15 Best Films Of The 1940s
With half the decade spent in the midst of a century-defining world war and the other half spent recovering from its horrors, it's understandable that cinema in the 1940s would be a little bit on the dark side. While films explicitly about World War II dominated the early years of the 1940s, they quickly gave way to utterly unique film noir movies. Less a genre and more a series of stylistic elements, these pictures were defined by their seediness, cynicism, and focus on crime that reflected the trauma of filmmakers and audiences alike.
Still, 1940s cinema isn't all dark! The decade actually has a surprising amount of humor, with both satire and romantic comedies proving popular in Hollywood. You can almost feel films from this era negotiating between two powerful emotions: the anguish that the turbulent 1930s and 1940s brought along with them, and the joy that existed in spite of it. Together, these two qualities balance each other out, stopping cynicism from becoming oppressive, but also resisting the urge to descend fully into cotton candy escapism. Here are the best films from that decade.
A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)
A lone pilot (played by David Niven) is flying on a mission in World War II when his plane is hit in "A Matter of Life and Death" (also known as "Stairway to Heaven"). Although he's able to hail an Allied radio operator (June, played by Kim Hunter), he's taken too much damage and has to bail out, doomed to die in the icy waters below. So it's with considerable surprise that he somehow manages to survive, no worse for wear.
He reunites with June, the woman who gave him comfort in what he assumed would be his last few moments on Earth, and they're ready to live happily ever after. That is until we learn that heaven made some sort of clerical error, he was supposed to have died, and they're ready to tie up these pesky loose ends by having him escorted to the afterlife post-haste — unless he can make a case for his own continued survival, of course.
With dreamy imagery and a surprising amount of dry humor, "A Matter of Life and Death" taps into the inherent morbidity of audiences immediately following World War II. At once supernatural and sublimely human, the film presents a unique treatise on life and death that is both philosophical and moving.
Beauty And The Beast (1946)
Truly, the fact that this film even exists is a triumph against adversity. Made mere months after the end of World War II, every frame of footage tells a story of hardship. The set of "Beauty and the Beast" was frequently besieged by looters attempting to get their hands on materials that were still scarce at the time. Still, "Beauty and the Beast," under the careful eye of director Jean Cocteau, has a serene elegance to it. The atmosphere of the castle is hauntingly alive and even seems to breathe at moments.
Cocteau's adaptation of the classic French fairy tale has its own unique flourishes that make it visually compelling, including the decision to have the Beast and her spurned lover Avenant played by the same actor, the immensely talented Jean Marais. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described the film as a "priceless fabric of subtle images ... a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors, of undulating movements and rhythmic pace, of hypnotic sounds and music, of casually congealing ideas."
Ball Of Fire (1941)
A snappy modern interpretation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Ball of Fire" casts Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss, a night club singer who winds up in the home of a group of eccentric scholars, led by the bookish Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). She's lying low after her gangster boyfriend gets in trouble with the law, and he's largely sequestered from society in an effort to avoid distractions while working on a new encyclopedia. They're not an obvious couple, but the sparks fly almost immediately.
Part of the film's charm comes from Gary Cooper playing so hilariously against type, and some of it comes from Stanwyck getting the opportunity to go all in on the jazzy free-spirited character type she was so perfect at playing. The rest probably has to do with the fine-tuned chemistry between the rest of the professors, who bounce off each other like comedy pinballs throughout the movie. Whatever the reason, "Ball of Fire" is a silly, joyous romantic comedy that can't help but win over audiences.
The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
If you're a fan of "You've Got Mail" but just wish people could find love the old-fashioned way without the internet, you're in luck! "The Shop Around the Corner," directed by Ernst Lubitsch, served as inspiration for the 1990s rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Only instead of emailing each other, his lovebirds begin their romance as penpals, initially connected through personal ads in the newspaper. (We know, that is a very old-fashioned sentence.)
What's more, they're actually coworkers at the same small Hungarian shop who can barely conceal their hostility toward one another. They're thoroughly unaware that the person they're falling in love with via snail mail is the same person they snipe with at work. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are a winning pair with impeccable chemistry, but the charms of "The Shop Around the Corner" extend well beyond just its leading couple, with a strong ensemble cast at the titular shop as well.
Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)
"Letter from an Unknown Woman" has all the hallmarks of a romance. A young woman (Joan Fontaine) yearns for the attention of the handsome man (Louis Jourdan) who lives in her apartment building. At first, she's too young for him, and she escapes his notice. But when they meet later in life under different circumstances, there's an instant attraction between the two. Sounds pretty sweet, right? Soulmates meeting at the right place and the right time? Wrong.
"Letter from an Unknown Woman" has its romantic moments, but there's an overwhelming sense of melancholy, even tragedy, that permeates the entire film. Despite the fact that her life has been entirely shaped by her relationship with him, he barely even remembers her when he receives her letter. Don Druker of the Chicago Reader referred to it as "a breathtaking, bitter, exquisitely orchestrated exploration of love and selfishness by Max Ophuls."
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
Of all the films that were released in the immediate aftermath of World War II, "The Best Years of Our Lives" more poignantly captures the difficult situation of soldiers struggling to reintegrate into civilian society than any other. It revolves around the return of three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell, each from different backgrounds and social classes) as they attempt to pick up where they left off in spite of everything they've been through.
March's character Al has a wife and children who have matured and grown self-sufficient in his absence. Despite Fred's (Andrews) record as a war hero, he's unable to find anything but menial, low-paying work. And Homer (Russell) has perhaps the biggest transition to civilian life, having lost both of his hands in an accident. Together and with the help of their loved ones, they find a way to make something of their changed realities, offering sympathy but also hope for all the soldiers coming home from World War II struggling with similar issues.
The Mark Of Zorro (1940)
It really just doesn't get much more charming than Tyrone Power as Don Diego de la Vega in "The Mark of Zorro." An expert swordfighter who has spent years at court in Spain, Diego returns home to his native California to discover that his father has been ousted as Alcalde in favor of the weak-chinned, hopelessly corrupt Quintero. He plays the role of the lazy, yawning Diego with a childlike glee, thoroughly enjoying his bit of playacting as he convinces his enemies of his incompetence.
His performance is as physical as any swashbuckler; he crackles with energy even in scenes when he's playing the dullard, and he gets a few delightful fight sequences in, one with the incomparable Basil Rathbone as his opponent. Rathbone, a famous Hollywood fencer, spoke favorably of Power's abilities with the sword, saying, "Power was the most agile man with a sword I've ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat." It's clear throughout the entire film that Power is having the time of his life, whether he's wooing the beautiful Lolita (Linda Darnell) or robbing the Alcalde and his wife blind.
The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943)
A rather ambitious film, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" explores in detail the life of one military man over the course of three separate wars. It begins against a backdrop of the Boer War from the turn of the 20th century, where Clive Candy is an energetic, cocksure young soldier, and it follows him through his middle age during World War I and the twilight of his life as World War II unfolds. His views on war, life, and love change over the years, even as he himself rails against the very notion of change.
The film itself seems structured to drive home the idea of repetition and routine. Candy is played by Roger Livesey in each era, aided by liberally applied aging makeup (Livesey was only in his mid-30s during the shooting of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"). He is joined by Deborah Kerr, playing a series of doppelgängers who appear throughout his life, and Anton Walbrook, his German counterpart who has run parallel to Candy across the early 20th century, and whose devastating monologue about the rise of fascism is a highlight of the film.
Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)
With a wickedly dark sense of humor, "Kind Hearts and Coronets" speaks to the dangers of thinking too highly of yourself. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is the daughter of the wealthy D'Ascoyne family, whose decision to run off with an opera singer cut her out of the will. As a result, Louis is distantly removed from the family fortune, his only inheritance a tendency toward snobbishness and an inflated sense of his own importance.
But after doing a little bit of math, he realizes that he's only a handful of accidental deaths away from being the next in line for the family fortune and if he can, well, expedite matters in any way, what's the harm in that? One thing leads to another, and he ends up systematically murdering each member of his estranged family, all of whom are played by the extremely game Alec Guinness. Poking fun at the British aristocracy and its rigid class structure, "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is a razor-sharp satire that stands the test of time.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Perhaps one of the purest examples of film noir from this period, "Double Indemnity" stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance adjuster and Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale who draws him into her crimes. Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) is married, although not happily, and she comes up with the plan to have her husband killed in what appears to be a freak train accident, knowing that his insurance plan will pay handsomely if he dies under unusual, unlikely circumstances.
The two plot to carry out the deed, narrated throughout by MacMurray's dispassionate voiceover. They believe they've committed the perfect murder — at least until his boss (played by Edward G. Robinson) starts poking around the insurance claim. Perfectly constructed with razor-sharp dialogue and steely performances, "Double Indemnity" is a seedy little gem. Jessica Winters of Time Out put it simply, saying, "This is the gold standard of '40s noir, straight down the line."
Black Narcissus (1947)
If the only thing "Black Narcissus" had going for it was its collection of gorgeously rendered matte paintings, like the one that makes its star look as though she's ringing a church bell on the very edge of a massive cliff, that would be enough to earn it a position on this list. But it's so much more than that. It tells the story of a group of nuns at a remote convent in the midst of the Indian Himalayas.
They are incredibly isolated, and the loneliness impacts each of them in a different way, as the increasingly unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Bryon) becomes jealous of the relationship between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Although the film surrounds a group of nuns who are, after all, meant to have abandoned thoughts of romance and lust, there's an undercurrent of eroticism that makes the film's depiction of female sexuality bold and daring. Visually dynamic and soulfully acted, "Black Narcissus" feels somehow timeless.
One of Alfred Hitchcock's most well-rounded films, "Notorious" is at once a cracking spy thriller and a steamy romance. Ingrid Bergman stars as a patriotic German-American who is prevailed upon to marry a suspected Nazi keeping a low profile in South America to help investigate a cell on behalf of the CIA. Cary Grant plays her CIA handler and love interest, a role that has him playing against type with a coldness that runs counter to his natural charm.
They are explosive on screen together, with Alfred Hitchcock defying the censors to put together one of the only make-out scenes of the Production Code era. He got around the "kisses no longer than three seconds" rule by creating a sequence where their kisses were broken up every three seconds by embraces and pillow talk, extending the intimacy. (Take that, Will H. Hays.) Beyond this spicy sequence, Hitchcock demonstrates his trademark attention to detail with the camera, crafting complex and memorable scenes that appear effortless, such as the now-iconic slow zoom into a key in Bergman's hand.
The Heiress (1949)
No one played the wronged woman like Olivia de Havilland. In "The Heiress," she stars as a meek socialite who is browbeaten by her stern father, a man never quite able to disguise his contempt for her after losing his wife in childbirth. Naturally, the first man who shows her any attention at all she falls head over heels in love with; in this case, the devastatingly handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who also has his eye on the vast fortune she stands to inherit. Is his interest in her purely financial, or is the money just a happy bonus that comes along with marrying the love of his life? (Reader, we think you know what the answer is.)
Olivia de Havilland is the undisputed star of the show, making audiences feel for her both as a naïve girl drunk on a man's attention for the first time in her life, and the sadder but wiser woman she transforms into. The final sequence of "The Heiress," when de Havilland walks up the staircase carrying a lantern, self-possessed but with cold fury etched into her face, is one for the ages.
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
Nazis are no laughing matter — except in the expert hands of Ernst Lubitsch and company, that is. In the midst of World War II, he directs "To Be or Not to Be," a film whose main objective is to make Nazis look ridiculous, so bogged down in meaningless bureaucracy and fear of their superiors that they allow a humble theater troupe to outwit them. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny star as the lead performers of a Polish theater company who find themselves caught up in a resistance plot, and must bluff their way into preventing a list of rebels from falling into Nazi hands. Released three years before the end of World War II, when an Allied victory was not a foregone conclusion, "To Be or Not to Be" is a bold move. If the comedy was anything less than note-perfect, the entire film would have collapsed like a house of cards.
Sadly, Carole Lombard didn't live to see its success as she was killed in a plane crash while promoting war bonds a month before it was released. It was not universally well-received when it first came out, though. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote of the film: "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case." Still, others appreciated what the film was trying to do. John Mosher of The New Yorker was in awe of it, saying, "That comedy could be planted in Warsaw at the time of its fall, of its conquest by the Nazis, and not seem too incongruous to be endured is a Lubitsch triumph."
Sure, "Casablanca" is sort of an obvious choice. But what are you going to do, leave it off the list? Please. Set in Morocco during the height of World War II, it stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick, the owner of Rick's Cafe Americain, a restaurant and casino that operates on the very margins of legality. He's happily leading an amoral existence until his long-lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) unexpectedly reenters his life alongside her husband Victor Laszlo, a Czech resistance leader in desperate need of an exit visa.
Magnificently shot by director Michael Curtiz, "Casablanca" is a melancholy love story with tremendous emotional resonance, made all the more moving by the number of actual refugees fleeing Nazi oppression that make up the cast. If you don't get a lump in your throat watching a soaring rendition of the French national anthem drown out "Die Wacht am Rhein," we don't know what to tell you. "Casablanca" took home the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1944, and has continued to cast its thrall over audiences 80 years later.
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