Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '47 - Dennis Widmyer ""

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Underrated '47 - Dennis Widmyer

Dennis Widmyer is a filmmaker responsible for STARRY EYES and segments in the recent HOLIDAYS anthology. He also runs the official website of best-selling FIGHT CLUB author Chuck Palahniuk ( and serves as Editor in Chief of the literature review site www. Find his ramblings and a collection of his obsessive Now Watching's on Twitter and Instagram at @DennisWidmyer.

BODY AND SOUL (Robert Rossen, 1947)
Fatalistic boxing movies are almost a sub-genre unto themselves, with great examples such as CHAMPION (Mark Robson, 1949), THE SET-UP (Robert Ryan, 1949) and, of course, RAGING BULL (Martin Scorsese, 1980). BODY AND SOUL, directed by Robert Rossen, came before all of them and yet, it doesn't get talked about nearly enough, and yet!!! (again) it's one of the best. John Garfield, coming off a tour de force performance in HUMORESQUE (my favorite Joan Crawford film)-- a movie he should've been nominated for-- should also have been nominated for this. I suck at recapping movie descriptions, so don't expect much in that department with this list. Let's just say this is the tale of Charley Davis, a poor boxer from the inner city who rises to become champion, but then gets tested along the way by money, women and deep morality decisions. What sets this film apart from others of this category is the complexity of its themes. No pun intended, but it's definitely not black and white. The film chooses to go a direction others of its ilk don't. And the supporting performances enrich the experience-- primarily that of Canada Lee, who plays Ben Chaplin, a "punchy" retired boxer, suffering from brain trauma who becomes Charley's trainer. His subplot alone is heartbreaking, and illustrates an apt cautionary tale for Charley to heed... or ignore. I have't seen nearly enough John Garfield movies, but I'm always taken by how magnetic, edgy and real his performances are. They don't make 'em like Garfield anymore.
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POSSESSED (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)
Speaking of Joan Crawford... there's POSSESSED (1947-- yep, she made a film of this same title in 1931). This is a film (the 1947 film) which I consider one of her all-time great performances. I always say Joan could out-act many of her contemporaries simply with her eyes (see SUDDEN FEAR). And she proves up to the task again here. Taking the same approach of a more modern movie like THE PLEDGE (Sean Penn, 2001), we pick up with a rambling, crazed woman and then unpack her backstory to see just what drove her to this precipice of sanity. In this case, Joan is submitted to a psych ward after wandering the streets, continually calling men-- strangers she passes-- "David." Under a form of hypnosis at the ward, we are transported to her past, one year prior, where we witness her strange affair with the actual "David," played by Van Heflin-- an obsession which goes to FATAL ATTRACTION-type lengths. While the film never says the word "schizophrenic," Joan's vulnerable performance hints at a character suffering a borderline personality disorder. And once that border gets crossed, you're captivated by her downward spiral. Curtis Bernhardt made a number of women's pictures and thrillers during this decade, giving some of the best actresses of the time meaty roles to chew on. See also: A STOLEN LIFE (1946, starring Bette Davis in dual roles as a set of twin sisters) and MY REPUTATION (1946, with Barbara Stanwyck).
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T-MEN (Anthony Mann, 1947)
This slot was going to go to RAMROD (André De Toth, 1947) because I sorely wanted to get a Western on this list. But I did a little sleuthing on the site and see that it's been written about before. But a further search revealed that Anthony Mann's masterclass in film noir, T-MEN (1947), hasn't been covered on the site. I call T-MEN a noir, but it's really a police procedural, shot like a noir by none-other than the great black and white cinematographer John Alton. And it's actually not even technically a "police" procedural, as the titular "T" in its title refers to the hard-working men of the U.S. Treasury Department. I use this phrasing because the movie is very explicitly propaganda for the government. I couldn't find any evidence if the story in question was based on an actual case, but the movie's opening voice-over states that it is, speaking directly to you, the audience, about what you are set to see. But lest you think you're about to be told some stagey, milquetoast reenactment by an agenda-driven movie studio, what follows is a down-and-dirty, gritty tale of two treasury agents going undercover to infiltrate the local mob's counterfeiting racket. It's an intense plot loaded with suspense and twists that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way. Mann followed this up with another great noir, RAW DEAL, in 1948. Like many future auteurs of his time (Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls), he would later go on to find his niche in other, "more prestigious" genres (for Mann I'd say historical Epics and Westerns, many of which I adore), his work in Film-Noir is something special. You could honestly teach a class on cinematography and the use of contrast and shadow, using T-MEN as your thesis. It's that beautiful and haunting.
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ODD MAN OUT (Carol Reed, 1947)
I hesitate to call this film underrated, because it has its own Criterion Collection edition. And yet, I just don't hear this film talked about enough. Not in the Carol Reed conversations, nor in the James Mason conversations. Mason stars as the leader of an IRA resistance group who becomes wounded in an opening heist scene, and then spends the rest of the film slowly bleeding to death on the snowy streets of Belfast, all during the course of one, long night. Along the way he has surreal encounters with strangers and the film uses Mason as a cipher to tell their stories. It's profound, sad stu ff, but it's also strangely poetic, hypnotic and, like all noir, fatalistic. If you like James Mason as much as I do, put this at the top of your list to watch next. And hell, if you don't believe me, believe James! He later called this the best performance of his career. Lastly, if you think I'm an idiot and this film isn't underrated, blame Brian! This slot was going to go to THE RED HOUSE, but the wily bastard beat me to the punch! 
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THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Peter Godfrey, 1947)
Bogart made four films in 1947. Two, you hear spoken about a lot in his filmography (DEAD RECKONING and DARK PASSAGE) and one he wasn't even credited for (ALWAYS TOGETHER). And then there's THE TWO MRS. CARROLL'S, which I think is one of his best. Sure, the film itself isn't on the level of a KEY LARGO or a TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, but it's Bogart doing (in my opinion) what he does best: playing a villain, of sorts. Picture his role in IN A LONELY PLACE, but then go one step further and you have Geoffrey Carroll, a struggling artist suffering from mental illness who, let's just say, takes a very morbid "inspirational" approach to his paintings. Co-starring Barbara Stanwyck, this is a fun, sort of silly film with a few great sequences. I'd say, besides its performances and outlandish story, the film's atmosphere is another key highlight. While it was shot on the lot in Burbank, director Godfrey captures a feeling of being in the English countryside and how hostile that loneliness can feel. Watch it with the lights off in the middle of an afternoon storm.
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1 comment:

Jerry Entract said...

What a great year for films was 1947. I applaud your five choices here. All outstanding films.