1945 Ten Best Movies

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.

4 Responses

  1. Such great films here. Good call on the shout-outs to The Spiral Staircase and The Body Snatcher, too — two excellent films that don’t always get much notice.

    But there are so many! A particular favorite of mine is Dead of Night, a British horror anthology that was a great time when I first saw it but which I didn’t fully appreciate until I realized years later that the thought of it still creeped me out a little. Upon a second viewing, it was just as effective. Today, the sentient ventriloquist dummy is an established horror trope, but I believe this film did it first. As a bonus, one of the stories in the middle is a comedic treat, just to break up the chills.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Wonder Man is a fantastic Danny Kaye showcase, less well-known than The Court Jester or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and indeed not as artistic as either. But I think it leads both on raw laughs.

    Leave Her To Heaven was a rare film noir in color. As wrongheaded as that sounds, it works stunningly well and features one of the genre’s best femmes fatales.

    Then there’s the Deanna Durbin mystery Lady On a Train. Durbin’s appeal feels more dated than that of many of her contemporaries, but she made some delightful entertainments, this being one. Then there’s And Then There Were None, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Anchors Aweigh. You could dismiss every one of the titles you mention in your post and still have a fun year.

    But only one of the films you mention could I bear to do without; that would be Detour. I can’t quite figure out the relatively recent notion of elevating this rough-edged and kind of clunky B-movie to cult classic status.

    • The love for Detour isn’t all THAT recent; Andrew Sarris was praising Ulmer in the Sixties and it’s been hailed as the exemplary “B” for a long time. I think the crappiness of its budget, the rawness and ellipses, combined with Ulmer’s very real filmmaking talent, make it somehow closer to the world it describes than many better-produced movies. Certainly closer to a true underground experience. Powerful and convincing, in any case.

      I mean to mention Dead of Night; it’s splendid – good catch. Leave Her to Heaven is not quite like anything else on the planet.

  2. May we also enter into the 1945 honor roll three WWII artifacts besides Ford’s great war poem. John Huston’s San Pietro is an eloquent and moving documentary, a key auteur work despite its U.S. Army sponsorship, and a masterpiece at 35-or-so minutes (Huston’s cut reportedly ran closer to 50). Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun is a mite arty, but the artiness is sincere and impressive in its own right, and the film still conveys more sense of warriors on the land than any other fiction film of the time (you believe it was filmed in Italy even as you know it surely wasn’t); Saving Private Ryan owes it a goodly debt. I should perhaps not insist on Pride of the Marines, since it’s been much too long since last I saw it, but I remember how powerful I found Delmer Daves’s film–which, by the way, is mostly a Stateside story setting us up for and then measuring the impact of the single scene of warfare midway through.

    • Truly boneheaded on my part to forget San Pietro – especially as it has been in my mind for the last couple of weeks, as I think about Restrepo and how it sits in a line that descends from San Pietro. Huston’s voice in the narration is also amazing (topped only by his father’s narration of the Huston-directed Let There Be Light a year later?).

      If I ever saw the Daves film I don’t remember it; A Walk in the Sun is excellent (Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to turns up somewhere – is it in Blue in the Face?).

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