10 great films of 1946

Raise your glasses to the class of 46 – these 70-year-old classics were highlights from a year when the war was over and box offices boomed.

David Parkinson , Christina Newland , Jasper Sharp , Matthew Thrift , Thirza Wakefield , Craig Williams
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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Some unfinished business brightened up the film world in 1946, as the Cannes Film Festival was finally inaugurated after being abandoned after just a single screening seven years earlier. In the spirit of cooperation nine films shared the Grand Prix, while French cinema received a much-needed boost as Jean Delannoy’s haunting melodrama La Symphonie pastorale, Georges Rouquier’s epochal farming documentary Farrebique and René Clément’s resistance tribute La Bataille du rail all took prizes.

The latter was one of several European features (including Frantisek Cáp’s Men without Wings and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà) to offer gritty insights into the reality of the Second World War. But its aftermath was also starkly discussed in such German ‘rubble films’ as Wolfgang Staudte’s Murderers among Us and Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin, which were more uncompromising in their realism than such Italian releases as Alberto Lattuada’s The Bandit and Aldo Vergano’s Outcry.

Bomb sites also played a key part in Charles Crichton’s Hue and Cry, which launched a sequence of comedies from Ealing Studios. The legendary British studio also produced the first postwar PoW drama, Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, and did much to boost Australian production with Harry Watt’s The Overlanders. This was a bumper year for British moviegoing, with nearly 1.64 billion admissions. Attendances were equally healthy in the United States, in spite of the growing popularity of television.

Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were Hollywood’s most bankable stars, and punters plumped for escapist entertainments like Disney’s Song of the South, Clarence Brown’s The Yearling, King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story rather than downbeat parables like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the new strain of problem pictures tackling a range of social issues, or such brooding films noirs as Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep and Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which saw Kirk Douglas make his debut.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Director Jean Cocteau

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

In the year following the end of the German occupation of France, Renaissance man Jean Cocteau asked his audience to follow him into the world of dreams, opening La Belle et la Bête with the following words: “I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: Once upon a time…” Starring Josette Day and Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais, it is a picture of rare magic; swooningly romantic but densely textured with rich, vivid imagery.

The wealth of visual trickery and baroque opulence are unforgettable, making a passionate case for cinema as a balm in a time of great national uncertainty. La Belle et la Bête is also a potent authorial statement, with Cocteau’s credit appearing in his own handwriting – a device lifted from Le Roman d’un tricheur (1936), directed by his former neighbour Sacha Guitry. Jean-Luc Godard would later mirror the technique, continuing the auteurist legacy and redefining it for a new age.

Craig Williams

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director William Wyler

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The best picture Oscar winner and runaway box-office hit of 1946 was a postwar drama from William Wyler (a highly respected prestige director of the period) and maverick producer Samuel Goldwyn. The duo’s aim was to mirror the experience that millions of returning soldiers were facing, readjusting to civilian life, focusing on a pilot-turned-soda-jerk (Dana Andrews), a middle-aged family man (Fredric March) and a young, disabled vet played by amateur actor Harold Russell – a real soldier who had lost both hands in combat. Withstanding psychological turmoil, the search for work and radically changed family dynamics, the men struggle to come to terms with how the war has forever marked their lives. Gregg Toland, only a few years after his work on Citizen Kane (1941), again uses striking deep-focus black-and-white photography to penetrate every layer of the image, heightening the complex relationships between fighting men, war wives and the wider community in between.

It’s long been unfashionable to celebrate ‘big issue’ prestige films with weepy plots and long running times. This might account for the film’s somewhat lukewarm modern reputation. Yet audiences of the era found something cathartic and true in it, and neither time nor fashion can spoil moments like Russell’s painful bedroom monologue about the loss of his hands or Dana Andrews’ final-act reverie in a junked fighter jet. The Best Years of Our Lives was a phenomenon for a shell-shocked and lost generation of young men and women. That makes it a learning experience for the rest of us and as poignant now as ever.

Christina Newland

The Dark Mirror (1946)

Director Robert Siodmak

The Dark Mirror (1946)

In the latter part of the 1940s, much of Hollywood’s output was defined by a sense of postwar malaise. The distinctive strain of anxiety and nihilism that had begun to permeate the classic genres also proved to be fertile ground for Freudianism, with its focus on sexuality and the subconscious. While the ideas of the pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst would exert a huge influence over the movies of the decade, films dealing directly with psychoanalysis often betrayed a fear of the process, typically resorting to hysteria and ridicule (see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound).

Following hot on the heels of the same year’s The Killers (probably his most famous film), Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror, a murder mystery involving twin sisters played by Olivia de Havilland, is more sober in its approach to the practice, while also taking place within a familiar noirish milieu. The blurred line between genre tropes and psychological verisimilitude marks The Dark Mirror as a stylistic companion to the great horror pictures that Jacques Tourneur made for RKO in the early 1940s. It’s a highlight in what was already an exceptional decade for Siodmak.

Craig Williams

Five Women around Utamaro (1946)

Director Kenji Mizoguchi

Five Women around Utamaro (1946)

This mid-career work from Kenji Mizoguchi, a director then viewed as slightly past his prime in his homeland yet still six years away from his international breakthrough with The Life of Oharu (1952), is of particular historical significance. A portrait of the Edo-era artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), whose bijin-ga prints of beautiful women proved highly influential on the French Impressionist movement, it overturned the blanket ban on period subject matter imposed by the Allied occupation censors for allegedly fermenting ‘undemocratic’ feudal sentiments – something of which Mizoguchi’s own wartime output, which includes the two-part version of The Loyal 47 Ronin (1941/42), had not been entirely blameless.

With little known about its real-life subject, Yoda Yoshikata’s script emphasises Utamaro’s relationship with his muses to explore the mediating role of the artist in general within society. Indeed, Mizoguchi’s progressive depiction of strong female characters came to the fore in this and such other works realised during the occupation as The Victory of Women (1946) and My Love Has Been Burning (1949). While more dialogue-heavy than the more lyrical works of the 1950s for which he is best known, Five Women around Utamaro’s long fluid takes and masterful sense of depth and geometry within the period architecture mark a crucial turning point in Mizoguchi’s evolving filmography.

Jasper Sharp

Green for Danger (1946)

Director Sidney Gilliat

Green for Danger (1946)

Despite being the first picture produced at Pinewood after it reopened in April 1946, the misplaced qualms of the British Board of Film Censors ensured that the release of Sidney Gilliat’s reworking of Christianna Brand’s whodunit was delayed until December. Nevertheless, it proved hugely popular with postwar audiences unfazed by seeing their recent experiences recalibrated as escapist entertainment.

Many would have endured the doodlebug raids that provide the backdrop to an operating theatre murder, whose homefront motivation baffles a vain but bumbling Scotland Yard inspector. The ensemble is impeccable, with Alastair Sim particularly excelling as the detective incapable of even cracking fictional cases. But what makes this so distinctive is the blend of sociological detail, muted horror and gallows wit that Gilliat achieved on studio sets, which gave him total control over both the brooding atmosphere within the converted Tudor manor and the tonal shifts between mirth, mystery and melodrama.

David Parkinson

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A fantasist’s gaze into the thin line between life and afterlife, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death is a riotous, eccentric dash of colour in the drab and dreary aftermath of the Second World War. In the opening five minutes, an RAF plane has been hit and is pirouetting to certain doom. Its dashing pilot (David Niven) makes radio contact with a young American switchboard operator (Kim Hunter) – likely the last voice he’ll ever hear. But something goes wrong, and no one comes to collect the poor pilot for the hereafter. Instead, he crashes to the beach and survives, getting a second chance at life in a celestial court if he can prove his earthly commitment to his new American love.

The masterful directors imagine the afterlife – ever-present on people’s minds at the close of a devastating war – in vivid detail and bend it to the individual willpower of the confused souls back on Earth. Is there any more beautiful thought than the sheer force of love bringing the departed back to life? Powell and Pressburger’s film is a comforting salve for the wounds of countless losses. It’s an escapist fantasy of philosophical dimensions, and wish fulfillment for a generation of grieving lovers.

Christina Newland

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Director John Ford

My Darling Clementine (1946)

With its reappearance in the top 10 of the most recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll, the canonisation of John Ford’s 1956 psychodrama The Searchers seems assured. A decade earlier, Ford made a picture – his first after returning from the war – that barely registered on the list (it polled at #235), but it’s a masterpiece that perhaps more than any other of his films exemplifies his position as the foremost poetic humanist of the American cinema.

Playing fast and loose with historical veracity, My Darling Clementine paints archetype and myth in a thousand shades of grey. Examining – as so often in Ford – the emotional and physical conflicts borne out of emergent civilisation, the film begins with the arrival of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in the frontier town of Tombstone. If it’s a foregone conclusion that all roads lead to the OK Corral, that there’ll be a death that needs avenging, Ford uses the well-worn western template as a means to ask questions of society in embryo, of the values for which it should stand. The climactic shootout comes and goes in a flurry of hooves and bullets, but it’s the grace notes en route on which Ford lingers in lyrical wonder: Fonda kicking back on his porch, a bar-room Shakespeare recital, a simmering stroll to church as the town sings…

Matthew Thrift

Notorious (1946)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious (1946)

Inspired by the sex and espionage aspect of John Taintor Foote’s story ‘Song of the Dragon’, Alfred Hitchcock’s morally ambiguous melodrama also bears a marked similarity to John Buchan’s novel, Mr Standfast. Before selling the project to RKO, David O. Selznick persuaded Hitch and screenwriter Ben Hecht to make the macguffin uranium ore rather than a secret Nazi army. But he remained sceptical about a love story in which the villainous war criminal (Claude Rains) is more besotted with the heroine (Ingrid Bergman) than the hero (Cary Grant) is.

Expertly melding romance and topicality, Hitchcock keeps the audience guessing about the FBI agent’s feelings for the socialite daughter of a quisling, even though their three-minute kiss during a conversation about chicken was sufficiently sensual to disconcert the Breen office. Moreover, Hitchcock’s technique proves just as audacious as his storytelling: for example, the remarkable crane shot dipping across a crowded room to a close-up of a key in Bergman’s hand.

David Parkinson

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Director Tay Garnett

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

It was this 1946 noir and the legs of Lana Turner that set in motion a vogue for women’s shorts. The actor, then in her prime, “could sell anything to anybody”, a talent The Postman Always Rings Twice’s Frank (John Garfield) claims for himself.

Clothing plays a large part in this film: Turner’s costumes make emphatic her character’s mutation from tractable wife to mariticidal adulterer. To begin with, Cora wears nothing but white. When she and drifter Frank make to run away together, a fast-moving car knocks her on her ass, and she wipes her dirtied hands on her skirt. Upon her husband’s telling her he’s selling up and moving them to Canada (where Cora will be carer to his sick sister) she dons a different shade. Fondling a knife in the dark of the kitchen, she has on a black dressing gown, as if she were in mourning—for the Twin Oaks diner, for California, for her ambition to “be somebody”. Cora can brush her white suede pumps till she’s blue in the face, but the “damned spot” – the twice contriving to kill her husband – she can’t expunge.

Thirza Wakefield

Shoeshine (1946)

Director Vittorio De Sica

Shoeshine (1946)

If necessity drove Roberto Rossellini to appropriate neorealism in shooting Rome Open City (1945), Vittorio De Sica made a conscious artistic choice in filming this cautionary tale in deep focus against authentic backdrops with a non-professional cast. Collaborating with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, De Sica sought to create a cinema that was “staged by life” and used the reformatory experiences of Roman shoeshine boys Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni (after they become mixed up with a scamming black marketeer and a mendacious fortune-teller) to show how adults corrupt childhood innocence and how fascism had robbed ordinary Italians of their solidarity and rendered them indifferent to suffering.

There’s nothing judgemental about the approach, however, as everyone implicated in the tragedy is equally its victim. Despite proving a commercial failure, this became the first foreign-language film to receive an Academy Award and so moved Orson Welles that he proclaimed “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life”.

David Parkinson

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