Mike’s Top Ten of 1948
1948 might be my favorite year of the 40s. Just because the top ten list feels like a complete list of ten that I out and out love.
There’s also a lot of great stuff below the line, but the key to this one is the top ten. The top three are straight up “best films ever made” material. And the others are just straight classics and/or great films by great directors who are right in their prime.
Get ready for this one, guys. It’s a very good year.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1948
The Fallen Idol
I Remember Mama
The Red Shoes
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
11-20: Call Northside 777, A Foreign Affair, Force of Evil, Hamlet, Joan of Arc, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Naked City, The Search, The Snake Pit, Yellow Sky
Tier two: Anna Karenina, Behind Locked Doors, Blood on the Moon, Easter Parade, Fort Apache, Homecoming, Larceny, Melody Time, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Oliver Twist, On Our Merry Way, The Pirate, Portrait of Jennie, Raw Deal, Sitting Pretty, Sorry Wrong Number, State of the Union, The Street with No Name, They Live by Night, Walk a Crooked Mile
+ Honorable Mention: Bill and Coo
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1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”
One of the 25 greatest American movies ever made. Every frame of this film is perfect.
Humphrey Bogart is an American “down on his luck” in Mexico. He takes odd labor jobs when he can get them. Eventually he hits the lotto number and comes into some money. So he and his buddy meet an old prospector and the three agree to head out into the Sierra Madre mountains in search of gold. Which is all well and good. The real trouble comes when they actually find gold. As Walter Huston says in this: “I know what gold does to men’s souls.”
Humphrey Bogart has never been better than he is here. Walter Huston is always incredible no matter what he’s in. John Huston makes his masterpiece. That’s what this movie is. A masterpiece.
2. The Red Shoes
“Why do you want to dance?”
“Why do you want to live?”
“Well I don’t know exactly why, er, but I must.”
“That’s my answer too.”
This movie contains twenty of the greatest minutes ever put to screen. That would be the (pictured above) titular ballet.
This is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece. They’ve made some amazing films, and they’re all incredible, but this one is the masterpiece.
It’s about a young ballet dancer played by Moira Shearer who joins a dance company run by Anton Walbrook, who demands perfection and believes he can get it from her. She, however, begins to fall for a composer, which makes her wonder what it is she actually wants more… perfection on the stage, or love.
The centerpiece of the film is the ballet of the Red Shoes. And you will not see a better sequence anywhere else. The things Powell and Pressburger achieve in this film — stunning. This is greatness, folks.
3. Bicycle Thieves
“You live and you suffer.”
You ever watch a movie that just punches you in the face and makes you feel absolutely awful, but in the most profound way? This is that movie.
This movie is so utterly heartbreaking on every level. And it’s absolutely perfect.
The film is about a poor man desperate for work who gets a job putting up advertising posters around the city. The job requires him to have a bicycle, which he sells most of his possessions in order to buy. Pretty quickly, though, the bicycle gets stolen while he’s on the job, sending him and his son on a chase around the city, trying to find the bicycle before it’s too late. And man, oh man… are you not prepared for what you’re going to see.
Everyone loves this movie, and everyone cries while watching this movie. That’s how powerful it is. This is a true masterpiece of cinema, and quite legitimately has earned its place among the greatest films ever made.
4. Johnny Belinda
“There’s only one shame – failing a human being that needs you.”
I went into this movie with zero expectations. It was during the Oscar Quest. So I was just cranking stuff out left and right. I didn’t even bother to look up what half of it was about before I put it on. And within twenty minutes, this movie had me enraptured.
Lew Ayres plays a doctor who moves to the countryside. He soon befriends a farmer and his family. The farmer’s niece, Belinda (played by Jane Wyman), is a deaf mute. The farmer (Charles Bickford), assumes she is dumb and treats her as such. He loves her, but he needs all the help he can get to maintain his farm, so the fact that she can’t really do all that much for him is a strain. However, Ayres realizes that Belinda is very intelligent. She just doesn’t have the capacity to communicate with anyone. So he begins teaching her sign language. Finally giving her a means of communication with the rest of the world. This allows her to come out of her shell.
The town, meanwhile, assumes there’s a thing between her and the doctor. And while she likes the doctor very much, and he likes her very much, there isn’t. One night, at a town dance, a local boy rapes Belinda, and she becomes pregnant. The entire town assumes it was the doctor’s. Belinda, meanwhile, won’t say who it was. Though… things progress, and melodramatic stuff happens. There’s death, a trial, all the great stuff you’d expect from the genre.
What I love about this movie is Jane Wyman’s performance. She elicits such sympathy for her character, and really makes you fall in love with this girl. And the rest of the movie completely drew me in. Probably because Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead are two of the best character actors out there. But, even though the film can get a bit crazy in the third act (which I don’t even have a problem with), it’s so strong that I still would put it this high on my list. I love it.
5. I Remember Mama
“It’s good – we do not have to go to the bank.”
You know what I think when I watch this movie? “I bet Steven Spielberg loves this.” Because it’s got so many of the things that would make his films stand out. It’s got that right touch of sentimentality about it.
The film is about a girl thinking back to her childhood, growing up to Swedish-immigrant parents and living in relative poverty. Irene Dunne is the Mama of the film’s title, and she is the bedrock that keeps her family together. The film is mostly vignettes — little moments remembered from childhood. It’s like the movie Avalon. It shares a lot in common with that. And all those other films about people remembering their childhoods.
There are such great moments in this. I won’t spoil them. But just watching this film makes me happy. Some might see it as overly sentimental, but this is right up my wheelhouse. It’s also a George Stevens movie, by the way. The first movie he made after the war.
6. Key Largo
“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”
John Huston. Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall. Edward G. Robinson. Lionel Barrymore. Claire Trevor.
Are you in yet?
This is one of the great noirs ever made and just a great film regardless of genre. I love that it’s almost entirely a bunch of people stuck in a location together, and all their characters and conflicts come out during their time stuck together.
Bogart is a guy coming to visit the hotel of an old army buddy who died in the war. He meets his widow and his father. Also at the hotel is a wanted gangster who snuck back into the country from Cuba and is putting together a deal. He plans to hold everyone hostage until his deal is complete. But of course… violence is gonna happen.
This movie is so, so good. One of those movies you put on and just watch. I can always put on a movie and enjoy it. This is one of those I’ll just catch out of the corner of my eye and find myself sitting down and watching the whole damn thing. One of Huston’s finest.
7. Red River
“There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?”
A lot of people would consider this a top ten movie in the western genre. This is the movie that John Ford saw and reportedly said about John Wayne — “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”
It’s a Howard Hawks western, and he didn’t make too many of those. Though when he did, they were classics.
John Wayne is a cattle driver who takes in Montgomery Clift, an orphan boy, and adopts him as his own. They embark on a dangerous drive from Texas to Missouri. Though Wayne’s tyrannical leadership style leads to a lot of problems along the way.
It’s — so good. John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, John Ireland — this movie is so good. And features one of the most homoerotic scenes in the history of film. The famous “Swiss watch” scene, for those who’ve seen it. Now to mention, this whole movie is basically a love story between two men.
The climax of this film is amazing.
8. The Fallen Idol
“Shall I tell you a secret?”
Carol Reed. He had a post-war noir phase and it brought about his best work. Odd Man Out is great, and then he followed it up with this, and followed this up with what might be (and for my money you can take out the might) his crowning achievement.
The film is told from the perspective of a young boy. He’s a rich kid whose parents essentially neglect him. As such, he spends most of his time around the servants, particularly his butler, whom he idolizes. The butler tells him these great stories about his time in Africa, and all the adventures he’s gone on. However, what the boy doesn’t know is that the butler is just an unhappy man stuck in a marriage to a woman he can’t stand and desperate to run away with a mistress he actually loves. One day, the boy witnesses an argument between the butler and his wife, which leads to the wife’s accidental death. Though the boy only sees part of this, and it sure looks like the butler killed her from his perspective. So when the cops come, the boy does everything he can to lie and cover for the butler, which actually only makes things worse.
It’s such an amazing noir. Reed’s direction here is flawless, and the use of the boy’s perspective really helps the story land with maximum effect. One of the great underrated and undervalued noirs of all time.
9. Unfaithfully Yours
“I don’t think they should do this in public.”
“Well, it’s better to do it in public than not to do it at all!”
Preston Sturges. Few people had such a run as he had. His career burned so brightly for a decade, and then it just disappeared. All his great films were directed in a ten-year stretch. This was the last of the great ones. He made two films after this. Neither are particularly memorable. But man, did he have one of the best stretches you’ll ever see.
This is screwball comedy at its finest. Rex Harrison is a famous conductor who discovers that, while he was away, his wife might have been having an affair. Then, during his concert, he conducts three pieces of music. And, as he begins conducting each one, he daydreams about ways in which he could murder his wife. It’s fucking hysterical.
This might be my favorite film of his. Well, maybe second favorite. Still, this movie is hilarious and it’s one of the three or five best he ever made. Hands down, one of the funniest movies you will ever see.
“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.”
Aww yeah. Alfred Hitchcock, baby.
This is one of his “style” films, in which the plot is one thing, but it’s the way in which he shoots it that’s the real star of the film.
Two students murder one of their classmates and stuff the body in a trunk. They do this for intellectual reasons, believing they can commit the perfect murder and that no one will catch them. They use the trunk as a table on which to serve drinks as they host a dinner party in the apartment. Jimmy Stewart plays a former teacher of theirs who they think would appreciate the crime. Meanwhile, over the course of the night, he becomes amateur sleuth and begins figuring out what’s actually going on.
The film is great on its own, but what really makes it unique is that Hitchcock shot the film to look as if it was shot in one continuous take. Film cameras could only shoot about ten continuous minute, so he designed the film around these long takes, using hidden cuts to make it less obvious that he was cutting. You can spot the cuts, but it’s the fact that he tried such an audacious exercise in this time period that is so fascinating. No director openly experimented this much.
This movie is great. Don’t think of it as a gimmick. It’s legitimately great. This is secretly one of most people’s favorite Hitchcock movie that they don’t necessarily realize is one of their favorites. Definitely in league with his well-known but still underrated films.
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Call Northside 777 — A great noir with Jimmy Stewart as a reporter who answers an ad in the paper about a ten year old murder case. A policeman was killed and a man was quickly arrested and sentenced to life. The man’s mother puts an ad in the paper, offering a reward if the real killers are found. Stewart looks into it at the request of his boss. He thinks the man is guilty, but the more he looks into it, the more he realizes there’s some underhanded stuff going on. This movie is incredible.
A Foreign Affair — A Billy Wilder rom com with Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich. Arthur’s an uptight army officer investigating Dietrich, a singer thought to be the former mistress of Joseph Goebbels. She brings an army officer in to help with the investigation, not knowing he’s Dietrich’s current lover. Comedy and romance ensue. I’d tell you it’s great, but I already said it was a Billy Wilder movie, so you should have known that automatically.
Force of Evil — One of my favorite noirs. Quietly about the blacklisting and communist witch hunt in Hollywood. Starring John Garfield, perhaps the poster child for someone who was ruined by that witch hunt. He plays a lawyer who works for a gangster trying to consolidate the numbers racket. Which means he’ll have to take over one run by Garfield’s brother. Thomas Gomez as Garfield’s brother is astounding in this movie. The scene with the two of them in the bar has one of the greatest speeches I’ve seen in a film. One of the hidden gems of all cinema.
Hamlet — It’s Laurence Olivier’s masterpiece. He directs the shit out of it and gives the most iconic performance of his career. This is probably the definitive screen version of Hamlet (though the Branagh one also gives it a run for its money). Your Best Picture winner of 1948.
Joan of Arc — It’s a Technicolor biopic of Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. It looks great and it’s a fun movie that tells the story pretty much everyone knows. So while it doesn’t break any real ground, it is well-made, looks great and has badass fight scenes with Ingrid Bergman.
Letter from an Unknown Woman — One of the great melodramas of all time. Max Ophuls. It’s about a woman who’s been in love with a pianist for years, yet every time they meet he can’t seem to remember who she is. It’s a beautiful film, with Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine. A true masterpiece of the genre.
The Naked City — A film noir told docudrama style. It’s about a murder investigation, and we follow the cops as they investigate. An all-time classic of the genre and a must for film fans.
The Search — A great post-war drama. It’s about a young boy lost in post-war Germany and his mother who travels around, searching for him. The boy ends up in the care of Montgomery Clift, an American soldier. Much of the film is about the relationship between the two of them developing. Clift doesn’t speak German, and the boy doesn’t speak English. But eventually they come to understand one another, and Clift helps the boy find his mother. One of the most touching endings in cinema.
The Snake Pit — Incredible drama with Olivia de Havilland as a woman who wakes up in a mental institution with no memory of how she got there. We come to understand that she’s schizophrenic, and between flashbacks of her previous life, we see scenes of her doctor trying to help her with her illness as well as life around the institution, which feels incredibly realistic for its time. One of my favorite films of the 40s and one that would have made the top ten in just about any other year.
Yellow Sky — Great western. William Wellman. Gregory Peck is part of a gang who robs a bank and ends up in a ghost town with only two inhabitants: Anne Baxter, a tomboy, and her father. The gang discovers the mine in the town has gold in it, which leads to a standoff between the girl’s father and the gang. Peck begins to fall for Baxter, which makes things difficult for him. Richard Widmark plays the other member of the gang who becomes the antagonist. Terrific all around.
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- Anna Karenina
- Behind Locked Doors
- Blood on the Moon
- Easter Parade
- Fort Apache
- Melody Time
- Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
- Oliver Twist
- On Our Merry Way
- The Pirate
- Portrait of Jennie
- Raw Deal
- Sitting Pretty
- Sorry, Wrong Number
- State of the Union
- The Street with No Name
- They Live by Night
- Walk a Crooked Mile
Sitting Pretty is a fun family comedy. Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara have young kids who constantly torment their babysitters. They put an ad in the paper and it’s answered by Clifton Powell, a mysterious man who seems unfazed by the kids. He’s an unconventional babysitter, but he proves to be really effective. Pretty soon he becomes a hit all around the town, especially given his mysterious past. (The reveal of what he’s actually doing there is great.) An underrated gem of a comedy.
Fort Apache is the first of John Ford’s calvary trilogy. This one has John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple. It’s about the conflict between Wayne and Fonda, as Fonda is the leader of the regiment who is overly arrogant and has no idea how to deal with the Native American population. It’s a fantastic film. Homecoming is a Mervyn LeRoy drama with Clark Gable and Lana Turner. He’s an army surgeon and she’s an army nurse. They strike up a friendship which unfortunately never seems to be able to become anything more than that, as Gable’s got a wife back home. It’s a really nice romance. Walk a Crooked Mile is a noir about an undercover spy ring at an atomic plant.
Melody Time is another Disney package film. This and Make Mine Music are, to me, the best. They have the most segments and do a lot of cool things overall. There’s a winter themed song where two lovers go out on the lake, etc. A lot of nice winter imagery. There’s a jazzy Flight of the Bumblebee sequence which is pretty great. There’s a telling of the Johnny Appleseed story, a story about a tugboat, a sequence that’s just beautifully drawn trees set to the recitation of a poem, a samba sequence with Donald Duck and Jose Carioca, and a segment about Pecos Bill. State of the Union is a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Spencer Tracy plays a man running for president who has to reconcile with his estranged wife, Hepburn, in order to do so as well as compromise his ideals and tone down his beliefs in order to win votes.
They Live by Night is Nicholas Ray’s first film, a noir about a couple on the run. He’s an escaped convict wrongly convicted of murder. He plans to rob a bank to get money for a lawyer, but ends up meeting the daughter of a gas station owner and settling down. He soon abandons his plan when he falls in love, though his partners come back to try to blackmail him into one more job. It’s really good. Anna Karenina is the Vivien Leigh version of the film. She’s really the only reason I care at all about it. Oliver Twist is the David Lean version. Not as well-known as his Great Expectations, but still solid. Alec Guinness plays Fagin. Easter Parade is a Fred Astaire/Judy Garland musical. Not to be outdone, The Pirate is a swashbuckling adventure musical with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.
Sorry, Wrong Number is a great noir. Barbara Stanwyck is a bed-ridden woman who overhears what she thinks is a murder plot on the telephone. She tries to figure out the specifics in order to prevent it from happening, though that soon puts her in harm’s way too. Blood on the Moon is a western about Robert Mitchum as a cowhand who gets in the middle of a dispute between a cattle baron and some homesteaders. Great supporting cast here: Walter Brennan, Robert Preston, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Tully. Robert Wise directed it too. Behind Locked Doors is a noir about a reporter trying to find a fugitive judge who thinks the judge is hiding out in a sanitarium, so he goes undercover and has to deal with the corruption of the place as he looks for his man.
Larceny is a fun noir. John Payne is a con man who tries to swindle a war widow out of some money, but ends up falling in love with her instead, which puts him at odds with his former partner, Dan Duryea, and Shelley Winters, a moll in love with him. Trust me when I say — any noir with Dan Duryea and Shelley Winters is worth your time. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is part of that sub-genre of “house building” movies, where people move into a house and as they fix it up, things go hilariously wrong. This one is Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and it’s a lot of fun.
On Our Merry Way is a great ensemble film. Burgess Meredith is a reporter going around asking people a daily question. This question is about how a baby affected their lives. So as he goes around meeting people, they tell their stories. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Paulette Goddard, Victor Moore, William Demarest, Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Lamour feature in all the stories. It’s fun. Portrait of Jennie is a fantasy film about Jennifer Jones as a mysterious woman who inspires Joseph Cotten, an artist. The weird thing about her is that she seems to be experiencing things that happened many years earlier. Raw Deal is an Anthony Mann noir about a guy who took the fall for a crime and escapes from prison with the help of a mobster who plans to kill him so he doesn’t have to give up his share of the money. The Street with No Name is a sequel to The House on 92nd Street. It’s a noir about a guy who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang. It’s told almost like a documentary and was made in cooperation with Hoover’s FBI.
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And finally — and I almost never do this — an unranked extra entry.
This is a movie that’s so under the radar of everyone that you absolutely MUST see it as soon as possible. It’s called Bill and Coo.
What is it, you ask? Oh, nothing much. Just a one hour movie made entirely with TRAINED BIRDS.
That’s right. The entire cast is a bunch of trained birds, in a whole bird town called Chirpendale. The less you know going in, the better. Just look at this image and tell me this isn’t the greatest thing you’ve ever seen:
You didn’t know you needed this movie in your life, but you do.
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