1946 Ten Best Movies

James Stewart, on the possibility of shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.

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….

9 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for the lists, I’ve loved reading them each week. I do hope you return with a twist on the format (like you hinted at last week). Always great reading. Thanks!

  2. Hi Robert.
    I have been enjoying your best of lists! So many films I’ve never heard, and would like to see!

  3. What a great, great year, when “The Big Sleep” comes in 7th and you can understand why. The one I saw most recently is “Beauty and the Beast” — it’s simply enchanting. A few greats you didn’t mention: Brief Encounter, The Captive Heart, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Brief Encounter would make my Top 10 for sure; the others I love, but there’s so much competition!

    For anyone interested in seeing all of these top 10 lists together — and, moreover, keeping track of which ones you’ve seen and have yet to see — I created a page for this in my “Film-Lover’s Check List,” located at http://www.rinkworks.com/checklist/.

    As an example, here is mine: http://www.rinkworks.com/checklist/list.cgi?u=sam&U=sam&p=horton Black titles are ones I’ve seen; red are ones I haven’t gotten to yet. Click on the years to jump to the corresponding blog post here at The Crop Duster.

    Mr. Horton, I hope I’m not overstepping myself by offering this. For me, it’s a convenient way to keep track of how I’m doing catching up on the titles you’ve recommended in this series, as well as finding the posts where you talk about them.

    • Sam, seeing them all in a row like that makes the whole thing look even more obsessive than it already is. But no, no overstepping whatsoever. And sure enough, there’s Nazarin showing up twice, as Richard B. points out.

  4. I want to add my thanks . I have looked forward to this final list for some time since 1946 produced three of my top ten films (NOTORIOUS,THE BIG SLEEP, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). I would add DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID to the continental sophisticates salute and I (quite) likeTHE LOCKET and THE DARK CORNER among the many great noirs that year.

    I like the two Launder & Gilliat films a lot and the less well known HUE AND CRY.

    How about some top ten films for directors and actors? It won’t work for Jean Vigo and James Dean but I would love to see your rankings for Chaplin, Welles, Hitchcock, Preminger, Capra, Powell & Pressburger, Huston and Carol Reed to name just a few.

    I don’t think your lists need much reworking. NAZARIN appears in 1958 and 1959.NIGHT OF THE DEMON was mentioned in 1957 and 1958. I mention this in the hope that you can squeeze MAN OF THE WEST into 1958.

    • Richard, thank you for catching that. I’m surprised it only happened a couple of times. I mean Nazarin is very good, but appearing on two consecutive lists is pushing it. Perhaps I can defend it by saying I was using a touch of Bunuelian surrealism. I’ll turn to 1958 when I get a chance.

  5. Thanks for the lists! Speaking of Roy William Neill, I have only seen his “The Black Room” with Karloff, but thought it was a real gem, showing real artistry in the direction. I suspect that Neill may be one of those masters who never got the chance to work beyond B-Movies (as far as I know). I plan to see “Black Angel” and “The Scarlet Claw.” Tarantino has been the champion of William Witney, and it may be that Neill is likewise long overdue for a serious appreciation. I think von Sternberg was his A.D. on a film in the ’20’s.

    • The Scarlet Claw is terrific, by far the best of the Rathbone-Bruce Holmeses: good mystery, gripping suspense and atmosphere, and also a worthy addition to Universal’s house tradition of horror. Aside from that and the two films you mention, Neill’s closest brush with distinction was probably being the guy originally assigned to direct The Lady Vanishes. Then again, most of us have seen only a few of his dozens of credits, which reach back into the Teens and include both U.S. and British productions. (TCM has shown some early talkies he did at Columbia, and will play his 1928 two-strip Technicolor silent The Viking some Silent Sunday soon.) My bet: William Witney caliber he’s not. But worth checking out nevertheless.

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