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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler)

The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.

Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.

Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.

And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).

Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.

It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.

Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.

Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.

Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Hellman; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Meredith Willson; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Jessica Grayson (Addie), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), John Marriott (Cal), and Russell Hicks (William Marshall).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Count the Hours (1953, Don Siegel)

It took me a second to remember what the ominous theme in Count the Hours reminded me of—Plan 9 from Outer Space. Count the Hours seems like it was done on the cheap, something about the first half’s composition suggests Siegel had to be real careful with what he got in (or kept out of) the frame. But he still does a fantastic job (more on it later). The music, though… the music undoes important scenes every time Siegel uses it. Stock music would have done a far superior job. And the movie’s from 1953, so some of the familiar chords had been in use in science fiction movies for three years at least. It just sounds silly.

The other big problem–besides John Craven, who’s awful and in most of the scenes for the first twenty minutes–is the writing. Count the Hours is the small-town legal drama about the man defending the client only he knows is innocent against the town’s wraith. It’s like Boomerang!, only not good. The script has dumb locals who turn in to evil locals, who are then expected to be forgiven their maliciousness once the accused is proven innocent. The dialogue’s poor, but the plot twists are decent–with the exception of Teresa Wright, Count the Hours plays a bad lawyer television show. Macdonald Carey’s lawyer isn’t a very good one–I mean, he’s really terrible–not Carey… the lawyer. Carey gives a great performance (he’s undone a little by the resolution, but so’s a lot). Wright’s good, but it’s her standard performance. She’d be the special guest star if it were from the 1970s. Besides Carey–well, I guess Adele Mara is amusing… she’s not good, but her performance is a lot of fun–Jack Elam turns in the other really good performance.

But the movie’s real selling point is Siegel’s direction. He’s got some great moves–not just the fantastic courtroom montage sequence, which is awful expositional storytelling, but technically beautiful–and he keeps it going.

For a seventy-six minute movie, Count the Hours really does seem endless. I was trying to work in an “hours” joke, but I’m not interested enough. The culprit’s the script for the most part–while the mystery develops in an interesting way, nothing else does. I mean, if the real murderer had been the irradiated, mutated spaceman the music suggested… well, it’d be something. Instead, Count the Hours is a weird one. Not a lost gem, but still a technical success.

Except that terrible, terrible music. I kept looking around for paper plates on strings.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Doane R. Hoag and Karen DeWolf, based on a story by Hoag; director of photography, John Alton; edited by James Leicester; music by Louis Forbes; produced by Benedict Bogeaus; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Ellen Braden), Macdonald Carey (Doug Madison), Dolores Moran (Paula Mitchener), Adele Mara (Gracie Sager, Max Verne’s Girlfriend), Edgar Barrier (Dist. Atty. Jim Gillespie), John Craven (George Braden), Jack Elam (Max Verne) and Ralph Sanford (Alvin Taylor).


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Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Shadow of a Doubt is a strange one–the presence of Teresa Wright and the small town atmosphere and the Gregg Toland-esque (but not Gregg Toland) cinematography make it feel like William Wyler, the presence of Joseph Cotten and the camera angles and intricate sound design make it feel like Welles (or at least an RKO picture Welles produced and did uncredited directing on), and some of the feeling in the shots… only some of them… make it feel like a later Hitchcock, like Psycho or Marnie, anything but one of his early American pictures. Shadow of a Doubt feels absolutely foreign from something Hitchcock did in the UK, The Lady Vanishes for easy comparison, but also unlike his more well-known American works of the 1940s. Artistically speaking, it’s the most exciting Hitchcock got after he gave up all the filmic experimentation with the move across the Atlantic and it’s some beautiful stuff in Shadow, because he hasn’t got a formula worked out, because Hitchcock’s successful formulas tend to rely on the intrigue, not on the lack of it. Shadow of a Doubt works in the end not because of Hitchcock’s efficiency as a suspense director, but because that Wyler-esque family drama (the contribution of Thornton Wilder?) works so well.

Two different things are going on, from the actors, in Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright does her thing, essaying this conflicted, happy, sad, romantic young woman who’s petrified, but who’s also able to navigate an impossible situation with seeming success–falling in love during it as well. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, who’s playing a character much like one Joseph Cotten would play for the next ten years, both as good guys and bad guys–the guy who’s completely evil, but maybe not wrong about his motivations for being evil, also not so evil he can’t care about people. Cotten is not a Hitchcock actor, which makes Shadow an odd favorite for Hitchcock to pick from his oeuvre. There’s just something about Cotten–you can see he’s doing what he’s doing, Hitchcock’s direction be damned. It’s another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so different–all the excellent, excited performances. Hitchcock usually sucked the enthusiasm out of actors, even in good films, instead letting them be themselves with written dialogue, but in Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a much, much different situation. Patricia Collinge does some excellent work in the film, usually in scenes unlike any other Hitchcock scenes. The most Hitchcockian actor is Macdonald Carey and Carey is essential as Wright’s love interest and Cotten’s pursuer, but he’s got that blander Hitchcock acting style going. He’s good, but it’s not a textured, tortured performance, not like Wright, Cotten or Collinge.

I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before, maybe ten years ago, and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely. Hitchcock’s visual style, while incredibly fun to watch, is nothing compared to the film’s unlikely emotional impact.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, from a story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Young Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Jack), Henry Travers (Joe Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Det. Saunders) and Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton).


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