Only took 75 years, but here is my Top 20 list for 1947.
20. T-Men (Anthony Mann)
As the old auteurist cliché goes, great directors elevate banal material into something superior onscreen. This is a perfect example of the truth in the cliché. T-Men begins as a B-movie docu-drama on the enforcement agents of the United States Treasury Department (the so-called T-men), with a direct-to-camera introduction by Elmer Lincoln Irey, none other than the real-life ‘T-man’ who brought Al Capone to court on tax evasion charges. Irey’s tone preps us for what we can only expect to be a puff piece glorifying the T-men, and soon a monotone voiceover runs over the fictional retelling of a real case of undercover T-Men versus a counterfeiting ring. But watch on and you’ll see Anthony Mann’s direction and John Alton’s cinematography undermine these more officious intentions at every step.
Irey and the voiceover may speak with presumed authority, but nothing else backs up that steadiness. The camera is always tilted, or too high or too low, decentring all characters including the T-men themselves, as if nobody is in control of this seedy underworld of crime and corruption. The lighting is an extravaganza of expressionistic effects, a choreography of shadows and obliquely-angled flashes of light, of faces peeking in from the darkness, which along with Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) essentially defined the film noir aesthetic. Irey’s intro may pontificate about the “six fingers on the fist” of the USTD, but for the rest of the movie the two undercover T-men infiltrating the counterfeiting ring are conflicted characters, cornered animals who in order to survive within a criminal jungle are forced to behave like the lawbreakers they are meant to arrest.
Further at odds with the matter-of-fact narration is the way the rogues’ gallery of criminals are the most vivid and memorable characters here, brought to life by Mann and his cast of character actors in a way that makes all too obvious the film’s fascination with these larger-than-life figures even if they err on the wrong side of the law. Finally, the head of the criminal ring turns out to be a respectable businessman hiding his fraudulent activity behind innocuous antiques dealings — in other words, the real villains are no longer identifiable gangsters or thugs (as they were in 1930s movies) but are now at large within legitimised capitalism.
All this creates a fascinating tension between the film the producers wanted T-Men to be and the far more exciting, baroque noir it was turned into, its resulting form and style completely belying the intended content, and in the process satisfying the desires of post-WW2 audiences for grittier and more cynical portrayals of the harsh and violent side of American street life based on real events and cases.
See also: Boomerang (Elia Kazan) — Elia Kazan directed two pictures in 1947, including the Best Picture Oscar-winner Gentleman’s Agreement, a worthy takedown of antisemitism in the USA starring Gregory Peck as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to feel prejudice first-hand. In my eyes, Kazan’s better film of the year though was Boomerang, a less-lauded but more gripping procedural noir about political corruption. Here too we can see the new interest in real-ness, taking inspiration directly from the newspapers to tell a true crime story with authenticity. Produced by Louis de Rochemont, who had made his career in newsreels, Boomerang is like T-Men proof of how audiences’ habits of war-time newsreel footage shown before movies created in them a desire for greater realism.
19. Driftwood (Allan Dwan)
Also shot by T-Men cinematographer John Alton, but in a completely different register, Driftwood is a portrait of American community, centred around a war orphan played by child star Natalie Wood. The girl had been brought up on an isolated farm and raised by her preacher ‘Grandpappy’ whose teachings of scripture she lapped up and committed to memory. When the old man dies, she is completely alone until a doctor from the rural town of Driftwood finds her by chance in the middle of nowhere and takes her in. Once transplanted into the sleepy titular town, her bible-spouting, anachronistic ways create a culture shock, and thus begins a narrative about an orphaned child forced to stay with cantankerous adults who initially don’t want them — c.f. Cassavetes’ Gloria, Besson’s Leon or even a certain Ozu film to come later down this list.
Not that Driftwood plays out quite like any other film. Where else would you see combined a political intrigue with a despicable mayor trying to get re-elected, a courtroom drama in which the defendant is a canine, a will-they won’t-they romance between the doctor and the local woman he loves, an unsentimental depiction of the tribulations of childhood in the face of adult insensitivity, and a subplot based around a virus spread to humans by squirrel bites? And amidst all that a message of faith in modern science and vaccines, who’d have thought! In Driftwood, somehow co-habiting are the old-timey traditional and hints of new-ness. The old is represented by veteran character-actor Walter Brennan as a pharmacist fond of cracking aphorisms and by Hollywood pioneer director Allan Dwan who by 1947 had already been in the movie business for near 40 years. The new is Natalie Wood, then only 9 years old and with a great albeit tragically curtailed career ahead of her; her child acting is of course Hollywood stylised acting rather than naturalistic, but nobody can deny she was an absolute natural in that mode of acting and her performance is one not to miss. The final blend of all this is an uncategorisable fable full of charm and old-time wisdom.
18. The Upturned Glass (Lawrence Huntington)
Not the last British film noir on this list, but probably the oddest. In this unconventionally structured film, a brooding, moody James Mason (equally moody and brooding in another film to come later on this list) is a brilliant surgeon giving a lecture to a packed auditorium. In front of eager students and interested amateurs, he recounts the story of a fellow doctor he once knew called Michael (played by Mason in flashback so that we assume the surgeon’s story is about himself). As the telling unfolds, we learn of how Michael fell mutually in love with the mother of a young girl saved from blindness by his surgical skills. But as the mother was married, they decided to do the responsible thing and part ways. Later, Michael finds out his lost love died under mysterious circumstances and obsesses over meting out justice upon the one he believes responsible for her death: the woman’s spoilt, jealous sister-in-law (played by Pamela Kellino, Mason’s then-wife, who also co-wrote the screenplay). So Michael murders this sister-in-law in an act he deems morally justifiable; end of story. Cut back to the auditorium, flashback over, lecture over, and the ‘real’ Michael now leaves his audience to get on with his day. But this is only the first third of the film…
We soon realise the story was not in the past and what we saw was not in fact a flashback, but the doctor’s own veiled confession of what he is about to do (it’s psychologically telling that he needs to tell it publicly like a pre-emptive purge of guilt to come). It was his mental rehearsal for the ‘perfect murder’ he has planned to commit this same day. Thus the rest of the film leads us to the murder we thought we’d already witnessed in the flashback, which as you might have guessed does not go quite the same way this time. The memorable denouement takes us deep into this man’s quandary, that of a doctor so jaded by saving life that he believes himself rightfully allowed to take it away. The Upturned Glass is a mix of noir, melodrama and existentialism, an unfairly forgotten film that awaits rediscovery as a vital testament to post-war British cinema’s ability to produce films that were suspenseful, morally complex, and Hitchcockian (even without Hitchcock around).
17. Le Tempestaire (Jean Epstein)
For as long as civilisations have existed, the sea has held a gravitational pull on mankind: it elicits a kind of sacred awe reflected in seafarers’ tales of giant monsters, of mermaids and lost horizons. This was an ancient bond but, come the Industrial Revolution, Thalassa’s mystique has washed off as Modernity has taken hold, as men have moved away from the coasts and into the cities into jobs less dependent on the vagaries of sea and tide. Our modern societies have become rationalised, less receptive to what was once deemed a mysterious, quasi-spiritual phenomenon. A symptom of what Max Weber calls the ‘disenchantment’ of modern man and his era…
And yet, so many films have tried to re-capture this sense of awe before the vastness of the ocean and its waves. Films from Emilio Fernandez’s rags-to-riches morality story La Perla (also 1947), via The Cruel Sea (1972, Khalid Siddiq) about pearl divers in Kuwait, up to the aquatic documentaries of Cousteau and Malle, or the rather tedious but no less sea-obsessed The Big Blue (1988). These, and so many others, have paradoxically beseeched that ancient bond with the modern technology of filmmaking almost synonymous with the 20th century. But no film, at least until Bait and The Lighthouse, dove deeper into nautical folklore than Jean Epstein’s one-of-a-kind Breton docu-drama Le Tempestaire.
Epstein, who worked from the 1920s up until the 1950s, was very much a modern man and a modern filmmaker. But he held in fascination the old traditions and ways of life of communities that still maintained that sacred tie to the sea, even believing those mystical seafarers’ tales. Both before and after WW2, he made a series of vivid, experimental shorts chronicling the sailors and fishermen around the coasts of Brittany, deftly casting a non-judgmental, ethnographic lens on the region’s folk culture and beliefs. Perhaps this connection back into the past, into the pre-modern, was all the more necessary so soon after the systematic and worldwide brutality of WW2… certainly a motif that will recur on this list.
In any case, the remarkable 22-minute long Le Tempestaire was the penultimate film in Epstein’s Breton cycle. It has a simple plot: a young woman, worried sick over her fiancé caught in a fishing boat during a sea storm, recruits the help of an old hermit who is the last surviving ‘tempestaire’, a sort of storm-tamer or wind-whisperer whose skills, according to legend, can calm the most dangerous of seas. In 1947, these folk customs are on the way out, as one brief scene showing radio communication underlines: nobody believes in the old storm-whisperers anymore, it is science and electromagnetic waves which relay shore and sea. But Epstein respects the mystical traditions of this proud people and their timeworn beliefs. When the inconsolable girl convinces the reluctant old man to use his powers to save her fiancé, we are almost reminded of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), where there too desperation leaves no other resort but supernatural measures.
For Epstein, this was also the first film he made post-WW2, following a ban from filmmaking in Occupied France. Not that this painful hiatus tempered any of his vivacity. On the contrary, he demonstrates an infinite curiosity towards everything, the sounds of the wind, the patterns of the surf crashing into rocks, the old Breton superstitions, and constantly experiments with new ways of depicting them. The lovingly captured cinematography and sound relay the movement of the waves, the clouds in the sky, the growling of the storm, the rumbling of the winds. Slow-motion and time-lapse shots, superimpositions and reverse-motion effects. Epstein looks into the sea, the skies, this little corner of Northwest France, as if it was the entire cosmos itself.
16. Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk)
This taut noir packs multitudes in just 80 minutes. It opens in the murky darkness of a room, a scuffle ensues, we see only silhouettes and glimpses of faces but understand a man has been killed, a Jewish man in what soon transpires to be an anti-semitic attack. Up to the police investigator (Robert Young, one of three Roberts in the three main roles) to piece the puzzle together, which leads him to a group of demobilised US soldiers (including Mitchum and Ryan, the two other Roberts). Credit for the source novel goes to Richard Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay for Jules Dassin’s classic prison movie Brute Force and later would himself would become a great director of noirs and true-crime films (especially In Cold Blood from 1967), though in the original book the murdered victim was gay rather than Jewish. The change was of course forced by the Production Code, which allowed no direct mention of homosexuality, but it works for the film nonetheless because the racist hatred shown by the very same men who defeated Nazism sends a troubling reminder that prejudice has not magically disappeared after the war.
That is what makes this movie such a strong piece of work: barely over a year and a half after a nation-defining and morale-boosting victory in WW2, Crossfire has no time for jingoistic back-patting and dares to examine the dark underside of the war’s aftermath. If anti-semitism is still present on American soil and brutally enacted by those very same men who defeated Nazism, then what exactly does that say? And if Mitchum’s line, that “Now the snakes are loose, anybody can get them”, refers to the moral deformities of war reaching back to civilian society, is not Crossfire an early example of a serious look at the effect of PTSD on individual soldiers, even a precursor to films like Taxi Driver and others of the Vietnam War era? And what about Sam Levene’s classic “big peanut” speech, a perfect analogy for the anomie the military found itself in once war was over, once the manic high of killing for survival was gone and it had nothing left to do? Or nothing except maybe gear itself towards more and more wars (Korea, Vietnam, etc…). Like the best noirs of the era, this is not a movie afraid of going against the current of positivity, to act as a warning to those complacently thinking everything was now hunky dory in the USA. Small wonder director Edward Dmytryk, and producer Adrian Scott, would just 4 years later be blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the HUAC trials.
15. Les jeux sont faits (Jean Delannoy)
(aka The Chips Are Down, aka Second Chance)
Jean-Paul Sartre, paragon of mid-twentieth century French intellectualism, remains remembered for his existentialist treatises, plays and novels; for turning down a Nobel Prize; or for his political sympathies with anti-colonial terrorism (he is name-checked in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, of course). Less well-known is his screenwriting work, which includes this fantasy gem where life, death, and fate are but cosmic jokes.
Set in an alternative version of post-war France in which a totalitarian dictator holds power, the plot centres on aristocratic wife Eve (Micheline Presle) and working-class resistance leader Pierre (Marcello Pagliero) who are coincidentally murdered on the same day, transitioning into the afterlife together. As conceived by Sartre’s script (based on his own play), life post-death is a bureaucratically-organised eternity of being stuck as a ghost on Earth, everyone who’s lived and died amassed together in invisible limbo amid the living, observing them without ever being able to participate.
However, as the slightly dotty auntie working at the post-mortal realm’s reception desk explains, there’s been a hiccup: the books show Eve and Pierre were fated to fall in love but they died before this could happen. Even the guardians of existential destiny allow errors to slip through the net sometimes. A compromise is struck; the pair will have a second chance at life, precisely 24 hours to prove their love to each other. Failure to do so and they’ll end up right back among the phantom dead and this time for good.
Both Eve and Pierre have unresolved business on Earth, so do they agree to this second chance out of genuine feeling for each other (a prerequisite if they are to prove their love and stay alive beyond the 24 hours), or just to have another go at being alive again? Will they win their wager against Death or be drawn apart by their very different class milieus? Is it even worth continuing to live and love under this dictatorship, foregoing your social conscience for the sake of a solipsistic romance? And can Fate really allow a second chance once the dice have already been thrown? Imagine Sartre writing a mix of Groundhog Day with A Matter of Life and Death, and peppering it with this range of philosophical and political questions, and you get a sense of this film’s blend of narrative high-concept with deeper thematic concerns. The ideas triggered by Les jeux sont faits linger in our minds long after its plethora of eccentric characters and visual gags have finished entertaining us. Had it been directed by Carné, Cocteau or even Franju, rather than Delannoy, it might well be hailed among the classics of French cinema today, but for now its fate needs a little rescuing of its own from the limbo of forgotten films.
14. They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti)
It’s a rather delightful paradox that during the wartime years, a 40-something Brazilian intellectual named Cavalcanti, who had already travelled the world and dabbled in fields as varied as law, architecture, and avant-garde filmmaking, settled in England and ended up directing the most British of cinematic classics. There was Went the Day Well? (1942) about a quaint English village’s resistance against undercover Nazis, there was the iconic ventriloquist’s dummy episode in the horror omnibus Dead of Night (1945), and there was this: an unabashedly bleak film noir, They Made Me a Fugitive, in 1947. It paved the way for a cycle of hard-hitting Brit noir (Brighton Rock (1948), The Third Man (1949), Night and the City (1950), not to mention several more 1947 entries on this list) that could rival Hollywood while remaining distinctively British culturally.
Watching these films takes us back to a very specific moment in post-war Britain, after the euphoria of V-Day had faded and left a downbeat mood, accentuated by the particularly harsh winter of 1946-47 and an economy still shored up by centralised rationing. British noir sprouted as a logical offshoot of the black market racketeer gangs, commonplace as a means to get around rationing. The so-called ‘spiv’, the petty criminal who hustled and profited from these dealings, was the British equivalent of the Prohibition era gangster, and would have been an instantly recognisable archetype to local audiences.
In They Made me a Fugitive, that most British of ’40s actors Trevor Howard stars as Clem, an unemployed ex-soldier, bitter and resentful about the way society has treated him since the end of war, who falls in with a gang of spivs as a last resort. Clem’s fate slides down a slippery spiral, and before long he finds himself a fugitive (the title sort of gives this part away) on the run from the law. On his outlaw odyssey he meets some strange characters, each a tile within the wider mosaic of British society in moral malaise: most memorably, the wife who lets him have a hot meal in her home in exchange for murdering her husband (himself an alcoholic). Something is badly wrong in this diagnosis of post-war Britain. Even though the malaise is everywhere, the evil is most concentrated within the character of Narcy, the gang’s leader (played by Griffith Jones) who has framed Clem. Between Clem and Narcy, we have a classic opposition of characters which anchors the film right up until its devilishly un-redemptive finale.
Narcy, with a name that sounds a bit like narcissist meets nasty, is a rotten apple without morals nor values. Unlike Clem the ex-soldier, Narcy did not fight in the war but only profiteered from it. Clem may be lost in the existential rubble of post-war society, but he takes a stand (so is not completely anomic or apathetic) against Narcy when it comes to selling ‘sherbet’, or drugs to you and I: “I may be a crook but I’m not that kind of crook” he proclaims with his last shred of self-respect. Like in many American gangster films (think The Godfather), the move of organised crime into the drugs trade symbolises a certain moral corrosion. But here, everything is translated so perfectly to a British context, and while domestic critics at the time found the film sordid and pessimistic, the hard-edged depiction of England after the war as a dog-eat-dog jungle (right up to the brutal final words of the ending) today puts the film very much ahead of more sanitised 1940s cinema.
13. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding)
Of the many noirs made in 1947, quite a few were doozies: the odd Mexico-set Ride the Pink Horse which unusually for a noir is so much about innocence, or the Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake entirely filmed in first-person point of view which eventually feels gimmicky, both films incidentally directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. But as noir doozies go, very few films can match the strange uniqueness of Nightmare Alley. Carnies and freaks, fake psychics and unethical psychoanalysts, charlatans and alcoholics all inhabit this film’s dark world where nothing can be trusted except the Tarot cards.
At the centre of it all is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), an ambitious young man working as MC for a touring carnival whose gift of the gab and unquenchable thirst for validation will soon lead him to greater heights and down nightmarish recesses. He is also one of the nastiest, most unscrupulous and irredeemable protagonists 1947 Hollywood could have gotten away with — the only other who comes close is George Sanders’ heartless scoundrel in Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. As a character, however, Carlisle is more complex, more disturbing, and more interesting. Hateable, yet vulnerable, and oh so bitterly flawed. From the opening scenes, when we see him fascinated and appalled by the carnival troupe’s so-called ‘human geek’, a drunkard fallen on such hard times that he allows himself to be an exhibit biting off live chickens’ heads before disgusted but paying customers, we already know: Carlisle’s fate is doomed to end only one way.
It is a fascination which the film’s dark appeal shimmers with. The 1946 source novel was written by William Lindsay Gresham, a writer with his own personal demons who’d end up taking his own life some years later. Nightmare Alley begun for him when first he heard the story of a real-life carnival geek. It so haunted him that he had to write about it to exorcise it from his mind.
Then there’s the similar fascination Tyrone Power felt when he campaigned so eagerly for this part, so utterly against type for him. An extremely popular matinee star, so used to playing the strait-laced swashbuckling hero, Power perhaps could relate to feeling caged and paraded by his studio 20th Century Fox. Privately, he yearned to extend his range as an actor but ultimately was prevented from doing so — the studio felt it would ruin his image and risk his bankability with audiences. Though they finally allowed him to play Carlisle, 20th Century Fox buried the film as they had no real idea what to do with it — studio head Darryl Zanuck even added a redemptive tone-deaf ending (a similar fate to that of Tod Browning’s earlier carnie masterpiece Freaks of course). But never again would Power be allowed to play such a detestable jerk and showcase his acting ability in the same way.
Finally, the fascination is also there for us the audience, looking into this dark twisted mirror of human nature, appalled and fascinated at how low men can fall when they try to reach too high. This is a film now starting to be better known, thanks to restoration and Criterion Collection release, recent renewed interest in Gresham’s life and work, as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s unnecessary remake with Bradley Cooper as Carlisle. Just observe the difference in sources: the 1947 film is an urgent adaptation as faithful as censorship would allow it of Gresham’s shockingly bleak novel published just the year before, and written by an author who’d lived through the personal demons of his protagonist. Del Toro’s version is adapting the film itself rather than the novel, making a post-modern pastiche of the original movie, a third-hand dilution. Step right up and go straight to the original instead, if you dare take a dark walk in the alley of nightmares.
See also: Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang) — Speaking of noir doozies, this Fritz Lang gothic Freudian noir is well worth a watch. This was the era in which psychoanalysis and dime-book Freud were starting to become very fashionable in the US, and while Nightmare Alley is deeply cynical about all that stuff, Lang’s film uses it to mine the internal recesses and mental closets of its strange characters. It involves marriage, murders, and a very weird house full of secrets and rooms decorated to be replicas of famous murder sites — external architecture somehow reflecting the twisted, repressed deliberations of the internal mind. A weird movie indeed.
12. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Noir bleakness aside, the most palpable fact of life in 1947 was a desire to go on living, somehow. In the aftermath of the War’s carnage and desolation, evidence of the human faculty for mindless evil and of the fragility of life, what could be more cathartic for cinema-goers than films demonstrating the transcendence of eternal life and love? And so you get a cycle of films about the afterlife, miracles, everlasting love, and angels, including Portrait of Jennie (1948), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), The Lost Moment (1947), or outside Hollywood Blithe Spirit (1945) and Les jeux sont fait (1947, see above), and of course: The Ghost and Mrs Muir. All of them in one way or another, whether romantic or gothic or both, were reassuring reminders of permanence in the shadow of the war’s destruction. In the 1990s, Hollywood tried to revive a similar sort of cycle, with questionable results (Ghost (1990), The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Michael (1996), City of Angels (1998), etc.), and now audiences are probably far too cynical for producers to bother trying again, so that much-needed lyricism of 1940s cinema stands apart as irreplicable.
Much like William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie , in which Joseph Cotten was a painter infatuated with the ethereal spectre of a girl from another age, here too Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s romance between a mortal and a ghost strives for timelessness through love and art. Set in turn-of-the-century England, Gene Tierney stars as the titular Mrs. Muir, a headstrong young widow determined to do things her own way, no matter the societal restrictions caused by her gender or marital status. She decides to re-settle with her young daughter (Natalie Wood, again: see Driftwood) on the English coast, where she falls in love twice: first, with a peculiarly Gothic house decorated in maritime fare including a creepy painting of a sea captain, and secondly with the ghost of that very same sea captain (incarnated by Rex Harrison) who haunts his former home cantankerously.
There are many pleasures to this film: the chemistry between Harrison’s rough old sea-dog and the more demure but still quirkily independent Tierney — true to Mankiewicz’s passion for language and dialogue, the film’s best gag is when Mrs. Muir, ghost-writing the ghost-captain’s maritime memoirs, is appalled at the language he is dictating to her… All we hear of it is a four-letter twang on the typewriter. There’s the masterwork of lighting effects making the sea captain’s ghost come to life through visual mood-setting. There’s the hauntingly romantic and brooding Bernard Hermann score that goes so hand in hand with the film. And there’s the entire plot strand involving Mrs. Muir’s attempts to get literary recognition as a female writer, in which George Sanders plays (what else) a bounder. There’s so much to enjoy on an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual level here. The themes of physical vs metaphysical love, of a woman’s emancipation, of sacrifice, of literary imagination vs quotidian pragmatism, are all sailing around in there before the film ends on a note of the eternal, with young Natalie Wood engraving her name on a piece of wood which she throws into the sea and which, an old sailor on the beach tells her, will float the ocean for all times…
11. Body and Soul (Robert Rossen)
In the wake of WW2, Hollywood produced several punchy noirs centred on boxer protagonists tortured both in and out the ring. The physical and personal pains of these impaired pugilists stood in for the wider moral and economic ills of a corrupt, punch-drunk society hit by one blow too many. On the undercard would be the likes of Kirk Douglas’ ruthless up-and-comer channelling his inner rage into the ring in Champion (1949) or Robert Ryan’s washed-up fatalist in The Set-Up (1949), while main billing belongs to such iconic roles as Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946), Marlon Brando a few years later in On the Waterfront (1954) or, in Body and Soul, John Garfield’s champ exploited by managers and impresarios, all gangsters milking him for every buck. “I take the beatings and you take the dough,” he exclaims in a moment of bitter self-realisation.
Body and Soul was only Robert Rossen’s second film as director; he’d been a small-time fighter himself as a young man in NYC’s Lower East Side, so he knew the milieu. In hindsight, it’s impossible to watch Garfield’s Faustian descent — from contender to guilt-ridden, cornered animal, only carrion to the sharks circling around him — without thinking of The Hustler (1961), the film that fourteen years later would become Rossen’s masterpiece. There too, a toxic relationship between sportsman (Paul Newman a pool wizard) and agent (George C. Scott at his most Mephistophelian) is the podium for a caustic takedown of the American Dream’s capitalist mirage infiltrating every nook and cranny of society, from sport to friendship to love, polluting every chance of private happiness.
The Hustler of course came after the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s where Rossen had to give names, and Abraham Polonsky (screenwriter of Body and Soul and, like Rossen, a left-wing Jewish New Yorker) pleaded the Fifth and lost his career for it. Unlike Rossen, Polonsky never got to direct another Hollywood film, his filmography curtailed to a slate of screenplays and the one directorial effort, Force of Evil (1948), another terrifically terse and NYC-set noir classic also starring Garfield (this time swapping the gloves and shorts of devil’s fighter for the suit and tie of devil’s advocate).
Before all that, for a brief moment in 1947, Rossen and Polonsky’s collaboration pulled no punches in its lesson on how pride comes before a fall and everything has a price. Body and Soul remains a knock-out for its noir atmosphere of moral gangrene and unbridled greed, its dynamic cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe who filmed the boxing sequences from inside the ring on roller-skates, and its obvious influence on many a later boxing pic, not least Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
10. Quai des orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Unlike his compatriot Jean Epstein (see Le Tempestaire above), the so-called ‘French Hitchcock’ Henri-Georges Clouzot had kept working in Occupied France, a controversial move which opened him up to much criticism for continuing to make films when French studios were effectively German-owned. Come the end of the War then, he had plenty to prove and many reasons to regenerate his professional career. This eagerness led to Quai des orfèvres, his first masterpiece. Bernard Blier stars as a morose, paranoid and deeply insecure piano player — classically trained, he once harboured hopes of being a concert pianist but now instead makes a living in tawdry Parisian music halls. But that’s not even the main source of his bitterness. His younger (and prettier) wife (Suzy Delair, who passed in 2020 at the grand age of 102) is a flirt who dreams of moving up in the showbiz world and therefore has to attract attention, something which keeps her husband constantly on edge, green with jealousy, and ready to fight any man who even looks at her. When a lecherous old man who’d promised to help her career in return for unspeakable favours turns up dead, the husband is the number 1 suspect; but as always in Clouzot’s fictional world, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Clouzot’s reputation remains that of a cynical pessimist who sees the worst in people and portrays the world as a morally bleak place. Some of the seedy vision of Paris he recreates here might superficially support that: it is a teeming panorama of black market traders and dirty old men, prostitutes and nude photography models, crime reporters and petty gangsters, jealous lovers and much more. If Epstein filmed Brittany as if it held the entire cosmos in Le tempestaire, Clouzot is more interested in creating an entire universe and implanting it into his studio version of Paris. But the way he depicts this is far from cynical and pessimistic. Look at the warmth with which he shows the backstage camaraderie of the many different music hall performers, or the gay subtext of Simone Renant’s love for Suzy Delair upon which much of the plot hinges, or most of all the world-weary widower detective (whose gaze seems is the one Clouzot most relates to) so brilliantly acted out by Louis Jouvet. There is sympathy, and empathy, and love in these characters and their feelings for the world and people around them… Far from being a cold, bleak window into post-war France, Clouzot instead manages to find warmth and personality in the darkness, in the details of his many characters and scenes, and it is this which makes Quai des orfèvres a film worth watching and re-watching.
To be continued…