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The 10 Best Films of 1945

Before we dive into all the fine (and not so fine) films released in 1946, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the best offerings of 1945. This list is limited to the films from 1945 I was able to see, and like all top 10 lists, it’s completely subjective.

1. Detour

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. It’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations. Shot through with a nightmarish sense of uncertainty and doom, it has an eerie and hypnotic power that can’t be fully explained.

2. The Lost Weekend

I have to side with the Academy on this one. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is one of the most powerful tales of addiction ever put on the screen, and Ray Milland’s performance is still one of the most realistic and maddening portraits of alcoholism I’ve ever seen. Its Oscar wins (for best picture, actor, and director) were well-deserved.

3. Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is a finely crafted and enjoyably loony psychological thriller anchored by fine performances from Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, as well as George Barnes’s gorgeous cinematography and Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score. Hitchcock was reportedly less than thrilled with the final product, but I thought it was a top-notch mix of romance and suspense.

4. Mildred Pierce

Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce is a fantastic mixture of film noir and melodrama. Joan Crawford brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role of Mildred, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

5. Anchors Aweigh

I don’t generally like musicals, but I loved Anchors Aweigh. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, it’s the kind of Technicolor fantasy that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Gene Kelly’s dancing and Frank Sinatra’s crooning are both wonderful, and Frank Sinatra’s dancing and Gene Kelly’s crooning aren’t bad, either.

6. I’ll Be Seeing You

A moving romantic drama starring Joseph Cotten as a shell-shocked serviceman on leave and Ginger Rogers as a prisoner on a furlough. It beautifully depicts a fragile, growing romance between two likable people who each have something they try to hide from the other.

7. The Story of G.I. Joe

The full title of this film, directed by William A. Wellman, is Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe.” A well-acted, emotional war movie, it focuses on newspaperman Pyle (Burgess Meredith) as much as it does its cast of ragged but determined infantrymen, in particular Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.

8. I Know Where I’m Going

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, I Know Where I’m Going is a playful film with touches of magical realism. “The Archers” (Powell and Pressburger) show remarkable attention to detail in their depiction of an island in Scotland, and the lead performances by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are warm and nuanced.

9. Isle of the Dead

Director Mark Robson’s film, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Boris Karloff’s performance as a cold and brutal general in the Greek army who quarantines an island with the use of military force is fascinating and terrifying in equal measures.

10. Cornered

There’s a scene in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944) in which Dick Powell’s drug-induced confusion is telegraphed to the audience by a web of gauze superimposed over the frame. Dmytryk uses no tricks like that to aid his star’s performance in his second outing with Powell, who delivers a hard-boiled and grim performance in Cornered, which is a really solid little thriller.

Honorable Mentions:

The Body Snatcher, Dead of Night, Dillinger, Hangover Square, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Scarlet Street, The True Glory, A Walk in the Sun.

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Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.