of war-time low-stakes traveling "detectives" sneaks its way into being one of my favorite films from the great filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger (The Archers). An American Soldier, a British Soldier and the girlfriend of a fallen soldier find themselves stranded in the middle of the night in a small town just outside of Canterbury as they live out their own odd Chaucer-like stories. This movie is captivating not because of the story, "The Glue Man" sure sounds like a watered down version of a flasher, but the characters are unexpected and every scene has something memorable about it. I spent most of this viewing thinking ahead waiting for scenes that I love like the boy on the cart of hay in the window, the boys playing war by the river, finding the caravan and the procession into the Cathedral. And yet the scene where two characters hide in long grass from two others, just to have a private moment, the sky above is so peaceful and the suspense is so benign that it is a fun scene of "danger" that is more like child's play rather than adults in wartime.

They Were Expendable (1945)

The war movies from John Ford aren't especially memorable for me compared to the westerns and this kinda drags in the middle with a lot of dialogue and extremely bland World War II costuming. It isn't until we get to on the boats and the water explosions reaching to the sky that create an incredible spectacle of battle. Perhaps it's the boring personality of John Wayne, maybe this suffers from not enough action, but this feels like it misses out on being something greater.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I've logged over 3000 movies on here and I had a couple of decades of movie watching before Letterboxd and somehow this was my first viewing of their movie. It's one of those movies I had assumed I knew everything about it thanks to pop culture, but never had a desire to sit down and watch because it's considered a holiday movie (Christmas? New Years?). I had assumed that the story kicks off the "I wish I had never been born" sequence around the end of act I and the rest of the story would be a flashback, so seeing his whole life leading up to that moment is very well crafted. We are given a lot of moments in his life that appear to be negatives for him, falling into the pool, missing out on college, staying home during the war, his brother coming back with a beautiful wife (that looks just like the girl he was pining over) that take an extra beat before revealing that he enthusiastically embraced those moments as positives. We really are served up his life as being wonderful well before he is shown the consequences of his absence. I think the surprise of this movie is that it really isn't that heavily a holiday movie, and it isn't all that sappy.

Black Narcissus (1947)

I have always had a helluva time taking this movie seriously with Mr. Dean riding a tiny horse in shorts and a straw hat. I think this viewing I tried my best to blank out just the visual of that character and really appreciated how beautifully shot this is and the fun little tidbits that give this film a little bit of depth, a tall task for a destination movie filmed entirely on a set in England. I was struck by how visually similar the faces of the two main character nuns are to give a real light/dark dichotomy on what appears to be the same person at times. This is much like the contrasts of the yogi in the forest sitting quietly and the bell ringing nuns in the biggest structure in town. I do like that there is a Mr. Dean character in this film. Visiting Nepal just short of a decade ago I learned that they had an early wave of Western hippies that pretty much took over areas of the city of Kathmandu in the '40's and '50's (and perhaps a little earlier) to the extent that they very much overstayed their welcome. Mr. Dean really seems like that kind of expat, although from another perspective his story could have been told as more of a nuisance to the locals.

Fort Apache (1948)

This is the John Ford movie that I always dream his movies can be. Monument Valley is as expansive and awe inspiring as it can be captured on film, the screen is filled with horse riding in action, the cast is historic in its greatness, and Henry Fonda's character has the complexity of a great literary character.

I have driven through Monument Valley a number of times, I used to take a pretty frequent road trip from Phoenix to Colorado to visit my brother that would take me through Monument Valley and two of those trips took me through at especially spectacular times. On one trip I left my apartment a few hours later than I wanted, it had me driving through southern Utah in the dark, which was pretty terrifying at the time, but I happened to time up my time through Monument Valley with sunset, which was simply spectacular. While that was the height of color in the valley, another time I drove through as it was snowing and the land scape was blanketed in snow, almost transporting me into an early black and white John Ford setting.

I don't feel like this film is criminally underappreciated as one of the greatest John Ford films. I first saw it in a college film studies class at UConn that focused on Westerns and took us through a lot of John Ford films, and I think the professor shared that enjoyment of this film. He would rave about Shirley Temple acting as a young woman, quite beautiful as she an 18 or 19 year old and an unusually seasoned actress for someone her age. I can always take or leave John Wayne, but his role here is to simply be a human monument and the conscience of the audience. But it's Henry Fonda who is like a western Captain Ahab, whose legacy is more important than his actual history. I love this movie, and this viewing was a reminder to bump it up a half a star.

The Third Man (1949)

The best way to see this is in close proximity with Citizen Kane. I can imagine the day when I can get at least one of my kids to sit through those two movies and finding a way to keep the twist of the third man’s identity a secret to them. This really is a perfect entrypoint for older movies or black and white movies. The pacing and sense of humor is very comfortable for a modern audience, the score is one of the all-time greatest, if not one of the most catchy and although Joseph Cotton doesn’t have the timeless star power of James Steward or Henry Fonda, he brings that level of a recognizable audience surrogate. I have loved this film from the first time I saw it maybe 25 years ago, and each viewing is a bit of a surprise of how I just might love it more and more every time I see it.

Final Thoughts

Compared to the upcoming decades, I feel like I have a thinner collection of movies from the ‘40’s, although a lot of the movies that I do have are some of my absolute favorites. I feel like the filmmakers really mature with how well they are able to shoot their subjects, innovative ways to utilize effects thanks to limitations during the war, and the stories that are told are a lot more nuanced, while humor has become more streamlined.

What’s Next!

The Gunfighter, Strangers on a Train, High Noon, The War of the Worlds, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, The Searchers, A Face in the Crowd, Vertigo, Hiroshima Mon Amour.


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