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

La Belle et La Bete (1946, Fr.) (aka Beauty and the Beast), 96 minutes, D: Jean Cocteau

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), 172 minutes, D: William Wyler
A landmark, classic drama, and Best Picture-winning film, about three WWII veterans attempting readjustment to peacetime life and discovering that they have fallen behind. Perhaps the most memorable film about the aftermath of World War II, it unfolds with the homecoming of three servicemen to their small town: an Army Sergeant (Fredric March) who turns to drinking, an Air Force major (Dana Andrews) who is rejected by his wife (Virginia Mayo), and a seaman who has lost both arms (Harold Russell) and agonizes over his relationship with his girlfriend (Cathy O'Donnell). The movie portrays the reality of altered lives, readjustments at work, dislocated marriages and the inability to communicate the experience of war on the front lines or the home front. This was the first picture for Harold Russell, a non-actor and war veteran who was an actual amputee.

The Big Sleep (1946), 114 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
Classic atmospheric film noir mystery with crackling dialogue, from Raymond Chandler's first novel, with an incomprehensible plot (and tortuous story line) about a private investigator hired by General Sternwood, a dying, invalid millionaire to look into drugs, blackmail, nymphomania, pornography, decadence and murder - and to follow after and protect his sharp-tongued, indiscreet, thumb-sucking nymphette daughter (Martha Vickers). The film introduced down-at-the-heels private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), and set the standard for private detective movies. The private eye becomes sexually attracted to the older, sultry daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall).

Brief Encounter (1946, UK), 85 minutes, D: David Lean
Based on a Noel Coward play - a poignant, restrained British melodramatic romance, about two married strangers, Dr. Alec Harvey (Leslie Howard) and housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), who have a chance meeting one Thursday on the platform of a train station. Their casual friendship soon turns into a romantic relationship and they fall in love. The romanticism of the film is enhanced by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 musical score.

Duel in the Sun (1946), 138 minutes, D: King Vidor

Gilda (1946), 110 minutes, D: Charles Vidor

Great Expectations (1946, UK), 118 minutes, D: David Lean

It's A Wonderful Life (1946), 129 minutes, D: Frank Capra
Sweet-natured, sentimental, inspirational classic drama about a near-suicidal man learning the value of his existence. A charitable, hard-working philanthropist George Bailey (James Stewart), forced to remain in a small town by unpredictable circumstances, becomes depressed after an accidental financial disaster at his loan company benefits the miserly Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He is on the verge of committing suicide and wishing that he had never been born - when his crusty-but-lovable guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who is desperately trying to earn his wings, shows up to give him a tour of his town without his presence (Bedford Falls becomes the decadent and hellish Pottersville), showing him how important he's been to the lives of his loved ones. Moral courage, small-town American life, civic cooperation, and family love are glorified while corporate greed and selfishness are condemned, climaxed by the man's rescue during an idyllic Christmas card finale. Clarence earns his wings and George learns that wealth is measured in love and friendship.

The Killers (1946), 102 minutes, D: Robert Siodmak
A classic, definitive film noir, from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, told in eleven taut flashbacks after a bravura opening murder sequence. Two hit men Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) enter a greasy-spoon diner in Brentwood New Jersey, asking the manager about Ole 'Swede' Andersen (Burt Lancaster, in his film debut) - a gas station attendant. The doomed 'Swede' (an ex-boxer), who has been hiding in town under an alias for six years, is warned in a nearby boardinghouse. Indifferent, he expects their arrival and calmly, passively awaits their deadly approach. Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) pieces together and unravels the plot and reconstructs the life of the victim through interviews and detective work. He discovers a complex tale of crime and treacherous betrayal - all revolving around a beautifully-glamorous, mysterious, double-crossing femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) - who sings "The More I Know of Love."

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, UK) (aka Stairway to Heaven), 104 minutes, D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
One of the most innovative, visually-dazzling (from cinematographer Jack Cardiff), literate, and audacious films ever made by the extraordinary writer/producer/director team of the Archers: Powell and Pressburger. The film is an extravagant and extraordinary fantasy in which WWII RAF pilot and squadron leader Peter David Carter (David Niven) must abandon his fiery bomber (returning from a raid over Germany) without a functional parachute. Knowing his fate is doomed, he nonetheless falls deeply in love with British-based, WAC radio operator and ground controller June (Kim Hunter) as they share a few last words. In a film that continually begs the question, what is real and what is imagined, he awakens unharmed on a beach after falling to his 'death', due to errors made by heavenly emissary Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) in the fog. During brain surgery to rid him of alleged hallucinations, his spirit is put on trial -- and he must justify his continuing existence on Earth to a panel of heavenly judges in a celestial court (with God (Abraham Sofaer) as his judge, recently-deceased friend Dr. Frank Reeves (Robert Livesey) as his defense lawyer, and Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) as the prosecutor). He must convince them that he should survive and wed his romantic sweetheart June. In an bold stroke, the Heavenly sequences were filmed in black-and-white, while the Earthbound scenes were in vibrant, ravishing Technicolor. The film used various then-revolutionary film techniques such as time-lapse photography, mixing monochrome and color in the same shot, and background time-freezes when a spirit leaves the body, reminscient of The Matrix (1999). One shot typifies just how different the film is -- a point-of-view (POV) shot from within an eyeball during brain surgery. The most spectacular dream sequence is the slow ascent to heaven on a giant stairway, and the film's most memorable image is of a single, glittering love tear on a red rose petal.

My Darling Clementine (1946), 97 minutes, D: John Ford
One of John Ford's greatest westerns, semi-historically based on the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp, a one-time outlaw gunslinger who becomes the dedicated, law-abiding sheriff of Tombstone during the 1880s, determined to clean up the rowdy frontier town where the killers of his brothers, led by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) have fled. A visit to the barber symbolizes Earp's transition from the western frontier to civilization. He develops a relationship with the legendary consumptive Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), defends a drunken Shakespearean actor, and cultivates a romance with square dance partner Clementine (Cathy Downs), the town's school teacher.

Notorious (1946), 101 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock's ninth Hollywood film, the highly acclaimed, post WWII noirish spy thriller/romance set in Brazilian South America. An alluring, alcoholic playgirl (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi agent, is reluctantly exploited and drafted by the CIA to become a US government agent and secretly infiltrate into a shady group of Axis Germans. Watchful American agent (Cary Grant) turns chilly toward her, uncertain of her love and loose-living past during a cruel love affair. To spite him when he doesn't protest, she marries her Nazi espionage target (Claude Rains), a former friend of her father's, to acquire access to information, including the MacGuffin (uranium in wine bottles) in the wine cellar. Trapped in her enemy's home, where her husband is oppressed by his cold, domineering mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), Bergman is slowly poisoned with arsenic and in mortal danger until rescued by guilt-ridden Grant. The film features the most famous marathon screen kiss in film history, the zoom shot toward the wine cellar key, the wine cellar sequence, and the staircase-descending finale.

Paisan (1946, It.) (aka Paisà), 120 or 134 minutes, D: Roberto Rossellini

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), 113 minutes, D: Tay Garnett
An adaptation of James M. Cain's torrid crime melodrama - one of the best film noirs. Handsome drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hired at the California roadside Twin Oaks diner/restaurant as a handyman by kindly, middle-aged proprietor Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) after one look at his sizzling, lustfully hot (and unhappy), platinum-blonde waitress wife Cora (Lana Turner). The slow-burning fuse of sexual passion between Frank and Cora leads to their plot to 'accidentally' kill her husband. After the murderous couple's plot is executed following a failed first attempt, they betray each other and are undone by their own uncontrollable, calculating natures, even as Cora admits before her death in an automobile crash: "When we get home, Frank, then there'll be kisses, kisses with dreams in them. Kisses that come from life, not death."

The Razor's Edge (1946), 146 minutes, D: Edmund Goulding

The Stranger (1946), 95 minutes, D: Orson Welles

To Each His Own (1946), 122 minutes, D: Mitchell Leisen

The Yearling (1946), 134 minutes, D: Clarence Brown

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