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Category Archives: 1946

The 10 Best Films of 1946

When reviewers assembled their “best of the year” lists at the beginning of 1947, American films had a pretty poor showing.

NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Hollywood had “run dry of ideas.” The National Board of Review picked Laurence Olivier’s Henry V as the best film of the year (it was originally released in Britain in 1944). They named Olivier the best actor of the year and Anna Magnani as best actress for Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta (which was originally released in Italy in 1945). Archer Winsten, critic for the NY Post, listed only three American films among his ten best, and said that Hollywood should work to be “half as clever, twice as honest.” He also invited them to contemplate “how badly they have failed this year.”

The only Hollywood film to receive nearly universal acclaim was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s still an exceptional film.

Unlike the American film critics of 1947, who were beginning to discover the joys of what would come to be known as “art house cinema,” I mostly watched Hollywood films last year, and enjoyed plenty of them. There was a period over the summer when I despaired that there might have been only one or two really good films released in 1946, but by the end of the year, I’d seen enough crackers to make narrowing it down to just ten a difficult task.

1. The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives is a gorgeously filmed, beautifully acted film about real life, with no contrived plotting or overwrought emotions. It perfectly captured the mood of the times and is a realistic, unvarnished look at returning servicemen. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. Despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future. It rightly swept the 19th Academy Awards, and was the best film I saw from 1946.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s hard to find anything new to say about Frank Capra’s perennial holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, so I won’t try. If you’ve never seen it in its entirety, however, you might mistakenly think that it’s sappy, sentimental claptrap, but it’s actually a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. Even without its deus ex machina ending, however, it would still be a rich, satisfying story about what’s truly important in life.

3. La Belle et la Bête

Jean Cocteau’s take on the classic 18th-century fairy tale is a nearly perfect film, and one of the most magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. While the special effects are simple, the uncanny power of this film is undeniable. Unlike some of his more political contemporaries, Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to his critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and enduring films of all time.

4. Paisà

Paisà is a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II that stands head and shoulders above the more famous Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. Over the course of six vignettes, the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their American occupiers. Roma, Città Aperta is a very good film, but Paisà is one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.

5. A Matter of Life and Death

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. This tale of a British pilot who believes he has cheated death and is caught between earth and the afterlife is funny, romantic, clever, and beautifully acted. A mixture of beautiful Technicolor and surreal black and white, A Matter of Life and Death is stylistically way ahead of its time. It’s one of the best British films of all time, and is a must-see for all film buffs.

6. Notorious

Alfred Hitchcock’s second film with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman was another perfect marriage of director and star. An elegant, romantic, and understated picture, Notorious builds suspense not with an overly complicated plot but with a love triangle between Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains that is fraught with danger. Hitchcock’s use of simple but powerful motifs — such as a key to a wine cellar passed from hand to hand at an elegant party — sets the film apart from other espionage thrillers.

7. The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel may have a byzantine, nearly impenetrable plot, but it’s steeped in noir atmosphere and features Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in some of their most memorable roles. Adapted for the screen by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, it’s one of the most quotable movies of all time, with a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even Philip Marlowe may never be able to fully unravel.

8. My Darling Clementine

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine may be wildly historically inaccurate, but it’s one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed. Henry Fonda’s restrained performance as legendary lawman Wyatt Earp is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a western, and the final shootout at the O.K. Corral is a hypnotic maelstrom of dust and flying lead.

9. My Reputation

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation stars Barbara Stanwyck as a young widow who falls for a charming Army major played by George Brent. As a member of a traditional upper-crust family, however, her mother, her two sons, and friends all disapprove of the relationship and expect her to stay chaste for the rest of her life. On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, but once I started watching it, it quickly drew me in. The situations and dialogue are realistic, and the acting, direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

10. Gilda

Charles Vidor’s Gilda is the film that made Rita Hayworth the biggest sex symbol of the ’40s. A film noir set in the steamy, exotic city of Buenos Aires, it’s full of nasty double-crosses, intrigue, high-stakes gambling, and infidelity. Gilda’s relationship with her old flame Johnny Farrell (played by Glenn Ford) takes plenty of nasty physical and psychological turns, and while you might not remember the movie’s plot a month after watching it, you’ll never forget Hayworth’s risqué nightclub performances or the sexual tension, which is thick enough to hack through with a machete.

Honorable Mentions:

Bedlam, Cloak and Dagger, Die Mörder sind unter uns, Green for Danger, The Killers, Kris, Night Editor, The Stranger.

Duel in the Sun (Dec. 31, 1946)

Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.

Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)

The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.

Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.

Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.

Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).

The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.

There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.

Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”

Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.

Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.

In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.

Great Expectations (Dec. 26, 1946)

I’ve never held Charles Dickens in the high esteem that many others do. Granted, I’ve only read one of his novels in its entirety — Hard Times (1854). Based solely on that book and the story “A Christmas Carol,” which I’m pretty sure I’ve read in its original form at least once, Dickens was a splendid caricaturist. I could picture every facet of the grotesque antagonists and tenacious protagonists of Hard Times. They looked and acted like real people. But it was all on the surface. None of them felt like real people, and I was never convinced that they had internal lives or realistic motivations. I’m a big fan of psychological realism and believable characters, so if I’m going to read a Victorian novel, I’d much rather it be by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy than by Dickens.

The only other Dickens novel I’ve ever taken a crack at was Great Expectations (1861), which was assigned reading in my 9th-grade English class. I never finished it. (Sorry, Ms. Lee-Tino.)

But based on the roughly 25% of the novel that I did read, David Lean’s Great Expectations seems like a pretty solid adaptation. Orphaned boy Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his ill-tempered older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a kind-hearted blacksmith. One night, out on the moors, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who makes him promise to return with food and a file with which to saw through his chains. The terrified Pip keeps his promise, but the authorities arrive on the scene, Magwitch attacks another escapee, and they’re both taken back to prison.

Soon, we meet one of Dickens’s great grotesque characters, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a mentally twisted shut-in who is gleefully brainwashing her beautiful young charge Estella (Jean Simmons) to be the ultimate heartbreaker, and punish men who are foolish enough to fall in love with her. Pip is sent to Miss Havisham’s on a regular basis to improve his manners, but it should go without saying that he ends up receiving a very different kind of education.

All of this is very well done, and beautifully filmed — especially the scenes at night on the moors. The problem for me came after about 40 minutes, when several years pass and Anthony Wager is replaced by John Mills — as the adult version of Pip — for the rest of the picture. Although Pip has only supposed to have aged a few years (from boyhood to manhood), Mills was 38 years old, and the effect is jarring. He’s perfectly handsome, but he just doesn’t look like a young man starting out in the world. The other major actor to change is Estella, which is even more jarring. The gorgeous 17 year-old Jean Simmons is replaced by the 29 year-old Valerie Hobson, who is far less charming than Simmons and looks nothing like her.

Great Expectations premiered in the United Kingdom on December 26, 1946, and opened in the United States during the spring of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards, it was nominated for best picture, David Lean was nominated for best director, and the film was nominated for best adapted screenplay. It won two awards, one for best black and white cinematography and one for best black and white art direction.

I enjoyed it, but the change of actors in midstream and the general Dickensian nonsense of the plot kept me at arm’s length. Great Expectations is beloved by a great many people, however, so if it sounds as if it’s up your alley, by all means check it out.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

The Beast With Five Fingers (Dec. 25, 1946)

Robert Florey’s horror flick The Beast With Five Fingers begins with the following words: “This is the story of what happened — or seemed to happen — in the small Italian village of San Stefano — nearly fifty years ago.”

Normally in my reviews I try to avoid spoilers. I’ll summarize the plot, but only up to a point, and I try to talk around any big twists. But since The Beast With Five Fingers is pretty up-front about its unreal elements right from the start, I’m just going to give everything away about this movie willy-nilly. So if you don’t like spoilers, stop right now and go read my review of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. I totally don’t give away how hot Brenda Joyce looks in it.

Anyway, The Beast With Five Fingers is based on a short story written in 1919 by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937), an English author who is also famous for penning the story “August Heat,” which was memorably adapted for the radio show Suspense in 1945, in a show starring Ronald Colman.

The script for the film was written by Curt Siodmak, who intended it to be a vehicle for Paul Henreid. Henreid turned it down, however, reportedly saying, “I’m not wild to play against a dead hand.”

Peter Lorre, in his last film role for Warner Bros., was cast instead. Siodmak felt this casting was less effective, since the audience immediately assumes that Lorre is a psychopath, which they wouldn’t when presented with a handsome, self-contained actor like Henreid. I tend to agree, especially since Lorre does nothing to disabuse the viewer of the notion that he’s a raving maniac. From his very first scene, Lorre does what he did best; act completely creepy and insane.

Lorre plays Hilary Cummins, an astrologer who takes his work very seriously. He’s employed as secretary to partially paralyzed concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), but if Hilary does any actual work for Ingram, we don’t see it. He’s unashamed to admit that he wants Ingram’s nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King), to constantly dote on him so he can be left alone to discover a “key to the future,” which Hilary claims was known only to the ancient astrologers, but has been lost since the burning of the great library at Alexandria.

There are other hangers-on in Ingram’s Italian villa, such as Ingram’s attorney, Duprex (David Hoffman), and Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), a small-time con man and composer who seems stymied by his association with Ingram. Conrad transcribed some Bach pieces, modifying them to be played by a one-handed pianist, and ever since, has been unable to write anything.

Ingram is a petty tyrant and thoroughly unpleasant man. His right side might be paralyzed, but his left hand is incredibly strong, as he demonstrates in a memorable scene in which he strangles Lorre — who is more than capable of the histrionic puffing and wheezing required of him when Ingram finally lets go.

One dark and stormy night, Ingram rolls around the villa in his wheelchair, pitifully crying for Julie. He pitches down the stairs, and the fall kills him.

His death brings a few greedy relatives (played by Charles Dingle and John Alvin) out of the woodwork, eager to hear the reading of the will. They’re not happy when Duprex informs them that Ingram recently changed his will to leave everything to Julie.

For most of its running time, The Beast With Five Fingers is a fairly standard haunted-house mystery, but it has a strange premise that’s always bubbling beneath the surface, namely that you’re going to see some kind of five-fingered beastie scuttle around for at least some of the picture.

This odd premise is delivered on eventually. After Duprex is murdered, the other occupants of the villa open the sarcophagus holding Ingram and find him clutching a push dagger in his right hand, his left hand missing … cut off.

Enter J. Carrol Naish as commissario of police Ovidio Castanio. It’s one of many “ethnic” roles Naish sunk his teeth into (see also Humoresque and the radio show Life With Luigi), and like everything else in the film, it’s more silly than scary, but Naish is a good actor, and he gets one of the film’s best moments, during the last minute of the picture.

The eponymous crawling thing doesn’t show up until almost an hour has passed. The final 20 minutes of The Beast With Five Fingers, however, deliver what the audience paid to see … a phantasmagoria that only exists in Lorre’s mind. He watches Ingram’s disembodied hand float over the keyboard, playing Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as arranged for the left hand by Brahms (who was friendly with composer Max Steiner’s family back in Vienna). He then rips apart the library to find the crawling hand and attempts to stop it by nailing it down. It’s classic Lorre … all bug eyes and feverish gasping. And although it probably played pretty gruesomely at the time of the film’s release, it’s all campy good fun now.

Florey directed the silly proceedings in a solid, professional fashion, with plenty of fluid camerawork and smooth dolly shots. Time magazine said in their review of the film that Florey was “plainly untroubled by considerations of taste,” but the worst thing in this picture is a disembodied hand that crawls around on its fingers, strangling a few people here and there. It’s an effective special effect, but too ridiculous to ever be taken seriously. This is one you can watch with the kids during prime time.

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).

Stagecoach to Denver (Dec. 23, 1946)

Stagecoach to Denver, Allan Lane’s second outing as Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder, isn’t much different from his first. He’s a solid replacement for “Wild” Bill Elliott, but he lacks Elliott’s almost comical woodenness.

The one-hour oater takes place in a town called Elkhorn (which may or may not be in Colorado). As usual, Ryder and his aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), moved around plenty — most likely to keep the series’ titles fresh. This time around, the Duchess is running a stage line that serves all points south of Elkhorn, and her friend Big Bill Lambert (Roy Barcroft) is starting up a stage line that will serve all points north.

A little boy named Dickie (Bobby Hyatt), who has lost his parents, is getting shipped out to a relative he doesn’t know in Denver. This was the old days, when an orphan was simply told his parents “Went away on a long trip,” not that they were dead.

Dickie is caught up in the middle of nefarious doings when the sabotaged yoke of a stagecoach breaks, plunging him and the rest of the passengers into a ravine. The scheme was carried out to kill the land commissioner, who wouldn’t play ball with evil land baron Jasper Braydon (Wheaton Chambers).

Everyone on the stage dies except for Dickie, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “Doc” Kimball (Tom Chatterton) tells Ryder that he needs permission from Dickie’s nearest living relative to perform an operation that could repair his spine, but that could also kill him.

The bad guys intercept the stage carrying Dickie’s Aunt May, bind and gag her in a cabin in the woods, and replace her with a beautiful ringer (Peggy Stewart).

The fake Aunt May gives her assent, but struggles with her decision. If the boy dies, she feels it will be her fault, and she wants out of the scheme.

Meanwhile, Braydon, the evil land boss, starts forcing folks off their land in a dramatic and harrowing montage of stock footage.

Will Dickie walk again? Will he get the pony Ryder and his Indian boy sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) promised him? Will the beautiful young woman masquerading as Aunt May have a change of heart and aid the good guys? Will Emmett Lynn provide his usual brand of cornpone comic relief, this time as a character named “Coonskin”? Will Big Bill Lambert turn out to be one of the bad guys and have a furniture-destroying fistfight with Red Ryder? You’ll just have to watch it and find out.

Stagecoach to Denver is directed by dependable Republic journeyman R.G. Springsteen with his usual blend of vigor and indifference.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

The Yearling (Dec. 18, 1946)

The Yearling
The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Yearling, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a hard movie for me to review. It’s a beautifully filmed picture, and is a great example of just how good the sometimes-gaudy Technicolor process could look.

But it’s also one of the saddest “family” films I’ve ever seen. I would certainly never show it to a child under the age of 12, and would only show it to a child 12 or older if they knew the basic story and specifically requested to see it. I’ve seen The Yearling called “heart-warming,” but I found it emotionally draining and depressing.

I don’t know why so many animal stories for young people involve a beloved pet dying, but they do. Unlike The Yearling, however, the animals in Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller at least die after a heroic struggle of some kind. In The Yearling, the 12-year-old protagonist is forced to shoot his beloved deer, whom he raised from a fawn, because it’s eating their cash crops. The message, obviously, is that life is hard, and growing up and becoming a man involves unpleasant tasks, but it still left me feeling more dejected than inspired.

Young Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is a dreamer — sweet and sensitive despite his hardscrabble life in the Florida scrub country in the late 19th century. He has an easy rapport with his father, Ezra “Penny” Baxter (Gregory Peck), but a more difficult relationship with his mother, Orry (Jane Wyman), who is as hard and unforgiving as pioneer women come. Early in the film, Penny tells his wife, “Don’t be afraid to love the boy.” The film cuts to a scene of Wyman standing in front of the graves of all her dead children, David Baxter, who died at the age of 1 year, 3 months, Ora Baxter, who died at the age of 2 years, 4 months, and Ezra, Jr., who was stillborn, and we see precisely why she is afraid to let down her guard around her only son.

Jody yearns for a little pet of his own, but his parents never let him have one for practical reasons. After Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, however, he shoots a doe for its heart and liver, which can pull the poison from his wound. (I’m pretty sure this is what we would now call “unscientific.”) The doe leaves behind a little fawn, which Jody’s parents allow him to adopt. Jody names the fawn “Flag.”

But why? Why do they finally relent in that situation? The Baxters are practical people who could have seen the handwriting on the wall. When you’re a family that depends on every last penny of income your meager crops provide, having a domesticated deer living on your farm is bound to cause trouble.

Claude Jarman Jr

And trouble Flag causes. Jody’s parents are patient after the year-old Flag eats a large portion of their cash crop of tobacco. Penny and Jody plant a new crop of corn to help make up for the loss. But when Flag eats most of the corn, Jody promises to erect a fence so tall that Flag won’t be able to get over it. His father injures his back, and can’t help him, even though he wants to.

If this was just a story about learning responsibility, then Jody toiling far into the night, in the rain, over the course of several days, all alone, just to build a fence (which appears to be more than six-feet tall) to not only save his family’s crop but also the life of his beloved pet would be enough. But the moment Flag easily jumps over the fence and goes back to work on the corn, my heart dropped. I knew what was coming next, but still couldn’t quite believe it when it happened.

There are plenty of positive interpretations of The Yearling. Death is a part of life, and we all must learn this sooner or later. It could also be seen as a young boy coming to understand his mother’s pain and hardship. Like her, he has now lost something fragile and beautiful that died too young. But these were all things my head understood after watching the movie. My heart felt empty, as though I had just been shown the utter futility of cherishing anything frivolous or out of the ordinary.

The Yearling won three Academy Awards; one for Best Color Interior Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, and Edwin B. Willis), one for Best Color Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur Arling), and one honorary Oscar for the young star of the film, Claude Jarman, Jr., who was given an award for “Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.” I thought that Jarman’s performance was good, but I didn’t believe him during two scenes in which he registers horror and disbelief. Peck is good, as always, but he seems miscast. He registers earnestness and decency, but his accent is never quite right. Wyman, I thought, gave the best performance in the film, which was impressive, considering how unsympathetic her character was for most of the running time.

Oh, and there’s a disclaimer at the end that all scenes involving animals were supervised by the American Humane Association. We’re used to seeing this now, but it was fairly new in the ’40s. After several horses were killed during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939), there were numerous audience protests, which led to supervision by American Humane of most Hollywood films involving animal performers. This said, I’d really like to see behind the scenes for the amazing sequence in which Penny and Jody hunt a bear, and their dogs attack it over and over. I guess the bear was just hugging the dogs before it tossed them safely away, but it looked pretty damned real to me.