Full of endings and beginnings, 1948 was a landmark year in the history of American cinema. As a new world order emerged, Hollywood wasn't alone in producing masterpieces, however, as Cinema Paradiso reveals in this survey of a period of innovative creativity and seismic change.
Three of the most important figures in cinema's first half-century passed away in 1948. Together with his brother, Auguste, Louis Lumière had shown the first programme of projected moving images to a paying audience on 28 December 1895 at the Salon Indien of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The films were short records of reality that depicted such mundane incidents as some workers leaving their factory, a train arriving at a station and a baby eating. But, in L'Arroseur arrosé, the Lumières produced the first screen comedy and set a trend for slapstick that would continue until the coming of sound in 1927.
By this time, David Wark Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein had done much to turn a flickering novelty into a sophisticated art form. Hailed as the father of American cinema, DW Griffith started making short items with The Adventures of Dollie in 1908 and, over the next two decades he refined techniques devised by rival film-makers to create the essential visual vocabulary and grammar that have altered little since. His career was not without its moments of controversy, however, and he answered accusations of racism in his epic feature, The Birth of a Nation (1915), with Intolerance (1916), a bold attempt to depict injustice through the ages.
Griffith had an incalculable influence on global cinema and Eisenstein developed his theories of montage using an old print of The Birth of a Nation during a celluloid shortage in Moscow. As one of the young zealots entrusted with creating pro-Communist propaganda by the founders of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein used clashing images to convey the energy and urgency of the revolution in films like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928). However, Joseph Stalin objected to the artistic self-indulgence of his method and coerced him into following the state-approved tenets of Socialist Realism. Nevertheless, Eisenstein continued to put his own imprint on works like Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944), although Stalin banned Ivan the Terrible: Part 2 (1958), which went unseen for a decade.
Industries in Crisis
Griffith's In Old California (1910) was the first film made in Hollywood and he went on to become a key figure in the development of the studio system. On 3 May 1948, however, the US Supreme Court removed one of the cornerstones of the edifice by ruling that the Big Five studios were operating an unfair monopoly in producing, distributing and exhibiting their own films. Thus, under the terms of what became known as the Paramount Decrees, they were forced to divest themselves of their cinema chains and, without a guaranteed outlet for their pictures, many studios were forced to scale back production and lay off contract players and production staff.
RKO was the first to sell off its theatres. But such was its financial straits that it was bought out by tycoon Howard Hughes (the subject of Martin Scorsese's biopic, The Aviator, 2004), whose maverick conduct of affairs would result in the studio ceasing production in 1957 and selling off its premises to Lucille Ball's Desilu Productions. Few would have predicted such a steep decline in 1948, however, as Hollywood continued to enjoy a postwar boom that saw over 7.5 billion tickets sold in just two years. But sales of televisions hit the one million mark in 1948 and box-office takings started to decline, as middle-aged Americans preferred to stay home and watch the little box in the corner of their living rooms.
Some of the actors experienced another crisis with the start of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's investigation into Communist collusion that would see screenwriter John Howard Lawson became the first of Hollywood Ten in April 1948 (see Jay Roach's Trumbo, 2015). Best known for his collaboration with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, producer Hal Roach became the biggest name to decamp to television and British counterpart Alexander Korda shattered a ban on showing quality films on the small screen when he signed a deal to broadcast 24 of his features on WPIX.
Korda needed the money, however, as he had been stung during the so-called 'bacon or Bogart' dispute between the new Labour government and the Hollywood studios. As Harold Wilson, the President of the Board of Trade, had decided that precious resources should be spent on essentials rather than frivolous items like movies, he slapped a 75% levy on imported American films and refused to allow the studios to remove their frozen assets. Hollywood responded with a boycott of British cinemas and local producers were urged to seize a once in a lifetime opportunity to dominate at the domestic box office.
Mismanagement contrasted with the situation in France, where stars had marched against the influx of Hollywood pictures that had been outlawed during the war and the government responded by introducing the Géraud-Jouve tax that provided state aid for homegrown talent. A similar intervention was rare outside the Soviet bloc, however, with the Italian authorities taking a dim view of neo-realist classics like Luchino Visconti's La terra trema and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, as they presented such a negative image of a country trying to live down its Fascist past.
Nevertheless, these unvarnished versions of reality had a profound influence on emerging film-makers like Ingmar Bergman, whose fifth feature, Port of Call, was filmed on location in Gothenburg in stark monochrome by master cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. Production in Germany and Japan was monitored by the victorious Allies, although notable films were still being made, among them Roberto Rossellini's 'rubble film', Germany Year Zero, and Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel, a yakuza saga that saw the first of the director's 16 collaborations with actor Toshiro Mifune.
Shades of Noir
The pall cast over American cinema by film noir showed no sign of lifting in 1948. Among the classics of the form was Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, in which cocky New York lawyer John Garfield falls foul of brother Thomas Gomez in trying to take over the city's numbers rackets. Paul Henreid also bites off more than he can chew when he tries to disguise himself as an eminent psychiatrist after a casino heist misfire in Steve Sekely's Hollow Triumph, while fellow fugitive Richard Conte struggles to shake dogged New York cop Victor Mature in Robert Siodmak's broodingly atmospheric Cry of the City.
The Big Apple also provides the setting for John Farrow's The Big Clock, which sees detective magazine editor Ray Milland ponder his next move after witnessing boss Charles Laughton murder his mistress. Dennis O'Keefe also fears the consequences if gangster Raymond Burr gets hold of him after he is released from prison in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. But teaming with Burr's moll, Claire Trevor, to kidnap social worker Marsha Hunt might not prove to be the smartest move. FBI agent Mark Stevens also has second thoughts when he tries to infiltrate Richard Widmark's gang to link the killings of a bank security guard and a housewife in William Keighley's semi-documentary saga, The Street With No Name. A ring of truth also sounds in Henry Hathaway's Call Northside 777, a fact-based drama centring on flinty reporter James Stewart's bid to prove that Richard Conte was wrongly convicted of murdering a cop in a Chicago speakeasy.
Lewis Allen attempts a rare noir period piece in So Evil My Love, which is set in Victorian London and follows missionary's widow Ann Todd as she recovers her moral compass after falling under the spell of a ruthless swindler, Ray Milland. Interlopers also prove crucial to John Huston's enduringly tense take on Maxwell Anderson's play, Key Largo, as two very different guests check into the Florida hotel that Lionel Barrymore runs with daughter Lauren Bacall. Humphrey Bogart has come to tell Barrymore how his son died heroically in the Battle of Monte Cassino. But, as a storm starts to brew over the tropical island, mobster Edward G. Robinson and lush moll Claire Trevor come in search of sanctuary and threaten to use violence to attain it.
With the war still fresh in everyone's mind, Hollywood used the conflict as a backdrop for thrillers like Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express and William A. Wellman's The Iron Curtain. Set on a train chugging through Occupied Europe, the former contains echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), as Frenchwoman Merle Oberon enlists the help of American Robert Ryan to help her uncover a Nazi spy ring and rescue missing peace campaigner, Paul Lukas. The latter takes place in and around the Soviet embassy in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, as diplomat Dana Andrews begins to question the Kremlin's strategy and starts seeking an opportunity to defect with wife Gene Tierney.
A New Breed of Western
The brooding introspection that informed film noir began infiltrating sagebrush tales in the immediate postwar period. Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher would become the masters of the 'psychological Western' in the 1950s. But 1948 saw a drift in that direction, as John Ford's Fort Apache launched the 'cavalry trilogy' that would be completed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). Teaming Ford's men of action (John Wayne) and principle (Henry Fonda) for the first and only time, the story centres on the rivalry between a seasoned campaign captain and an arrogant lieutenant colonel with very different approaches to handling Cochise and his bellicose braves.
A 20 year-old Shirley Temple plays Fonda's capricious daughter and Anne Baxter displays grandfilial loyalty to prospector James Barton when Gregory Peck and his bunch of desperados seek shelter in their 1860s ghost town in William Wellman's Yellow Sky, which audaciously takes its cues from William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Another mysterious stranger rides into a more prosperous gold mining town in Sidney Lanfield's Station West. But Dick Powell isn't there to enjoy the hospitality of heiress Jane Greer's saloon, as he suspects that she's connected with a series of attacks on waggons shipping the ore back east.
Railroad detective Alan Ladd is also a man on a mission in Leslie Fenton's Whispering Smith. But, having tracked down his quarry, he lingers in town to investigate the dealings of abrasive rancher Donald Crisp and Robert Preston, the old friend who is married to the girl of Ladd's dreams, Brenda Marshall. Preston also perplexes best buddy Robert Mitchum in Robert Wise's Blood on the Moon, when he turns out to be the aggressor rather than the wounded party in a dispute with neighbour Tom Tully. William Holden also struggles to recognise a much-changed pal in Henry Levin's The Man From Colorado, as the Civil War turns him from a decent soul into a tyrannical hanging judge in a plotline that has a distinct HUAC witch-hunt whiff about it. Holden returns in Norman Foster's Rachel and the Stranger to play a widower who hires Loretta Young as an indentured servant to help him raise his son. Their relationship is purely platonic until old chum Robert Mitchum comes to visit and promptly makes a move on the doting Young.
Dramas On and Off the Screen
Mitchum had acquired a certain notoriety after he was busted for possessing marijuana in August 1948. But Judy Garland's addiction to prescription drugs was ruining her career. Aided by old pal Gene Kelly, she had made it through husband Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of the Cole Porter musical, The Pirate. However, when she was reunited with Fred Astaire and director Charles Walters after their triumph on Easter Parade, Garland suffered a relapse and was removed from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Her replacement was one Ginger Rogers, who was reuniting with Astaire for the first time in nine years on what would be their only picture in colour. Gene Kelly had been slated to join Garland in Easter Parade before he broke his ankle playing touch football. But he seems in fine fettle as D'Artagnan in George Sidney's balletic swashbuckler, The Three Musketeers.
The lyric soprano helped Deanna Durbin save Universal Studios from bankruptcy during the Great Depression. During her heyday, Durbin had played Miss Fix-It characters. But she finds herself opposing crooked politician Vincent Price's vote-rigging scheme in William A. Seiter's Up in Central Park. And there's more musical variety on offer in Disney's Melody Time, a jazz variation on Fantasia (1940) that gathers seven song-filled scenarios and features a guest appearance by the inimitable Donald Duck.
If classic musicals were thin on the ground in 1948, there was plenty to smile about where comedies were concerned. Bob Hope sang the Oscar-winning 'Buttons and Bows' in Norman Z. McLeod's Western romp, The Paleface, while Bud and Lou faced up to the triple threat of Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the Creature (Glenn Strange) in Charles Barton's horror parody, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Elsewhere, the romcom ruled the roost, with finicky author Kirk Douglas meeting his match in new assistant Laraine Day in Charles Martin's My Dear Secretary, orchestra conductor Rex Harrison suspecting wife Linda Darnell of infidelity in Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours, and presidential candidate Spencer Tracy persuading estranged spouse Katharine Hepburn to support his campaign in Frank Capra's take on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, State of the Union.
Cary Grant was also on sparkling form, as the confirmed bachelor striving to resist the charms of shopgirl Betsy Drake in Don Hartman's Every Girl Should Be Married and as the advertising executive whose dream move to Connecticut with forbearing wife Myrna Loy is jeopardised by cowboy builders in HC Potter's Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House. But the satire was considerably more caustic in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, in which straitlaced Iowan Congresswoman Jean Arthur pays a visit to a divided Berlin and enlists the support of army captain John Lund to discover who is protecting cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich. after she had reportedly had an affair with a high-ranking Nazi during the war.
Fin-de-siècle Vienna provides the setting for Max Ophüls's adaptation of Stefan Zweig's novella, Letter From an Unknown Woman, in which Joan Fontaine reminds philandering pianist Louis Jourdan of the part he had played in her unhappy life. Jennifer Jones plays another mystery woman in William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie, as artist Joseph Cotten scours New York for the model who has stolen his heart. But Sevillian dragoon Glenn Ford comes to regret the persistence of his pursuit of Gypsy Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor's colourful reworking of Prosper Mérimée's classic tale, The Loves of Carmen.
The ever-questing Orson Welles took a starker approach to adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which he also took the lead of the Scottish pretender urged to seize the throne by his ruthlessly ambitious spouse, Jeanette Nolan. But the tone was much cosier in HC Potter's version of William Saroyan's play, The Time of Your Life, as dropout James Cagney haunts a San Francisco bar in the hope of living of civilised life with bartender William Bendix and best buddy Wayne Morris, who has fallen under the spell of femme fatale Jeanne Cagney. The action is more allegorical in Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair, as the stricken Dean Stockwell tells psychiatrist Robert Ryan about the experiences as an orphan in Blitz-era London that had caused his hair to change colour. This touching fable marked Stockwell's debut and a familiar blonde took her second credit in Phil Karlson's Ladies of the Chorus, as Marilyn Monroe succumbs to the pitfalls of fame after failing to heed the warnings of chorine mother Adele Jurgens. Unfortunately, Columbia boss Harry Cohn was far from impressed with Marilyn's performance and he decided not to renew the starlet's contract.
The Best of British
Despite the furore in the corridors of power, 1948 was a productive year for British cinema. Leading the way was David Lean's atmospheric adaptation of Oliver Twist. Still feted today as one of the finest screen versions of a Charles Dickens text, the film caused considerable controversy when Alec Guinness was accused of perpetuating Jewish stereotypes with his performance as Fagin, the leader of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Even though it centred on the adulterous liaison between the wife of a Russian statesman and a dashing cavalry officer, there was nothing contentious about Julien Duvivier's earnest take on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, in which Vivien Leigh sought to banish the memory of Greta Garbo's magnificent performance in Clarence Brown's 1935 adaptation.
Ealing moved into colour for the first time with Basil Dearden's Saraband for Dead Lovers, which chronicles the efforts of Countess Platen (Flora Robson) to expose the affair between Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) and Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) after the latter rebels against her unloving husband, the future King George I (Peter Bull). Illegitimate scion Granger leads governess Valerie Hobson astray in another true-life period piece, Marc Allégret's Blanche Fury and there's more upstairs-downstairs shenanigans in Ian Dalrymple and Peter Proud's interpretation of George Moore's novel, Esther Waters, as maid Kathleen Ryan is wronged by arrogant footman Dirk Bogarde in 1880s London.
Two more historical sagas were notable for the fact that they employed the Independent Frame process pioneered at Pinewood by David Rawnsley to cut costs by using optical illusion to reduce the number of sets and backdrops required to create authentic imagery. Contemporary critics weren't kind to either Anthony Kimmins's Bonnie Prince Charlie or Charles Frend's Scott of the Antarctic, which respectively starred David Niven and John Mills. But the latter has become a cult favourite, as has The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed's adaptation of Graham Green's short story. 'The Basement Room', which follows the efforts of diplomat's son Bobby Henrey to protect friendly butler Ralph Richardson after he becomes convinced that he has murdered his shrewish wife, Sonia Dresdel.
Another child becomes involved in a miscarriage of justice in Anthony Asquith's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's fact-based play, The Winslow Boy, as Edwardian father Cedric Hardwicke engages leading barrister Robert Donat to prove that son Neil North did not steal a postal order while training as a cadet at the Royal Naval College. The perils of quick cash are further exposed in Bernard Knowles's Easy Money, an anthology of four stories about the football pools that spawned Vernon Sewell's 1956 comedy, Home and Away, in which Jack Warner's family comes unstuck while debating what to do with an unexpected windfall.
Two stalwarts of British comedy make early screen appearances in Dicky Leeman's Date With a Dream, as Terry-Thomas reforms his wartime concert party band to take a tilt at music-hall success. Blink, however, and you might miss a young Norman Wisdom doing a bit of shadow boxing. Dublin wastrel Robert Beatty also daydreams of a better life in Charles Crichton's Another Shore. But he is forced to reconsider his ambition to relocate to a South Sea island when he meets free-spirited socialite Moira Lister. Chauvinist aristocrat Stewart Granger is similarly forced to reassess his theories in Terence Young's Woman Hater after he makes a wager with his clubland cronies that he can prove that French film star Edwige Feuillère is nothing but an attention-seeking gold digger.
In making his own debut, Young would also give Christopher Lee his first screen role in Corridor of Mirrors, a beguiling adaptation of a Christopher Massie novel that sees wealthy artist Eric Portman become convinced that the unhappily married Edana Romney is the reincarnation of an old flame from a former life. There's an equally unsettling supernatural feel to Norman Lee's The Monkey's Paw, an adaptation of a WW Jacobs story that sees three unsuspecting victims fall foul of a cursed curio that can grant wishes, with Megs Jenkins using it to resurrect her recently deceased son.
Another mysterious artefact stolen from a Buddhist temple in Japan drives the action in Thornton Freeland's The Brass Monkey, a spin-off from a BBC radio series that unites Canadian celebrity Carroll Levis with peppy American Carole Landis, who was making her final screen appearance after Edmond T. Gréville's Noose, in which she had played an intrepid reporter on the trail of murderous black marketeer, Joseph Calleia.
The press had a field day over the release of St John Legh Clowes's noirish take on James Hadley Chase's crime novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Centring on the abduction of heiress Linden Travers by gangster Jack LaRue and his sadistic mother, Lilli Molnar, the film appalled critics and censors alike for its graphic depiction of violence and sexual deviancy. Despite being banned in certain parts of the country and dubbed the 'worst film ever made', this low-budget shocker did well at the UK box office. Oswald Mitchell also opted for a lurid approach, as he starred Tod Slaughter and Henry Oscar in The Greed of William Hart, a tale of bodysnatching in 1820s Edinburgh that owes much to the crimes of real-life grave robbers, William Burke and William Hare.
The medical theme continues in Maclean Rogers's The Story of Shirley Yorke, a reworking of Horace Annesley Vachell's 1915 play, The Case of Lady Camber, that sees nurse Dinah Sheridan stand trial for the murder of the wife of her ennobled ex-lover. Jane Hylton plays the mistress Jack Warner turns to when he escapes from a prison van while handcuffed to the naive George Cole in Alfred Roome's My Brother's Keeper, while spies Jean Kent and Albert Lieven also go on the run after stealing a diary containing Cold War secrets in John Paddy Carstairs's exciting train-bound thriller, Sleeping Car to Trieste.