Home > Movies, Reviews (Movies) > [Review] The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

[Review] The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

Originally published 5 May 2012

Being “moved” is one thing. Crying might be another. Happiness, et cetera. But I am convinced that there is a particular physical reaction that can only be provoked by our best friend and our greatest fear — the movies. It is that little wobbly apparatus that lays dormant in your throat until something so pretty, so perfect, and so manufactured flashes in front of you. I rarely feel it. Rarer still is a tear. Though there were no waterworks, I got the Wobble twice in my first viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film directed by William Wyler that addresses civilian readjustment for three soldiers after World War II.

Because the Wobble is so elusive, I am always forced to reconcile it. Impossible is locating a Wobble worthy moment that was not processed, packaged, and delivered precisely for that purpose. Here, there are three noteworthy contributors to the immortality of this film and its undeniable place in any Pantheon. They are Gregg Toland, Hugo Friedhofer, and the performing ensemble.

Toland has been lauded as history’s cinematographer par excellence. His contributions to The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, and Citizen Kane are legendary and when Orson Welles decided to share his title card with Toland, it cemented his status forever. People still talk about how he practically invented the deep-focus lens and pioneered many lighting techniques that would one day congeal into something called “film noir.” I would never doubt the second and I don’t know enough about lens history to argue with the first, but one thing is absolute — he adapted better than anybody else. His career is littered with plenty duds next to a couple spikes of unreachable perfection. Though, even on marginal pictures like Come and Get It, his photography is unmistakable – not for deep focus –  but for the bold contrasts, the intelligent integration of cinematic and emotional mood, and the marvelous employment of natural light whenever possible.

By the time The Best Years of Our Lives rolled around, Toland was secure in his technique. However, his impeccable style and clarity only required slight adjustment to combine brilliantly with William Wyler’s organizational fixation. When Al returns home and so timidly walks into his own home (after ringing the doorbell, no less), he embraces his wife about 20 feet away from the camera, down a long hallway. They are nicely in focus and so are their children standing 5 feet away from the camera. This is to be expected of Toland, but what wasn’t expected was the Wobble. By comparing Toland’s use of deep focus in this film with something like Kane, we begin to notice how his gift wasn’t all in this lens shit, it was in his wisdom of when and how to use it. With Wyler, Toland used the device to synchronize with his organizational instinct and his obsession with neatness. Welles, on the other hand, encouraged deep focus to occupy a component of Kane’s megalomania, to follow him down the barrel of the gun. Same method. Two wildly different results.

Friedhofer’s score epitomizes Hollywood music at the peak of its restrained decadence. So many refer to this idealized style as “invisible” or “mood music,” whatever that means. The truth is, audiences have visceral responses to good musicianship no matter where they hear it. Here, Friedhofer exploits the broad, emotional material by basing most thematic material around a simple, proto-Bernsteinian motive of three notes. We attach ourselves to those three notes and with ample suspension and tension being released at important moments… Wobble. It’s a wonderful piece of music that isn’t invisible, but a prime component to the visual context.

I forgot to look at who casted this film. In all likelihood it was the studio. Whoever was responsible deserves a pat on the back. So many actors and actresses underacting and underactressing in one place is a beautiful sight to behold. Understatement and repression is baseline and their faces can traverse miles of thought in meditation. The performances control the (ec)static nature of the film, the collaboration is so propulsive. They all contribute to The New Wyler Order and tidy up the scenes with restraint. If you don’t pay enough attention, they might fool you into seeing the shadow of Realism, the greatest danger at the Movies. Of course, Wyler needed his Order, his technical and moral exactitude. How else would anything that even tried to question American values sneak past Goldwyn?


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