Greatest Films of the 1940s
Greatest Films of the 1940s

Greatest Films of the 1940s
1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 | 1949


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), 118 minutes, D: Frank Capra
A hilariously-funny, frantic farce and black comedy - a frenzied adaptation of the smash Broadway comedy. Two sweet old ladies, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha Brewster (Jean Adair) poison lonely gentlemen male callers in their Brooklyn home as mercy killings. They serve them homemade elderberry wine and then bury them (with Christian burials) in their cellar. Their hapless nephew Mortimer (Cary Grant) discovers what's been going on when he finds a dead body in the window seat. He mistakenly believes that his crazy eccentric brother "Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster (John Alexander) is responsible and wants to get him safely committed, never even suspecting his two aunts. Mortimer is also confronted by the unexpected arrival of his sinister, psychotic murderous brother on the lam, Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey) who has a body of his own. Jonathan is accompanied by another villainous companion, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

A Canterbury Tale (1944, UK), 124 minutes, D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Double Indemnity (1944), 106 minutes, D: Billy Wilder
One of the greatest, darkest film noirs of all time and one of the best suspense/thriller films of the 40s, with a brilliant script based on a novel by James M. Cain, written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Told in a flashback, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls hard for a blonde-wigged, sexy housewife named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She entices him into a scheme to murder her husband, in order to fraudulently collect a double indemnity accident policy pay-off. Claims agent Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a perceptive, dogged co-worker in Walter's insurance company, becomes suspicious and unravels the case. In the uncompromising ending, the two lovers plot against each other.

Gaslight (1944), 113 minutes, D: George Cukor
A classic, lavishly glossy, pseudo-Victorian thriller. In London, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a wealthy, vulnerably-innocent socialite marries a charming ne'er-do-well, urbane, worldly Londoner Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). She is convinced to move into her murdered Aunt's ancestral home. (Anton killed the Aunt years earlier). He is determined to drive his wife mad to get the inheritance - obsessed with finding her Aunt's hidden jewelry in their house. The menacing Anton methodically victimizes and terrorizes his wife by playing upon her memory lapses and by tricking her with dimming gaslights and unsettling sounds from the attic, until savvy Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) enters the case and realizes Paula is deliberately being tormented. The saucy, teenage maid Nancy Oliver is Angela Lansbury in a supporting role - her film debut.

Going My Way (1944), 130 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
A classic Bing Crosby film and a major box-office hit - a Best Picture winner. A heartwarming, sentimental story of a young, personable, progressive, down-to-earth priest Father Chuck O'Malley (Bing Crosby) who works in a poor New York slum Catholic parish - St. Dominic's Church. He seeks to win over his strict, loveable, but crusty, conservative old parish priest Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and to teach a group of street kids responsibility and respect. Crosby's songs include the incomparable "Swinging on a Star" and "Too-ra-Loo-ra-Loo-ra." It was followed by the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), 101 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
A fast paced, zany Preston Sturges satire on war-time patriotism and hysteria, human nature, motherhood, and hero-worship. World War II Marine Corps 4-F reject (due to hay fever) Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), ashamed and embarrassed to admit his lack of fitness for duty, masquerades as a soldier - he works in a shipyard but writes letters home telling of his military exploits. He allows a group of sympathetic soldiers on board a train to pass him off as a true war hero to deceive his hometown folks when he returns home. The people in the small town of Oakridge believe the charade that he is a hero, and even nominate him for mayor to replace the current corrupt one (Raymond Walburn). Woodrow is "hailed as the conquering hero." A memorable screen performance for Bracken, in a film that was daring for its time.

(King) Henry V (1944, UK)
, 136 minutes, D: Laurence Olivier
A triumphant, colorful, costume drama/spectacle of the 15th century monarch - the first screen adaptation of Shakespeare's classic, immortal play. An early adaptation of William Shakespeare's timeless, epic play Henry V. The film is the story of the young, 15th century, 28 year-old Plantagenet Prince of Wales (Laurence Olivier) who decides to act on his claim to the French throne by invading France, and wins a victory at the crucial Battle of Agincourt against a larger, vastly superior French force.
The epic story is told by actor/director Laurence Olivier (in his directorial debut, who also starred, co-produced, and co-adapted the script) in Technicolor (aka The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France) - the first radical reinterpretation of the play. Innovatively staged, it is intimate and theatrical (the film opens on a bare Elizabethan stage, the Globe Theater, in the style of a play in the 1600s, and then expands outward from there). The narrative then shifts to an epic film format shot on-location with sweeping, technicolor battle scenes. The film is a play chiefly about royal responsibility, war and its effects. The film was deeply affected by the historical context in which it was created -- Olivier had intended Henry V to be a rallying morale booster for Britain at the height of WWII. Highlights include Henry V's pre-battle speech to his troops at the siege of Harfleur, from Act III, Scene 1, beginning with the stirring line: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead," and his St. Crispin's Day address to his battle-weary men, from Act IV, Scene 3, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Olivier was given an Honorary Oscar as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the silver screen.

Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 (1944, Soviet Union), 100 minutes, D: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Jane Eyre (1944), 96 minutes, D: Robert Stevenson
Charlotte Bronte's classic romantic story set in Victorian times, faithfully adapted with typical Gothic elements, a brooding atmosphere, and Bernard Herrmann's rich score. Mistreated, unloved orphan girl Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) grows up and is hired as the governess for Adele (Margaret O'Brien) - the daughter of a wealthy Yorkshire Englishman, the darkly moody Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). They live on the bleak-looking moors in a huge mansion called Thornfield Hall. Although they fall in love, Jane Eyre is drawn into the mystery and dark secrets of Thornfield Hall.

Laura (1944), 88 minutes, D: Otto Preminger
A gripping, moody, stylish murder mystery, a classic, complex film noir and tale of romance with sharp and witty dialogue. The film opens with the voice of a prissy, acerbic, cynical newspaper columnist named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who unfolds the story in flashbacks. Street-wise police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the shotgun slaying/murder of a beautiful young socialite Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) - her face has been blown away. During his interviews and work on the case, he becomes personally absorbed in the details of the young woman's life and finds himself irresistibly falling in love with a large portrait of the mysterious victim and his pieced-together image of her. The film contains unsettling, obsessive undertones of voyeurism and ghoulish necrophilia. The detective's earthy directness and toughness is contrasted to the smug, pseudo-intellectualism of the victim's upper crust, socially-prominent friends in Manhattan, including Lydecker, and an effeminate gigolo named Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

Lifeboat (1944), 96 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Novelist John Steinbeck co-scripted the screenplay with Jo Swerling for this World War II melodrama/thriller - an interesting, visually-arresting, penetrating study of human nature and class distinctions under pressure. The action is contained entirely aboard one small cramped lifeboat in the mid-Atlantic, as a group of survivors of a torpedoed freighter struggle together. All come from the same Allied boat, sunk by a German submarine/U-boat, except for one rescued German (the captain of the sunken submarine). Sharp characterizations are developed between the surviving characters from various backgrounds who suspensefully clash and conspire with each other: a chic, spoiled, fashion journalist named Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a proletarian seaman Kovak (John Hodiak), and the devious German captain of the U-boat (Walter Slezak) who cleverly manipulates them to his own advantage as helmsman of the lifeboat.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), 113 minutes, D: Vincente Minnelli
One of MGM's greatest, most elegant, and most popular musicals. The nostalgic, romantic, heartwarming film is the story of the Smith family in turn-of-the-century St. Louis in the year before the 1904 World's Fair. The action surrounds the emotions which erupt in the family with the news of the family's impending move to New York due to Mr. Smith's (Leon Ames) job transfer. Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor) and the daughters, including eldest daughter, Esther (Judy Garland) and the precocious, morbid youngest daughter "Tootie" (Margaret O'Brien) want to remain. Esther sings most of the film's sentimental songs, including "The Boy Next Door," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "The Trolley Song."

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), 99 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
One of director/writer Preston Sturges' top screwball war-time comedies, considered a controversial, bold, irreverent farce at the time due to its scandalous content. A hapless, small-town girl from Morgan's Creek, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) attends a rollicking, all-night party with servicemen from the local army base, gets drunk, and marries a soldier. She finds herself pregnant, but can't remember which soldier she married. The mother-to-be convinces a bank-clerk boyfriend/4-F reject Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) to marry her and pretend to be the father. Before the frantic film ends, Trudy gives birth to sextuplets, and the young couple become national celebrities.

Murder, My Sweet (1944), 95 minutes, D: Edward Dmytryk
Original release titled Farewell, My Lovely - adapted from Raymond Chandler's 1940 hard-boiled novel - a superb, complex, shadowy film noir of murder, corruption, blackmail, double-cross and double identity, with witty dialogue and cynical voice-over narration. The film opens in wartime Los Angeles, where tough yet vulnerable, blindfolded gumshoe detective Philip Marlowe (played by 30s musical crooner Dick Powell in a dramatic role switch) is grilled under a bright light by police interrogators. In flashback, he tells a convoluted, bewildering tale. He was hired by recently-released, brutish, urgent ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to search for his missing girlfriend Velma (Claire Trevor). And then also commissioned as a bodyguard to accompany an effeminate man Marriott (Douglas Walton) (associated with underworld Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger)) during a ransom payoff for stolen jewels. When the man is killed and Marlowe is blackjacked unconscious, he becomes the prime suspect for the murder. During his investigation, he is drugged and experiences drug-induced hallucinations and nightmares ("a crazy, coked-up dream") when pursued through a series of identical doors by a man with a giant hypodermic needle. The owner of the jewels, a mysterious, flirtatious Mrs. Helen Grayle (Trevor again) hires him to locate the stolen jade necklace (not actually stolen). Marlowe navigates through a perilous world, becoming further entangled with and threatened by despicable high- and low-class criminals. The final shoot-out in the beachhouse revealed that mysterious, flirtatious, gold-digging double-identity Mrs. Helen Grayle - also known as Velma Valento, had set up numerous individuals over the theft of jade jewelry, and was indeed a murderous femme fatale.

National Velvet (1944), 125 minutes, D: Clarence Brown
One of MGM's greatest children's/family films - an all-time, loveable, dramatic film favorite in Technicolor. The screenplay was based on the novel by Enid Bagnold, the story of a plucky young butcher's daughter in Sussex, England. The young horsewoman named Velvet Brown (12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor) wins a neighbor's unruly horse named Pi in a village lottery. Determined, she trains the horse with the coaching help of a homeless, embittered ex-jockey Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) to enter the famed Grand National Steeplechase Race. Against everyone's wishes and impossible odds, Velvet rides her horse and wins the race in the exciting, beautifully-edited conclusion. This film launched Elizabeth Taylor's career.

None But The Lonely Heart (1944), 113 minutes, D: Clifford Odets
Playwright Clifford Odets directed this unusual, daring drama of Richard Llewelyn's novel. In London's East End slums of the 1930s, a young, witty, but lazy Cockney drifter Ernie Mott (Cary Grant) lacks conscience and is solely interested in self-satisfaction. A shiftless, no-good young man, he joins a band of thieves committing petty crimes - until his spirit is transformed when he learns that his poverty-stricken mother (Ethel Barrymore) is dying of cancer. Grant's indomitable performance earned him his sole Oscar nomination, his straightest dramatic role in his career.

Since You Went Away (1944), 172 minutes, D: John Cromwell
A big-budget, sentimental soap opera of a genteel, idealized Midwestern family left on the home front during World War II. The film epitomizes Hollywood's effort to boost morale during the war. The family's individual tragedies and problems are presented in this classic, melodramatic weeper. In the all-star cast are matriarchal Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) who holds her family of two daughters - Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Brig) (teenaged Shirley Temple) - together when their beloved father is reported lost and missing in action. Jane romances a shy sailor (Robert Walker) - their railroad station parting scene is unforgettable. A family friend and boarder in the family home, Navy Lieutenant Anthony Willett (Joseph Cotten) becomes the focus of the anxious emotional feelings and tribulations of the family during war-time. Producer David O. Selznick also wrote the screenplay.

To Have and Have Not (1944), 100 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
A film loosely based on Hemingway's novel, overshadowed by the on-screen and off-screen romance of stars Bogart and Bacall. Bogart's role as fishing boat captain Harry Morgan closely resembles his role as disaffected Rick Blaine in Casablanca. During World War II on the French island of Martinique, governed by the Vichy government, Harry Morgan, owner of the Queen Conch, prefers to remain uncommitted and refuses to take sides in the war. A sultry, electrically-sizzling romance generated between stranded American Marie Browning (19 year old Lauren Bacall in her film debut and first film with Bogart) and Harry - the most remembered feature of the film - convinces him to change his mind and fight the Nazis.

The Uninvited (1944), 98 minutes, D: Lewis Allen
A spooky, eerie, unusual ghost story. A brother and sister, Roderick (Ray Milland) and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey), purchase a house on the English Cornish coast. They experience strange phenomena in the house: unexplainable cold spots, the smell of mimosas, flickering candles, and creaking doors which close by themselves. They discover a local girl Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) who is impulsively drawn to the house, even though her grandfather Cmdr. Bench (Donald Crisp) has forbidden her to visit. The house is supposedly haunted by her dead mother Mary Meredith, mysteriously killed earlier in a fall from the cliffs. The couple try to help Stella discover the answer to the mystery, while Roderick falls in love with her. The mystery is solved when it is found that there are two ghosts.

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