The beginning of the baby boom.  Big band music.  The Jitterbug.  Zoot suits.  The Slinky.  Frozen dinners.  The rise of the suburbs.  The A-bomb.  Howdy-Doody.

 

Ah yes...this was the 40's.

 

I have decided to conclude my on-going series of the TEN BEST FILMS of past decades with the 1940's.  Arguably, this decade shaped our contemporary society more than any other.  It was a time in our history when the very fate of democracy hinged squarely on the backs of all of the brave souls that fought overseas with Allied forces in World War II.   US isolation was shattered forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which launched America into the War and saw in conclude with two separate Atomic bombs being dropped on Japanese soil.  The US and Allied effort against Adolf Hitler and fascist regimes ended near the middle of the decade, but the destructive path left in the wake of American A-bombs fostered a new "Cold War" between the US and the Soviet Union.  This would manifest itself into the social, political, and cultural lives of the two countries for the remainder of the century.

 

When all of the gallant soldiers returned home, the baby boom was started.  The stork visited homes in record numbers during this period and we are still feeling its effects to this day.  Along with this social change came the expansion of the highways by President Eisenhower and the beginning of the rise of the suburbs (which became the place to settle down and raise your family).  The rise and advent of the television (which was halted by WWII and finally merged in the late 40's and especially in the 50's and beyond) led to post-war inventions in Tupperware and aluminum foil, which paved the way for the TV dinners for the busy families of the 50's.

 

Culturally, the 40's were a distinctive period.  The new dance craze, The Jitterbug, was the sweep of the nation and zoot suits were the thing to wear (that was until the Wartimes department decided that more material was needed for the war effort).  The face of North American sports changed forever after the war.  Jackie Robinson became the first black professional athlete outside of boxing (by the way, the minimum player salary was between $5000-50,000 per year).  Joe Louis continued to reign as boxing's heavyweight champion well into the 1940's.  Beyond sports, the modern paperback book made its appearance and book clubs proliferated.  Books sales went from a million to nearly 12 million per year within a very short period of time.  This, of course, gave rise to a whole new generation of literary voices.  Beyond the written word, new technological advances - like the computer - were taking form.  One early model, weighing 30 tons and standing two stories high, was completed in 1945.  Eat your heart out, Microsoft.

 

Perhaps more than any other decade - and most important to this column - the 1940's was the decade of the movies.  Despite this period starting off rather poorly for the silver screen (with WWII in full tilt, the attention and efforts of people were taken away from creating make-believe), the movies came back strong.  Coasting in on the technological developments that the 30's introduced, the movie industry made a daring rebound in the middle of the decade and became more successful than any other time since.  Movie innovations - like sound recording, lighting, special effects, cinematography and use of color - drove the cinema into the modern age and films became more sophisticated than ever.  As a result, attendance swelled to record highs.  More people went to the movies on a weekly basis during the latter half of the 40's than any other decade in recorded history.  The cinema was alive and breathed with an intensity.  The decade saw the rise of the Technicolor feature and the birth of "film noir".  It was an exciting time for film fans, to be sure.

 

The best films of the 40's - at least in my mind - have an ethereal level of power and stature.  This so called "Golden Age" of the film world is aptly described.  Some of the most memorable and inspiring works of the cinema saw the light of day during this decade.  As with my previous lists for the best films that the last few decades had to offer, my goal with my TEN BEST FILMS of the 40's was variety.  Glancing over my list should acutely reflect my aims.  There are comedic satires, westerns, moral fables, subtle works of war time propaganda, haunting film noirs, intriguing thrillers, a wonderfully visionary animated work, and one particular masterpiece that was the handiwork of a young 25 year-old maverick that just may be the single greatest American film ever made.  I will give you a hint...look at the number one pick.

 

Okay...enough from me.  Why don't you put aside your Charlie Parker and Billy Holiday records for a minute and check out my picks for the best films of the 40's, which are...

 

1.    CITIZEN KANE (1941)

 
 

“Boy genius” and America’s “wonderkid” Orson Welles was a relative tyke when he made CITIZEN KANE (amazingly, he was just 25).  It just  may go down as one of the most stunning and highly regarded debut films in motion picture history.  It has also received accolades by the critical elite over the last half a century as being the greatest American film ever made.  Is it?  It’s hard to see another film that has garnered and deserved the praise that it has been bestowed with.  CITIZEN KANE is many things:  it’s a stirring and sensational account of a fictional newspaper publisher named Charles Foster Kane (less-than-subtly modeled after the real William Randolph Hearst); it’s a technical tour de force that introduced audiences to innovations not seen before (such as overlapping dialogue and sound effects, complex flashbacks and a disjointed, non-linear narrative, innovative cinematography that included Greg Toland’s landmark use of low angle shots, noirish lighting, deep focus compositions, lengthy takes, montage, and daring tracking shots); and it’s a morality play about the loss of innocence.  At the center of it all was Welles, who became the first person ever to receive simultaneous nominations at the Oscars in four categories (producer, actor, writing, and directing).  This is the film that rewrote the aesthetic handbook on how movies would be made.  It is, simply put, not only the best film of the 40’s, but a true watershed film for the history of the medium as a whole.

 
 

2.    IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

 
 

Jimmy Stewart plays the sympathetic, congenial everyman to sublime perfection in Frank Capra’s great Christmas fable IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  It was a disastrous box office flop when initially released in 1946, but the film astounded subsequent audiences in the late 60’s and 70’s when it’s copyright expired and the film entered into the public domain.  TV stations capitalized on this and just about every channel imaginable could play the film…over and over again.  It soon became the film to watch during the holiday season.  Based on "The Greatest Gift," an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not so much a Christmas film as it is a heartrending and bittersweet post-War Dickensian tale.  It chronicles how a good, decent man – at his lowest point in life – is shown the way to redemption by a mysterious friend and learns that life’s riches are not monetary.  In short, the man – George Bailey (played in one of my favourite performances of all-time by Stewart) - grows to realize the errors of his ways and is able to discover that he truly has a “wonderful” life.  The film is manipulative, sentimental, and overwhelmingly heart-warming…but masterfully so.  By their own admission, this is Capra and Stewart’s favourite film that they have made.  It’s one of mine too.  It reminds us that great art does not need to be nihilistic and gloomy to be invigorating.  Even fantasy can endlessly inspire.

 
 

3.    CASABLANCA (1942)

 
 

I’d be a fool not to include this beloved romance on my list.  CASABLANCA is one of the most cherished films of all-time, perhaps because it works on so many fundamental levels.  It’s not just a romance picture set during the ravages of war.  It’s more than that.  It’s a story of lost love, heroism, intrigue, and it also manages to be a film with a social conscience when many films could be bothered.  Set in WWII in Casablanca (that’s in North Africa), we see the great Humphrey Bogart play his most famous role as the cynical and tough saloon/nightclub owner Rick Blain.  His Café American is a haven for all types, both good and bad.  It’s filled on a nightly basis with smugglers, refugees, freedom fighters, and Nazis.  Rick tries to maintain a healthy decorum in his place, but when an old flame walks into his joint, Ilsa (the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman), Rick is forced to decide where his moral compass gravitates to, not to mention whether or not he loves this woman enough to let her go (to save her life) for good.  As a love triangle tale set within the world of espionage where democracy battles it out with totalitarianism, CASABLANCA is a film with many facets, and they all work harmoniously together to create one of the most indelible and memorable films ever.  As a film about the ultimate in self-sacrifice and duty, CASABLANCA still stands the test of time.  To many, this is the epitome of a "classic".

 

4.    THE THIRD MAN (1949)

 

Orson Welles makes his second appearance on my list in the brilliant and atmospheric THE THIRD MAN, the single greatest film noir ever made.  The film is so wonderfully evocative and moody.  It tells a story of a crumbling Vienna following World War II and spins a yarn about the social, cultural, and moral decay of society in the midst of oppressive corruption.  This is a darkly pessimistic work filmed in a distinctively Hitchcockian vein.  British director Carol Reed paints the screen lavishly with expressionistic landscapes that are drowned out with deep blacks, penetrating shadows, and ominous figures that lurk out of desolate street corners.  The film made exceptional use of odd camera angles, wide-angle distortions, and pitch perfect location shooting to create a mosaic that helps to paint the city of Vienna as an environment of moral ambiguity where no one can be trusted.  Starring Joseph Cotton (also from CITIZEN KANE) and Welles (who is introduced in one of the great reveals in movie history) and with breathtaking cinematography and an effectively minimalist music score (all the music is done simply with a zinther), THE THIRD MAN lingers with you even after repeated viewings.

 
 

5.    THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

 
 

Boggie makes it on my list again in John Huston’s milestone detective-film noir (it was his directorial debut).  The film – adapted from the Dashiell Hammatt tough edged and stirring novel – deals with the tougher-than-nails San Francisco P.I. named Sam Spade (yet another memorable screen performance by Bogart) who is hired by an attractive client to perform an odd assignment.  He is to follow her for the evening and during this time Spade’s partner is shot dead and he becomes a prime suspect.  All of this comes to a head when Spade sees himself thrown into a world of shadowy and vile characters (two played brilliantly by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre) that all are on a mission to find a mysterious “black bird”, the stolen Maltese Falcon.  The film is sinister, moody, tense, and is filled with greedy and despicable characters that all careen down to an ending that is somber and so down beat that it’s sure to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.  Largely considered to be the first American film noir, THE MALTESE FALCON deserves its reputation as one of the great classical murder mysteries of the last century and one of the best examples of combining mystery, romance, and suspense.  Bogart went from B-movie actor to the upper echelon of anti-hero worship in Hollywood with this film.  He was the atypical screen protagonist everyone wanted to be. 

 
 

6.    THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

 
 

Charlie Chaplin may forever be remembered for playing a “Little Tramp” in a series of silent pictures, but in 1940 – 13 years after the advent of sound in movies – Chaplin decided to take his first foray into making a “talkie”.  The result was THE GREAT DICTATOR, which just may go down as one of the most cunning and daring slapstick satires ever mounted.  The fact that Chaplin had the tenacity to lampoon Hitler and Nazism at a time when the world was embroiled in bitter conflicts with fascism abroad is astonishing.  In the film he plays the dual role of a poor Jew-with-no-name barber and a Hitler-inspired dictator named Adenoid Hynkel of the European country of Tomania.  Obviously, the barber and the despotic and tyrannical leader will become involved in a case of mistaken identity and the film becomes awash in pointed and purposeful jabs at totalitarian rule (one of the cinema’s most unforgettable moments shows Hynkel dancing around his room playing with a large balloon in the shape of a world globe).  The end of the film has Chaplin engage in a passionate and long monologue about the importance of human rights and the need for people to grab a hold of hope before is slips through their grasps.  THE GREAT DICTATOR is as brave a film as it’s funny, and like all great works, it finds the time to be about something and make us think while making us laugh.

 
 

7.    THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

 
 

Boggie film number 3 and Huston film number 2 on my list.  THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE was the film that introduced me to Bogart and his wonderful performance as a downtrodden American outsider really cast a spell over me.  One of the very first American films to be shot outside of the US, MADRE tells the story of a trio of ill-matched treasure seekers as they engage in a dire and desperate search for gold south of the border in Mexico.  The film has the trappings of a typical adventure yarn mixed with an equal part Western sensibility, but the long-standing impression the film leaves with viewers is what a great and layered character study it is on how corruption and thirsty greed can bring out the worst in every man.  Much like a later film - WALL STREET (1987) - MADRE is a film that speaks out on the debilitating effects that gluttony and self-indulgence can have on men who search for riches as the answer to all of their problems.  This 1948 film is a unmitigated triumph as an investigation into the darkest reaches of the human condition, and it contains – for my money – Bogart’s least appreciated performance as a largely against type, paranoid, and vicious prospector.

 
 

8.    NOTORIOUS (1946)

 
 

This film list of the best of 1940’s cinema would not be complete without a selection involving Alfred Hitchcock.  The undisputed “master of suspense” created one of his most respected thrillers in NOTORIOUS, a cold, chilling, and compelling picture that gloriously intertwines romance and spy intrigue.  It is a dark and layered film which stars Ingrid Bergman as an agonized American spy who becomes in a love triangle (shades of CASABLANCA) with a Nazi agent and another Federal man (played by Cary Grant).  This is one of Hitch’s more twisted and compelling films – his ninth American outing – and it was also well known for Its great use of the “MacGuffin”, or device that propels the narrative.  Beyond its characters, the film is also a deeply nuanced look at love, betrayal, trust, and moral and political duty.  Although not respected by many critics of the time, NOTORIOUS is now regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most masterful creations that also headlines two leading actors at the height of their glamorous appeal.  It also contains the most celebrated, passionate, and elongated kissing scenes in movie history.

 
 

9.   RED RIVER (1948)

 
 

Howard Hawks’ RED RIVER is widely regarded as one of the best and most complex westerns ever committed to celluloid, and for good reason.  It is a sweeping and epically mounted production that uses the simple story of a cattle drive to frame around themes of rebellion and competition.  This was Hawks' very first western and his command over the material is unparalleled.  He manages to evoke scope both in terms of the vistas and narrative (the story covers a span of over a decade) and it still emerges as one of his most ambitious and impressively mounted films (Hawks is revered as a master of genre filmmaking, and his take on the western here is tremendous).  Made for the then astounding sum of $3 million, RED RIVER does a incredible job of highlighting the tense standoffs and tensions that are forged when bitter and ruthless man come to a head.  Featuring strong performances (yes, John Wayne is truly great in the film in a performance only to be eclipsed by his work in THE SEARCHERS a decade later), brilliant direction, and a stimulating screenplay, RED RIVER still works marvelously as a transcending western opus.

 
 

10.    FANTASIA (1940)

 
 

Walt Disney was a true filmmaking pioneer by every definition of the word.  After creating incredibly beautiful and complex animated films like SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in 1937 and the remarkable PINOCCHIO in 1940, Disney crafted something even more revolutionary in his ingeniously conceived FANTASIA.  The film was yet another technical marvel for Disney (it featured groundbreaking “Fantasound”,  stereo-like multi-channel soundtracks which sounded better and cost more than the average live action picture of the time).  More than that, FANTASIA works splendidly as one of the great experimental films of all time.  The film takes eight classical and memorable compositions and combines them with some of the most colourful and eye-catchy animation that the world had ever seen.  The film’s animated/musical sequences highlight an abundance of themes and ventures, like heaven and hell, the four seasons, classical mythology, and order versus chaos.  If anything, FANTASIA is a miraculous achievement in bold and exuberant imagination and wit for the genre of animation.  It was one of the first animated films that I recall seeing where I began to consider the genre as a rightful art form.  Disney made numerous animated films, but this one is his most mature, articulate, and wickedly resourceful.

 
 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 

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