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Mike’s Top Ten of 1949

1949 is a year that has some great films. The best thing about them is that they all feel like hidden gems, even though they’re probably all classics.

Of course we need to start with the obvious film — one of the absolute greatest films ever made, a benchmark in its genre, one of the most gorgeously photographed films of all time and a film that remains one of my five favorite films of all time. So that’s of course gonna lead the pack. But the rest of them are all great films that I feel most people don’t see often enough. It’ll increase as the list goes on.

I’ve always had a real affinity for this year. This is the year that’s rife with stuff that I’d jump to recommend to people.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1949

All the King’s Men

Battleground

The Hasty Heart

The Heiress

I Was a Male War Bride

A Letter to Three Wives

Thieves Highway

The Third Man

Too Late for Tears

White Heat

11-20: Adam’s Rib, The Barkleys of Broadway, Criss Cross, Hardly a Criminal, Holiday Affair, It’s a Great Feeling, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Small Black Room, Twelve O’Clock High

Tier two: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Adventures of Don Juan, Beyond the Forest, The Big Steal, Champion, Home of the Brave, I Shot Jesse James, Little Women, On the Town, Pinky, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Set-Up, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Shockproof, The Stratton Story, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Tension, Under Capricorn, Whisky Galore

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1. The Third Man

An absolute masterpiece. If I had to recommend 100 movies for everyone to watch, this would be on that list. This is one of my five favorite films of all time, and I could watch this every single day.

I can’t imagine someone has made it this far into this site without having seen this, but for the uninitiated:

Holly Martins is an American pulp novelist coming to Vienna to visit his friend, Harry Lime. No sooner does he arrive does he find out that Harry is dead. He attends the funeral and then is picked up by two policemen who tell him that Lime was a criminal and that he should leave town. Martins, however, thinks there’s something fishy about Lime’s death. He starts asking the witnesses who were there, as well as the two men who were with him until the end. He comes to find that the two men were not the only ones to carry the body — there was (insert title here) there as well. So Martins goes around, trying to figure out who this third man was, encountering Lime’s girlfriend, shady figures and all sorts of trouble.

This movie is the most beautifully shot noir of all time. Absolute iconic imagery shot around post-war Vienna, on top of the single greatest character introduction in the history of film. The best. There is nothing better than this.

Not to mention the famous ferris wheel sequence, the iconic score, and one of the greatest finales in movie history. That final shot, too…

You can’t be a film buff without this movie. It’s the best. And it has one of the great speeches of all time:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

2. Battleground

One of my favorite war films. This movie is so great.

There’s a really easy way I get people into wanting to see this one. I didn’t think it would be so easy, but apparently everyone has seen what I’m about to reference.

You know the show Band of Brothers? Apparently everyone around my age has not only seen it but loves it. Which is great, because the show was amazing. One of the great miniseries’ of all time. And what are generally considered the two best episodes of that show? The Bastogne episodes. Right? Where they get pinned down in the forest, digging in for the winter, surrounded by Germans with no form of help or supplies.

Well this movie — it’s about Bastogne. All of that. Soldiers stuck, surrounded by Germans, with no help or supplies until spring. The Germans keep closing in around them and they need to hold on. The site of the famous offer to surrender, and the response: “Nuts!”

I love this movie. Something about this feels like you’re completely there, even though it was clearly shot on a soundstage. But there’s something so intimate about it. And the scenes are so casual. It’s almost like one of those Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks-type hangout films. The soldiers are just chilling with one another, even though it’s a life or death situation.

This movie is never mentioned among the great war movies of all time, but I think it should be. It’s awesome.

3. All the King’s Men

“It could have been – whole world – Willie Stark.”

Both a Best Picture winner and a Pulitzer winner. Chances are you’ve heard of it.

There’s a lot of great things about this film. The most interesting of which — it’s almost a noir. I don’t consider it one, but it almost plays like one. Especially with the John Ireland character. But, outside of that — I love that it’s a film of two halves: the first half the rise, the second, the fall. Also, Broderick Crawford gives the performance of a lifetime here. It’s as if the role was written just for him. Also, Mercedes McCambridge — holy shit. That’s a character way ahead of its time. Both of them earned well-deserved Oscars.

The film is about Willie Star, a self-proclaimed “hick” politician who starts by standing on the street corners, railing against the corruption and complacency of government. He gains a grass roots following, but is easily overpowered by the other candidates, who have more money to spend and the ability to do whatever they need to in order to get votes. He works his way up, though, getting himself competitive in his races. Though we watch as he slowly becomes corrupted on his way up. He starts as a faithfully married teetotaler railing against corruption. And eventually he becomes a lecherous drunk who will stop at anything to get more power, eventually reaching the governor’s mansion. And we watch as all the stuff he did to get there slowly starts tearing it all down.

The movie is great. An all-time classic. This is House of Cards before House of Cards.

4. The Heiress

“He’s grown greedier over the years. Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house – and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time.”

Oh, yeah. This movie. This won Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar and is one of the great all-time performances.

This is an unabashed melodrama and it fucking works. Olivia de Havilland is a spinster living with her domineering father. She loves him, and so desperately wants to make him happy, even though it’s made her socially awkward. He, meanwhile, openly is disappointed with her as a daughter. She meets Montgomery Clift and falls in love with him. He’s charming, and actually seems to like her. Her father, however, automatically assumes Clift is after her money and does everything he can to prevent the romance. She’s undeterred, and plans to marry Clift. Her father, however, says he’ll disinherit her if she marries him. So she’s gotta decide between her father’s love or actual happiness with someone who (seemingly) loves her.

The great thing about the film is that it’s built around two very specific moments (one of which is pictured). It’s two walks up staircases, both after very pivotal events in her life. I won’t give away specifics, but they’re incredibly powerful moments. de Havilland absolutely kills it.

5. Thieves Highway

“Soft hands.”
“Sharp nails.”

I love these truck driver noirs. It’s Jules Dassin again, in the middle of his run of amazing noirs. This was the second to last. After this, he’d make one more (which we’ll get to in 1950) and then disappeared for five years, went back to France and made a little movie called Rififi.

Richard Conte is a guy who returns from the war to find his truck driver father crippled at the hands of an unscrupulous produce dealer (Lee J. Cobb, presaging his Johnny Friendly character). So he gets into the truck driver business and sets out to get revenge.

This movie is awesome. I always say how certain genres — trial movie, prison movie — are always interesting. For some reason, the truck driving movie is the exact same thing! I don’t know how to explain it, but this is one of the most riveting movies you’ll ever watch. (The whole thing was shot on location in San Francisco, too. Which adds to the whole thing.)

6. White Heat

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

James Cagney’s final gangster picture. This is the genre’s Unforgiven. In an era where the noir picture had completely replaced the gangster picture, this was the genre going out with one big she-bang.

Cagney is a crazy gang leader who performs a train robbery but confesses to a lesser crime, for which he gets a minor sentence. Though a bunch of crazy shit happens and he eventually escapes. The way this plot escalates is so amazing. I don’t even want to spoil it.

This is one of the great noirs of all time. It’s incredible. Cagney at his absolute finest.

7. I Was a Male War Bride

“Any female trouble?”
“Nothing but, Sergeant.”

Do I need to say anything more than “Howard Hawks screwball comedy starring Cary Grant”?

Grant’s a French army captain assigned to work with Ann Sheridan. They get into all sorts of comedic situations and eventually fall in love. They marry — or try to. The red tape of the army makes things quite difficult. Eventually the war ends and the only way for Grant to get back into the country is as a war bride. Hilarity ensues.

I love this movie. It’s hysterical. The subversion of gender norms is one thing, but the comedy is also really good.

8. A Letter to Three Wives

“Why is it that sooner or later no matter what we talk about, we wind up talking about Addie Ross?”
“Maybe it’s because if you girls didn’t talk about me you wouldn’t talk at all.”

A great drama. The conceit of this movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Three women (pictured above) go on a day trip with their kids’ school. They’re getting on a ferry and going off to an island, where there are no phones. However, just before the ferry takes off, they get a letter from a woman they all know (who is never pictured), who says she’s running away with one of their husbands. So over the course of the film, each of them thinks back on their lives with their husbands, and wonders if it’s her husband the woman is running away with. So the film is essentially three flashbacks, and then eventually, in the end, the reveal of which husband it is.

The idea behind the film is genius, and it’s really engaging and well made. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won his first two Oscars for this movie (directing and writing). Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell plays the wives. Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas and Jeffrey Lynn play the husbands. Celeste Holm provides the voice of the woman who wrote the letter. It’s great.

9. Too Late for Tears

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.”

I was so late to this movie. I saw it a few years ago at the annual noir festival they put on at the Egyptian every April in LA. One of my favorite little festivals to attend every year. This was their opening night film, as a tribute to Dan Duryea, an actor I’d previously no knowledge of but who is now one of my all time favorite actors. I refer to him as the B-movie Brando. He’s so great.

The film is about Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott as a married couple driving home through the Hollywood Hills after a party with some friends. During an argument, their lights actually get switched off for a second before being turned back on. Unbeknownst to them, this move, at this exact spot, was a signal to a waiting car. The other car passes by and a bag of money is tossed in the backseat. However, the other car quickly realizes the mistake and chases them down onto Hollywood Boulevard. They manage to get away, but now they know someone is after them and the money. They bring the bag home and wonder what to do with it. They agree to hide the bag for a month until the coast is clear. And then if they decide it’s safe, only then will they take it and begin spending it.

However, the wife really wants that money. And she’s gonna do whatever she can to hold onto it. Problems arise when the gangster who tossed the money in the car, Dan Duryea, wants it back. Only the wife starts playing hardball with him, getting him involved with her schemes too.

It’s — so good. It’s a real down and dirty noir. Some noirs are A pictures. This is a straight B picture. And I fucking love it. It’s so good. Dan Duryea makes this movie. This dude should have been way more of a star than he was. But whatever. This movie got me to discover him, for which I am eternally grateful.

10. The Hasty Heart

One of those movies I knew absolutely nothing about and only happened to see because it caught a stray Best Actor nomination for Richard Todd. This feels like the kind of movie maybe some people catch on TCM, but otherwise I don’t know how most people would come across it. (But that’s what I’m for.)

A bunch of soldiers are in a military hospital in the middle of the jungles of Burma. They’ve all been there for a while, and they’re all great pals. They’re led by Ronald Reagan. They’re all under the care of Patricia Neal, the head nurse. She’s the nurse everyone loves and everyone wishes they had a shot with, but she never shows a real romantic affinity toward any of them. A new patient arrives, a Scotsman, who was injured in battle. He’s secretly got a bad kidney, and it will kill him within a few weeks. He doesn’t know this. The men are told to be nice to him, which is made extremely difficult because when the man shows up, he’s a real asshole to them. He wants no part of them whatsoever. Eventually we find out it’s because he’s got a real mission in his life. He’s gonna work hard and buy a farm and he’s got everything he wants planned out in front of him. He begins to become friendly with Neal, and eventually warms up to the men.

What I love about this movie is that it doesn’t give in to the obvious temptation to kill the guy off for cheap sentiment in the end. It leaves him alive, with the audience knowing he’s going to die very soon. And that adds so much more emotion to the entire film.

It’s a really solid film, with mostly nobodies. Most people wouldn’t recognize the majority of the cast. But it’s really good. I’m glad I managed to see it. One of the real hidden gems of the 40s.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

Adam’s Rib — It’s Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in perhaps their best film together. Directed by George Cukor, it’s about married lawyers who defend a divorcing couple in a case where the wife shot the husband after she thought he was having an affair. One of the great comedies of all time.

The Barkleys of Broadway — The final screen film of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their only film in color. They play a constantly bickering famous musical husband-and-wife team who might break up once she decides she wants to become a serious actress. It’s terrific, and is a great screen send-off for the two of them. They do a great dance to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” which had previously been sung (but not danced to) in Shall We Dance.

Criss Cross — Great noir with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo. Lancaster reteams with Robert Siodmak who directed him in The Killers. He’s an armored truck driver who comes back into town and gets back with his ex-wife, who is married to Dan Duryea, a gangster. Pretty soon he conspires with Duyrea to have his own truck robbed. Though the robbery doesn’t go off exactly as planned. It’s great. Duryea and Lancaster in a noir? What more could you want?

Hardly a Criminal — An Argentinian noir about a bank employee who concocts the perfect crime: embezzle money from the bank, serve his time, and then get the money at the end of it. It may be foreign, but it’s influenced by all the American noirs and plays exactly like one of those. Really solid.

Holiday Affair — A great holiday romance. Robert Mitchum is a sales clerk at a department store, and Janet Leigh is a comparative shopper from a rival store. He figures this out when she buys a train set, only to return it the next day. Rather than turn her over to the store detective (remember when stores had those?), he grants her the refund after she says she’s a single mother trying to raise a child. Though this gets him fired. He soon gets close to her and her son, and romance ensues. It’s one of the great, underseen holiday films.

It’s a Great Feeling — It’s a great “inside” Hollywood musical. The film begins with a studio trying to find a director for their new movie. And all the top directors of the town turn it down, refusing to work with the film’s star, Jack Carson. So Carson decides to direct it himself. He coerces Dennis Morgan to star in it, and they try to find an unknown actress for the part. Doris Day, meanwhile, is an aspiring actress working at the studio commissary, who gets mixed up with the pair as they lie their way into getting her into the movie. It’s so much fun.

Kind Hearts and Coronets — An all-time comedy. Alec Guinness plays nine characters here. It’s about a guy who is ninth in line to inherit a title and plans to murder the eight people ahead of him in the line of succession. A real comedic tour de force by Guinness. It’s the film that made him a star. Only his third film.

Sands of Iwo Jima — One of two similar films on this list. This one’s about John Wayne as a tough-as-nails sergeant whose men all hate him because of how difficult his methods are. Though of course they eventually realize once they get into battle just how prepared they are because of him. One of Wayne’s greatest performances, and one that earned him his first Oscar nomination.

The Small Black Room — A great, underrated Powell and Pressburger film. David Farrer is an alcoholic bomb expert who has to diffuse a bunch of mines dropped by the Nazis. Incredible film with great central performances. A gem.

Twelve O’Clock High — This is about an Air Force squadron that has really low morale after losing a high number of pilots in recent missions. Gregory Peck comes in to bring discipline to the men. Again, the tough-as-nails officer coming in to whip the men into shape. The men hate it, but eventually it works. Great performances by Peck and also by Dean Jagger as his assisting officer who knows how to use all the military red tape to his advantage.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
  • Adventures of Don Juan
  • Beyond the Forest
  • The Big Steal
  • Champion
  • Home of the Brave
  • I Shot Jesse James
  • Little Women
  • On the Town
  • Pinky
  • The Reckless Moment
  • Reign of Terror
  • The Set-Up
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  • Shockproof
  • The Stratton Story
  • Take Me Out to the Ball Game
  • Tension
  • Under Capricorn
  • Whisky Galore

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the last of Disney’s package films. It’s split between two halves. The first is The Wind and the Willows, which is fine, and the second is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is great. Narrated by Bing Crosby too. But the Headless Horseman sequence is one of Disney’s best, and is so good they keep putting it out there now. Under Capricorn is the Hitchcock movie that even Hitchcock buffs haven’t seen. It’s basically a Technicolor  drama. Joseph Cotten goes to Australia and mets Ingrid Bergman, his childhood sweetheart, who is now a drunk. It’s good. I actually really like this movie, but even people who dig deep into Hitchcock seem to not ever get to this one. And they should. It’s great.

The Reckless Moment is a great Max Ophuls noir with Joan Bennett as a housewife who goes to great lengths to protect her family from scandal after her daughter accidentally murders her blackmailing lover. James Mason plays a smooth criminal who shows up to further blackmail Bennett, though complications ensue when he starts to fall in love with her. The Set-Up is a Robert Wise noir about an aging boxer’s corrupt manager who takes a bribe for the boxer to throw a fight, without telling the boxer (since he figures he’ll lose anyway). Shockproof is a Douglas Sirk noir about a parole officer who falls in love with his parolee. Tension is a noir about a pharmacist who creates a fake identity in order to murder his wife’s lover. The Big Steal is a Don Siegel noir with Robert Mitchum as a soldier accused of a robbery who chases the actual thief into Mexico along with the thief’s fiancée. Adventures of Don Juan is one of the last good Errol Flynn movies. He goes around fucking a bunch of women and swashbuckling (essentially). In Technicolor.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the second of John Ford’s calvary westerns. This one’s in Technicolor and looks gorgeous. Wayne plays a retiring captain who has to deal with one last Native American invasion while also protecting the women and children along the way. It looks great. Reign of Terror is a noir set during the French Revolution. Robespierre is murdering people left and right, and his black book of people he plans to have murdered, gets stolen. That book has all his power, since his foes never know whether or not they’re marked for death. So he tries to get his book back, while those trying to keep him out of power try to keep it out of his hands.

Pinky is an Elia Kazan film. Jeanne Crain is a biracial woman born to a black mother. She’s very light skinned and as such, was able to pass as white and study to be a nurse. Though upon returning to the South, she has to deal with racism yet again, even as she becomes nurse to Ethel Barrymore, a dying woman. She ends up falling in love with a white doctor who doesn’t know that she’s black. It’s a solid film. Not as impactful as Gentleman’s Agreement (and questionable because of its casting of a white woman in the lead role), but still very solid. Little Women is the second of the three major adaptations of the novel. It’s in Technicolor and has Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien and Peter Lawford. On the Town is another ‘sailors on leave’ musical with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, too. Home of the Brave is a fascinating film about racial tensions between an army platoon. One of the early race dramas that still holds up.

I Shot Jesse James is a Sam Fuller psychological western about Bob Ford dealing with his life after the murder of Jesse James. In a way it’s the 40s version of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was also Sam Fuller’s first film.  Champion is a Technicolor noir. Kirk Douglas is a boxer who alienates everyone around him as he gets more successful. It’s great. Beyond the Forest is a Bette Davis melodrama famous for the line, “What a dump!” She’s a bored housewife of a doctor who starts an affair with a visiting businessman and extorts money from his patients so she can get out of there and be with the businessman in the city.

The Stratton Story is a biopic of a baseball pitcher who loses his leg and makes a comeback with a wooden leg. Stars Jimmy Stewart. It’s awesome. Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a Technicolor Busby Berkeley musical with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who work vaudeville during the offseason. They have to deal with a new (female) owner and a bunch of gangsters who want them to lose. Esther Williams plays the new owner. Fun film. Whisky Galore is a comedy about a bunch of Scottish islanders who try to get 50,000 cases of whisky off a shipwreck. I like movies where alcohol is the primary motive. (Wait until we get to 1969.) The best is that when they released it in the US, they renamed it “Tight Little Island.” Which is amazing.

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