"The Best Years of Our Lives." (Leicester Square.)
THREE hours is a long time to spend watching a film. The pro- cession of images, the never-quiet sound track, gradually ,anaesthetise the senses. If it starts badly then the cinema becomes a chamber of most subtle torture. Thus the odds are all against The Best Years of Our Lives. As if this were not enough, it also tells a story of the utmost banality. And all the minor characters have not been pro- perly fitted into the scheme. And the music composer, dreaming of some other subject, has drenched the track with great waves of un- necessary sound. These handicaps do not prevent The Best Years of Our Lives from being consistently absorbing.
The plot concerns the fortunes of three American ex-Service-men who return home after years abroad. One, a sailor, has lost both his hands, and his problem is to adjust himself to his family circle and their reactions to the steel hooks which he wields with such skill. Another, a dashing airman, returns to the wife whom he knew
only for a few weeks and whose idea of the good life does not fit in with his earnings as an assistant in a drug-store. The third, a soldier, has no problem except a natural day or two's difficulty in getting used to being with his charming family and being vice- president of a local bank. The film's achievement is that it puts America on the screen. Here is the whole life of a medium-sized American town laid out before us. All the bits and pieces we have glimpsed in other films, all those aspects that have been over- emphasised, fall naturally into place. At the end of the film it is as though one had been to Boone City and met its people and stayed with them for a while; eaten the fantastic confections of ice-cream in a local drug-store, tried to raise an overdraft in its palatial bank or stopped for a drink in one of its bars.
This happy result is entirely due to the fact that, apart from the mattef of the music, The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the most excellently made films to come from Hollywood for a long time. It certainly is not a landmark in the development of film technique, but it is a superb piece of craftsmanship. Wyler's direction is uncanny in its surface understanding of people, and uncanny too in its easy skill and apparent lack of effort. Here are no actors straining to hit their chalk-marks, but ordinary people going about their lives. In this he is helped by Robert Sherwood's easy and experienced dialogue, which also strains after no effect other than that of making you feel that the characters are not trying to remember the lines of a bulky script. Gregg Tolland's photography has, for once, no mannerisms, but is good, solid black and white. Particularly good are the set-dressings. Here are small rooms that people have lived in, not the tidy, deserted halls we usually see. The editing is certainly a little arbitrary, but there are probably vast sequences left on the cutting-room floor. All the principal actors are flawless as long as the script allows them to be natural ; on the occasions when it fails them they rise nobly to the occasion and use their great technical experience to get them through. Myrna Loy has most to contend with, as it isn't really her sort of party ; but she is no beginner, and her infinite tact plus a faintly worried look keeps her above water. The minor characters are all terrible because nobody has bothered about them, but as it is their manners that provide a large part of the interest this is not important. In case you should think that this film sounds as though it were more for the anthropologist or Mass Observer than the normal audience, I must make it quite clear that it is about a nice, human and understandable group of people. It would be an excellent thing if we and other countries could show ourselves to the world