We're hitting the reverse button to look at some of the best films hitting decade anniversaries this year, and so far we've done 1898/1908, 1918, 1938, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, and 2008, and this month it's time to head back to 1948.
1948 marks almost the middle of the Golden Age of the Studio Era after sound was introduced, and it is a watershed year in studio history. On May 3, 1948, the Supreme Court declared that production studios owning theatre chains (and vice versa) constituted a violation of antitrust law. This meant studios no longer had a direct pipeline for their films to distribution, which had a ton of ramifications throughout the business, including the weakening of the studios themselves, the loss of their absolute power over talent, the rise of many more independent producers, and the vast reduction of certain types of films like B movies and shorts. Most of these developments, we tend to feel, were ultimately good for the film medium, but the changes took time to percolate through the system. Of course, in 2018 we’re back to five major studios owning just about everything anyway.
In terms of the films made in 1948, it's a pretty solid mix: film noir is going strong in the post-war era, Powell & Pressburger are using color in amazingly expressive ways, Westerns are starting to get a bit darker, and colorful adventures are as popular as ever. The Top Ten box office for the year reflects these trends, with The Red Shoes, The Three Musketeers (a non-musical role for Gene Kelly), Red River, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre topping the chart. The Flickchart global list has many of the same films, and tosses in some of the best of world cinema as well, representing Italian neo-realism, Kurosawa noir, and the Best Picture Oscar-winner of the year, Britain’s Hamlet.
During the recent war, Laurence Olivier had had great success adapting Shakespeare's patriotic history Henry V for beleaguered English audiences. That film is a sumptuously-colored marvel, exactly right for its moment and almost just as stirring today. In contrast, 1948's Hamlet can feel like a step backwards. With it Olivier opted for a sober black and white palette, since Hamlet is a far grimmer play than Henry V. It is also claustrophobic where Henry V was expansive, mirroring Hamlet's brooding self-absorption. Hamlet lacks the immediate relevance of Henry V's nationalistic message, so some modern audiences find it a bit self-indulgent. Yet it was Hamlet, not Henry V, that won Olivier his highest honor to date: a Best Picture Oscar. The recognition confirmed that Olivier embodied a generation's standard for what a Shakespearean actor and director could and should be. The play was not the thing, at least not this time; arguably, any major Shakespeare title would have fared just as well. It was the player and his artistic vision that mattered now, not the immediate applicability of the message. Winning the war meant having the luxury to explore culture for culture's sake, and what could be more cultured than Olivier doing Shakespeare? - David Conrad
“Did you remember her?” asks Louis Jourdan’s character to one of his servants. Jourdan may not have remembered a teenager like Lisa (Joan Fontaine), but we, as spectators to this story, are given the privilege of remembering this common teenage girl. With Letter From An Unknown WomanMax Ophüls crafts a film, a Stefan Zweig adaptation, that is haunting and incredibly moving while also indicative of the cinephilic experience. Charming as always is Jourdan, who plays a pianist on his way to stardom. Following his every step is an ordinary teenage girl (Fontaine) who admires and even loves Jourdan’s character from afar. They’re in different social spheres, and her age is an issue as well, but a girl can dream!
As a film hinging upon someone fawning over a star from afar, Letter From An Unknown Woman manages to communicate a basic characteristic of the moviegoing experience, as we are all a bit like Joan Fontaine's character as we desire from our theater seats to be on screen with people like Louis Jourdan. Further connecting the film to filmic sensations is the dramatic emphasis on memory as something tangible (in that memories can be lost) and visible (as the experience of remembering is expressed by the camera, an apparatus that remembers all, and articulated through the editing). Using a letter as a bookending device helps make this story really sing as a film, as a letter is like a physical memory in that it is not a person telling a story directly but is instead the use of written words to retain meaning. In this case, the letter has an inciting incident, conflict, and rising and falling action.
Ophüls’ film is quite romantic, but not in a trite manner, as it presents us something real beneath the veneer of a period piece: longing, unrequited love, and ignorant admiration in spite of circumstance and against all logic. The conclusion is at once haunting and incredibly moving, a cautionary tale without the need to feel like a lesson. - Grant Douglas Bromley
By 1948 most of the classic Universal Monster series begun in the 1930s had run their course. Frankenstein and Dracula had hobbled into the 1940s with increasingly B-level and far-fetched sequels, but most of those films are forgotten today by all but the most die-hard Universal fans. What was a super popular Universal property in the 1940s, though, was Abbott & Costello. The crossover idea probably sounded absurd when it was first conceived: let’s throw our old monsters into a film with our superstar comedy team. But you know? IT WORKS. It works like gangbusters. Abbott and Costello work as baggage clerks at a railway station and Costello discovers a box with Dracula in it. Things spiral out of control from there, with Dracula trying to reanimate Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man trying to stop it. The film manages to play as both comedy and horror without ever losing track of its tone, due in no small part to the monsters being played by their original actors (except Frankenstein’s Monster, played here by Glenn Strange) and playing very straight against Abbott and Costello’s antics. There followed several other films with Abbott and Costello meeting other monsters, but none quite recaptured the magic of this one. - Jandy Hardesty
Drunken Angel initiated one of the most successful director-actor partnerships in history: that of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Add in Takashi Shimura, who had already worked with Kurosawa more than once, and you've got the most powerful triumvirate in 1940s and 50s Japanese cinema. Today the most famous examples of this acclaimed partnership are medieval period pieces like Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress, but Drunken Angel is quite representative of Kurosawa's work as well. Most of his early movies, and quite a few of his later ones too, are contemporary urban tragedies or crime dramas like this one. Drunken Angel follows an angry young gangster (Mifune) and the world-weary doctor who diagnoses him with a serious medical condition (Shimura). The murky, rotten world they both inhabit provides the template for Kurosawa's later social problem films like Stray Dog (1949), High and Low (1963), and Dodeskaden (1970). The film offers a pessimistic look at stubbornly sub-par living conditions in early postwar Japan — a topic Kurosawa had addressed in multiple films even before Drunken Angel, but which he could present here for the first time via the two iconic actors whose names would forever be linked with his, and with each other. - David
When Duane and Sonny go to see “the last picture show” in Peter Bogdanovich’s New Hollywood classic, that show turns out to be Howard Hawks’ Red River, a western starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. It’s interesting to ruminate on why Bogdanovich picked it. Like The Last Picture Show, this film is a bit about the passing of generations, as Wayne and Clift (his adopted son in the film) vie for leadership over the long and grueling cattle drive. The story is somewhat inspired by Mutiny on the Bounty, with Wayne becoming more and more tyrannical (like Captain Bligh) until his men lose morale and eventually Clift (mirroring Christian Fletcher) challenges his leadership. The West is often larger-than-life, but add a tense struggle between tyranny and mutiny, amp it up by centering it on a father-son relationship, and you’ve got all the makings of a film that isn’t just another cowboy film, but a veritable frontier epic. - Jandy
Key Largo marks the fourth and final time that famous on-and-off-screen couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall worked together on screen, and their only joint collaboration with director John Huston, who was a very close friend and frequent collaborate with Bogart (in fact, he and Bogart made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre together this very same year; more on that later!) Here, Bogart is a former soldier visiting the father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow (Bacall) of one of his war buddies at their hotel in the Florida Keys, but he’s not the only guest — also staying there is gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), waiting to complete a deal. To really pile on the stress, there’s also a hurricane about to blow through. Yeah, this film is not subtle, but it is great at what it’s doing, which is ratcheting up tension among this group of stranded, desperate people as they egg each other on under the pressure not just of Rocco’s threats, but of internal weaknesses and external climatic forces. The sticky, sweaty, tropical atmosphere comes through in every frame. Tensions run high throughout and yet always manage to go higher thanks to the way the film orchestrates its supporting characters and their individual foibles and struggles. Obviously you have the leads plus heavyweight character actors like Barrymore and Robinson, but Claire Trevor is a definite standout as Rocco’s alcoholic girl. The cinematography deserves a major shout-out, too, with some of the most extreme lights and darks you’ll find in noir. In one conversation among the captives, each of them is illuminated by just a single line of light marking their profiles. The cinematographer is Karl Freund, who honed his craft during the height of German Expressionism on films such as Metropolis. I often have a love-hate relationship with Huston’s filmography, but this is one I unequivocally love. - Jandy
Of all of the films touted as being among Alfred Hitchcock’s best, this is the most intimate and, I would argue, the most claustrophobic, even more so than Rear Window, which at least looks out into the world beyond. Taking place in a living room in a single evening, Rope begins by showing us the immediate aftermath of a murder already committed, and the rest of the time we spend wondering if the killers will get away with it. Hitchcock famously used extremely long takes and creative editing to make it seem as if the film was one long continuous shot taking place in real time. In addition to the work the camera does to leave its audience in suspense, our murderous leads are a source of tension all their own, with one too nervous to cover his mistakes and the other so bursting with pride at their accomplishment that he's on the verge of just blurting out what they've done. We don't want either of these unpleasant characters to get away with their horrible act, but it's hard not to get drawn into the thrilling uncertainty of it all. While the film wasn't met with overwhelming positivity on its release (the gimmick was admired but the script itself didn't grip everyone), it has earned a reputation as an underrated gem among Hitchcock's oeuvre and now lands just outside the Flickchart top 100. - Hannah Keefer
Humphrey Bogart is undoubtedly best known for Casablanca, a perennial contender for the best movie of all time, yet the best performance of his career comes from this John Huston Western. Anti-Western might be a better term, as Huston’s take on the genre aims at showing the ugly abscesses on the heart of man created by the greed of expansionism. Some may consider the story typical, with the obvious life lesson of “greed corrupts” a fairly straightforward one. But the story has never been told better, with the journey of three men into the desert mountains of Mexico creating one of the tensest and most memorable films ever. Bogart is joined by fantastic performance from Walter Huston (the director’s father) and Tim Holt who relate to Bogart’s greedy adventurer in different ways.
It wouldn’t be a Huston film without gorgeous cinematography capturing the expanses of the West in all their desolate glory. The emptiness, and the belief that something precious lies within it, can drive a man insane. Some complain that Bogart’s Dobbs is too obviously cruel from the start of the film, somewhat undercutting the idea of his gradual descent. Yet Dobbs, at the beginning, is simply poor, defeated, and desperate. He thinks he has nowhere to go but up, and he's tragically wrong. It’s fitting that Vince Gilligan took inspiration from this character's journey in crafting his television masterpiece Breaking Bad and its protagonist/antagonist Walter White. Of all Huston's films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains perhaps his most powerful. - Connor Adamson
It surprised me a bit to find The Red Shoes above Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the global chart (though these top three are literally as close as they can be, back-to-back-to-back!), but the deeper stats tell an interesting a story. A lot of people have seen and like Treasure. Red Shoes has fewer viewers, but the highest win percentage on this list, and twice as many people have it as their #1 as have Treasure at #1. In other words, people who love The Red Shoes REALLY love it. The story is your basic Svengali situation, a young dancer (Moira Shearer) discovered by an impresario who falls for her, but she’s in love with a composer. The story is quite overwrought but befits the ballet setting. It culminates in a ballet called the Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of a dancer who puts on red shoes and is unable to take them off or stop dancing until she dies (Andersen is very into dying). The real star here is the extended ballet sequence and the lush color used throughout. Technicolor had been around for many years by 1948, but no one maximized its expressive qualities like cinematographer Jack Cardiff did when working with directors Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Cutting it a little slack for the melodramatic story, the film is a veritable feast for the senses in every way. - Jandy
Bicycle Thieves is easily the most defining film of the Italian neorealism movement. Vittorio de Sica’s fondness for casting non-professional actors gives Bicycle Thieves that special ability to feel less like a movie and more like a window that you happen to glance through to see what’s happening in the world outside. The tragic story achieves all the more staying power for its believability. Bicycle Thieves is a film that reaches into your chest and won’t let go. Love, poverty, chance — they exist here not as they usually exist in dramas, as transitional moments or events that redefine character motivations, but are thoroughly and uniformly present in the same way you might identify their overriding presence in your own life. In addition to being well-written and well-cast, the film is also beautifully shot, and continues to have a strong influence on the artform; nost recently, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None paid homage to it in opening episodes of its second season. Not only one of the best films of 1948, but of all-time, Bicycle Thieves earns a place as must-see cinema. - Connor
Global rank: #66
Wins 59% of matchups
3614 users have ranked it
15 have it at #1
251 have it in their top 20
There are a lot of great films from 1948 - our bloggers chose a couple more personal favorites that didn’t quite make Flickchart’s Global Top Ten.
Doug - The Naked City
It was a film made to subvert the already-too-many tropes of the crime picture...and no one seems to have noticed. The Naked City strips the romance, flash, and derring-do (well, most of it) from the business of crime-solving, showing us that actual, realistic policework, described with true insider's knowledge, is like most other dirty jobs way more fascinating and weird than anything you could make up about it. As a result, it leaves you with an unexpected feeling of civic pride. It isn't some lantern-jawed super-cop that saves the day, it isn't a brilliant criminal mastermind tripping over his hyperactive ego, and it isn't improbable luck; it's hundreds of average, oddly-shaped, irritable New Yorkers all doing their jobs, talking to every jeweler in Manhattan, doing hair and fiber analysis with a goddamn glass-mirrored microscope and a pencil the way it's supposed to be done, none of your crazy UV dyes and cell phones and plastic evidence tents, just shoe leather and brains and lots of 'em. This film was too post-modern for its era to have had the impact it wanted to have, to de-bullshitify the telling of crime tales, and even today we choke down improbable cops cracking unlikely cases through untenable chains of logic. Because of this, The Naked City seems like a film noir from a parallel universe, separated from its genre by its verisimilitude, and sparkling like a jewel precisely because it is so ugly.
Global rank: #1,318
Wins 53% of matchups
447 users have ranked it
0 have it at #1
4 have it in their top 20
David - Germany, Year Zero
There are events so momentous that all subsequent events must define themselves in relation to them. The Gregorian calendar system did not literally reset in 1945 with the end of World War II, but for anyone who lived through that last bloody year of war, their personal lives would forever be demarcated by what they were doing before, during, and after it. All nations involved in the fighting, and especially the nations on the losing side, had to start over as if from scratch, rebuilding societies, economies, and governments from the literal rubble of a destroyed world. It was the year 1945 of the old era, and the year zero of the new one. Italian director Roberto Rossellini knew something about living on the threshold of a new world; he started making his film Rome, Open City even before Italy was fully liberated by the Allies. He followed that film with Paisan, also about the war in Italy, and then moved up to Germany, the epicenter of the old war and the most hotly contested territory in the brand-new Cold War. Though filmed largely in studio in 1947 and released in 1948, Germany, Year Zero is firmly rooted in the immediate aftermath of the war. The cities are not rebuilt, buried bombs are not defused, and survivors are not being adequately fed or housed. Adults severed from their past lives must either adapt or become irrelevant, and impressionable children severed from disillusioned adults must either swim or sink on their own. Rossellini frames these challenges as matters of life and death, resulting in a story that is even darker than his earlier films and arguably excessively melodramatic — a common criticism of the neorealist movement to which Rossellini belonged — but even as a flawed artifact from Year Three of the new era, the movie has much to recommend it as a glimpse into the moment when everything changed.
Global rank: #2,476
Wins 50% of matchups
175 users have ranked it
0 have it at #1
4 have it in their top 20
Jandy - The Pirate
Audiences in 1948 didn’t quite know what to do with The Pirate, Vincente Minnelli’s flamboyant and overwrought swashbuckling musical comedy melodrama that may act as one particular definition of camp. Sometimes audiences today don’t either. It’s the height of the Spanish Main, and Judy Garland is Manuela, a Spanish girl in the Caribbean engaged to marry the town’s richest man, but he’s played by Walter Slezak, so you know that’s going nowhere. Instead, she has her heart set on Mack the Black Mococo, an infamous pirate. Meanwhile, Gene Kelly is Serafin, an acrobat with a traveling carnival, who falls for Manuela and poses as Mococo to win her. The music is by Cole Porter, and I mean, you don’t really think of Cole Porter writing songs for swashbuckling period pieces, and that’s just the first of this film’s bizarre elements. Garland is always prone to acting a bit larger than life (which I consider a feature rather than a bug), and she’s even more over the top here than usual. Kelly dances with the Nicholas Brothers in the amazing “Be a Clown” number (riffed on rather obviously for Singin’ in the Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”), and the Technicolor is as bright and unrealistic as you’ll ever see. This film is one of the strangest in either Garland’s or Kelly’s filmography, and a bit of a stretch even for the always-lush Minnelli, and it’s easy to see why it tends to be a bit underrated even by classic film fans. But that is a mistake. This film is admittedly anomalous, and that only makes it a greater treasure.
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.