Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1940s

A lot of things changed in the 1940s. The physical and mental landscapes of the world’s population was massively impacted by the events of war. Despite this, we can be very grateful that movies were still made throughout that time, and in many cases they tell a story of that turbulent period both on- and off-screen. European cinema was effectively shut off for the six years that the war raged on for, except for an odd outlier here and there, while Hollywood went through a period of struggle and change that eventually left a fatal mark on the ‘Studio System’ that defined the decade previous. The stars were still around, and the movies were still attempting to be big and profitable, but there were clearly changes afoot, even as early as 1940.

Even though there was a movement in the US called ‘isolationism’, which derived from a thought that ‘there’s no war on this side of the Atlantic, so no need to talk about it’, there was an undertone of seriousness and themes of ‘world affairs’ creeping into Hollywood films in 1940 and 1941 (e.g. The Mortal Storm, So Ends Our Night and The Great Dictator). After Pearl Harbour and the American’s subsequent entry into the war, this undertone grew into outright patriotism, with the studios ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort and making a neat profit in the process. The Government supported the movie industry as it assisted in its propaganda – the portrayal of all-American heroes (The Story of GI Joe) and the grotesque Nazi villain (To Be Or Not To Be) began and continued in Hollywood for years to come. For better or worse, it gave the likes of John Wayne and John Ford a perfect platform to go carte-blanche with their depictions of similar heroic characters from the Western frontier.

As fascism and ultra-conservatism was defeated with the fall of the Third Reich, many elements of what the US was fighting against crept into the mindset of post-war politics, increasingly defined by an ideological war with communist Russia. This had an impact on Hollywood from 1945 onwards, when the ludicrous and paranoia-driven House of Un-American Activities Committee was set up to combat an alleged dilution of communist ‘thought’ (code for labour disputes) in the film industry, leading to the infamous ‘blacklisting’ of movie employees.

Among all of this, there was a slow-burning manifestation of moodiness and ‘cool’ in film, stemming from Hollywood and then permeating into the rest of recovering Europe as the decade progressed. Film noir, in my opinion, is the best thing to come out of cinema in the 1940s. Cynical, brooding, sexy, tongue-in-cheek and always entertaining, films that were made in this style had an underground feel. A non-mainstream, ‘going against the grain’ sense of indifference and ambivalence. Taking its source material from detective fiction by the likes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, these films usually dealt with crime, alienation, and intrigue – in fact, there is ongoing debate as to what defines film noir. Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window), Jacques Tourner (Out of the Past), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce) brought earlier expressionist elements from their experiences working in Europe to the fore in noir films, while Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo) and Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place) revelled in the new-found capabilities of its appeal during and after the war. Without its popularity, Humphrey Bogart may never have been the defining Hollywood icon of the era. And we may never have had the so-called ‘femme fatales’ – the likes of Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and Jane Greer are all so influential on power-house female acting even today.

The 1940s has its recognisable ‘winners’ when it comes to ‘best of’ lists of films from the decade. For example, the Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time currently has eight films in there, and most of them are understandably held up by many to be the greatest of all time – in the cases of Casablanca, The Third Man and Citizen Kane, we are dealing with timeless classics! Here is the list:

  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) (=78)
  • The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) (=67)
  • Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) (=63)
  • The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed) (=63)
  • Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) (=41)
  • Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozo) (=21)
  • Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied) (16)
  • Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) (3)

I love all of these (with the exception of Late Spring, which is on my list to watch). But I also love the following five films, and I think they are worthy of the above list as well.

How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)

Out of all the films John Ford directed (over 140 across seven decades), one of his most tender, non-American-based examples stands out for me. Ford’s familial connection to the West of Ireland led him to make The Quiet Man in the early 1960s, but long before that he made an even more impressive film set in the equally ‘Celtic-imbued’ landscape of Wales – How Green Was My Valley. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Welsh descendent Richard Llewellyn about life in a coal mining town in the South Wales Valleys, and filming commenced under William Wyler’s direction but was later handed over to Ford by the producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights a year earlier, the film was shot entirely on a purposely-built set in Malibu, California due to the logistical challenges imposed on international filming by the war. In fact, the set was an impressive replica Welsh village, built against the backdrop of the Santa Monica mountains, and in its black-and-white disguise, you would be forgiven for thinking you were ‘down in the valleeees’.

Authenticity is strived for in How Green Was My Valley, and there is a heartfelt honesty that prevails in its messaging (even though it sometimes feels like Ford’s own conservative values are being imposed on us). The story centres around the Morgan family as they navigate the triumphs and tragedies that go with living in a town defined by coal mining. Donald Crisp and Walter Pidgeon give towering performances, a young Roddy McDowall shows much promise, and a stunning Maureen O’Hara steals the show. Arthur Miller’s deep-focus photography is extraordinary for the time, and Ford’s quaint trademarks (spirited monologues, folk songs) are evident throughout. This is a film that looks and feels fresh even today.

Gaslight (1944, George Cukor)

The colloquial term ‘gaslighting’ came my way not that long ago, when someone I know told me that they felt they were experiencing the treatment at the hands of someone else. Unbeknownst to them, I pointed out that the term derives from this film, or more correctly from the British play by Patrick Hamilton that the film is based on. And there is no better nor more powerful example of how this cruel manipulation and abuse can be manifested than in this story. The big budget 1944 version of the story has Ingrid Bergman portraying a wealthy young woman who falls in love and marries a seemingly well-to-do gentleman (Charles Boyer) while in Italy studying music. The memories of her aunt, who was murdered mysteriously in London when she was little, preoccupies her mind, and slowly but surely her husband progresses a sinister plot to take over her estate and all its riches, which were inherited from her aunt.

Gaslight is a psychological thriller that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcockian world (two of its stars, Bergman and Joseph Cotten have inhabited characters in Hitchcock films also), but it is also unique in its own tone and style. George Cukor was an established director, who was more at home with comedy-dramas but he hit the mark on the psycho-paranoia front with this one, something remarkable for the mid-1940s. With Angela Lansbury in one of her earliest and best roles as a conniving nanny accomplice, Bergman creating a believable sense of a woman losing one’s mind, and Cukor’s setting of shadowy London streets and a ghostly Manderley-esque big house for most of the film, everything you witness is taut, maddening, and effective.

The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)

In the years following the end of World War II, Hollywood infrequently cast a lens upon its impact on American society.Thanks to some outward-thinking directors, there are some hard-hitting examples, one being The Lost Weekend directed by Austrian-born Billy Wilder. This is an unflinching and uncompromising film about alcohol addiction, and Wilder utilised all the knack of cinematic techniques that he had honed from his earlier forays into noir, romance and comedy to make this, which is essentially a serious treatise about PTSD. Later examples such as Leaving Las Vegas and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, owes much to this masterpiece.

Ray Milland, a friendly-face matinee star going against type, plays a struggling writer who cannot escape the bottle despite a doting girlfriend transfixed in trying to help him (played by Jane Wyman). Over the course of a ‘long weekend,’ he spirals from one desperate affair to the next – constantly drunk, begging a prostitute for money, ending up in a hospital, stealing and pawning his girlfriend’s fur coat and constantly experiencing the DTs. A somewhat happy ending follows, but the manner in which Wilder presents this impactful and ground-breaking story is momentous. The psychological turmoil of the main character is externalised via moody lighting, uneasy music (by Miklós Rózsa) and expressionistic cinematography (by John F. Seitz), and it all makes for a thrilling and dramatic movie.

Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourner)

Not surprisingly, Out of the Past was more a cult film rather than a straight-up mainstream success. It is a complex, fatalistic and intricate fable about crime, double-crossing and murder. The cultured movie aficionados would say it is one of the best examples of film noir ever made, and I have no reason to disagree. It has Robert Mitchum at his most Robert Mitchum (never without a cigarette). Jane Greer gives us arguably the best femme fatale in movie history. And Kirk Douglas plays the villain, which he rarely did and probably should have done more of, because it suited him.

Jacques Tourner made some of the best horror films of the 1940s and 1950s – Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Night of the Demon. But given his skill in being an editor as well as a director, and his propensity for ground-breaking black and white lighting, the walk into film noir was not that difficult. Out of the Past was written by Daniel Mainwaring (apparently with help from the noir specialist James M. Cain), and it is told half in flashback, and half in the present. Tourner configures the bleak material into something effortlessly sleek and stylish. Even though the main characters are all doomed in the end, their characterisations are developed at a frantic pace and their closets are full of skeletons, revealed second by second with astounding and unforgettable visuals to compliment.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)

Generally, adventure films are family friendly affairs, with the caveat in examples like the Indiana Jones movies being that they must allow for parental guidance. Adult adventure entertainment is indeed widespread now – shows like The Witcher, Andor or The Boys are not exactly something you would sit down with your children and watch. Back in the 1940s, an adult adventure film was hard to find, but John Huston was on to it, and with his simply irresistible Hemingwayesque Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he delivered a masterpiece. As he would with The African Queen three years later, he travelled with his Hollywood cast and crew to a foreign location (i.e. Mexico) and made the most of the exotic settings to enable a tangible effect with the story – a story adapted by Huston from a novel by the mysterious B. Tavern, and one that can be summed up in the self-explained title.

But as much as one would expect this story about gold and greed to be obvious and derivative, it is not. And that is as much down to the incredible and committed acting as it is to Huston’s brilliance in eking out the three-dimensionality of the main characters. Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father Walter Huston all assemble as an unlikely trio of gold prospectors or more pertinently, desperate men, in search of the motherlode in the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Mexico. Their ‘quest’ is challenged at every step, at once by the harsh and unforgiving landscape they find themselves in, and at another by their own incompetence and utter selfishness that drives them. The film has a whirlwind start, a winding journey in the central narrative, and a clever, satisfactory conclusion, providing a sort of template for future action adventure films that would clean up at the box office on a weekly basis. With Sierra Madre, the original is undoubtedly the best!

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