The Little Foxes ★★★★★

*SOME SPOILERS*

We need to go beyond the canon. The established canon. The regimented canon. The Empire canon of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Alien, Aliens, peak era Spielberg, Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption and a handful of headline old movies: Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Metropolis. The Sight and Sound canon that centres on Vertigo, Ikiru and – for some reason that I can’t quite fathom – suddenly Man with a Movie Camera. The Cahiers canon, lauding Godard and Truffaut’s pet films, from underwhelming sex Westerns like Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar, to selected Hawks films and the lesser work of Frank Tashlin.

Between the monoliths and the re-evaluated misfires lie films every bit as good: forgotten, neglected, still classic. In terms of American films of the 1940s, Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon are great films, but they’re not the only films. It’s in the cracks beneath these landmarks that you’ll find many of the most interesting – ironically, the most memorable – movies of the period. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Nightmare Alley. Remember the Night. Ball of Fire. Hail the Conquering Hero. Broadway Melody of 1940. Films that encapsulate an era, hum with its sense of invention and imagination, spotlight actors like Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck and the unheralded Eddie Bracken, showcase the dialogue of Preston Sturges, the direction of Mitchell Leisen.

The Little Foxes is another masterpiece deserving of rediscovery. I’ve seen very few films better than this over the last five years, and I consider myself an Old Hollywood nerd; yet until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of it. As far as I can see, it’s never had a UK DVD release. But look at its credentials: produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by William Wyler (whose career is bizarrely overlooked nowadays, aside from the abysmal Ben-Hur remake, probably the worst film he made), based on a play by Southern Gothic commie playwright extraordinaire Lillian Hellman, shot by the incomparable Gregg Toland, and featuring one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, with juicy roles for shimmering stars and weighty character players alike.

It’s a caustic, troubling, profound examination of a Southern family brought low – or high and to prominence, depending on how you view it – by a sea of moral dissolution. Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid play brothers who want to invest in a new mill, paying low wages to dirt poor labourers. To do it, they need the support of their brother-in-law, bank president Herbert Marshall, and so enlist the help of his wife (Bette Davis) to swing the deal. Meanwhile, radical journalist Richard Carlson battles Davis for the soul of her daughter (Teresa Wright), a kind but naïve, weak-spirited young woman, Reid’s neurotic wife (Patricia Collinge) drinks herself into oblivion and their son Leo (Dan Duryea) becomes a willing pawn in the scheme to land the mill.

There’s only one film I’ve ever seen that has the same atmosphere of rotting wealth and moral corruption, the same richly-textured cinematography – an endless supply of apposite, entrancing, artistic, thoughtful and beguiling shots – and that’s Orson Welles’ butchered masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons. I don’t really subscribe to that “one perfect shot” phenomenon, since cinema is movement, but there are Toland images here that I could happily freeze and hang up above the fire, especially that stunning shot of Duryea reflected in the sign outside his uncle’s bank. Somehow, the acting is every bit as accomplished, with Dingle given a rare chance to command a scene, and taking it (despite a certain repetitiousness in his line readings), Collinge extremely moving in a potentially cliched part, Marshall a touch uncertain with his accent but unquestionably magnificent – attaining that dramatic potency he only ever reached with this director – and Davis playing a tricky part with consummate ease, balancing restraint, malevolence and burgeoning triumphalism with unapproachable skill.

Movies are a collaborative medium, but the disparate parts, the collision of massive, swaggering talents with egos to match, rarely creates anything as seamless, as measured, as potent as The Little Foxes. Nor did ‘40s Hollywood – despite being my favourite area of film – tend to produce films this grown-up, intelligent and uncompromising. It is not an easy film, a happy film, an escapist film, but it is utterly dazzling: a seductive assault on the senses, a vicious assault on its meeker characters, and ultimately an indictment of an entire nation. Hellman’s politics run through it like words through a stick of rock: you can see why she ended up getting blacklisted at the end of the decade.

You could argue that the film’s delineation between good and evil is rather simplistic for a work aspiring to high art, but it’s that heightened sensibility that gives it much of its haunting power, particularly as the vultures gather and you realise that Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath.