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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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The Body Snatcher (May 25, 1945)

BodySnatcher
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

The Body Snatcher is based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, which was first published in December 1884. Stevenson’s story was inspired by a crime well-known to Scots to this day; the Burke and Hare murders. Burke and Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his dissection experiments in 1827 and 1828, and were symptomatic of a time when scientific curiosity was outpacing social and religious squeamishness. Prior to the Anatomy Act 1832, the only bodies that doctors could legally dissect were those of executed criminals. There were simply not enough executed criminals to fill the needs of medical schools, however, especially with the decline in executions in the early 19th century, so doctors and anatomy students frequently turned to sellers of corpses on the black market. Most of these sellers simply dug up freshly buried bodies, but Burke and Hare went an extra step, saving time by smothering people to death and selling their bodies. In the film, set in Edinburgh in 1831, the “Dr. K.” of the story becomes Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell), a respected surgeon who relies on the ghoulish cabman John Gray (played by Boris Karloff) to provide him with the corpses he needs to experiment on before he can cure crippling ailments. In a typical move for a film of this time, there is also a blandly handsome young doctor (played by Russell Wade), who adds little to the proceedings, merely existing to show the idealistic, humane, and optimistic face of medicine. The meat of the film is the twisted and symbiotic relationship between Gray and Dr. MacFarlane, whom Gray constantly calls “Toddy,” an old nickname that the doctor hates.

The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton, who is one of the few producers to have survived the advent of the Auteur theory and emerge better remembered than many of the men who directed his films. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a talented purveyor of horror and dread. He methods were suggestion and atmosphere, and he avoided cheap shocks and grotesque makeup. His monsters didn’t look like monsters, and the terror his films conveyed was largely psychological. And when horrific events did occur in his films, they did so mostly off screen. They delivered chills through the power of suggestion, and occasionally a stream of blood flowing under a door.

Prior to making The Body Snatcher, which was directed by Robert Wise, Lewton had a string of low-budget horror hits for RKO, all of which are currently available on DVD and are considered minor classics; Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which was originally supposed to be called Amy and Her Friend, and has only a tangential connection to the original Cat People. He had also produced two non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944, dir. Robert Wise) and Youth Runs Wild (1944, dir. Mark Robson).

Lewton was under a few strict edicts from RKO when making his famous horror films; each had to come in at under 80 minutes long, each had to cost no more than $150,000, and the title of each would be provided by Lewton’s supervisors, which could explain why an intelligent, understated, and artful film like I Walked With a Zombie has the lurid title that it does. After the success of Cat People, however, which was made for $134,000 and grossed nearly $4 million, the studio interfered little with Lewton’s scripts and productions, generally allowing him to make exactly the kind of picture he wanted, as long as he brought it in under budget. I’ve felt for a long time that Lewton, who was a mostly unsuccessful novelist and journalist before he got into the movie business, felt as if he was better than the cheapjack films he produced. He may have been a master of the power of suggestion, but sometimes his films just feel too removed from the world of horror that they depict. I’m not saying that Lewton’s pictures would be better if they were awash in blood and guts, but sometimes they feel clinical and distant.

Along with I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher is one of my favorite Lewton pictures, due in no small part to Karloff’s brilliant performance. While the film itself can be stagy, Karloff’s performance is not. Each line he speaks drips with malevolence, while still showing the twisted humanity hidden somewhere deep inside. Gray is a man past redemption. One of the first things he does in the film is use a shovel to kill a little dog who is guarding its young master’s grave. That Karloff can create a somewhat sympathetic character from what he’s given is nothing short of phenomenal. I can think of few actors who are able to do what Karloff does with monstrous characters. (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs is the only person who immediately springs to mind.) Part of the success of Karloff’s performance lies in its nuances. He interacts with nearly every character in the film–Dr. MacFarlane, his young assistant, a little crippled girl (played by Sharyn Moffett), a pathetic servant named Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi)–and is a subtly different person in each scene.