1943: 5 movies

(Last updated 21 March 2014)

Shadow of a Doubt
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Jack H. Skirball
Written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville
Cinematography by Joseph A. Valentine
Editing by Milton Carruth 
Art Direction by John B. Goodman 
Starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, and Hume Cronyn

   It's uncanny how finely this movie is woven together with so many deep themes and moods, all housed within the larger frame-work of a girl becoming a woman in a tranquil U.S. suburb. The movie is one of the first that demonstrated the ugliness that lies beneath some pretty exteriors. It focuses on a more-or-less average family and shows the challenges and pressures that are dealing with. Touching on themes as widely diverse as pedophaelia, misogyny, fascination with violence, family dynamics, and coming of age, the movie looks clearly and entertainingly from the perspectives of each character in the family (mom, dad, and each of the three kids) when their uncle comes to town. The five sections of the movie (niece dreaming of uncle, uncle arrives, uncle's true nature is revealed to niece, uncle's reaction, niece's outcome) are so well crafted that it feels more like a lifetime than a 108-minute movie, and this in the best sense possible, the sense that we grow along with the protagonist. A crime story weaves slyly into the larger coming of age plot, and builds with precision to a harrowing climax. Miraculously, the bits of comedy between Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers make the movie a completely-rounded whole and push this movie into the ranks of great art in any medium.

Meshes of the Afternoon
Directed by and Starring Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Written and Edited by Maya Deren
Cinematography by Alexander Hammid
Music by Teiji Ito

   Probably one of the eeriest movies ever made. The soundtrack is half silent and half scored stunningly by Ito, no dialogue or other sounds, which helps emphasize the nightmarish quality. There is no definite framework for the reality of the movie. Gravity, time, space, character, and emotion is subjective, shifting. The camera circles around and around, the scenery repeating with slight changes everytime, evincing in us a desire to delineate a pattern and thus make out some kind of storyline or other truth. In this way it's like a brain-teaser or a murder mystery or psychoanalytical case. While the movie promotes independent thought, it also tempts us to introspect into our own fears. A landmark in cinema for its novelty and for the gracefully disorienting spell it casts!

Directed by Luchino Visconti
Written by Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata,
Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini
Cinematography by Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti
Editing by Mario Serandrei
Art direction by Gino Franzi
Music by Giuseppe Rosati
Starring Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, 
Elio Marcuzzo, Dhia Cristiani, and Juan de Landa

   This movie grabs from the first moment. As the opening credits are rolling, we are driving forward to a suspenseful music. No person is visible, it's just us, looking out through a dirty windshield from the passenger seat of a truck. We see a locale, and we feel a mood. It's a jaunty, forward-rambling motion. We are free-for-now, but the music tips off that we are nearing a territory soaked in drama. When the credits and music stop, the sun is glaring, and the photography becomes ever more crisp and real. It is clear that we are outdoors, not outdoors on a studio set, but outdoors on a real day with a real sun, and a real wide world all around. The next thing that grabs is the chemistry between the two leads. It's a palpable, heart-stopping, irresistible chemistry. Even through the melodramatic parts, we feel the realness of the sexual heat. We watch because we want to see them together, because it's inevitable that they will come together, and we watch because it bodes dangerous for them to come together. We feel all of this from the acting, from the directing, the angles of photography, and from the way the actors speak, sometimes hushed, sometimes shouting, singing, sometimes abruptly stopping. There are gaps in what we are shown and told, we carry through parts of the story in uncertainty, which creates a thick and gripping tension that holds us through the end. This is the definition of obsession, which fittingly is the translation of the title.
   The movie does get a little long at times, but for the most part, it all has the feel of a good novel, twisting and turning unpredictably. It is clear that these aren't people or actions to admire or replicate. This is not a happy or proud story. It's simply entertaining. These are the choices some of us would never make, complete with the reasons why we wouldn't make them. But, this movie also works for those of us who have made some bad decisions, by reminding us how unable we were to turn away. We get the sense that someone out there understands, and that someone out there sees a profound beauty in such choices, someone sees a romanticism.
   But there is a different reading as well, that it represents the arc of an erotic life: first love, heartbreak, homosexuality, besting another suitor, the horror of eternity, escape, bitter return, reconciliation, procreation, old age, and death. In short, this may be an uneven movie, but it's ambitious for many reasons, not least among them the fact that there is more going on than meets the eye. Neo-realist landmark, erotic crime novel, sexual allegory: this movie is less about entertainment, and more about gracefully layering multiple purposes of cinema in an impacting way. The title translates from Italian to "Obsession".

The More the Merrier
Directed and produced by George Stevens
Written by Robert Russell, Frank Ross,
Richard Fluornoy, and Lewis R. Foster
Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff
Art direction by Lionel Banks and Rudolph Sternad
Starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn

   Light but unique movie about the moral and economic barriers between a man and woman in the busy money-driven U.S.A. of 1943. An older wealthy man finds himself in the position to bring the young working-class couple together. After the masterly-orchestrated meet-cute, we see the man and woman battle challenges of money, morality, poverty, and other suitors in the aim of sealing their monogamy. It is as entertaining for its slice of then-contemporary life as it is for the sympathetic tension that grows in the viewer for the happiness of the endearingly talented leads.

Stormy Weather
Directed by Andrew L. Stone
Produced by William LeBaron
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Cinematography by Leon Shamroy and Lee Garmes
Editing by James B. Clark
Art Direction by James Basevi and Joseph C. Wright 
Set Decoration by Thomas Little and Fred J. Rode
Costumes by Helen Rose and Sam Benson
Starring Bill Robinson, Dooley Wilson, 
Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, 
and the Nicholas Brothers

   It's a grand musical if you can enjoy each of the vignettes apart from the weak narrative and acting that connects them. Possibly the greatest musical considering how many musical greats are featured. It's a treat we should all be grateful for to see and hear Lena Horne, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway all perform. Theirs are pre-recorded performances, but still engaging because of the phenomenal staging. The performances of the dancers, meanwhile, which include Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas brothers were of course recorded live and so are even more thrilling. Additionally, it's refreshing that this movie features only black actors given that the movies of the era were so saturated with white talent.

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