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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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My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by John Ford
20th Century-Fox

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — 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.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.