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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1940s

Top 10:

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941)
Are we simply the sum of other people's recollections of us after we're gone? Does anyone, no matter how close, ever truly know what lurks in the heart of another? Exploring a newspaper baron's life and his near-manic quest for love, Citizen Kane confronts these questions and innumerable others (most famously the man's enigmatic last word), boldly examining the subjectivity of memory and the fallibility of trying to boil the essence of a person's life down to an engaging newsreel biopic. Technically peerless, especially in Gregg Toland's inventive use of deep-focus photography, Kane is a richly detailed, powerfully assured masterpiece.
2. The Third Man (Carol Reed, UK, 1949)
From Anton Karas' unforgettable, zither-dominated score to Robert Krasker's luminously elegant photography, The Third Man is a technical marvel. The less-than-tricky mystery of the plot (What happened to Harry Lime?) is excusable given the deeper issues of Four Powers, post-war Vienna, a drawn-and-quartered, modern-day Babel that was ground zero for simmering Cold War tensions. Orson Welles, despite having hardly any screen time, shines as the enigmatic Lime, and the climatic chase in the sewers beneath the city remains one of the most memorable catch-me-if-you-can sequences in film history.
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, USA, 1948)
Huston's tough-minded meditation on fate, greed and betrayal is a morality tale with a wonderful twist at the end: laughter in the face of adversity. What could have been a much darker dénouement instead becomes an ironic raised flagon toasting the capriciousness of life. Humphrey Bogart's rarely been better than he was as the unstable Fred C. Dobbs, but it's Huston's father, Walter, as the grizzled, wryly pragmatic prospector, who owns this film.
4. The Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, France, 1945)
Secretly filmed over a two-year period during the German occupation, Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis is a distinctly French creation. It's existential, melodramatic, nihilistic, and philosophical, bursting with romantically pregnant dialogue and intense, barely guarded emotions. Ultimately, this historical drama (set in 19th century Paris) is about freedom, be it of the artistic, sexual or intellectual variety. The conspicuously unresolved ending echoes the difficult circumstances under which the film was created, but don't let that distract you from this powerful work.
5. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, USA, 1946)
No good deed seemingly goes unpunished in this hard-eyed examination of George Bailey, a man who's self-sacrificing to the point of suicidal meltdown. Jimmy Stewart gives one of his finest performances as the do-gooder who continuously gets dumped on until all hope seems lost. Alas, Capra would never go so far as to push his hero off a bridge to his doom, and so we get the ultra-schmaltzy "Auld Lang Syne" sing-along happy ending. Paradoxically cynical yet near fatally optimistic, It's A Wonderful Life is an absorbing look at the dark side of human nature as it relates to being a good neighbor in small-town America.
6. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1943)
Hitchcock studies the nature of good and evil with his trademark fierce insight and biting wit. Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are superb as the affable Uncle Charlie and the inquisitive niece who shares his name, if not his sociopathic bearing. Shadow of Doubt lays all its cards on the table early on, yet never feels obvious or contrived. Instead, it derives its power from the forthrightness of its characters and situations, exposing how most people would rather see the inherent good in others rather than acknowledge the diabolical monsters lurking uncomfortably close to the surface.
7. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)
This classic hot-and-bothered screwball comedy explores sexual tension with a wink and a tug the censorship board clearly missed (or simply chose to overlook). Henry Fonda's inexperienced, egghead heir to a brewery fortune contrasts marvelously with Barbara Stanwyck's calculating, predatory con artist. Great dialogue, a surprising plot twist (or three) and well-timed pratfalls add up to one of the smartest romantic comedies ever made.
8. A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
Rarely has the romantic notion that love is stronger than death been so creatively applied as it is in this fanciful and metaphysically restless Powell and Pressburger masterpiece. David Niven plays a wartime RAF pilot who should have died but doesn't, and is subsequently put on trial by the forces that govern the universe. His sole defense that he should go on living: He's fallen for an American gal in the interim. Fantastically bent but logically grounded, Life and Death entertains and enlightens, seamlessly melding cosmic and intimate moments in startlingly original and vibrant ways.
9. Open City (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1945)
Rossellini worked on Open City during the Nazi occupation of Rome, which only adds to the film's intense realism. In telling the tale of doomed resistance fighters, Rossellini manages to infuse an explosively dramatic setting with understated candor and warm humanity. The deaths in Open City never feel cheap; these people died fighting for something they believed in, and were vindicated when liberation finally arrived.
10. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, USA, 1946)

Excellently paced and acted examination of three soldiers returning home and adjusting to post-war life. Dealing with harsh truths, from a seaman who lost his hands during an explosion to a high-flying bomber pilot whose only talent back home is as a soda jerk, Best Years unflinchingly exposes the dark side of coming home to a world that has changed dramatically in the interim.

Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
  • The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, USA, 1946) The Byzantine plot remains impenetrable, but that's okay, because it's the smoldering chemistry between Bogart and Bacall that drives this most famous of Philip Marlowe detective yarns. Party girls, pornography, drugs, gambling and trigger-happy henchmen abound, with hardly any time to pass judgment on the lot of morally questionable participants. Big Sleep isn't worried about righting wrongs so much as it wants the viewer to vicariously wallow in the sleaze of mid-forties L.A.
  • Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) What it lacks in complexity and character depth, Casablanca sufficiently makes up for in terms of sheer charisma and megawatt star power. It looks great, and the lines (though hokey in spots -- and do we really need "Here's looking at you, kid" repeated ad nauseum?) are imminently quotable. Casablanca is a classic that offers more style than substance -- but what a style it is.
  • Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944) Great film noir, in which Fred MacMurray's weak-willed insurance agent meets more than his match in the form of Barbara Stanwyck's classic, ankle-bracelet-wearing femme fatale. Edward G. Robinson's insurance fraud investigator Barton Keyes steals the show, bringing a bloodhound-sniffing doggedness to his work that, naturally, mucks up the works for the two leads. Wonderfully acted and paced, Indemnity is an insightful validation of why women are truly the stronger sex.
  • Fantasia (Various Walt Disney animators, USA, 1940) The great thing about Fantasia is that you could excise Deems Taylor's chatty introductions to each segment and still understand what's happening. Such is the superb storytelling of Disney and his immensely gifted staff, working in perfect concert with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra (as conducted by the legendary Leopold Stokowski). Innovative and striking, Fantasia is an imaginatively wondrous feat, perhaps Disney's greatest artistic achievement.
  • The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1940) Chaplin's eerily prescient lampooning of the global ambitions of Hitler is poorly paced, allows too many of its sight gags to run overlong, and suffers from uneven acting. There are two scenes, however, that elevate the film from moderate success to cinematic triumph: Chaplin as dictator Adenoid Hynkel playing with an oversized balloon resembling the world and, later, Chaplin as a gentle Jewish barber (and Hynkel-look-alike) giving an impassioned speech for liberty and tolerance. The speech is pure propaganda, but it's a message of hope and peace that Europe and the rest of the world would dearly cling to in the ensuing years.
  • Henry V (Laurence Olivier, UK, 1944) Clever use of play-within-a-film, film-within-a-play, and back-again structure enlivens Olivier's adaptation of the Bard's renowned historical play. The set design, like an elaborate medieval tapestry, draws us into the tale. Though it may have been a propaganda work to bolster British spirits during the dark days of World War II, Henry V speaks to the human cost war cruelly extracts from its participants, both on the battlefield and on the homestead.
  • His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, USA, 1940) Sure, this film is known for its battle of the sexes reworking of The Front Page, but even more fascinating is its assaults on the death penalty and the ruthlessness of the press to get a story out by any means necessary, and its sympathy for a condemned man who just wants to sleep -- though not necessarily the Big Sleep.
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1943) Powell and Pressburger regular Roger Livesey gives the performance of his career as the Blimp-like professional soldier Clive Candy, a well-born but restless adventurer who believes in the gentlemanly rules of war. From the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century to World War II, when he's been put out to pasture, Candy stubbornly resists change even in the fading twilight of life. Blimp is a satirical yet fond look at men who fought with honor in a time before mechanized killing machines and mustard gas changed the rules of conflict.
  • The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941) The idea that greed will eat itself (and with rotund Sidney Greenstreet in the cast, that's quite an appetite) is masterfully explored in Huston's impressive directorial debut. Falcon is not only a great film, but it kicked off an entire genre as well. Bogart's Sam Spade is cynical but noble, the paradigmatic film noir private dick: always with an ace up his sleeve, no matter how dire the circumstances.
  • Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, USA, 1947) Miracle overcomes its sizeable schmaltz factor with smart observations on commercialism and faith. Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle is more Christ-like figure than Santa Claus, which makes him tough to swallow -- although he fares considerably better at his trial. Key line: "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." Miracle on 34th Street traffics in blind faith and the spirit of goodwill as well as any film from the period.
  • Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946) Claude Rains' doomed romantic dupe is the main reason to watch. The camera angles are inventive and the leads ideal, but the film is too lacking in Hitchcock's darker psychological aspects to rate as one of his very best.
  • Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1947) Truly the quintessential film noir: Brisk dialogue; lethal femme fatale; flawed but fundamentally decent anti-hero; crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses; stark, black and white photography; a suitably bleak ending. Out of the Past adheres to all the conventions of classic '40s noir, executing them as well as, or better than, any film the genre has produced.
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, USA, 1943) The too-easy "honorable" suicide of Major Tetley is the only weak element of this compact, astonishingly effective look at the seductive lure of, and moral danger inherent in, mob violence. Director Wellman is less interested in the Old West trappings as he is in examining the conscience of community and how standing up for what's right isn't always the easiest or wisest thing one can do. Incident is one of the greatest "Ugly Truth" films to ever come out of Hollywood.
  • The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948) Gloriously melodramatic (yes, melodrama can work, if properly handled), Red Shoes may be the ultimate "dying for one's art" movie. The ballet sequences are stunning, the Technicolor spectacular, and the music sublime. In making no apologies for its unabashedly hyper-romanticized take on art, death and the messiness of life, the talented tandem of Powell and Pressburger serve up a post-war masterpiece.
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) This shamelessly inaccurate but incredibly entertaining story of legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan's life is pure Second World War propaganda. And it's one of the best of that genre, with James Cagney pulling out all the stops as the famed entertainer -- from straight-legged dance moves to highly idealized examples of Cohan's patriotism (such as his attempt to sign up for the First World War at age 39). Yankee Doodle Dandy spoon-feeds us can-do Americanism, but it does so with a heart of gold.
Special Mention:
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

Many critics and film buffs claim that Ambersons is a finer film than Welles' Citizen Kane. Nonsense. Kane benefited from Welles' complete participation, from pre-production to post. Due to hatchet-job editing by the studio (Welles was in South America to film a documentary at the time), Ambersons is a brilliant but frustratingly incomplete work. If only the excised footage exists somewhere, besides the bottom of the Pacific or in the belly of a fiery furnace, as various reports have claimed. A fully restored Ambersons, presented in its proper narrative order and with the original, less-upbeat ending Welles intended, might indeed rank near or at the top of his landmark cinematic achievements.

How Could You Have Overlooked...
  • The Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thieves) (Vittorio De Sica, Italy, 1948) This downbeat examination of the poor and unemployed in postwar Italy is a curious mix of melodrama and stark realism. While unquestionably an important film in the development of neorealism, The Bicycle Thief lacks psychological depth in its characterizations and goes for the obvious honest-man-turns-dishonorable plot turn.
  • Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945) Possesses both wonderful photography and solid lead performances. But Noel Coward's dialogue is a bit hyper-romanticized for the starkly realistic world the story inhabits.
Outstanding Actors:
Humphrey Bogart - Key films: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944) The Big Sleep (1946) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)   Teresa Wright - Key films: The Little Foxes (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Outstanding Directors:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - Key films: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Black Narcissus (1947) The Red Shoes (1948)

Much thanks to for having scans of many of these posters online:

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