Best Films of the 1940s
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941)
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
The Third Man (Carol
Reed, UK, 1949)
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.
The Treasure of the Sierra
Madre (John Huston, USA, 1948)
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.
The Children of Paradise
(Marcel Carné, France, 1945)
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.
It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, USA,
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.
Shadow of a Doubt
(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1943)
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.
The Lady Eve (Preston
Sturges, USA, 1941)
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
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.
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.
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.
(Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) What it lacks in complexity and character
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
(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,
is an insightful validation of why women are truly the stronger sex.
(Various Walt Disney animators, USA, 1940) The great thing about
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,
is an imaginatively wondrous feat, perhaps Disney's greatest artistic
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.
(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
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.
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
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.
(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.
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),
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.
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
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.
The Maltese Falcon
(1942), To Have and Have Not
The Big Sleep (1946)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- 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
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)
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