1947 Ten Best Movies

blacknarcissus

Sister Ruth, out of habit

Hard to beat film noir in 1947? Nobody outpoints Bob Mitchum and Jacques Tourneur at their zenith, right?  How could it be that the British – the British! – could mount an assault on the top rungs of the Ten Best List this postwar year? Well, I didn’t see it coming myself. But I did watch Black Narcissus a few months ago, and I was once upon a time schooled by nuns, and somehow at the last list-making minute the lurid events at a Himalayan convent 9,000 feet above sea level took over the Ten Best.

And look upon the British presence in the top five: one other film classic, the Carol Reed-Graham Greene Odd Man Out, but also a less famous title that I first saw a couple of years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday. This Brit-noir beauty, which has some plot similarities to Odd Man Out, is incredibly skillful at stitching together different plotlines around its central convict-on-the-lam story.

And Out of the Past? One for the ages. The ten best movies of 1947:

1. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

2. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)

3. It Always Rains on Sunday (Robert Hamer)

4. Quai des Orfevres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)

5. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)

6. T-Men (Anthony Mann)

7. Boomerang! (Elia Kazan)

8. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)

9. Pursued (Raoul Walsh)

10. Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger)

That means there’s no room for The Paradine Case, one of Hitchcock’s “problem” films, a real cold fish of a movie that I happen to like. It’s such a year for noir that even the French have one (I love Quai des Orfevres) and even Pursued and Monsieur Verdoux could be described as noir, in their way. Pretty amazing roster: Body and Soul, Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley (I know a lot of people love this one, but after the great first half-hour it gets awfully stodgy in the Fox style), Crossfire, Brute Force. The litany of titles alone is an index of noir. (Despite IMDb’s claim, I counted The Lady from Shanghai as a 1948 release.)

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Miracle on 34th Street.

Movie Diary 1/24/2009

contraband2Contraband (Michael Powell, 1940). Conrad Veidt as a Danish sea captain led into intrigue by Valerie Hobson (who played the actual title character in Bride of Frankenstein) during the London blackout. This movie’s wit and momentum should be the envy of just about any other spy story of the era — Powell, who had made The Spy in Black a year earlier, was on his game.

A Matter of Life and Death

This article originally appeared in the May-June 1990 issue of Film Comment, as part of a series commissioned by editor Richard T. Jameson for a special Michael Powell tribute. I revive it here on the occasion of A Matter of Life and Death — which just happens to be one of my favorite movies — getting a new DVD release this week.

A Matter of Life and Death

by Robert Horton

amolad3Pea soup. As the fog swirls over the Channel, voices from the wireless float past each other, until a connection is made: an American flight controller, June (Kim Hunter), has picked up the voice of RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), whose plane is going down. Their voices find each other in the haze, lock in, and Michael Powell is off and flying with the thrilling opening of A Matter of Life and Death.

Opening-proper, that is. The first image to glimmer onscreen was an establishing shot across the cosmos, which appeared as a misty blue abstraction — a sight that will be echoed later in the misty reddish abstraction that fills the screen after the celebrated point-of-view shot of Peter’s eyelid closing over the camera lens. The universe in a man’s mind: such an apt image for an artist, and so fitting for Powell, one of those great directors for whom movies were an abstract universe. Powell understood that a movie is a movie not in the way it tells a story, delivers a theme, houses fine performances, or records pleasing dialogue. Rather, movies live in the collision and collage of swatchs of color, sudden changes in angle, degrees of sound and music, shapes of landscape and body, and movement, movement, movement.

All of that is in the first conversation between Peter and June. June sits in a stylized space with red lights flashing behind her; she spends most of the sequence in white-hot closeup. Red-orange flames dance outside Peter’s cockpit window, the twisted metal of the plane’s interior framing him. He has no parachute, but he is about to jump anyway (“I’d rather jump than fry”). The Powell-Pressburger dialogue crackles with the immediacy of mortality, with the urge to get a few things said that need saying, before the end. Some of these words must appear as high corn, English-style, if read on paper; Peter dashes off some belated love to his mother, and observes that “it’s funny, I’ve known dozens of girls. I’ve been in love with some of them, but an American girl whom I’ve never seen and whom I never shall see will hear my last words. That’s funny.” But Powell stages the action so enthrallingly and fast, and Niven is such an unsentimental hero (even while quoting Walter Raleigh), that the sequence comes off brilliantly. The flames, the engine roar, the glow over June’s face, the matter-of-fact presence of the corpse of Peter’s radioman (“They’ll be sorry about Bob, we all liked him”), and the way Peter slips through an opening in the bottom of the plane, a hole shaped like a movie screen — these are the colors in Powell’s paintbox; this is the matter of life and death. Continue reading