The 10 Best Films of the 1940s

10. Double Indemnity (1944)

Director Billy Wilder and co-author Raymond Chandler set the standard for tantalizing film noir with this cynical, funny, slick and speedy tale of a shady insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) and a married femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who plot to kill her husband. Marred by some improbable machinations bringing in less interesting subsidiary characters in the third act, the film saves some of its best stuff for the end, winding up with a classic interplay between MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.


9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

This sweet remembrance of turn-of-the-century American life hit as Americans were holding their breaths about the outcome of the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Though the film’s Halloween sequence is a bit baggy, the start and the last act are suffused with golden familial tenderness and an endearing longing for a simpler time that maybe was never quite as simple as it seems. Who can forget Grandpa rescuing Esther by being her date to the Christmas Eve dance? Or Esther singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Tootie, one of the most touching musical numbers ever put on film? Audiences who hoped but couldn’t know that the war would end in less than a year would surely have wept at the line, “Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

8. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Preston Sturges’ masterpiece stars Joel McCrea as a socially conscious liberal Hollywood filmmaker who, inspired by a book called O Brother Where Art Thou?, decides to hit the road and pretend to be a hobo to see how the other half lives. What he learns is that making people laugh is a lot more rare than making people cry. This monumental satire of Hollywood cluelessness is also emotionally resonant and far ahead of its time in its  respectful treatment of black Americans.


7. A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Along with All About Eve a couple of years later, this is one of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz films that represented the summit of urbane wit at the movies. It’s equal parts drama, comedy and mystery, a story about three suburban wives away from home for the day who learn in a letter from the beautiful, cultured woman they all admire that she is running off with one of their husbands. But they, and we, won’t learn which one until the end. A young Kirk Douglas gives a particularly wised-up performance as one of the husbands.

6. His Girl Friday (1940)

Still the funniest and best romcom ever made, this lightning-speed newspaper saga is about a devilishly witty editor (Cary Grant) plotting to win back his ex-wife and best reporter (Rosalind Russell) before she leaves for her wedding to an amiable doofus (Ralph Bellamy). No film has zippier banter and the three leads and their love triangle created an everlasting template for the genre.

5. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Jimmy Stewart radiated screen goodness and Frank Capra found him the perfect role in a film that, despite its reputation as “Capra-corn,” has unsettling dark elements of the kind that didn’t ordinarily pop up in family films of the era. The reason that knockout ending comes across so beautifully is precisely because Stewart and Capra genuinely have us anguished about the ruination of George Bailey.


4. Pinocchio (1940)

The Biblical underpinnings of the second and greatest film Walt Disney ever made give it a foundation of morality and gravitas lacking in the others. It remains profound and chilling all these years later.

3. The Third Man (1949)

The shadows and moral murk of postwar Vienna echo the Graham Greene screenplay’s themes about notorious black-marketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and the search for his killer led by his jaded friend Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten). Harry’s ferris-wheel speech about the decadent but brilliant Borgias and the organized but boring Swiss, the chase scene in the sewers and the quietly devastating ending are superlative moments in this complex, troubling noir.

2. Casablanca (1942)

Ever notice that Hollywood hardly ever remakes the truly great ones? They won’t be remaking this one. Perfection can’t be improved upon, and it’s impossible not to laugh when you think of any of today’s actors trying on Humphrey Bogart’s white dinner jacket and attempting to play Rick, that consummate tough guy with a soft spot.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)


Revolutionary in its photography, its storytelling and its editing, not to mention suspenseful and hugely entertaining, Orson Welles’s first film (which he co-wrote with Mankiewicz’s brother Herman, directed and starred in at the age of 25) is one to be savored again and again. Virtually every scene is a marvel in a gripping tale of friendship and overreach in which Cotten made the perfect foil for Welles’ indelible creation, the orphan turned media magnate turned failed politician turned recluse Charles Foster Kane.


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