Ah, the 1940s. When films got less joyous and a lot more dark. The movies in the 1930s were made more for escapism and very rarely actually showed the harshness of reality. Well, the 1940s changed that entirely. Films were much more dark, cynical, and real. There were tons of World War II films. Of course the second world war was the main focus on everyone’s mind during the time. Running almost half the decade, a lot of the top actors like James Stewart and Henry Fonda had to leave their current jobs to fight or be part of the war in some way. Even some of the top working directors like Howard Hawks and Orson Welles left the country to shoot war propaganda films and documentaries. A lot of European countries couldn’t even make films during this time, and if they did, than it was a major achievement. The Italians, for example, created great films during this decade that showed the harsh reality and affect the war had on their people. These films were part of the Italian “neorealism” movement, and changed the game for how films could look. These films, even though were fictional stories with written scripts, were filmed on location, set amongst the poor and working class, frequently using non-professional actors, and sometimes took place while the war was still going on! The war was a devastating event for the world at the time don’t get me wrong, but it sure helped step up the game for how film could be made and look.
A genre that was extremely popular in America because of World War II was film noir. The genre reflected the way Hollywood felt as it faced its greatest challenges during the war and post-war periods: darker and more cynical. All the films had a sense of disorientation, confusion, and distrust. A feeling of being trapped in a nightmarish world you can’t get out of. It literally meant “black film,” coined by the French in 1946 when they discovered American films. Common themes of noir films were violence, lust, greed, betrayal, and moral corruption. Characters often drifted through fog and smoke, and there was always a sexy femme fatale type who couldn’t be trusted that lured the main character into dangerous situations. According to Roger Ebert, “Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past.” They often were told non-linearly and dove deep into the consciousness and moral of the main characters. I think it’s safe to say I’ll have quite a few film noirs on my list.
Other key events in the 1940s include: Orson Welles’ release of Citizen Kane in 1941; the release of Casablanca in the very next year in 1942; the first blue screen effect in The Thief of Baghdad; The formation of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, formed in 1941, laying the groundwork for independently made cinema in America; the birth of Bugs Bunny; the release of three consecutive landmarks in animated cinema with Disney’s Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi; and the MPPDA changing to MPAA with Will H. Hays stepping down as president of the Motion Picture Production Code. American filmmakers still weren’t able to show anything they wanted in their films, but had more freedom than in the previous decade.
Just like my previous list of the best movies of the 1930s, I will include films that I feel like have stood the test of time, are considered some of the greatest movies of all time, and I really appreciate personally. This is my list so it may not be completely accurate as far as pure greatness, but what list really is? Film is a subjective art form so I think that’s fine. Ok, now on to the list…
Honorable Mentions – Mildred Pierce, Gilda, Cat People, Stray Dog, Laura, Adam’s Rib, The Grapes of Wrath, White Heat
25. Pinocchio (1940)
Why? This is a classic Disney film that was one of my favorites when I was a kid. It has lovable characters like Jiminy Cricket and Geppetto, one of the best Disney songs of all time in “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but also some of the scariest scenes you’ll ever see in a children’s film. Whether it was the children turning into donkeys in Pleasure Island or Pinocchio trying to escape from the infamous Monstro the whale, there were definitely some scenes that caused my stomach to turn at times, even today. But probably the greatest thing about this film is the animation. Watch that scene again with Pinocchio and the whale, and remember that it is all hand-drawn. Every bubble.
Fun Fact: Jiminy Cricket required 27 different colors to draw. That just proves how detailed and hardworking the animators were at that time.
24. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Why? Writer/director Preston Sturges’ first masterpiece. It’s a film written by a director who directs a film about a director. The film is meant to showcase the harsh reality of the world in a comedic/escapist tone, but the director in the film wants to make a film about the harsh reality of the world that steers away from “escapist” and more towards “reality.” Yes, Sturges was a genius.
Another great Preston Sturges comedy is The Lady Eve.
Fun Fact: The Coen Brothers are huge fans of this film. They named their film O Brother, Where Art Thou? after this movie. The movie that the main character of Sullivan’s Travels set out to make in the film was going to be named O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
23. The Lost Weekend (1945)
Why? A dark and heartbreaking story about the desperate life of a chronic alcoholic through a four-day drinking bout. Brilliantly shot and directed by Billy Wilder. This just might be his most under-appreciated masterpiece. It won Best Picture, but little people are talking about it today compared to a lot of his other films. I think it still holds up extremely well today.
Fun Fact: To prepare for the part, Ray Milland spent one night in Bellevue Hospital as a patient. He also stopped eating as much, as most alcoholics forget to do so. Upon completion, Billy Wilder confidently predicted that Ray Milland would win an Oscar for his performance. He was right.
22. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Why? Because it combines screw-ball comedy, horror, and crime thriller all in one wacky film; and Cary Grant has never been funnier.
Fun Fact: Cary Grant considered his acting in this film to be horribly over the top and often called it his least favorite of all his movies.
21. Red River (1948)
Why? Red River, aka the cattle movie, was Howard Hawk’s first western and boy was it a doozy. I love these older westerns because everything you see happen on-screen is actually really happening. No CGI. Actors are really riding horses, firing weapons, and moving cattle. The cattle stampede sequence is epic. This film has action, romance, humor, and pretty much everything else you want in a motion picture. The music is great and the lead performances are top-notch. Even John Wayne gives a great performance, which surprised a lot of people at the time, including his directing pal John Ford, which leads me to my fact…
Fun Fact: After seeing John Wayne’s performance in the film, John Ford is quoted as saying, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” This led to Ford casting Wayne in more complex roles in films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.
20. Brief Encounter (1945)
Why? Before David Lean was making epic war films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia he made this smaller, more intimate romantic drama. This British masterpiece about a man and a woman both committing adultery has incredible visuals, a haunting score, and one of the best female lead performances I’ve seen from actress Celia Johnson. The vulnerability she shows in her performance is what takes the film to new and ground breaking heights.
Fun Fact: According to several Billy Wilder biographies, the scene in this film where Alec tries to use a friend’s apartment in order to be alone with Laura inspired Wilder to write The Apartment.
19. Out of the Past (1947)
Why? Because it just doesn’t get much cooler than Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoking cigarette smoke at each other….This is one of the best film noir of all time. If you’ve never seen a classic film noir, than just watch this movie. It has all the classic film noir tropes you’ll need to have a good time.
Fun Fact: Robert Mitchum told Roger Ebert he smoked so much, that when the camera was rolling on this film and Kirk Douglas offered him a pack and asked, “Cigarette?”, Mitchum, realizing he’d carried a cigarette into the scene, held up his fingers and replied, “Smoking.” His improvisation saved the take, and they kept it in the movie.
18. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Why? This is one of the best musicals of all time. It taught me the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and it’s never good to run away from your problems. Sometimes people overlook how wonderful their life already is and just think about the bad things in their situation. It doesn’t get much better than being in your hometown with your family and friends.
Fun Fact: The Christmas classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written for this movie and first performed by Judy Garland herself in my favorite scene in the movie. This is also the first time Judy Garland met director Vincente Minnelli where they would end up getting married. In 1946, they also welcomed a daughter — Liza Minnelli, who would go on to become a star in her own right.
17. Notorious (1946)
Why? One of Hitchcock’s most expertly crafted films. His camera movements, blocking, and depth of field rival some of Orson Welles’ best work. It’s about a woman (played by Ingrid Bergman), whose father was a convicted Nazi spy, and is tasked to spy on a group of Nazis spies who were close to her father. The story is very riveting, especially the second half of the film, and the cast is superb. Bergman is a standout and Rains gives a very underrated performance portraying a very underrated villain.
Other great 40s Hitchcock films: Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca
Fun Fact: After filming had ended, Cary Grant kept the famous UNICA key. A few years later he gave the key to his great friend and co-star Ingrid Bergman, saying that the key had given him luck and hoped it would do the same for her. Decades later, at a tribute to their director Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman went off-script and presented the key to him, to his surprise and delight.
16. Double Indemnity (1944)
Why? Using “Hitchcockian” like suspense, German Expressionism induced visuals, and career-best performances by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, Billy Wilder managed to craft a film that not only defines the genre of film noir but American cinema at its finest. These are the film noir tropes that Double Indemnity helped to define: dangerous/seductive femme fatale; voice-over narration told in flashbacks; shadow/low-key lighting to provoke tone; and husband/wife knocking off spouse to gain power.
Fun Fact: The scene where Neff and Dietrichson can’t get their car started after the murder was added by Billy Wilder after his car wouldn’t start at the end of a shooting day.
15. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Why? Simple but powerful. It’s about a poor and desperate man and his son who look for a stolen bicycle that the man needs to maintain his job. It represents the hopelessness and despair of post-war Italy while also telling a simple story of a father and son. The ending is tragic, but perfect. Just like all great endings it can be interpreted in multiple ways. It just blows my mind how these Italian neorealism directors were able to create such great films with such little resources. I understand they weren’t as poor as the characters they were filming but still very impressive. Director, Vittorio De Sica, used only non-professional actors for his film. Watching this, you would have no idea. Everyone is incredible.
Another great Italian neorealism film is Rome, Open City directed by Roberto Rossellini.
Fun Fact: There’s a scene later in the movie where Bruno (the son) is nearly run over twice whilst crossing the street. This was absolutely unrehearsed – it was filmed on location and the two cars happened to pass by at that time.
14. The Great Dictator (1940)
Why? This film is perfect. It’s one of Chaplin’s darkest film, but still very funny, intelligent, heartening, and hopeful. He plays two different characters, one a Jewish barber, and the other a notorious dictator who resembles someone very familiar. Financed entirely out of Chaplin’s pocket, it was amazing that he was able to pull off making and releasing this film, especially in 1940 when the War was still going on, and Germany was still very much in power.
Fun Fact: Adolf Hitler banned the film in Germany and in all countries occupied by the Nazis. Curiosity got the best of him, and he had a print brought in through Portugal. History records that he screened it twice, in private, but history did not record his reaction to the film. Charles Chaplin said, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.” For political reasons in Germany, the ban stayed after the end of WWII until 1958.
13. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Why? The film that broke out Humphrey Bogart into mega-stardom, while also introducing the great John Huston as a director, and being a stepping stone for film noir as a genre in American culture. A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless falcon-shaped statuette. In a way, the falcon symbolizes a lot of what “the ring” symbolizes in the Lord of the Rings franchise. Obsessiveness, deception, and bringing out the worst in someone for greed and self-empowerment.
Fun Fact: In 2013, the original falcon statue used for the film was sold in an auction for 4 million dollars. It ranks with the most expensive pieces of movie and TV memorabilia ever sold at auction, trailing the original Batmobile from the 1960s TV show, which sold for $4.6 million, and the Aston Martin driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger, which sold for $4.1 million. But those are both cars!!!
12. Black Narcissus (1947)
Why? A great British film directed and written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka the Archers. Five nuns encounter conflict and tension after being transferred to a remote location in the Himalayas, as they attempt to adapt to their remote, exotic surroundings.
What’s that common phrase? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. It’s the unattainable urge to always want what we can’t have. In Black Narcissus this is what gnaws at the brain of the two main characters of Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. Lust is the central theme here, and it is this sin that is extremely dangerous of destroying their entire lives and everything they believe in. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the plot gets darker and more possessive as it slowly moves a long.
Fun Fact: The much admired Himalayan scenery was all created in the studio (with glass shots and hanging miniatures).
11. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)
Why? John Huston and Bogart team up once again for what might be their greatest collaboration. I think it was very cool that Huston hired his father, Walter Huston, to play one of the lead characters. They both won an Academy Award, becoming the first father-son pair to do so in the same year. The film was shot in the US and Mexico, becoming one of the first American films to be shot outside the US. The film really holds up to this day, and brilliantly shows the effect that greed can have on people and how it can change them.
Fun Fact: John Huston stated that working with his father on this picture, and his dad’s subsequent Oscar win were among the favorite moments of his life.