*Hamlet (1948)*

hamlet

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan

Director: Laurence Olivier

Summary: The melancholy Dane flirts with insanity while trying to prove his uncle murdered his father

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Olivier)*, Supporting Actress (Simmons), Dramatic/Comedy Score, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Costume Design*

Positives

-Really strong cast top to bottom. Obviously Olivier is the star and this is the best work I’ve seen him do, brooding and intense even if he goes overboard occasionally with his expressions (more on this later). The only complaint is that he’s 40 playing a young man, which is most noticeable when matched up with the actress playing Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) who’s 11 years younger than Oliver, which has to be a record. There are also a ton of awesome people in bit parts that were either great then or would later become significant: Peter Cushing (Osric), Anthony Quayle (Marcellus), Niall MacGinnis (The Sea Captain, a character made up for this version), Patrick Troughton aka the 2nd Doctor (Player King), Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger)

-The presentation is great, from the sets, costumes, cinematography and effects (the ghost of the late king is still effective in look and voice). It helps breathe life into the play while not going overboard and trying to make it something it’s not, like the Kenneth Branagh version where Hamlet is apparently an olympic-class javelin thrower and everything is turned up to 11 (see this actual scene from that version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWjn2oSVBm8); even Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet was more subdued (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCVc5TaPpe8).

-The source material is one of the better Shakespeare plays in my opinion, a classic tale about obsession with revenge at all costs that ruins the lives of the main character and everyone around him.

Negatives

-While good overall, the adaptation does have some noticeable flaws. First, in order to get the movie down to a manageable runtime, it cuts out the characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras entirely-while the story works without them, it seems unusual for an adaptation to entirely remove the first two considering they’re fairly memorable side characters; others since have found a way to include them and still run at a reasonable time. Second, while there were some incestual undertones in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother in the original, here the moves goes to extremes, most noticeably when Hamlet has crazy rapey eyes in the bedroom scene and when he takes a big comical gulp when he talks about Claudius having sex with his mother.

-A minor complaint, but the opening narration refers to the story as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Not only is it silly to reduce the play to something that simple, I have no idea where this comes from-he acts consistently after he discovers who killed his father, and decides to keep down the same road after the “to be or not to be” scene.

Overall

The best Shakespeare adaptation yet, with strong performances and production values even if the adaptation itself had some flaws.

Rating: B

Johnny Belinda (1948)

belinda

Starring: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Stephen McNally, Agnes Moorehead, Jan Sterling

Director: Jean Negulesco

Summary: A small-town doctor helps a deaf-mute farm girl learn to communicate

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Ayres), Actress (Wyman)*, Supporting Actor (Bickford), Supporting Actress (Moorehead), Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-Jane Wyman is excellent and deserving of the Academy Award. She plays a deaf-mute, so everything has to be communicated through facial expressions and body language. Instead of playing those aspects up like some would, she actually tones everything way down, but is still expressive and it feels very believable. This is a radically different role than she had in The Lost Weekend or The Yearling (and you wouldn’t believe she was older here than in those movies), but she shows that she had real range and was a hell of a lot more than the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan and the matriarch from Falcon Crest.

-This is one of Max Steiner’s better scores (and I’ve heard a lot of them so far-18 to be exact)

-The story is original, and much like the lead’s performance is fairly restrained. If they made this movie again (or had made it then with a different director), almost everything would be bigger and more explosive/dramatic, whereas we only have a couple of big moments in an otherwise low-key movie. I found it to be refreshing.

Negatives

-I that Ayres had a lot of good reasons for why didn’t try and go full-out defending Wyman’s character and exposing who was really behind the deed, but to not do anything at all, especially after he had a strong hunch as to who it was, seems really out of character for him and is problematic in general.

Other Stuff

-This film marked an important chink in the armor for the production code: no spoilers, but it’s the first time anything like it was explicitly dealt with in a film. It’s the kind of thing that creates a slippery slope: if you allow this for this movie, 1) why can’t I do the same in my movie? and 2) if you allowed this, why can’t I also have this equally taboo subject in my movie?

Overall

Really good drama that is surprisingly un-melodramatic considering its subject matter and characters, and is marked by an excellent lead performance.

Rating: B+

The Red Shoes (1948)

redshoes

Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann

Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (The Archers)

Summary: A young ballerina is torn between her art and her romance with a young composer

Other Nominations: Story, Dramatic/Comedy Score*, Color Art Direction*, Film Editing

Positives

-The Red Shoes ballet sequence is an incredible example of film as art in its purest form. The combination of dance, score, cinematography, effects and acting make this one of the most memorable scenes in film. At 15 minutes in length, it’s the obvious high point of the film and completely captivated me like few other things have so far. If you haven’t seen it, last time I checked, it is on Youtube in full.

-Beyond just that scene, the color for the film overall is excellent. First, it makes good color choices, especially the focus on the color red which always looked great in technicolor: we have the red shoes, but also the main character has bright red hair, and all the women have bright red lipstick. Second, the red pops out even more because everything else is pretty restrained and feels “cool.” Nobody makes films with this kind of color palate any more-I know that some of it is how the ink and dye process looks on film stock, but with digital color correction, I’m surprised more people haven’t tried to get close.

-Shearer was an outstanding choice for the lead as she looks stunning and is a great dancer (the two most important things for playing her character honestly) even if her acting is just fine. The best performance from an acting standpoint would have to be Walbrook, who is intense that ratchets up when he loses total control over his performers.

Negatives

-While the movie completely succeeds with its visuals and audio, the story and characters don’t stand out until things finally come to a head at the very end. The story is simple, has been done numerous times in various forms before and in the background for most of the movie. When we aren’t in one of the great ballet scenes, the look of the film can only get you so far in keeping you interested. While I was never bored, it’s the obvious weak spot in the movie.

Overall

-The Red Shoes lacks a really memorable story or characters, but everything else works so well that it’s still a great movie and I highly recommend it

Rating: A-

The Snake Pit (1948)

snake

Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Leo Genn, Mark Stevens, Celeste Holm, Helen Craig

Director: Anatole Litvak

Summary: A young woman finds herself in a mental institution but does not know what led her to a mental breakdown

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (de Havilland), Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording*

Positives

-de Havilland is way better in this than in any of the previous movies I’d seen her in (although to be fair, she was usually a supporting character in those). She does a really good job of being quite likeable, sympathetic and not off-putting, while still having having a mental illness that she clearly needs help with-it’s a tough act, but she pulls it off. If it wasn’t for Wyman, she would have easily won Best Actress this year and deservedly so.

-For 1940s Hollywood standards, this is a profoundly depressing and emotionally draining movie. While it sometimes feels a little emotionally manipulative, for the most part it’s genuinely heartbreaking.

-The editing is interesting: a lot of traditional cuts are replaced by motion blur transitions (like in Animaniacs). It’s unusual and creative for the time and mostly works

Negatives

-This movie is sort of the polar opposite of Johnny Belinda, and by that I mean it’s exactly the big, explosive melodrama that you might have expected the former to be. Every chance this movie gets to chew the scenery, it takes it with relish. This is not an inherently bad thing, and it works here most of the time, but sometimes it gets to be overbearing, especially when we get to Ward 33 which is an extended sequence of those with the worst mental illnesses and starts to feel like something out of an exploitation film after a while.

-As was the style of the time, the movie is based around Freudian psychology and this is very much applied to the main character. This dates the movie and provides what feels like an unsatisfying conclusion on the mental illness front: very few within the profession now follow it, much less to the total adherence that people did at the time.

Overall

This is an emotionally wrenching movie anchored by a great lead performance, even if it goes too far to be melodramatic sometimes.

Rating: B

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

treasure

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya

Director: John Huston

Summary: Two Americans searching for work in Mexico convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Huston)*, Screenplay*

Positives

-Both Bogart and Huston are a lot of fun in their roles. Even for someone who came up in Hollywood playing gangsters, it’s pretty bold for the #1 leading man in the world at the time to take the kind of role he plays here, but he’s perfect playing a totally paranoid scumbag. Huston deservedly won the Oscar and is a vital source of energy and entertainment playing against the two other leads who are pretty dour most of the time.

-This was a great year for Max Steiner, as his score here (along with the one from Johnny Belinda) is tense, dramatic and memorable.

-The decision to shot the movie on location Mexico paid off, as getting the look right is integral to the movie considering how often the characters are battling the elements and everything looks really good.

Negatives

-I liked this movie a lot, but I personally don’t understand why this movie is considered one of the best of all-time. Story-wise, this is a basic story of greed leading men to ruin, and starting with the scene where we get introduced to Walter Huston’s character, the film plays out pretty much exactly how I thought it would, until the end which did throw me off and I loved it. This is a slow-burn kind of movie, which is fine (I loved Gaslight and Rebecca which also do this), but it never got tense or exciting enough for me to feel like it really paid off in full. The performances carry the movie, but beyond that I didn’t think it was anything truly special.

Overall

An entertaining movie that definitely picks up in the second half, but for me, it never reached the levels of greatness I expected it would.

Rating: B+

1948 in Review

Other Notable Films of 1948

Bicycle Thieves: This brutal look at the bleak nature of life in post-WWII Italy is considered the high-point of the Italian neorealism movement and is still on the top ten of the Sight and Sound Directors Top Ten.

Red River: This Howard Hawks/John Wayne western is considered to be one of the greatest of the genre. The movie was shot in 1946, but wasn’t released until 1948 due to legal issues were resolved by re-cutting the movie. Interestingly enough, the theatrical version was lost for many years and only the pre-release original cut version existed; Criterion Collection finally released a restored version of the original cut in 2014.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: The great send-off to the classic Universal horror monsters, with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. playing Dracula and The Wolf Man for the last time on film

Force of Evil: Stars John Garfield and is considered one of the best film noirs. In the National Film Registry.

Letter from an Unknown Woman: Stars Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, considered the best of German director Max Ophuls’ films he made while he was in America from 1946-1948. In the National Film Registry.

The Naked City: Film noir that was filmed on location in New York City and is noted for its striking cinematography

Louisiana Story: faux-documentary about the life in the Louisiana Bayou which changes when a young boy’s father allows an oil derrick near their house; because the movie was funded by an oil company, only good things come from it. Was listed on the original 1952 Sight & Sound Top 10 and is in the National Film Registry.

Key Largo: Bogart, Bacall and Edward G. Robinson in a film noir directed by John Huston, how can you go wrong? Last pairing between Bogie and Bacall.

Drunken Angel: One of Akira Kurosawa’s most acclaimed early works and the first his many collaborations with Toshiro Mifune

Rope: This was a very experimental film for Hitchcock: it was not only his first color film, but he also decided he wanted the entire movie to be in real time and to look like it was done in one seamless take. The movie mostly works, with most of the fun coming from the fact that there’s a dead body in plain sight that you’re just waiting for someone to finally discover.

Oliver Twist: Following his successful adaptation of Great Expectations, David Lean next adapted another Dickens classic with similarly great results, although there was considerable controversy over Alec Guinness’ portrayal as Fagan with some calling it anti-semitic. Named to the BFI Top 100 at #46.

1948 in Review

The Red Shoes: A-

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: B+

Johnny Belinda: B+

The Snake Pit: B

Hamlet: B (Won Best Picture)

This was by far the easiest year to watch yet, as I unequivocally liked all the movies even if the movie that won Best Picture was my least favorite. While all five movies were dramas, all of them felt completely different from one another which was refreshing. I’m still surprised Hamlet won Best Picture, considering 1) that it’s an adaptation of a play everybody already knows and 2) there were two other movies that felt like more obvious choices: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which won Best Director and Adapted Screenplay), and Johnny Belinda (which had the most nominations and feels like a prototypical “Oscar” movie); those two tied for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, the last year before they split separate categories for Drama and Musical/Comedy.

On November 8th, 1948, Howard Hughes (who owned RKO) entered into a consent decree with the government to break up the production & distribution part of the business from the theater chain part of the business; after one of the big five studios (MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO) agreed to break up due to antitrust violations, the others soon followed with MGM being the last, finally breaking off from Loews Theaters in 1954. This, along with the advent of TV, marked the end of the studio system and the end of the “Golden Age of Hollywood.”

For 1949: A movie whose central character was inspired by Louisiana Governor and Senator  Huey P. Long; Two World War II films, one about infantry and the other about bomber pilots; a gothic romance that won Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar; and Kirk Douglas’ only appearance in a BP nominated film, and only in a supporting role.