best film: It’s a Wonderful Life from Frank Capra
- Superior narrative, acting and writing—that much is clear and inarguable. I think though, the most recent viewing (maybe 10-15 viewings total) has taught me what a doggedly formal work it is. Nearly every element in the film has a counterpoint (in childhood and then again later as an adult), bookend (there is sacrifice by Stewart’s Bailey and, in turn, he’s paid back), or doppelganger (in the Pottersville surrealism nightmare). There an unquestionable economy in the script but it’s more rhythmical than that—it’s about film form like Paterson or The Searchers in the elements of duality
- It’s a Mount Rushmore performance from Jimmy Stewart (perhaps second to his work in Vertigo) amongst the best of all-performances of the 1940’s which puts it up there all-time. I’ve also said before that Stewart may be cinema’s greatest single actor—only surpassed by De Niro on my list.
- The supporting cast is uniformly superb. Donna Reed is so pure and genuine. Other standouts include Lionel Barrymore, the devastating Thomas Mitchell (as Uncle Billy and my god when he loses the money his scenes are tough to watch they’re so wrenchingly powerful) and Gloria Grahame.
- Solid Dimitri Tiomkin score but not amongst his best—it’s better known for the absolutely perfect timing and usage of Auld Lang Syne
- The flashback voice over structure (it’s basically an omniscient narrative (though creatively done)) and dark surrealism sequences make people think of noir but it’s not noir—there’s no fatalism in the flashback
- Even without the formal elements there’s real ambition in the storytelling. These two characters (again well done by Stewart and Barrymore) are large, Faustian—the embodiments of good and evil
- The mise-en-scene and décor is more instructive and well-done than I had thought of previously. We have a poster of Abe Lincoln
- I’m of a mind to think that George Bailey, perhaps only second behind Michael Corleone from The Godfather (who has the benefit of 2 masterpieces and 6+ hours of brilliant cinema to work with), is the greatest single character in cinema history. He’s on a very short list. He’s heavy—something like David Copperfield from Dickens or something from Dostoevsky—it’s novelistic in his arch and depth.
- Again, everything has such formal balance and meaning—everything has a counter-point- we have the teacher and the husband Bailey insults on the phone. But it’s not just an excuse to show he’s angry (and he cares about his daughter getting sick) and not himself—he’s punched and that blood shows him (in part) hitting rock bottom and also acts as a signifier that he’s no longer in the normal Bedford Falls reality—
- One of the best scenes of acting on display is Stewart breaking down and praying in the bar -it’s shattering.
- one of the best moments in Capra’s masterpiece is the close-up of Stewart (with what looks like a wide-angle lens) after visiting his mother in the surrealism Potterville scene—it shows he’s absolutely floored by the situation
- When we first show Stewart (as a grown-up George Bailey) we have him in freeze frame—great shot—there are not more than a few freezes more important than this prior to Truffaut’s use more than a decade later in The 400 Blows
- The poison story with Mr. Gower (HB Warner) and a young George Bailey is a brilliant novella on its own—it could be a standalone short story and a great one at that
- “hot dog” line is another sign of formalism repeated— in fact nearly every lined is repeated or comes back- the bannister top, etc.
- Again, if it were just the writing, acting and consistency of Capra’s voice as an auteur (he and his populist themes and narratives he was known for) we’d still have a masterpiece but formal aspects are glaring to me now and the ending, which wipes me out every time, is a formal masterstroke with everything coming back
most underrated: There are several options here to choose from. Shoeshine from De Sica (known as De Sica’s or Neorealism’s Oliver Twist) probably the most underrated. It is comfortably in my top 500 (at #416) and it sits outside of the TSPDT consensus top 1000 (#1163). David Lean’s Great Expectations is at #646 on the consensus list currently and I have it at #256. I’ll expand on it more in the “gem” category below but not finding a spot in the entire expanded TSPDT top 2000 for Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake is a missed chance to include a very creatively shot film as well.
most overrated: Gilda is a fine film but I think the star-making turn for Rita Hayworth and being played up in films like Shawshank overrate the film with the consensus. The TSPDT list has it at #937 and it would be well outside my top 1000—probably outside my top 1500 if I went that far down. The #937 ranking makes it the 11th best film of 1946 and in a year this strong my 11th strongest is an achievement like The Best Years of Our Lives for a little comparison.
gem I want to spotlight: Lady in the Lake from Robert Montgomery
- a wild film, filled with some very high highs and very low lows
- Robert Montgomery was an actor with over 60 acting credits who even received top billing over John Wayne in They Were Expendable in 1945. He used that clout to direct five films and this is his debut
- It is a groundbreaking film in terms of the use of point-of-view camerawork, subjective camera or first-person-camerawork— for 90% of the film Montgomery (playing Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe) is only shown with his hands (extending out from the camera) or in the mirror. There are these terrible interludes where he also plays narrator and breaks the fourth wall and explains things to the audience he doesn’t need to
- Dark Passage would do this a year later in 1947 with Bogart playing the role of the cameraman and lead actor—Fellini would master this sort of shot (though not the entire subjective film/character) in the early 1960’s with 8 ½, La Dolce Vita and Juliet as characters were walking with the lead character/camera and talking to it (Fellini’s camera more sitting on the character’s shoulder so to speak)
- The film is absolutely inventive- pans and tilts to simulate eye movement, long takes, tracking shots, using mirrors at angles
- The film doesn’t have great marks from other critics and I’m scratching my head—the word “gimmick” comes up a lot but I think it’s innovative and fresh if admittedly flawed. Montgomery isn’t great as Marlowe, he’s decapitated by Bogart (also playing Marlowe in the same year in Hawks’ The Big Sleep) in 46’ so maybe that’s why the reputation for this isn’t great as well
- There are weaknesses as I said, at times the actors, looking right at the camera for long sequences, look like they’re at a bad acting audition. But the artistic and technical successes here largely make up for the flaws—there’s too much to praise. The little touches like the phone receiver obstructing the camera to the big blow out car chase at 68 minutes complete with a tumbling camera for the crash and soft focus to simulate the haziness of a head injury. This is splendid cinema. Again it’s juxtaposed with a jarringly bad interlude of Montgomery giving a speech to the audience to take you out of it—a shame. He explains the ending as well which is nails on a chalkboard
- They make a concerted effort to make Christmas a character in the film and it works
trends and notables:
- 1946 is a brilliant year for cinema. I think you can make a strong case for it being cinema’s single greatest year at this point in 1946. It compares well with 1939. It doesn’t have the four films in the top 100 like 1939 does but the depth here is stronger with films 6-15 surpassing even Hollywood’s golden year
- Eleven (11) films from 1946 land in the top 50 of the decade, for a little comparison 1945 has two films in the top 50 of the decade and the #11 film from 1946 (The Best Years of Our Lives) would be #3 of 1945
- Three films from 1946 land in the top eight of the entire 1940’s (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, Notorious)
- Sadly, 1946 would be the last archiveable film for both Eisenstein (whose film wouldn’t see an official release for more than a decade) and Lubitsch—they’d pass away in 1947 and 1948 respectively
- 1946 would bring us the first archiveable film for De Sica (though IMDB says it’s technically his 7thfilm overall). Clearly he’s influenced heavily by Rossellini and 1945’s best film (Rome, Open City).
- On that note—worth pointing out that Italian Neorealism from De Sica and Rossellini is a full blown movement now getting international attention- both films land in the top 10 of the year
- A big year for expressionism and escapism (which clearly never died or went out of vogue even in the height of noir and realism) from A Matter of Life and Death and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast
- The focus here has been largely on noir and the Italians but the Brits – Lean and Powell- are two of the best auteurs on the planet in 1946. For Lean this is back to back years landing easily in the top 10 and for Powell & Pressburger this gives them a top 10 film in 1940, 1941, 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1946— yamma
- Joseph Mankiewicz has his directorial archiveable debut in 1946 as well with Somewhere in the Night
- 1946 would also give us the first archiveable performances from Alec Guinness (Great Expectations), Burt Lancaster (The Killers) and Kirk Douglas (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers). That’s an amazing group of all-time great actors. Technically, Guinness has a screen credit prior to the war in 1939 as an extra but aside from that these are all debuts. That seems ludicrous because these are major full-formed performances in top-tier films. One of Japan’s greatest actresses of all-time, Setsuko Hara, makes her archiveable debut in1946, too. It is not with Ozu (the collaborations with whom she’d be best remembered) but with Kurosawa in No Regrets For Our Youth. Future Fellini collaborator, muse, and wife Giulietta Masina debuts in Rossellini’s Paisan in a small uncredited roll. Jean Simmons is also in Great Expectations and that is her archiveable debut as well.
- It’s the artists that drive any artform and 1946 gave us major efforts from Hawks, Powell & Pressburger, Hitchcock, Capra, Ford, Lean, Rossellini, Eisenstein, and De Sica. For all of them 1946 represents a major work.
best performance male: I’m going with the great Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. Stewart gives us the full gamut of emotions here and the iconic nature of his performance is fully justified. It’s an all-timer. If it weren’t for Stewart it would be easy to give another one of these honors to Bogart for his work in The Big Sleep. The legendary actors are (most often) legends for a reason – look at the names after Stewart and Bogart we have Cary Grant and Henry Fonda (in Notorious and My Darling Clementine) not far behind. That’s four of the best thirteen actors of all-time from my top 100 list mentioned already here at the top of 1946. Fredric March is one of those trivia questions to “who won the best actor Oscar instead of Jimmy Stewart for It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946?” and that’s unfortunate (though true) because he is superb in Wyler’s film leading that talented ensemble. Dana Andrews is part of that ensemble and deserves some love here- this is the best stretch of work from Andrews known for Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945) and The Best Years of Our Lives. Lastly, I think there needs to be room for Lionel Barrymore in It’s A Wonderful Life and Walter Brennan in My Darling Clementine. It is fun to play the heavy, and these two are downright nasty (and good at it!) playing characters that are pure evil. Barrymore was a leading man for most of the 1930’s and he’s a great sparring partner, a big screen presence, for Jimmy Stewart. And Brennan has ridiculous range—think of his work here as Old Man Clanton and compare it with the affable sidekick Stumpy in Rio Bravo– it is hard to think of two characters that could be further apart.
best performance female: The luminous Ingrid Bergman is the answer here for her work in Hitchcock’s Notorious. It’s on par with her achievement in Casablanca and it towers above all else in this category in 1946. Donna Reed also deserves at least a mention for her work in comparatively limited scenes in It’s A Wonderful Life as does Lauren Bacall for her work in The Big Sleep alongside Bogart though she’s asked to do a little less here than To Have and Have Not
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- The Big Sleep
- My Darling Clementine
- Great Expectations
- A Matter of Life and Death
- Beauty and the Beast
- Ivan the Terrible Part II
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Matter of Life and Death- Powell, Pressburger
|A Scandal in Paris- Sirk
|Anna and the King of Siam- Cromwell
|Beauty and the Beast- Cocteau
|Cluny Brown– Lubitsch
|Duel In the Sun- K. Vidor
|Gilda- C. Vidor
|Great Expectations- Lean
|It’s A Wonderful Life– Capra
|Ivan The Terrible Part II- Eisenstein
|Lady in the Lake– Montgomery
|Monsieur Beaucaire- G. Marshall
|My Darlene Clementine- Ford
|No Regrets For Our Youth– Kurosawa
|Shoeshine- De Sica
|So Dark the Night- Lewis
|Somewhere In the Night- Mankiewicz
|The Beast with Five Fingers– Florey
|The Best Years of Our Lives- Wyler
|The Big Sleep- Hawks
|The Blue Dahlia- G. Marshall
|The Killers- Siodmak
|The Postman Always Rings Twice- Garnett
|The Razor’s Edge– Goulding
|The Strange Love of Martha Ivers- Milestone
|The Stranger- Welles
|The Yearling- C. Brown
|To Each His Own- Leison
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives