Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '47 - John Mattson ""

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Underrated '47 - John Mattson

John Mattson is a screenwriter. He graduated from UCLA film school back when they still used film. He wrote a “kid and a hooker” movie and two “kid and a whale” movies. Then he went back to school to learn screenwriting. He is a recent graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA program.

IMDB’s top-rated 250 films of all-time include only twelve films from the 1940s and a grand total of zero from 1947. AFI’s list of 100 greatest American films also recognizes that same zero. 1947 is the year of Gentleman’s Agreement, Black Narcissus and Miracle on 34th Street. It’s also the year of peak noir, with a cornucopia of classics and deep cuts to choose from (to name but a few: Out of the Past, The Lady From Shanghai, Brute Force, Nightmare Alley, They Won’t Believe Me, Possessed, T-Men, Dark Passage, Body and Soul, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Secret Behind the Door, Desperate, Kiss of Death, Johnny O’Clock, Dead Reckoning, High Wall, Smash Up: The Story of a Woman -- not to mention five of the six on my list below). You could do worse than just to loop all the movies in this paragraph for the rest of your life.

So as far as I’m concerned the entire year is underrated. Here are the top six I bug everyone to see.

1. Born to Kill (1947; Robert Wise)
Lawrence Tierney is evil and Claire Trevor likes it. It’s how much she likes it and how much she hates herself for liking it that makes their pairing so hot. Also, the way she says “turnip.” (Tierney made another great noir in ’47, the nasty The Devil Thumbs a Ride, but it lacks Born to Kill’s doomed lovers’ death spiral, so I love it a little less.) Bonus feature: Elisha Cook, Jr. as, of all things, Tierney’s voice of calm and reason.
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2. Pursued (1947; Raoul Walsh)
Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright as doomed step-siblings in love (and hate) in a noir western. This is one of two movies on this list in which Judith Anderson plays the secret-keeping matriarch of an ambiguously incestuous family. '47 was a banner year for that, apparently. Pursued makes a great Mitchum ’47 double-bill with Out of the Past, which would be on this list if I thought I could get away with calling it underrated. (It’s a Mitchum triple-bill if you include #5 below.)
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3. Ride the Pink Horse (1947; Robert Montgomery)
Robert Montgomery blows into a Mexican town to avenge something or other and backs into unlikely friendships with a pesky teenaged girl and a funny old guy who runs a merry-go-round. Montgomery plays it low-key and noir-cynical. Wanda Hendrix, the girl, is the secret center of the movie. The final scene, which I won't spoil, is quietly beautiful and surprising -- giving you what you didn’t know you wanted the whole time. Or, what I wanted anyway. (Bonus: the greatest GIF of all time is from another Montgomery movie of 1947, Lady in the Lake.)
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4. The Red House (1947; Delmer Daves)
I think this movie might have invented randy teenagers. Yes, before the war there was Andy Hardy, but this is the earliest example I can think of that’s overtly about who’s fucking and who isn’t. It’s also a great example of the Deep Dark Woods as metaphor of the forbidden, alluring, terrifying pull of teen sexuality. The Red House is a psychological thriller, an unlikely distant cousin of Rebecca and Conflict -- ghost stories without ghosts. In keeping with the forbidden love/incest theme of this list, Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson play siblings who are de facto parents to their adolescent niece, she of the lately blooming sexuality and newfound curiosity about the (forbidden) woods that separate their farm from the rest of civilization. Robinson has an unhealthy attachment to the girl, which mirrors his previously unhealthy attachment to her mother, who either ran away or died under mysterious circumstances in the slowly unveiled backstory. And then there's Julie London, who, if you’re my age, you know as Dixie from the 70s show Emergency (or, if you’re my parents’ age, as the singer of the 50s hit “Cry Me a River”), and who plays the niece’s hot post-virginal rival. Of all the movies in this list, The Red House is the cheesiest, and offers the most ironic laughs of the “so bad it’s good” variety (mostly involving hunky guys hanging out in the woods looking for girls). But it’s also genuinely creepy and, where it counts, scary.
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5. Crossfire (1947; Edward Dmytryk)
The novel upon which this movie was based was about a gay man murdered by a bigot. You couldn’t do that in a movie in 1947, because -- according to the Production Code -- homosexuals didn’t exist. So they made the victim a Jew and the killer an anti-Semite. It stars three Roberts – Ryan, Mitchum and Young (racist soldier, good soldier, cop, respectively). It’s one of Ryan’s best creepy turns in a career of creepy turns (and he was supposedly a sweetheart in real life; Elisha Cook, too -- funny how that works). And you get Gloria Grahame as a taxi dancer. Noir geeks need no introduction to Grahame, but to most of the world she is Violet the town bimbo from It’s a Wonderful Life. And she’s great here, in a pair of scenes – first with a lonely GI, then with the GI's truth-seeking wife. Grahame had a way of shifting from hard to soft and back that has me returning to her movies again and again. 
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6. The Bishop’s Wife (1947; Henry Koster)
More forbidden love, this time between Cary Grant as an angel and Loretta Young as the eponymous clergyman’s wife. David Niven is the bishop, and his scenes with Grant are clinics in the art of the double-take and dead-pan line readings. The film was shot by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Grapes of Wrath). Great special effects of angel magic. And: ice skating.
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In case you’re wondering, the twelve 1940s films on the 1998 AFI list are:

Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story, Casablanca, The Third Man, Fantasia, It's a Wonderful Life, The Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon, The Best Years of Our Lives, Double Indemnity, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

In 2007, they revised the list, dropping Fantasia and The Third Man, but adding Sullivan’s Travels. (Dropping The Third Man from your top 100 films invalidates the whole list if you ask me, but what do I know. I like zithers.)

The IMDB list includes all of the above, subtracting Fantasia, Philadelphia Story, Sullivan’s Travels, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, and adding The Great Dictator, Bicycle Thieves and Rebecca.


Jerry Entract said...

Great year for films. Great choice of films by John.

Laura said...

Some wonderful choices here. I've seen all but THE RED HOUSE -- with KC having recommended it also, I need to catch up with that one!

Best wishes,