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A hundred times better than "Citizen Kane": Myrna Loy and Fredric March in "The Best Years of our Lives"

I have occasionally spotted in the television schedules a programme called I've Never Seen Star Wars. I've never seen this programme, but as I have never seen Star Wars either I have always felt it must be one that I should try. The American cinema has never held much appeal for me, perhaps because one has to go a long way to avoid it, American cultural imperialism being what it is. For the pleasure of his prose I read Anthony Lane's reviews of its films in the New Yorker, but he rarely tempts me to part with my money or to sacrifice an evening that could otherwise be spent with a book. A visit to an American film is so often a disappointment, not least because of the assumptions that appear to have been made about the audience's intelligence, and the reliance on special effects and sensationalism.

To experience the real genius of the US cinema one needs to explore the quarter-century between the early 1930s and the late 1950s, roughly from the time of the searing I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Giant, the latter being, whatever else you are told, the only great film James Dean ever made. The films from this period have great style — not just in the superficial sense of the costumes and settings, but above all in the thoughtful, literate scripts and the atmosphere they help create. This is the golden age of film noir, of subtle tough guys like Bogey, Dana Andrews and Fred MacMurray, and of smouldering actresses in the league of Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner and Gene Tierney. Tierney made some particularly stunning films that specialised in taking normal American life in a new age of prosperity and twisting it violently — Laura, Leave Her to Heaven and Whirlpool being exceptional in that respect.

It is traditional for anyone surveying the films of this era — or, indeed, American films of any era — to mark out Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as the pinnacles of achievement. I don't dispute that Orson Welles had something special, but I have never quite seen either of his supposed masterpieces as compelling entertainment as opposed to tours de force of innovation and experimentalism. But then it has to be explained to me why certain of our contemporary classical composers define what they write as music, or indeed bother to do so, so perhaps this is a deficiency in me. I can see Welles's genius; and I do admire the way in which he avoids the vice of hyperbole, present in so much at the bottom end of American film-making in the 1940s. Anyone who has had the misfortune to see Errol Flynn's worst film, the travesty Objective Burma, will know what I mean. Depicting the so-called American victory in Burma-a theatre where British troops fought and died amid terrible conditions-it could not be shown for years after the war here because of the feared reaction by ex-servicemen.

Yet it is a film about the war — or rather, the effects of war — that remains the finest American film I have ever seen. William Wyler's The Best Years of our Lives, released in 1946, depicts the return home to a middle American town (the location shots were filmed in Cincinnati, Ohio) of three US servicemen. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, a sergeant in the army who was a bank executive and who resumes his old life in an even more senior position, and who lives on the smart side of town in a swish apartment with his wife (Myrna Loy) and almost grown-up children. Dana Andrews is Fred Derry, a soda jerk before the war who has gone up in the world, been commissioned and highly decorated for his heroism in the airforce; but the outstanding performance, in more ways than one, is by Harold Russell, who plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk in the Pacific. Russell had been an army instructor and was making a training film in 1944 when a fuse detonated and blew off both his hands. He was not a professional actor. Wyler gave him the role because he wanted absolute realism. The film won nine of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated, and Russell became the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role: so overwhelming was his achievement in bringing to bear such humanity in his performance that the Academy gave him an extraordinary award for "bringing hope and courage for his fellow veterans".

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