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The Story of Film: An Odyssey Chapter 5: “The Devastation of War…And a New Movie Language (1939-1952)”

Here at The Moviola, we will be covering Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the fifth installment, “The Devastation of War…And a New Movie Language,” (1939 – 1952) which premieres tonight, September 30th, at 10PM EST.

David Niven in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death

David Niven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death

World War II had a profound effect on cinema around the world.

Mark Cousins starts off part five of his 15-part documentary with a detailed look at John Ford’s groundbreaking western Stagecoach (1939), which made a star of a young John Wayne. Cousins points out that Ford composes the claustrophobia of the cramped stagecoach against the sweeping landscape of the west. Ford also utilized deep staging and deep focus, allowing more on the screen. Cousins remarks how the viewer decides what he/she wants to see. In other words, the viewer’s eyes effectively edit the scene.

Orson Welles was heavily influenced by Ford’s Stagecoach and reportedly watched it over forty times while he was preparing for filming his debut Citizen Kane (1941). The deep focus employed in Stagecoach is evident in Citizen Kane, but Welles took the technique to all new heights. Welles persona and the characters he portrayed are larger than life. The space in his films, specifically in Citizen Kane, are gigantic. The use of deep focus emphasized this.


An example of deep staging/deep focus from Citizen Kane (1941)

Cousins gives other examples of deep staging and deep focus, including John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Cousins calls attention to a key scene in The Best Years of Our Lives where Al Stephenson (Fredric March) confronts Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) about the budding romance between Fred and his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). The two men sit in Butch’s bar, where they once celebrated their homecoming from the war; this time their meeting is not a celebratory one. After being told to end his relationship with Al’s daughter or else, Fred gets up from the table and makes his way to the phone booth near the front door. Al is called over to the piano where the young veteran Homer (Harold Russell) is learning to play the piano with his new “hands.” Wyler and his cinematographer, the great Gregg Toland (who was also the DP on Citizen Kane), focus on Al, Homer, and Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) at the piano all while Fred is making the phone call to Peggy in the far background. Al occasionally looks over his shoulder, knowing the unpleasantness that is happening far behind him, but he is forced to return to this happy moment at the piano. Like Al, the audience wants to know what is being said in that phone booth.


The scene in Butch’s in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives

Cousins moves over to Italy to discuss the “rubble films” made directly after WWII. These films highlighted the devastation brought about by the war. Where Hollywood often glossed over harsh realities of life, the sparkle and sheen was stripped away in the Italian neo-realism films of the era. These stories were about real life and the struggle to survive. One interesting point Cousins makes is about life and how it is portrayed in film. Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying “what is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out…”. The post-war rubble cinema in Italy contained those boring bits. Examples of this neo-realism style include Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.


Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves

Post-war Hollywood also saw a change in its cinema with the gritty, fatalistic Film Noir genre. Cousins’ prime example of the genre is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Cousins holds Robinson up as one of the great film noir actors (including a clip from Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street ). In an interview with Robert Towne (screenwriter of Chinatown), Towne explains that in noir the characters are fated with a flaw that drives them to their fate; a deep unconscious urge to seek out their fate. It’s almost always the femme fatale that leads them downward. Some of the greatest film noirs were directed by emigrates: Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. Cousins explains that while these men loved the unpretentiousness of America, they were disgusted by its obsession with money.


Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

In 1947, the House on Un-American Activities Committee began a series of hearings to effectively smoke-out anyone in Hollywood who had Communist ties that could potentially include subversive Communist or “leftist” content in Hollywood films. This modern day witch hunt called on actors, studio heads, screenwriters to “name names” of those who identified as Communist. Cousins focuses on one of the most infamous individuals to name names: director Elia Kazan. Many years later in 1999, Kazan received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Academy. Cousins points out that the audience, filled with his peers and students, were visibly divided. Some stood and applauded (like Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep), while others sat, arms folded in silent protest (Steven Spielberg, Ed Harris, Nick Nolte). The HUAC sought to destroy the careers of many in Hollywood including Dalton Trumbo, Dolores del Rio, John Garfield, Lionel Stander, and Charlie Chaplin to name a very few.

Still reeling from the after-effects of the HUAC, Hollywood faced another major roadblock: the studios were in the midst of an anti-trust lawsuit. The studios were forced to break up their empires so they no longer owned movie theaters. This was the beginning of the end of the studio system. During this dark phase, MGM (always known for “Having more stars than there are in heaven”) in one of its most prolific periods, created some of the greatest musicals ever made. Producer Arthur Freed and his famous “unit” spared no expense and employed talents of writers/lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer/producer Roger Edens, director Vincente Minnelli, director/choreographer Stanley Donen, and of course the multi-talented Gene Kelly. In an interview with Stanley Donen (who is still with us), Cousins asks Donen about the kaleidoscope montage in Singin’ in the Rain. The montage is poking fun at the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s. Donen explains that at the time he and Kelly hated Berkeley’s style. Now Donen admits he is a fan saying “They didn’t change. I changed.” Although he’s known primarily for his work with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Stanley Donen made a name for himself with films like Indiscreet, Charade, and Two for the Road. In Indiscreet (1958), starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (Donen made 4 films with Grant and even formed a production company with him- Grandon Productions), Donen pushed the boundaries of the production code by portraying his lovers side-by-side in bed.


Director Stanley Donen pushes the boundaries of the production code in Indiscreet

Leaving a much darker Hollywood cinema behind, Cousins heads over to England for a brief discussion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Humphrey Jennings Listen to Britain (1942), and Carol Reed’s influential The Third Man (1949), featuring one of the great performances by Orson Welles…and bringing the episode almost full circle.

The task of encapsulating over 100 years of international cinema is a daunting one and Cousins does a commendable job. It would be impossible to include every landmark film and filmmaker. That said, there are some glaring omissions in episode five. Although Cousins highlighted Alfred Hitchcock’s work in the fourth episode, it’s unbelievable that there is absolutely no mention of his work in the 1940s, given that much of it was influenced by WWII and contributed to the darkening mood of  British and American cinema (Foreign Correspondent and Notorious, for example). Also, while Cousins more than acknowledges Hollywood’s loss of innocence after WWII, he doesn’t mention the toll the war took on many actors and directors who served. For example, director George Stevens was known for his great comedies. After he returned from war, he had absolutely no interest in comedies and for the rest of his career made dramas and biblical epics. James Stewart left Hollywood young, speckled-pup cute and returned a much older, more mature man. This was evident in many of his performances. He wasn’t afraid to take risks or portray dark characters (like L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window or Scottie in Vertigo). Cousins touches on The Best Years of Our Lives, but only to discuss Wyler and Toland’s use of deep focus, not how it dared to address what many veterans were dealing with upon their return from war. Finally, Cousins only briefly mentions the contribution The Archers (Powell and Pressburger) made to British cinema. It’s hard to believe that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus do not make the cut here.

Even with these omissions, Mark Cousins The Story of Film is a must-see crash course for all film lovers. Nothing has come this close to paying tribute to our cinematic history.

Tune into Turner Classic Movies tonight at 8:00 PM for some of the greatest films made before, during, and after WWII.

Monday, September 30

8:00 PM Stagecoach (1939) (U.S.A.)
10:00 PM The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) – Episode Five: “Post-War Cinema (1940s)”
11:15 PM Citizen Kane (1941) (U.S.A.)
1:30 AM The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) (U.S.A.)
4:30 AM Rome, Open City (1946) (Italy)

Tuesday, October 1

8:00 PM Singin’ in the Rain (1952) (U.S.A.)
10:00 PM Double Indemnity (1944) (U.S.A.)
12:00 AM The Bicycle Thieves (1948) (Italy)
1:45 AM Gun Crazy (1950) (U.S.A.)
3:15 AM The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) – Episode Five: “Post-War Cinema (1940s)”
4:30 AM The Big Sleep (1946) (U.S.A.)
6:30 AM A Matter of Life and Death (1947) (United Kingdom)


One thought on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey Chapter 5: “The Devastation of War…And a New Movie Language (1939-1952)”

  1. Pingback: Lady of Deceit/Born to Kill (1947) | timneath

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