Thursday, July 29, 2010

Year in Review: 1946

1946 was a strong year for movies, and contains at least 6 films that I would count as masterpieces. This was a year of transition for some directors, some making their first films in a new style, and others the last ones in their old style. There are many films that deserve praise.

10. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)
For viewers only familiar with the Disney cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s film may come somewhat as a surprise. Cocteau was an accomplished artist in many fields aside from filmmaking, but when he directed a film, he was mainly known as a surrealist – as films like 1930’s Blood of a Poet shows, he was at that time the equal of Luis Bunuel. His version of Beauty and the Beast retains the elements we expect from the story, but adds surreal, dark twists. The Beast’s castle is one of the most memorable environments ever created on film – a dark, lair where still moving, though detached, human arms hold up the candelabras, where a door talks to Belle, and where a magic mirror seemingly knows all. Belle (Josette Day), is a beautiful young woman treated like a slave by her sisters, but who adores her aging, broke father so much that she agrees to take his place with the Beast, after he runs afoul of him. But the Beast (Jean Marais) is so taken with Belle, that instead of killing her, he asks her to marry him – and continues to do so every day at 7:00. Gradually, a bond forms between the two of them, and understanding. Day is wonderful, but Marais is even better – not just as the Beast, but also the Prince and a family friend who also wants to marry Belle – they are three distinct performance. But the real star here is Cocteau, who has taken a “story as old as time” as the saying goes, and breathes life into it. I’m not sure it’s better than the Disney version – which is one of their best – but it’s a masterful film. I hope that my niece, who right now is 4 and obsessed with the cartoon version, will watch this one when she gets older.

9. Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica)
Before he made the more celebrated Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., Vitorrio De Sica made this other masterful neo-realist film. Set just after the war, Shoeshine tells the story of two young boys who have dropped out of school and try to help support their families by shining shoes. Their dream is to one day buy a horse. But they get caught up in the sale of black market goods, and sent to reform school – where they are surrounded by conniving, manipulative inmates and guards, and soon the best friends are at each other’s throats – one thinking the other ratted on him. The film is about this friendship – so innocent, so full of hope despite the problems they encounter, and how the boys lose their innocence, and the eventual tragic end of the film. The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are better films, true, but Shoeshine is still a masterful film.

8. Paisan (Roberto Rosselini)
The second part of Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy (following Open City in 1945, and preceding Germany Year Zero in 1947), Paisan is one of Rosselini’s best films. Split up into six different sections – divided up by geography to show the effects of the war on the entire country of Italy, is brilliant in the way that it creates six entirely different, almost self contained worlds over the course of the film. The film does a remarkable job of juggling tones throughout the film. The first segment, set in Sicily, is about the tragic murder of a young woman trying to help the allies. The second, set in Naples, is about an African American soldier who gets drunk, and wakes up without his shoes. The third, set in Rome, is about an American GI who meets an Italian girl who offers him kindness, and more. The fourth, in Florence, is about two people – an Italian man and woman – who both want to enter the city, even though the Germans still occupy it, because he wants to see his family, and she wants to get to the man she loves. The fifth is perhaps the most comic, as a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew all show up at a convent in Northern Italy, and the monks seem horrified by the prospect of having two non-Catholics there. The last sequence is the most harrowing – set in the Po Valley, as American soldiers team up with Italian partisans to fight against the superior numbers of the Germans. Although each of the segments is self contained, the film is really a cohesive statement – a wonderful portrait of Italy in the year of Liberation, where the different factions, languages, religions, etc make communicating difficult, yet vital.

7. The Killers (Richard Siodmark)
The Killers is one of the quintessential noir films of the 1940s. The story is about two contract killers who arrive in a small town to kill Burt Lancaster. Lancaster knows his fate is sealed, and doesn’t struggle against the men. Because he had life insurance, the insurance company sends an investigator to examine the death before a payout can be made. Gradually unfolding in flashback, we see what lead Lancaster to his fate – all of it involving a payroll robbery, and a femme fatale played by Ava Gardner is one of her very best roles. The plot of the film is standard noir stuff, elevated by the excellent performances, but most importantly by Richard Siodmark’s dark, stylish direction. The opening 20 minutes – the only part directly adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s short story – is particularly inspired in its use of lighting, the escalating tension and particularly the dark humor. If you love film noir, then you have to see The Killers.

6. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death is a wonderful fantasy film set against the backdrop of WWII. David Niven plays a pilot in the Air Force whose plane is shot down over England. As the plane descends to its inevitable crash, Niven talks on the radio to a young American woman (Kim Hunter) stationed not far from him. Niven bails out of the plane, despite the fact that he doesn’t have a parachute – and miraculously survives – but only because the angel sent to bring him to heaven lost him in the fog. Before the mistake can be corrected, Niven meets Hunter and the two fall deeply in love. When the angel appears to take him to heaven, Niven protests, setting up the memorable finale in which Niven fights for his life in front of a heavenly tribunal. I’m sure all of this sounds farfetched and rather silly, but it doesn’t play like that. For one thing, the visuals in the film – color for the earth bound scenes, and black and white for heaven, are brilliant (as they always are when Powell is involved). For another, all the actors – Niven, Hunter, Roger Livesey as a brain surgeon and Raymond Massey as Abraham Farlan, the “prosecutor”, are all brilliant. A Matter of Life and Death is the kind of film that fantasy films could be, if only people were more inventive.

5. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)
John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the gentlest of the master filmmakers many Westerns. It is a film as much about the passage of the time – the civilizing of the Wild West – as it is about the shootouts between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and the Clanton gang at the OK Corral. Fonda’s performance as Earp remains the best of the many actors to have played the man. His performance is more about body language than it is about the words he speaks. We observe him in his quiet moments – and there are a lot more of them then there are action packed moments. Victor Mature gives a great performance as Doc Holliday as well (although for me, Val Kilmer’s will always be the best). His Holliday knows his fate from the outset, and doesn’t really try to fight it – he is slowly drinking himself into oblivion and death, and knows it. Ford doesn’t linger over the violence in the film – he portrays it naturally and without glamour, but rather as something that has to be done so that the Old West can be put to rest. I have loved a lot of John Ford Westerns – and My Darling Clementine certainly ranks among his very best.

4. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
I have no idea who murders who in The Big Sleep. Apparently Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book, didn’t either and it was only a question from Humphrey Bogart on the set that prompted him to realize that one of the supposed murderers was actually already dead when he committed his murder. And yet, that hardly matters, because The Big Sleep is a film noir where the outcome of the investigation doesn’t matter as much as the process of getting there. Bogart became the definitive Philip Marlowe in this movie – a clever P.I. who gets sucked into a investigation involving a wealthy General, and his two daughters – nymphomaniac Martha Vickers, who tries to seduce Marlowe (“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up”) and the more sultry Lauren Bacall, who falls in love with him. The movie takes us to seedy locations, and has one body after another turn up, but the heart of the movie is between Bogart and Bacall – who were never better together. There is an energy between them, a fierce sexual attraction that works well with Bogart’s weariness (apparently he was drunk for much of the shoot, as he was going through a messy divorce at the time, so he could marry Bacall). Hawks is one of the best filmmakers in history – always finding his own way of telling any story that he was given to shoot. He worked in every genre over his career – The Big Sleep is his best film noir, and one of the best detective movies ever made.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
It’s a Wonderful Life became a classic by accident. Although the film was nominated for several Oscars, it was so unpopular with audiences that the studio didn’t even bother to renew its copyright on the film – meaning that PBS, desperate for free programming, could play the movie without having to pay. It soon became a Christmas staple, and one of the most beloved films of all time. It’s easy to see why that is. Jimmy Stewart was never more lovable than he is here as George Bailey – the small town man who gives up his dreams for the good of his family. When it appears that all hope for him is lost, he contemplates suicide, and his guardian angel Clarence, shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born – the result is not pretty. When he is returned to his life, he is overjoyed. Frank Capra is frowned upon in some circles – dismissed with the derogatory term “Capra-corn”, but when he is at his best, and It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly among his best films, there are few directors capable of lifting your spirits as much. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most life affirming movies ever made – and a film that never fails to drag me in when it plays on TV every Christmas.

2. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was a daring film to make in 1946. Most of the “war” films during WWII, and immediately following it, were very patriotic – some might say too patriotic (Wyler himself made Mrs. Miniver in 1942 which certainly falls into that trap). But The Best Years of Our Lives focuses on three men returning home from war – and doesn’t sugarcoat the problems they experience when they get back. Dana Andrews comes back, and realizes that he no longer knows his wife – and that neither of them have any real interest in each other anymore. Frederic March comes back to a family and a job as a bank President, but has trouble adjusting to normal life again. Worst off is Harold Russell, who lost both of his hands in the war, and now has hooks. Although his family, and his fiancĂ©, support and love him – he feels like he is a burden to them – and will be for the rest of his life. The movie doesn’t portray these men as extraordinary or heroic – they are just three of many returning veterans who face a life of uncertainly. Gregg Toland’s brilliant, deep focus cinematography is wonderful, allowing scenes to play out naturally without as much editing as we’re used to seeing. The Best Years of Our Lives has not aged a bit since 1946 – one of the few films of that time that can make that claim.

1. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is, for me anyway, the best film the director made during the 1940s – and also his best film in black and white ever. It is a film that plays with the audiences expectations right from the outset, and remains fascinating even after we know all of its secrets. The story involved the daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a disgraced scientist sentenced to death for working with the Nazis during WWII. A government agent (Cary Grant) gives her an opportunity to redeem herself – by getting close to a Nazi (Claude Rains) now living in South America and giving him the information she attains. Things are complicated when Bergman and Grant fall in love with each other. And yet, what makes the film so fascinating for me is how Hitchcock plays with our expectations. Cary Grant is one of the most popular actors in history – and he casts him in the role of the “hero” – and yet his character is really more a bastard. He uses Bergman’s love for him against her – by making her agree to marry Rains, and then essentially calls her a whore for doing so. For his part, Claude Rains, although he is playing a Nazi, is extremely sympathetic – he remains under the purse strings of his domineering mother, right up until the final moment when she calls him into the house, and he goes – knowing the whole time that it will result in his death. Bergman is luminous in her role, and Hitchcock drags her through hell to get there. It goes without saying that Notorious is brilliantly well made – anything by Hitchcock is – and is one of his last films to feature a truly happy ending, although when you think about it, perhaps it’s not so happy after all.

Just Missed The Top 10: Cloak and Dagger (Fritz Lang), Duel in the Sun (King Vidor), Gilda (Charles Vidor), Ivan the Terrible Part II (Sergei Eisenstein), The Stranger (Orson Welles).

Notable Films Missed: The Devil in the Flesh (Claude Autat Lara), Great Expectations (David Lean), The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding), To Each His Own (Mitchell Liesen), The Yearling (Clarence Brown).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
The Best Years of Our Lives represents one of those rare occasions when the Academy gave a film the Oscar because of its “important subject matter” and actually made the right call. The film was unlike most of the films of its era, as it was not merely a patriotic look at the fighting men of the military, but looked at the after effects of the war – how difficult it was for the men who fought to rejoin American society. The men in the film are all injured and scarred – physically or emotionally, or perhaps both, and the film doesn’t shy away from that. William Wyler made a lot of films in his career – several of them masterpieces, but none better than The Best Years of Our Lives.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Frederic March, The Best Years of Our Lives
Of his two Oscar wins, the other being for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the early 1930s, this is the better of the two Frederic March performances. As the GI who comes home to a nice family and a comfy job at a bank, and still feels horrible – eventually turning to alcoholism – March is wonderful, particularly in a scene where he gives an impassioned speech at a company dinner – the speech is half drunken rant, and half common sense. Considering my choice, Cary Grant in Notorious, was not nominated, I think that they made a fine choice in giving the award to March this year – although an equally strong case could be made for Jimmy Stewart.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
To Each His Own is said to be a rather classy soap opera – with Olivia de Havilland as a young, single mother forced to give up her child and spends her life loving him from a distance. I say this because this is one of the few major Oscar winners that has yet to receive a DVD release, so I have no idea how good her performance is in this film. I think they overlooked some great work this year though – most specifically Ingrid Bergman who gives one her best performances in Notorious (and in keeping with tradition, Bergman’s great roles are ignored, while her subpar ones win Oscars).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives
The Academy hedged its bets this year, giving Harold Russell an honorary Oscar for helping to inspire fellow war veterans with his portrayal in The Best Years of Our Lives – thinking, incorrectly it turned out, that he had no chance of actually winning. There was some criticism – ridiculous if you ask me – at the time that Russell was being exploited by the filmmakers. His performance is open and honest – pulling no punches, and looks at his situation from both sides. True, I think fellow nominee Claude Rains (who shamefully never won an Oscar) in Notorious should have won this year, but it really is hard to argue against Russell’s win. Like Haing S. Ngor winning for The Killing Fields nearly 40 years later, this is an example of a man playing a version of himself that comes off brilliantly.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge
I have somehow never seen The Razor’s Edge – despite some decent reviews, and Anne Baxter’s Oscar win. Everything I have heard says that she, and fellow nominee Clifton Webb, are the reasons to see this film – which I do fully intend to catch up with at some point. I do have to say though, that I would have voted for the great Lillian Gish – who received her one and only Oscar nomination for her great work in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun.

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