I began giving over my Sunday mornings to this project in the first week of 2009, and now we’ve run out the string: ten-best lists for every year going back to 1919, beyond which I will need to do much more movie-watching to assemble something remotely respectable. After taking next Sunday off (the Port Townsend Film Festival looms, although “looms” isn’t quite the right word), I will begin writing Sunday Crop Duster entries on a “movie of the week,” the definition of which has yet to be, ah, defined.
The #1 for 1946 is a well-known picture that was once not well-known. When I began seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on late-night TV it was actually something of a cult movie, not having been re-discovered yet, which made it seem all the more unusual and unexpected and privileged: a cautionary note about the American Dream, despite the happy ending. Frank Capra’s fable is a painstakingly thorough and well-constructed picture (that newel post!) but almost seems out of his control at times. It’s a complicated movie, all about dreams and disappointments and seeing the here and now, and it shifts itself in interesting ways the older you get.
For the best of the rest, Hitchcock and John Ford merely contribute a couple of their finest pictures, and the Powell-Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death stands with the Capra film as a fantasy that uses a supernatural device to deliver a philosophical look at existence. Notorious is one of the most perfectly-realized movies ever made, but this time the riches of Capra and P&P rule the year. The ten best movies of 1946:
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)
3. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)
5. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
6. The Stranger (Orson Welles)
7. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
8. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)
9. Let There Be Light (John Huston)
10. The Murderers Are Among Us (Wolfgang Staude) and Paisa (Roberto Rossellini)
Let There Be Light is the war documentary, shot at a psychiatric hospital for returning WWII vets, that was banned for decades and is still difficult to see now. Shot to convey uplift about the success stories of soldiers getting treatment for psychological wounds, the film nevertheless gives an unflinching and unsettling look at the toll of combat (it is unforgettably narrated by Walter Huston: “Here are men who tremble…”). The Best Years of Our Lives also looks at returning veterans, and is one of those rare big Hollywood films that aims to capture its moment and succeeds.
The #10 slot are “rubble films,” shot in the remnants of real places: Staudte’s film is the fountainhead of East German cinema, Rossellini’s is a collection of war stories. (Apologies to Shoeshine, which I can’t really “place,” not having seen it since an adolescent viewing.) Just missing the cut is David Lean’s Great Expectations, an impeccable Dickens adaptation.
There are some noir films in the next rung of titles, including Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia, and Roy William Neill’s Black Angel. Not quite as keen on Charles Vidor’s Gilda as everybody else is, but it’s in there. And enjoyable works by a couple of continental sophisticates: Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown and Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris.
There must be a place for King Vidor’s (and Selznick’s) Duel in the Sun, as well as a much less heated western, Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage. Mark Robson’s Bedlam holds up the Val Lewton quality horror run, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women points the way to subsequent classics from this director. A pair of delicious British mysteries from the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Green for Danger and I See a Dark Stranger, indicate a rich period for Brit-film.
That’s that. Enough with the list-making for a while. I can hear the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral from my window, so I suppose an angel just got his wings. Thanks for reading these things – now if I can figure out a way to make them browsable in chronological order….