Les Enfants du Paradis is one of the great large movie-watching experiences – a spectacle of life and art and the mixing of the two. It sounds old-fashioned, and it is, a classically-made film (albeit one created under hectic circumstances by director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert during the Nazi occupation) that engages the big issues and makes the audience feel like children of paradise. That kind of ambition seems to have become unfashionable now; so many of the really talented people have gone for genre, while the middlebrows plug away at heaviosity.
Children of Paradise is less frequently mentioned as an acclaimed masterpiece these days than it was in the heyday of the movie repertory theater; maybe it really does need an actual collective audience to truly thrive. (Now that we’re mostly out of that era – unless you live in New York or Paris - it is sad that people will lose the experience of meeting a classic in a particular theater, which theater then becomes associated with the viewing: as the sizable, balcony-bearing Neptune Theatre in Seattle’s University District is for my first encounter with Children of Paradise.)
John Ford’s They Were Expendable should be more widely acclaimed. Supposedly it sounded too somber a note to be a hit when it came out near the end of World War II, but this beautiful film about the U.S. defeat in the Philippines is one of the greatest of all war films.
The war affects some of the other best movies of the year, and film noir has a strong showing. Two gorgeous U.K. love stories are here, but as impeccable as Brief Encounter is, I Know Where I’m Going! is the one that really expands your world. The ten best movies of 1945:
1. The Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné)
2. They Were Expendable (John Ford)
3. I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
4. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
5. Open City (Roberto Rossellini)
6. Detour (Edgar J. Ulmer)
7. Brief Encounter (David Lean)
8. The Clock (Vincente Minnelli)
9. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz)
10. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
Scarlet Street and Mildred Pierce are perfectly honed distillations of noir, while Detour (which shares some Germanic tendencies with Lang’s film) carries more of a sense of being created on the fly. In Europe, Rossellini was founding the world of neo-realism and Bresson was discovering a unique approach (after Les Dames he went to non-actors filling out most of his casts).
Other top-notch noir: My Name is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis), Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger), The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak), and, in some ways, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (which, with The Shining, is one of the handful of great horror films about writer’s block). Speaking of horror, two eerie titles from the Val Lewton production unit, Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson) and The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise) doing nice things on small budgets.
Another Lean-Noel Coward picture, Blithe Spirit, also ranges across the ghostly, but in a different key; The Southerner is a worthy title from Jean Renoir’s Hollywood stay; and Hangover Square (John Brahm) gives a juicy starring role to Laird Cregar, that bulky menace, who died at 31 shortly after making the picture. And: the final scene of Road to Utopia (David Butler) is one of the funnier punchlines of the era.