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Darren H

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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I couldn't find any other discussion of this one. Here's what I just posted at Long Pauses. Hopefully it's enough to get the ball rolling. Have any of you seen this?

The night before my grandmother's funeral, my grandfather told me about a letter he wrote to her when he was in Europe. Actually, he dictated the letter to a nurse. And in it he told her that he would be returning "half the man" he was when he left. He'd been wounded badly by a German mortar somewhere in western Europe, and he was ashamed of the toll it took on his face. I wish now I'd had the chance to watch this film with them.

If I hadn't seen Best Years, I wouldn't believe a film like it could exist. The story of three men returning from war to the same home town, it unsettles every expectation I had about Hollywood World War II films. The heroic Army Air Force captain is haunted by nightmares and unable to find his place in a booming postwar economy that places little value on the skills he learned as a bombardier. The gruff and hard-drinking ol' Sarge', a staple of service films, is a banker who discovers that words like "collateral" and "investment" are absurd when used back home. And Homer, who lost both hands to a fire, returns to a society better-equipped to accept a heroic death than a disfiguring wound.

And along with that setup, you also get brilliant performances from Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, and Teresa Wright (with whom I've fallen in love again); you get the patient, impeccably-human direction of William Wyler; and you get a stream of jaw-dropping images from Gregg Toland that rival his more famous work in Citizen Kane. Best Years might be my single favorite film of the classical Hollywood cinema. An absolute masterpiece.

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It's been years since I've seen this film, but I remember being quite moved by Harold Russell's performance. His story is quite interesting: losing both hands in a military-training exercise, winning two Oscars for his role as Homer, founding AMVETS...

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I saw this for the first time a few months back and was taken aback by its willingness to deal with the darker aftermath of war. I was shocked that this came out in the 40's, seemingly as a part of the regular Hollywood machine.

No doubt there are plenty of flag-waving, gung-ho kinds of movies that pass over these more painful realities, but I wonder if there are other Hollywood films from this period that deal with the war in a similar fashion. I wonder also if there is a change of tone from films in the years leading up to the war, to films during the war, and films made after the war.

Wyler's earlier Mrs. Miniver might bear this out a bit, seeing as it was made during the war. It struck me as more of a step for Wyler toward the even darker themes of Best Years. But I don't have a great deal of experience with WWII Hollywood films, so I can't say a whole lot.

Regardless, The Best Years of Our Lives is well worth a viewing, and I look forward to checking it out again sometime.


All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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No doubt there are plenty of flag-waving, gung-ho kinds of movies that pass over these more painful realities, but I wonder if there are other Hollywood films from this period that deal with the war in a similar fashion. I wonder also if there is a change of tone from films in the years leading up to the war, to films during the war, and films made after the war.

Honestly, I can't think of another WWII film made in the '40s or even into the early-'50s that feels like Best Years, and I've done quite a bit of research and writing in this area. By the late-50s we start seeing movies like Robert Aldrich's Attack!, which goes so far as to kill a grossly incompetent commanding officer, but even then, Aldrich was denied access to real military equipment and had to finance and distribute the film independently through United Artists. Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which was made around the same time, avoided the problem entirely by setting the story in WWI and by filming in Europe.

WWII, in a lot of ways, is a unique case. Unlike the first world war and the Cold War conflicts of later decades, Americans at large accepted (and continue to accept) the rightness and necessity of WWII without ambivalence. The general message of most WWII films is, "War is horrible, but this one will be fought nobly by our boys, and their sacrifice will be worth the cost." Best Years' message isn't that much different, actually, but Wyler's ability to craft rounded characters lends the film a stunning complexity.

What most surprised me, I think, is Wyler's patience. Best Years is a long film -- nearly three hours -- and yet he doesn't shy away from keeping a face in close-up for a few extra beats. Long enough to find the nuance in the expression.

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There was some discussion about this film in the nominations for the top 100 spiritually significant films, if I recall correctly.


"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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I've always loved this film. Fast three hours too. Though it downplays the general reticence of vets coming home, hiding their experiences from those who were not there, the constant doubt about fitting into society that seems to have past them by is unique. I cannot think of another film that deals with that issue at all, let alone as a major theme.

I don't want to even imply comparison of the missionfield with a battle zone, but this theme always struck me personally as an MK. There is always that feeling upon coming back "home" after years away at another "home". The friends from that past life have moved on and grown accustomed to doing without you. It seems to me that Russell's relationship with Carmicheal is the only one that appears to pick up where it left off, despite Myrna Loy's attempts to continue where she and March left off. Their family is pleased to be "whole" again, but it's a bumpy ride to wholeness there too.

I've been reading subtle and snide criticism of this film's "soapish" qualities that seem to some critics not to be wearing well, but I think the consensus here is a better picture of this film and its signifigance. How 'bout this film for the Film Club? It appears some have not seen it in a while and some not at all.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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I thought I posted earlier apparently when my PC locked up it did not complete the post. Anyway, here is an earlier response.

I am headed out to read Long Pauses later this afternoon and I look forward to what you have to say.

This film has been a favorite of mine since the moment I first saw it almost 20 years ago, as a kid. It actually seems to step to the other side of the tracks to look at the soldier


...the kind of film criticism we do. We are talking about life, and more than that the possibility of abundant life." -M.Leary

"Dad, how does she move in mysterious ways?"" -- Jude (my 5-year-old, after listening to Mysterious Ways)

[once upon a time known here as asher]

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Though it downplays the general reticence of vets coming home, hiding their experiences from those who were not there, the constant doubt about fitting into society that seems to have past them by is unique. I cannot think of another film that deals with that issue at all, let alone as a major theme.

Coming Home definitely deals with those issues, but, again, WWII and Vietnam were such completely different experiences for the nation at large. What amazes me about Best years is that, although we know a bit about each man's experience at war, they never talk about it. Can you imagine this film being made today without a scene in which March and Loy lie in bed together, he on his back, she propped up on one elbow, he telling her some story about a particularly hairy battle, she listening compassionately and kissing his cheek? The scene writes itself. But it's nowhere to be found in Best years, and I think that's because, in 1946, those conversations would have been going on in bedrooms everywhere across the country -- and nowhere else. Wyler didn't need to show it. The audience brought it with them.

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Thanks for bringing this one up, Darren. A film I've been curious about for some time: this makes me very eager to see it.

One WW2 story comes to mind which might have points of comparison, not a film but a play. Arthur Miller's celebrated ALL MY SONS, which is my favourite of his plays. More focus on home front complicities laid bare by the return of a battle veteran, but similarly complex in its characterizations, and its view of the war.

(By the way, and I've said this before. LONG PAUSES is simply a gorgeous site, and your writing very good. I know it's off topic, Darren, but what's your thesis on? And where are you studying? Oh, and I introduced HAROLD AND MAUDE to a twelve year old friend a couple weeks ago, and he loved it. Just doing my subversive bit for the cause...)

Ron

P.S. John, your sig file looks like an ad for LONG PAUSES.

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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It's funny that you ask about my dissertation and mention All My Sons in the same post. I'm writing about the problems of the American Left as represented in literature of the Cold War, and Miller is the focus of much of my first chapter. All My Sons is an incredibly subversive play, though, as with all of his early tragedies, I have some problems with its final act.

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... All My Sons is an incredibly subversive play, though, as with all of his early tragedies, I have some problems with its final act.

Care to expand? I've started an ALL MY SONS thread in the Theatre forum, so as not to fray this one.

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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John wrote: "I wonder if there are other Hollywood films from this period that deal with the war in a similar fashion. I wonder also if there is a change of tone from films in the years leading up to the war, to films during the war, and films made after the war."

Darren H wrote: Honestly, I can't think of another WWII film made in the '40s or even into the early-'50s that feels like Best Years, and I've done quite a bit of research and writing in this area.

The archetype for this kind of film (Best Years) is probably Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919), which Gance made during WWI, as his bleak protest against war. J'Accuse introduced the theme of the spiritual and physical deformities of war. Responding in America, Vidor gave us The Big Parade (1925) -- a tough, brilliant film that pulls no punches about "homecoming".

And with the coming of the Second World War -- two films stand out. Tay Garnett's Bataan, which is the direct forerunner of the high expressionist, psychotic Aldrich style. Though nominally a propaganda film -- the film is an utterly grim look at a suicide mission, set during the disastrous defeat in the Phillipines. The propaganda attempt to show a unified rag-tag coalition of "the freedom loving" against a racially disturbing, savage enemy ultimately is eclipsed by the brutal nihilism of the scenario. Almost everyone turns into an animal in this film.

And then there is Ford's and Toland's (they co-directed) hypnotic December 7th (the original long version) -- without a doubt one of the strangest films ever made. The film was supressed by the army in it's original version, which was too angry in its insistence on finding and assigning blame for Pearl Harbor. A never to be equalled mix of staged "documentary", racist propaganda, socratic dialogues, and profound melancholy, December 7th is a microcosm of the country's complex reaction to entering this war. And the poetic link to Best Years is interesting in more ways than one.

At the end of the film, Dana Andrews plays the ghost (I'm not making this up) of a sailor killed at Pearl Harbor. Who discusses the ways America can get back at "the japs" while strolling among the white expanses of Arlington National Cemetery with the ghost of a soldier from the Revolutionary War. This sequence is echoed in Best Years -- the ghostly Andrews amid the scrap planes, which give him, and represent his shattered sense of self.

And finally -- the only film which is comparable in complexity and emotional resonance to Best Years. Ford's masterpiece They Were Expendable (1945) -- made at the end of the war as supposed "recruitment film" for the navy, which takes a squadron of PT Boats at the beginning of the war and gradually whittles them down to nothing in what the Navy Brass calls a "sacrifice bunt". After a secret mission to get MacArthur safely away to Australia, the survivors are pushed into what looks like a last stand fighting on foot, as common footsoldiers. But there is a deus ex machina that only serves to heighten the protagonists self loathing and alienation. It's a film that seems completely conceived to destroy notions of glory and sacrifice, and as such wasn't exactly helpful as a recruiting tool. When it was finally released in 1945, the cognitive dissonance couldn't have been greater -- a film about the darkest days of defeat and futility, at the moment when America was about to take the stage as a fully fledged, unstoppable, imperial power.

They Were Expendable's vision is almost perfectly bleak, it is the ILIAD to Best Years' ODYSSEY. This great film is, without a doubt, the kathartic homecoming film required by the moment. What's interesting about Best Years is that there is no sense of rationalization of the "meaning" of the war. The question of "whether it was worth it?" is never addressed and this omission is mature, respectful, suggestive, and subversive. The central anxiety in Best Years is: Has anything changed? Is this still the same town? Is this still the same woman? The same man?

It's willingness to look at the cost of the war is not half as important as showing how the healing reconstruction begins. The wounded masculine values of strife and shame are brought into the alien world of the hearth and the feminine willingness to gaze directly upon the wounds, and to patiently, and movingly accept the rage and sense of loss that afflicts the veterans.

The dark side of WWII was quickly repressed -- but it explodes again just as quickly in Noir.

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P.S. John, your sig file looks like an ad for LONG PAUSES.

As I am a fan of Darren's site, I'll take that as a compliment!

The archetype for this kind of film (Best Years) is probably Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919)...

Wow, some great suggestions there, goneganesh. I am going to see if I can track any of these titles down.

The dark side of WWII was quickly repressed -- but it explodes again just as quickly in Noir.

Ah yes, your mention of noir here reminds me of The Third Man, a film I no doubt, should have remembered! It has nothing to do with soldiers in or coming out of war, but is certainly revelatory in its portrayal of post-war Vienna. The thriving black market for medicines and other necessities, a city filled with rubble, and the inane political division of the city. These elements serve as the backdrop to the story, and they make for a pretty stinging critique of, if not the war, then the bungling of things in its wake.


All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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<lotsa smart stuff>

Wow, thanks goner! A superb survey. I've got to focus my viewing the next while, so I'd be a fool to head down this beguiling side trail, but I'm keeping track of your recommendations. Would make a great mini film fest!

By the way, welcome. I'm assuming that's in order, since I've not picked up on your presence here before. I've been away from the board for a while, but back now. Have you introduced yourself somewhere?

Ron


I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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And finally -- the only film which is comparable in complexity and emotional resonance to Best Years. Ford's masterpiece They Were Expendable (1945)  -- made at the end of the war as supposed "recruitment film" for the navy, which takes a squadron of PT Boats at the beginning of the war and gradually whittles them down to nothing in what the Navy Brass calls a "sacrifice bunt". After a secret mission to get MacArthur safely away to Australia, the survivors are pushed into what looks like a last stand fighting on foot, as common footsoldiers. But there is a deus ex machina that only serves to heighten the protagonists self loathing and alienation. It's a film that seems completely conceived to destroy notions of glory and sacrifice, and as such wasn't exactly helpful as a recruiting tool. When it was finally released in 1945, the cognitive dissonance couldn't have been greater -- a film about the darkest days of defeat and futility, at the moment when America was about to take the stage as a fully fledged, unstoppable, imperial power.

Just saw this again tonight on TCM's "Essentials". Now, Peter Bogdonovich, no small film historian himself declared that Ford pieced this together at the end of the war and was bitter that he couldn't make it earlier. Given the social milieu and attitudes of the time, I think this would have made an incredible recruiting tool. From that POV, the film screams out, "We've left these guys to fend for themselves! Who's with me to go get 'em and give the enemy (insert choice racial slur here) Hell!" Remember, it was the White House and Pentagon that decided to focus on Europe first, despite the Pacific attack that got us in. The worm's eye view of the military has always been that one can never figure out what the brass is thinking with respect to orders, so why bother to question. The final, frustrating order is for only the officers to leave Mindanao, leaving the seamen behind to fold into the Army, or (hopefully) melt into the insurgancy while Brick, Rusty, and the ensigns do recruiting. Don't know when this was released in '45, but had we not dropped The Bombs, there would have been another year or two at least of fighting anyway.


"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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I think this would have made an incredible recruiting tool. From that POV, the film screams out, "We've left these guys to fend for themselves! Who's with me to go get 'em and give the enemy (insert choice racial slur here) Hell!" Remember, it was the White House and Pentagon that decided to focus on Europe first, despite the Pacific attack that got us in.

I'm not sure if we saw the same film. This isn't at all the TONE of the film. The film is about the melancholy of defeat. The sacrifices made in the course of the story are NOT self-evidently worth it. There is no rationalization or justification (outside the usual, hollow self-serving ones of the navy brass) to leaven the chronicle of the destruction of a naval community. Could another director have taken the same Navy approved script and make a rah-rah recruitment picture out of it ? Sure. But they probably wouldn't have called it They Were Expendable.

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Not defeat. Attrition. There is a constant whittling away of what is had and an arbitrary conservation of officers ultimately at all levels at the expense of non-coms and swabbies. The final shots of the grunts implies that they are not defeated at the point of the end of the story, just out of supplies and equipment. This is typical American pluck characteristic of the time and is implied throughout, which is what I'm relying on for the rallying cry. By the time this film was being put together, the early defeats in the Phillipines were sort of old news mitigated by MacArthur's promise to return and the subsequent victories at sea that made such a promise ultimately plausible.

What you see as constant defeat, I see as inevitable attrition in the short term of scarce resources and every little conservation enterprise that succeeds is a small victory, as well as the odd successful nipping at the heels of a temporarily superior power such as the sinking of two cruisers. I never got the feeling that the characters thought they were defeated.


"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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When I was in my teens, on Thursday nights, TNT showed some great classic movies. I never knew whether they were Ted Turner's favorite films or not, but the programming was termed Our Favorite Movies. It was what I did every Thursday night. It is how I first saw The Best Years.

Recently, I caught it on TCM, and I stongly agree, this is a terrific film, but what I most wish to say is that Teresa Wright is simply captivating to me. I watched it thinking, what else has she been in besides this and Pride of the Yankees? So, Darren, we share a common classic celebrity crush.


"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." - Groucho Marx

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Marvelous film, Darren. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Sarah has, of course, seen it multiple times, but it took this discussion to spur my own viewing.

I've been thinking about how to address something, but I don't know how to finesse it. Let me just put it in the form of a question:

Is this an anti-war movie? Also, and I direct this question to Darren, although others can/should chime in, how does your view of the Iraq War affect your perception of this film? Specifically, this film is amazing in that it allows, I think, someone who's generally anti-war to sit through it and not feel violated or coerced into thinking he/she is fundamentally wrong about war in general, or WWII specifically. Still, there is one scene in which a character gives voice to anti-war sentiments, and he pays for his opinion by getting his lights punched out--so maybe being "anti-WWII" is still off-limits?

Another concern: infidelity. What did everyone make of Wright's declaration that she was going to "break that marriage up!"? I was stunned. Did this not run afoul of the Production Code, or the Legion of Decency? The marital status of the male character in question has changed by the final scenes of the film, but not before then -- making this entire sub-plot rather risque for a film from this era, no?

A bit of fun: I recommended this movie to a co-worker, and she sent along this list of visual gaffes, compiled, I think, on IMDB:

Goofs for

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Boom mike visible: Reflected on the car on the left side of the screen, when Fred kisses Peggy.

Factual errors: Fredric March's name is misspelled as "Frederic" March in

the closing credits.

Crew or equipment visible: When Peggy and Marie are in the ladies room at

the restaurant, the cameraman's left arm is visible in one of the mirrors.

--Really, Darren. If you're going to laud Toland, you need to point out these blatant problems! wink.gif


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Sorry I don't have the time to put together an answer worthy of your question, Christian, but here's the short version: Best Years supports, I think, the notion that some wars are more "just" than others. And it also shows that, regardless of its just-ness, every war wounds its participants.

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And it also shows that, regardless of its just-ness, every war wounds its participants.

Good statement here. And even in the most just of wars, those lingering wounds are not so fairly distributed. For the first time in decades, I recall the father of an old girlfriend from about thirty years ago. I never met him, he had long since been convalesced because of an addiction to morphine due to overdoses on the battlefield while waiting to be evacuated because of wounds, in Korea. He came home practically addicted to anything and never really got clean.


"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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So grateful to whomever nominated this for the Top 100 (gonna go out on a limb and say Darren, maybe?).  Hadn't watched this since 2005, and it impresses me profoundly.  If you've not seen this before, please make an effort to see it before voting.  I know it's almost 3 hours long, but hey, it's free on YouTube.  But this film absolutely earns a spot on the Top 100.  What's to love:

- Its honest portrayal of marriage(s).  The relationship between Homer and Wilma alone earns it the "spiritually significant" moniker, and I would argue is a parallel for the love between Cecile de France and the kid in Kid with a Bike.  But we get four adult committed relationships shown in all their complexity, beauty, and ugliness.  With the higher amount of expressed emotion and turbulence among Fred, Peggy, Marie, Homer, and Wilma, it's easy to overlook Al and Milly's relationship and its beautiful portrayal of seasoned, eyes wide open love and affection.

- The framing of characters within scenes reminds me of some of Kurosawa's best work.  The scene where Fred phones Peggy while at Butch's gives us three scenes in one, with crucially important action occurring close-up, mid-range, and far away.  Likewise the concluding scene with its 3 levels of activity.

- While the first point above is an example of humanism at its finest, the film is also honest about the anti-humanism implicit in the status quo.  We see this from the very first scene, when the airman returning from combat can't catch a flight, but the well-dressed businessman with his golf clubs has everything handed to him.  Despite the community's lip service to patriotism, we see the real deal in the "money talks" activity at the bank and drugstore.  Some may see the scene of Fred strolling among the castoff airplane junk near the end as too on-the-nose, but I found it quite powerful and effective.  For the time, this strikes me as subversive as hell and ruthlessly honest.

- Wyler clearly strove to show a cross-section of post-war Americana, with the upper class Stephenson family, the middle class Parrishes, and the poverty level Derrys.  And what a brave portrayal of the wounds of war both visible and invisible.

Along with the Dardennes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, this ranks for me as one of the great (re)discoveries of the Top 100 process.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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