When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1947, it gave its Best Picture award to Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, arguably the worst movie ever to win the prize. It stars Gregory Peck, dripping with even more sanctimony than usual, as a gentile journalist who goes undercover as a Jew so he can describe how anti-Semitism feels first-hand. (Presumably no actual Jews were available to write the article.) It's a sign of how careless the screenwriters are that so much of the anti-Semitism he encounters isn't first-hand; he just hears about it from other people. Still more of it consists of someone not realizing that Peck is supposed to be Jewish and saying something bigoted in his presence, an experience he had surely already endured before he started his research. The only difference is that now he can respond by claiming to be Jewish himself, and then everyone feels a little awkward, and then it's on to another adventure.
Peck's character has a young son who disappears for long stretches of the narrative, appearing only when the story requires it. His absences may be hard to explain but his constant presence would be worse, since the boy turns in one of the most grating child-actor performances in Hollywood history. The reporter himself is supposed to be a brilliant wordsmith, but for most of the picture we never actually hear any of his work -- a wise choice, since the filmmakers obviously didn't have any good writers on hand to produce it. When we finally do hear a passage, it's completely banal, though it's supposed to be searing and heartfelt.
The sad thing is that there really was an effective indictment of anti-Jewish prejudice in theaters that year: Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire, a solid film noir about an anti-Semitic murder. It isn't quite good enough to make it into my top 10 -- a few scenes are too heavy-handed for my taste -- but it's thousands of times better than the picture that beat it at the Oscars.
End rant. Begin list:
1. Out of the Past Directed by Jacques Tourneur Written by Geoffrey Homes, from his novel
Proof that Tourneur could be great without Val Lewton's guidance.
2. The Lady from Shanghai Directed by Orson Welles Written by Welles, from a novel by Sherwood King
"George, that's the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer, you'd be flattered."
3. Nightmare Alley Directed by Edmund Goulding Written by Jules Furthman, from a novel by William Lindsay Gresham
One of the seediest noirs of the '40s, full of phony psychics, carnival cons, and marrow-deep corruption.
4. Odd Man Out Directed by Carol Reed Written by F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff, from a novel by Green
If the IRA Movie qualifies as a genre, this dark thriller is the standard by which every other effort, from The Informer to The Crying Game, should be measured.
5. Germany, Year Zero Directed by Roberto Rossellini Written by Rossellini, Max Kolpé, and Sergio Amidei
The third, best, and most relentlessly grim of Rossellini's antifascist war trilogy.
6. Black Narcissus Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Written by Powell and Pressburger, from a novel by Rumer Godden
Like many of the Archers' films, this one finds something pagan and inexplicable at the edge of the world and the core of the self.
7. The Red House Directed by Delmar Daves Written by Daves, from a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain
I was home from college one Christmas break, mildly annoyed at a professor's habit of finding Freudian symbols in virtually everything we read. "I'll bet I can 'discover' a Freudian meaning in anything," I told myself. "Why, I bet I can impose one on this random movie I've never heard of that's about to come on TV." And then I watched this tale of a man whose daughter is just entering puberty, a man who becomes enraged at the thought that she and her boyfriend will start to explore the deep dark woods near his farm. He's afraid, he says, that she'll discover the red house in the middle of the deep dark woods, and oh how he's haunted by the screams from the red house in the middle of the deep dark woods. Just to top it off, we learn in the end that-- but no, I won't give away the ending. Let's just say I came away with new respect for my prof.
8. Quai des Orfèvres Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot Written by Clouzot and Jean Ferry, from a novel by Stanislas-André Steeman
"You expect a good case, and it boils down to the usual. Diddly-squat."
9. Motion Painting No. 1 Directed by Oskar Fischinger
Abstract expressionism on a static canvass rarely impresses me. But when it's animated...
10. King-Size Canary Directed by Tex Avery Written by Heck Allen
There are those who think this extra-manic Avery cartoon is a metaphor for the arms race. If nothing else, that would explain why the dog is named Atom.