The Top Tens: The 1940s

Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.

As we move into our second decade of flashbacks, we take a glimpse into the best films of the 1940s. Although our lists are quite different, we have a decent amount of overlap. I’d also bet that making one person’s list and not another probably means that they had to pass over that film for something they liked even more. I doubt there’s a film on this list that anyone would vehemently disagree with if given the opportunity.

Comparing titles, it should come as no surprise that one of the films most often cited as the greatest film ever made is also the only film to make all four lists. Citizen Kane holds that distinction with Casablanca falling one short. That film appeared on three lists. Of the films showing up on at least two lists, they are: The Best Years of Our Lives, Bicycle Thieves, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, Mrs. Miniver, Notorious, and The Third Man.

In terms of the directors with the most films on the list, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock each have three titles referenced while George Cukor, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler each had two films referenced.

After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.

The Introductions

Wesley Lovell: As with all decades in film history, it’s a challenge to come up with a list of just ten films to celebrate as the best of a decade. On any different day a different set could emerge. I picked a wide array of films by a wide array of directors and while there were several titles I might have included at a different time, these were the ten I felt needed to be recognized with this list.
Peter J. Patrick: I could easily name ten or twenty more films of this cinematically rich decade, but I’ll stick with ten out of eleven of my favorites. The eleventh is Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which was released in the U.K. in 1949 but didn’t make it to the U.S. until 1950, the year of its Oscar eligibility. Perhaps I’ll include it my list of 50s films, although that, too, is a fully packed decade of great films. Although I tried to spread the wealth between different directors, I simply must include two by John Ford, which are my two favorite films of all time, films that I have seen more than any others at various times in my life.
Tripp Burton: The 1940s were a great decade for movies, both in Hollywood and outside it. My list might seem a little familiar, with a lot of titles that lead these lists time and again, but that is because they are truly that wonderful that you can’t help but be in awe of their artistry.
Thomas LaTourrette: One of the best parts of doing these top ten features by the decades is that I have to see some of the classics of a decade that I have missed so far. Sometimes they do not live up to their hype, but then there are the hidden gems that pop up. I was not as thrilled with the films noir as I had hoped to be as the dialogue often seems forced now, but it was fun to see them. The Second World War did not dominate the films as much as I thought it might, but it does come up in some. As always there was not enough time to see all the films I wanted to, and some proved too hard to track down, but it was fun to watch so many mostly black-and-white films and to realize how good many of them are. I was also impressed at how good an actress Teresa Wright was who starred in three of these films and added immensely to their appeal. Joseph Cotton, Cary Grant, and Linda Darnell ended up in two films each here. I do not know what films the others chose, but it will be interesting to compare lists.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

(dir. William Wyler) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – An enduring masterpiece, Wyler’s film about the homecoming of three World War II veterans is as powerful and moving now as it was seventy-two years ago. Times may have changed in the way wars are fought, but the readjustment to civilian life for those who serve is no less difficult. The acting from leads Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell is flawless, as are the supporting performances of the women in their lives – Myrna Loy as March’s wife, Teresa Wright as his daughter, Virginia Mayo as Andrews’ faithless wife, and Cathy O’Donnell as Russell’s loyal fiancée.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This very adult drama deals with the lives of three veterans returning to civilian life after serving in World War II. They came from different walks of life before the war and served in different branches of the military, but a shared plane ride home bonds them. They each deal with different issues that make the return difficult, and often find that they are more comfortable around each other than their own families. It is also one of the first films to knowingly deal with, what we call today, PTSD. It is partly a time capsule of life then, but parts remain quite relevant today.

Bicycle Thieves (1949)

(dir. Vittorio De Sica) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – De Sica’s masterpiece and the peak of the post-World War II neorealist Italian film movement is a constant marvel no matter how many times you see it. The story revolves around a poor laborer who needs his bicycle for his low-level job hanging posters. One day while hanging a poster his bicycle is stolen and he and his son must search all over Rome to find it. In the end, he becomes a thief himself, stealing someone else’s bicycle so he can resume working. Originally released in the U.S. as The Bicycle Thief, the film now goes by the more accurate British translation of the Italian Ladri di biciclette.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Vittorio de Sica, probably the greatest director of true realism in cinema history, gave us one of the most true and heartbreaking films of all time. To see The Bicycle Thief today is to realize that you have seen so many people try to replicate it and never get close to matching it for its beauty, its honesty, and most importantly, its humanity.

Black Narcissus (1947)

(dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – One of the most beautifully photographed films of all time, this in-studio production looks like it was filmed in the Himalayas where it is set. Deborah Kerr in her international breakthrough performance is unforgettable as the young nun in charge of a group of Anglican sisters who find themselves in conflict with both the natives and one another as they try to make a go of their sweltering new mission. Her flashback scenes are as riveting as her real-time sequences. Jean Simmons and Sabu as natives, David Farrar as a British landowner, Flora Robson as a seasoned nun, and Kathleen Byron as a nun on the verge of a nervous breakdown provide strong support.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – I first saw Black Narcissus after hearing a myriad of filmmakers — from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson — praise it as one of their favorites, which is a lot for a film to live up to. Black Narcissus lives up to every moment — Powell and Pressburger, the masters of color and melodrama, achieve something that is almost unworldly with this film, yet is rooted in such emotional honesty and passion that you can’t help but be swept away to a world that only great cinema could create.

Casablanca (1943)

(dir. Michael Curtiz) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – What might just be the greatest screenplay ever written is told with precision and passion by director Michael Curtiz about a clandestine romance between a Moroccan nightclub owner and the ex-lover who shows up seeking refuge from the Nazis. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and the rest of the cast are at the top of their games in this Hollywood classic that feels timeless.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – This happy accident of a film became for many the most beloved film of all time thanks to its golden clichés and the performances of a superb cast that included Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, and Dooley Wilson. The screenplay by twins Julius G. and Philip J. Epstein and Howard Koch has so many quotable lines that many fans can practically the recite the film’s entire dialogue. “I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Commentary By Tripp Burton – For a film that has been more quoted than perhaps any other in film history, and whose structure and characters have been aped thousands of times since, watching (or even rewatching) Casablanca still feels as fresh an experience as ever. This film is so well made, and every piece of the film works at such a pristine level, that you hear these lines you know by heart in a new way and realize what a work of art could be created by the studio system when everything lined up perfectly.

Citizen Kane (1941)

(dir. Orson Welles) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Orson Welles was one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood. His output is minimal, but each film is a testament to his creativity, passion, and significance. This film, more than any other, is the pinnacle of his achievement, a biographical mystery with one of cinema history’s best and most compelling denouements.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Often cited as the greatest movie ever made, Welles’ masterpiece was a critical success from the get-go but a commercial flop on its initial release. William Randolph Hearst was so incensed over the film, obviously based on him, that the powerful publisher did all he could to discredit Welles and his film. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film was booed every time it was mentioned on Oscar night including the moment when it won the one award it couldn’t be denied, for its screenplay by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. Immediately consigned to the RKO vaults, the film was not widely seen until the mid-1950s.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – It feels almost too cliché to include Citizen Kane, the multi-crowned Best Film of All-Time, on a list like this, but it is also too wonderful to leave off. There aren’t a lot of superlatives to give this film that haven’t been bandied around enough: ground-breaking, brilliant, incisive, ahead of its time, and a work of true cinematic genius.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The words, the best film ever made and such get bandied about when people talk about Citizen Kane. Through all that, one could easily forget that it really is an exciting piece of film. The story of a young man who rises to great fame and wealth, but is brought down by scandal is very loosely based on the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who fought to keep the film unseen. Orson Welles was only 26 when he made the film, starring, directing, and sharing writing credit on it, and it is an impressive achievement. Credit also is due to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland for his innovative camera work as well. One should see it because one hears of it, but one will love it because it is that good.

Double Indemnity (1944)

(dir. Billy Wilder) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Double Indemnity is often credited as being the first true film noir, or at least the template for everything that followed, but it is also the best film noir ever made. Nothing has ever quite matched the cynicism and wit the film brings, while also bringing to life a series of vibrant characters that feel unmatched.

Fantasia (1940)

(dir. James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Norman Ferguson, David Hand, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Just three years after Walt Disney changed the cinema with his feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney re-defined the genre again. Putting together a gorgeous array of classical music pieces and setting them to various styles of animation, Disney helped young audiences discover great music while expanding and energizing the artistry within their own minds.

Gaslight (1944)

(dir. George Cukor) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – There were few greater actresses working in the 1940s than Ingrid Bergman and while some will cite her performance in Casablanca or another of her films as her best, she was seldom better than here in Gaslight, for which she won her first Academy Award. As Paula Alquist, Bergman is slowly driven mad by her scheming husband (Charles Boyer) in a tantalizing mystery with Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, and Angela Lansbury providing able support.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – John Steinbeck’s novel of homelessness in the Great Depression got as close as anything to “the great American novel” yet written. Ford’s film, likewise, gets as close as anything to “the great American movie” yet filmed, even with the director’s penchant for sentimentality leveling some of the most despairing scenes. Henry Fonda has never been better than as Tom Joad, the Oklahoma everyman adrift in California. Jane Darwell as the indominable Ma Joad does more with a look than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Charley Grapewin, Eddie Quillan, John Qualen, and more are equally memorable.

The Great Dictator (1940)

(dir. Charles Chaplin) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Charlie Chaplin was a great clown, but when he took that clown and used the persona to comment on the changing world around him, he was capable of creating transcendent art. The Great Dictator, in which his Tramp persona fuses with Hitler, is a funny, biting, ahead-of-its-time film that feels more and more resonant as the years go on.

His Girl Friday (1940)

(dir. Howard Hawks) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – A peerless Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell dominate this version of The Front Page, which is by far the best film adaptation of the play. Grant plays the conniving editor and Russell is his ex-wife and prized reporter who wants to leave to get married. He will try to do everything within his power to keep that from happening, including trying to get her to do one last big story before she leaves. That lure proves too big and poor Ralph Bellamy is left without her. Director Howard Hawks had worked with fast paced screwball comedy before with 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, but he ups the ante with the roving camera and actors speaking over each other’s lines in this film.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Nothing makes me madder than seeing no-nothing lists of the worst Oscar winners in history citing this magnificent film as one of them because it won the Oscar over Citizen Kane. One of the worst decisions, perhaps, but certainly not one of the worst films to win. It is about as close to perfection as a film can be with Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Roddy McDowall, Maureen O’Hara, John Loder, Patric Knowles, et. al. embodying the members of the Welsh coalmining family that is at the heart of the film. Many scenes from the film remain imbedded in the mind long after you’ve seen it, including the devastating final one.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

(dir. Frank Capra) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The all-time favorite film of many, the film’s enduring success is attributable in part to Frank Capra forgetting to renew the film’s copyright in the 1970s making it available for free programming for TV stations across America to air it on Christmas Eve. James Stewart is at his best as the suicidal everyman whose rescuing angel (Henry Travers) shows him what the world around him would have been like if he wasn’t in it. Capra also gets fine performances from Travers, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, and more.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

(dir. Robert Hamer) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Alec Guinness made quite a splash playing eight different doomed members of the cursed D’Ascoyne family. This droll British picture follows the exploits of Louis Mazzini whose mother married an Italian tenor for love. Her aristocratic family disowned her and she raised her son in genteel poverty. Years later, he decides to wreak his revenge on the family so he can inherit the dukedom himself. In witty ways he kills off the rest of the family that stands between him and the dukedom. Then he ends up on trial for one murder he did not commit. It is an understated but very funny comedy.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

(dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always be known as the writer and director of All About Eve. People often forget that he won a pair of Oscars the year before for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives. This witty film follows three women who receive a letter from a fourth unseen friend saying that she has run away with one of their husbands. The women are on a day trip up the Hudson River which leaves them time to ruminate on their lives and wonder who might be coming home to an empty house. They all feel unsure and the film gets to their inner fears. It is well cast, with a delightful voiceover role by Celeste Holm as the unseen Addie Ross.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

(dir. Billy Wilder) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – An acting tour-de-force by Ray Milland as an alcoholic whose disease threatens to destroy his life and career is the central story of Billy Wilder’s seminal Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend. Adapted from a novel by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend is a sobering look at alcoholism and the dangerous hold it has on its victims. This is one of the greatest film ever made about substance abuse.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

(dir. Orson Welles) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Although the studio did its best to subvert director Orson Welles’ vision, The Magnificent Ambersons remains a terrific film with a brilliant supporting performance by Agnes Moorehead in a cast of strong actors. While we will never get to see Welles’ true vision, what remains is still a grand film.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

(dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Originally released in the U.S. under the title Stairway to Heaven, Michael Powell and Emeric pressburger’s film is a visual treat. Showing real life in color and heavenly scenes in black-and-white, the film follows a downed pilot whose escort to the afterlife misses him the fog causing a crisis of otherworldly proportions. It’s such an inventive story told with creativity and drama that it charms its way easily into your heart.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – For a decade the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, directed, and produced a string of important and well-known films. One of my favorites is this fantasy set at the end of World War II. A British pilot is preparing to crash his badly damaged plane when he talks to an American radio operator. He likes her but knows he is going to his death. Amazingly he lives and finds her the next day and they start to fall in love. Then the Conductor who was supposed to take him to the Other World but lost him in the dense fog finds him and wants to take him away. Needless to say, now he does not want to go. This ends up leading to a trial to determine his fate. It is a truly original film, sort of the flip side of Here Comes Mr. Jordan where an angel grabs a person too early, and part of a legacy that deserves to be seen.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

(dir. William Wyler) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – The 1940s was a rich environment for dramatic war films to thrive. Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver explores life on the homefront for a proud matriarch played by Greer Garson. Garson is terrific as Kay Miniver and is ably supported by the likes of Henry Travers, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, and Walter Pigeon among others. It’s a stirring drama about life and loss in one of the great conflicts of world history.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This Oscar winner has aged well and remains a surprisingly effective and gripping film. It follows an average, though better off than we would now consider average, British family from the tranquil life before the war through the blitz. It is told matter of factly, but scenes in a bomb shelter also capture the fear and desperation they feel. It was interesting to see the Dunkirk evacuation from a different perspective. The family goes through weddings, death, and destruction of a way of life that they were used to with typical British resolve. It probably helped the war effort immensely by bringing the war home to Americans. Greer Garson deservedly won an Oscar as the lead, but has strong support from Teresa Wright, Henry Travers, and Dame May Whitty.

Notorious (1946)

(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – My favorite Hitchcock film is just about as perfect a suspense thriller as anyone has ever been able to come up with. Ingrid Bergman is flawless as the daughter of an American-German traitor who uses her notoriety as entrée into a world of Nazis hiding out in South America. Cary Grant is equally fine in his somewhat limited role as her American handler. Claude Rains is perfection as the Nazi who loves and marries Bergman only to conspire against her when he realizes she is an American spy. Leopoldine Konstantin makes it an acting quartet of genius as Rains’ domineering, scheming mother.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – On the list of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, Notorious might be the one that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. As a thriller, it is as suspenseful and tightly constructed as any of his films, but all of that is a MacGuffin for a romance and character study that lingers in your mind far after you figure out where the uranium is hidden.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

(dir. George Cukor) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This film ends up on many of my lists, but it is a superb comedy. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Ruth Hussey have some of the best roles of their careers in this film. The stage play was written for Hepburn by Philip Barry, but Donald Ogden Stewart improved the writing for the screen and won an Oscar for doing it. Hepburn shines in the tailor-written role of a wealthy woman who is getting ready to marry for the second time but learns that she still loves her first husband. She learns that perhaps it is better to be a little human and not be put up on a pedestal. The whole cast is superb and the dialogue sparkles.

Rebecca (1940)

(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca is a stunning adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same name. As Laurence Olivier introduces his new wife Joan Fontaine to his household after the untimely death of his previous wife, the young bride finds the shadow of the late Mrs. De Winter hangs over the house. Fontaine and Olivier are terrific, but no one holds a candle to the chilling performance of Judith Anderson as the looming presence of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who cherished her late mistress with unnerving passion.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Purportedly this was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite among his films. He liked the idea of evil coming to a small town. A young woman is thrilled when her debonair uncle announces that he is coming to visit and she expects her dull life in idyllic Santa Rosa, California, to be shaken up. She does not realize what she is in for as she soon comes to suspect that he is the notorious Merry Widow killer. Caught between her family’s adoration of him and her own deepening suspicions, she tries to get him to leave which he does not want to do. Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton play the similarly named Charlies and do a superb job of playing off each other. Hitchcock can be a trifle obvious occasionally, but it is an enjoyable thriller.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Tripp Burton – John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a pure examination of American history, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the prime achievement in that trilogy. Led by John Wayne’s most tender performance and astonishing color cinematography, Ford gives us an astonishing, exciting, funny, and ultimately heart-breaking exploration on what it means to be an exceptional American.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

(dir. Preston Sturges) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Preston Sturges made a lot of really funny movies, but he never matched the complete artistry of Sullivan’s Travels. The film is funny, but it is also sad and honest as Sturges (and Sullivan) grapple with the meaning of comedy and the purpose of laughing in the face of tragedy. No other Hollywood film has confronted the purpose of Hollywood as well as this film has, and few films have given us as great a final moment as Sullivan’s Travels.

The Third Man (1949)

(dir. Carol Reed) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – The expressionistic cinematography of Robert Krasker helps give life to Carol Reed’s filming of the Grahame Greene story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as he arrives in Venice to meet with his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find him dead under mysterious circumstances. As Cotten attempts to put the pieces together, the affair takes increasingly sinister turns until the final act reveal that will leave the audience thrilled.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Carol Reed is an unsung master of suspense, not talked about enough in the category of his greatest peers. The Third Man, his masterpiece, is as engaging, tense, and witty as any post-war thriller has ever been, filling that screen with shadowy movie stars and a Graham Greene script that sparkles.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

(dir. John Huston) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Avarice and greed have never been explored in greater detail on screen than in this film in which Humphrey Bogart gives perhaps his greatest performance as a paranoid prospector who mistrusts everyone including his partner, Tim Holt, in his search for gold in Mexico. As good as Bogart and Holt are, though, the film is stolen lock, stock, and barrel by the great Walter Huston as a toothless old prospector with a hearty laugh. It was the veteran actor’s fifty-third film and the one that would win him an Oscar for the film written and directed by his son, John, who would win an Oscar himself for his fine direction.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

(dir. Preston Sturges) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Preston Sturges produced a string of comedies between 1940 and 1944 that had made him a household name. However, my favorite of his comedies is from 1948 and is not as well known, but even funnier. In Unfaithfully Yours, Rex Harrison plays a symphony conductor who thinks his wife may be cheating on him. Over the course of three different pieces of music, his fantasies play out as to how to deal with the situation, from planning the perfect murder, nobly writing her a check and telling her to be happy, to playing Russian roulette with her possible paramour. When he actually tries to pull off these scenarios, they go hopelessly and humorously wrong.

Wesley’s List

Peter’s List

Tripp’s List

Thomas’ List

  • Casablanca
  • Citizen Kane
  • Fantasia
  • Gaslight
  • The Lost Weekend
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Rebecca
  • The Third Man
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Bicycle Thieves
  • Black Narcissus
  • Casablanca
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • How Green Was My Valley
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Notorious
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • Bicycle Thieves
  • Black Narcissus
  • Casablanca
  • Citizen Kane
  • Double Indemnity
  • The Great Dictator
  • Notorious
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • The Third Man
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Citizen Kane
  • His Girl Friday
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets
  • A Letter to Three Wives
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Unfaithfully Yours

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