Top Fifty Films of the 40s — An Introduction

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Well, we can’t stop now, can we? Not when I’ve reached the decade that contains my reflexive answer to the impossible question, “What’s the best movie ever made?” (Don’t expend too much effort on puzzling out the identity of that film. It’s such an obvious, consensus-approved pick that it doesn’t just border on cliche, it resides in the city center.) Roughly six years ago, when I decided I wanted in on the proliferation of countdowns wrapping up a decade’s worth of films as different numeral moved into the third slot on the old year odometer, I genuinely didn’t anticipate the road before me would keep getting paved anew with the completion of every collection of fifty essays. Even continuing on to write about the films of the nineteen-nineties initially felt like a capper to me, a silly attempt to dredge up bygone film knowledge and criticism from the stretch of years in which a weekly radio show compelled me to see nearly everything that played on local screens, and then habit kept me dedicated to the same task well after we’d signed off the program for the final time. Somewhere in the midst of the year it took to get through the tally of favored nineties films, I simply decided, ‘Why not keep going?’

And here we are, at the nineteen-forties. I marvel to think of what a young medium film was at the time. Yes, the first beams of moviemaking dawn dated to the late eighteen-hundreds, and the efforts that are said to initiate film as an artistic form are pegged to 1900 with a pleasing chronological cleanliness, but at the start of the nineteen-forties it was just a notch over a dozen years since Al Jolson opened his mouth and spoke in The Jazz Singer, changing everything. Techniques that are now the most familiar components of the grammar of film structure and narrative were still just emerging, directors were on the earliest cusp of shifting craftsmanship to artistry, and movies had the ability to dazzle like nothing else. Additionally, the various filmmaking personnel had lived with the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code just long enough to start figuring out ways to slip around its jagged corners. The creativity that took place within fairly strict confines is remarkable to me.

Looming over all of this cinematic output is World War II. Watching movies from the forties practically mandates recalibrating one’s mind to remember that these pieces of art were made in a time of global war or in its immediate aftermath. Those films that positioned Nazis as easy villains were doing so when the vile group’s worst infractions were ongoing apart from the screen, out in increasingly dangerous real life. When Humphrey Bogart levels his crumpled heroism at the Germans, it’s without the distancing safety of decades in between. Instead, they were the cause of the most urgent news on nightly radio broadcasts. Watching cinema grapple with that in something close to real time is inherent to some of the most fascinating films of the era.

All the usual caveats apply. I am woefully incomplete in some areas, with a DVR and Netflix queue spotted with reminders of my failure to complete all of my planned cramming. From the beginning, though, I’ve meant these to be personal lists rather than imperious pronouncements of unyielding certainty. Even when I arrange the titles, I give added weight to those films that I love most, occasionally despite artistic flaws that I can intellectual acknowledge but also quickly disregard because of the way the work thoroughly charms me. I use the term “Top Films” instead of “Favorite Films,” but I know it’s my own “top,” no one else’s. I expect the plentiful people with deeper knowledge than me to find all sort of egregious omissions or questionable inclusions. That’s fine. This is less unassailable film scholarship and more of a stab at shadow autobiography, delivered in the form of fifty film essays. With that in mind, I’ll begin tomorrow with my now long-standing tradition of placing a film at #50 that should realistically be outranked by any number of other titles that didn’t make the list, but that somehow speaks to something very particular in me. Indeed, in this instance, I’ll be writing about a film I barely remember, but that absolutely must be on my list for the nineteen-forties. But that’s for tomorrow.

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