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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.

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Gilda (Feb. 14, 1946)

Charles Vidor’s Gilda premiered on February 14, 1946, and went into wide release on March 15. It’s best remembered as the film that made Rita Hayworth the biggest sex symbol of the ’40s. (Not that she was a shrinking violet before 1946. I saw her in the 1944 film Cover Girl when I was a kid, and I never forgot her.)

Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn in 1918, Hayworth was the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, Sr. and Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth. With that kind of pedigree, her hundred-megawatt sex appeal should come as no surprise, but it does, even today. Usually the only image I post with a review is the theatrical poster, but for this review I was tempted to plaster up several cheesecake shots of Hayworth. The only problem with photos of her is that they lack something. She looks great in all of her pinup shots, but her blisteringly hot sexiness is something that needs to be seen on film to be believed. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every line in Gilda is an innuendo. When she first appears on screen, throwing back her mountain of wavy hair, and her husband asks her if she’s decent, the long pause after her bright, “Me?” followed by the husky response, “Sure, I’m decent,” clearly has nothing to do with whether or not she’s fully clothed.

Besides the obvious lascivious value Hayworth offers the production, Gilda is a pretty good movie, full of nasty double-crosses and intrigue in an exotic locale. At one hour and 50 minutes, it overstays its welcome by at least 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s still an entertaining film noir about love-hate relationships, high-stakes gambling, and double-dealing.

When we meet Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), he’s just another down-on-his-luck gringo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a post-war hot spot (and not just for Nazi war criminals on the lam). In noir fashion, Farrell narrates the picture, sounding jaded and world-weary when he’s not twisted up with hatred and lust. Caught cheating at craps, Farrell is saved from a vicious beating at the hands of a bunch of thugs by a dapper gentleman named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) who wields a sword cane. Mundson tells Farrell of a casino where he can go to make some real money; a ritzy, illegal establishment that operates in the open, thanks to bribery. Mundson warns Farrell, however, not to cheat there. The bullheaded Farrell does exactly that, and is caught. A couple of mugs drag him into the second-floor office to face the boss, who turns out to be none other than Mundson. A fast talker, Farrell convinces Mundson to give him a job in the casino, and he quickly rises to the level of right-hand man.

Things go along swimmingly until the day that Mundson ignores his own advice that “Gambling and women don’t mix,” and brings home his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth). From the look on Farrell’s face when he first sees her, he might as well be seeing the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Unaware that Farrell and Gilda share a history, Mundson entrusts his right-hand man with Gilda’s care and keeping. Forced to shield Mundson from Gilda’s constant indiscretions with other men, Farrell’s hatred of Gilda increases. Only it isn’t really hatred. It’s that strange brand of love/hate that fueled many a post-war film noir. Or, as Mundson himself puts it at one point, “It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”

Meanwhile, Mundson’s secret plans to form a cartel with a group of Germans to control tungsten production in Argentina slowly comes to light, and Farrell realizes that the Argentine secret police are onto Mundson, and that the whole casino is a powder keg waiting to be ignited.

Argentina had a checkered history during World War II. The nation broke relations with Germany and Japan in 1944 only under heavy pressure from the United States, but continued to maintain its neutrality. On March 27, 1945, Argentina declared war on Germany, when German defeat was a foregone conclusion.

It’s a great setting for a tale of steamy intrigue (with a brief narrative sojourn in Montevideo), but the political and criminal machinations take a back seat to the sexual tension between Farrell and Gilda. Their love/hate relationship takes some nasty turns, both physical and psychological. (In the scene in which Gilda slaps Farrell across both sides of his face, Hayworth reportedly chipped two of Ford’s teeth.) The story also takes a back seat to the sheer physical spectacle of Gilda, in particular the show-stopping number in which she performs “Put the Blame on Mame.” Hayworth lip-synched to Anita Ellis’s singing voice, and did an excellent job. Just from watching the movie I wouldn’t have had any idea she wasn’t singing herself.

“If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me the Bar None,” Gilda says at one point in the film. Truer words have not been spoken.