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
Remade many times, both as short silent and talkie versions, most memorably as Disney's animated film in 1991. Writer/director/painter-poet Jean Cocteau produced this first feature film, and asked the audience as the film started: "I ask of you a little . . . childlike simplicity." It was adapted from a classic 1757 fairy tale by French novelist Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, the story of how commoner Belle/Beauty (Josette Day) saved her father (Marcel André) by giving herself to a Bete/Beast (Jean Marais). The major theme of this fanciful and enchanting film was finding beauty beneath outward appearances, told with some obvious Freudian symbolism and haunting, surreal and atmospheric images. The magical and visually-beautiful film began with an introduction to the four siblings of a family now destitute due to the failure of their father's merchant shipping business. There were two wasteful, spoiled, haughty, evil and vain sisters: Adélaïde (Nane Germon) and Félicie (Mila Parély), and the hard-working, enslaved and devoted Belle. The fourth sibling was their lazy wastrel brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), who protectively sheltered Belle from the romantic pursuits of his handsome friend - the shallow scoundrel Avenant (also Jean Marais). One dark night in the forest when returning home after a failed business trip, the father was taken prisoner in an extravagant and magical palace castle by the resident angry and grotesque half-man, half-Bete - for the crime of taking one rose bush blossom. He was given the choice within three days of dying himself, or having one of his three daughters replace him. The self-less and childlike Belle chose to take her father's place and sacrifice herself as a hostage, but soon found that her repulsive-looking captor treated her with kindness, politeness and riches. Slowly, she began to develop an affection for the cursed and virile Bete, who met her every evening at 7 in the dining room, and asked to marry her. When she left for a few days to attend to her sick father, she found the Bete dying (of heartbreak) upon her tardy return. He was transformed, and a spell was broken, when she expressed deep sorrow and love for him. He was now a charming Prince (also Jean Marais), while Avenant now came under the spell as the new Bete. In the film's happily-ever-after conclusion, the new Prince revealed that a fairy had cursed him, because his parents didn't believe in fairies. Belle and the Prince returned to the castle by flying. They were to live there, with the father and her sisters, who would now serve her.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), 172 minutes, D: William Wyler
A landmark, classic drama, and Best Picture-winning film - both powerful and provocative with many touching moments in the lives of combat survivors now returned to their former lives, with both hopefulness and poignancy. With great acting, story-telling, direction by Wyler, and pacing, as it told about three WWII veterans attempting readjustment to peacetime life and discovering that they had fallen behind. Perhaps the most memorable film about the aftermath of World War II, it unfolds with a number of great plot threads about the homecoming of three servicemen to their small town: Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) who turns to drinking, Air Force major Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) who is rejected by his spouse Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo), and seaman Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) who has lost both arms and agonizes over his relationship with his girlfriend Wilma Cameron (Cathy O'Donnell). The homecoming scene of Al Stephenson when his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) senses his presence, is deeply moving. The compassionate 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, who won two Oscars for the same role (a unique achievement) - Best Supporting Actor, and a Special Honorary Oscar "For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance..."

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) scripted by William Faulkner (with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett). It set the standard for private detective movies. Remade in 1978 with Robert Mitchum. It told about a down-at-the-heels private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). He had been hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), 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, unstable nymphette daughter Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). The private eye became sexually attracted to the older, sultry daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall). In the twisting conclusion, Marlowe described his suspicions to gambler Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) that Carmen had killed her father's missing companion Regan, out of jealousy over an imaginary relationship between Regan and Mrs. Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen). [Note: Mona was discovered hiding out at Huck's Garage, to make it look like she had run away with Regan during their entirely manufactured affair.] At Vivian's request, Mars had covered up the killing to "protect" her sister Carmen from guilt - and to prevent her sick father from any further suffering. Mars' cold-blooded hired killer Canino (Bob Steele), hid Regan's body and the deception was set up. Mars then blackmailed Vivian for money and sexual favors. Mars was set up to be killed by his own henchmen, allowing Marlowe to protect Carmen (who was sent "away" to an institution) and Vivian by pinning the murder of Regan on Mars - and Marlow was also able to end up with Vivian.

Brief Encounter (1946, UK), 85 minutes, D: David Lean
Based on a Noel Coward play - a poignant, sensitively-told, restrained British melodramatic romance about forbidden passion in a brief platonic affair. It was the quintessential, desperate tale of unconsummated illicit love. The romanticism of the film was enhanced by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 musical score. It told about two married strangers who met and developed a forbidden romance. Idealistic married local doctor, Dr. Alec Harvey (Leslie Howard) and middle-class suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), stuck in a loveless marriage, had a chance meeting one Thursday on the platform of a train station. Their casual friendship soon turned into a romantic relationship and they fell in love, although a planned tryst to consummate their affair was aborted. They agreed to separate and stop seeing each other when he took an assignment in another country - a medical journey to South Africa. During their final day together, they were interrupted by Laura's talkative friend Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg) during their last, painful, repressed goodbye (both at the start and end of the film) as Alec gently placed his hand on her shoulder and disappeared forever. This was followed by Laura's near suicide attempt, before she returned to her thankful husband Fred (Cyril Raymond).

Duel in the Sun (1946), 138 minutes, D: King Vidor
Critically nicknamed "Lust in the Dust" by its detractors, although it still remains one of the top box-office westerns - in inflation-adjusted dollars. The ambitious scandalous production from David O. Selznick was a "Gone With The Wind"- type grand western with an amour fou tale. It was directed by King Vidor (who quit and was one of eight directors and cinematographers). This lurid Technicolor western, set in Texas in the 1880s at the Spanish Bit cattle ranch, was a sprawling, overheated melodramatic saga of sexual longing that was forced to cut nine minutes of its content before widespread release. Jennifer Jones starred as orphaned, 'half-breed' gypsy Pearl Chavez, who was taken in by her father Scott's (Herbert Marshall) second cousin and ex-lover, Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). Laura was the long-suffering, weak wife of crippled Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), the patriarch of the cattle baron family. Pearl was soon caught in a destructive love triangle between the two McCanles sons: (1) Joseph Cotten as moderate and cultured Jesse who had studied law, and (2) Gregory Peck as hot-tempered, amoral Lewt, both Cain and Abel archetypes. In the violent orgiastic, melodramatic ending, Pearl and Lewt shot each other to the death at Squaw's Head Rock and died in each other's arms.

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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