Feature: 10 Best Films of the 1940s

Continuing looking back at some forgotten classics and memorable movies of the past, this time Platform Online takes a look at the best films of the 1940s.

10. Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer)

‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all. It’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.’

A ‘40s list would be incomplete without a film noir and truth be told, I could have picked one of a dozen to be the representative, but Detour makes the cut because noirs are known for their femme fatales and Ann Savage’s Vera is almost certainly the biggest bitch of them all. Poor Al Roberts, who has just been involved in a death he fears he’ll be wrongly blamed for, picks up a hitchhiking Vera (along with his Unluckiest Man in Cinema award), but by a twist of fate, Vera knows a lot more of the murdered man than Al bargained for and the film takes off from there. Ulmer’s cynical, multilayered tale shows what you can accomplish on a shoestring budget with no stars.

Favourite bit: Al confers with himself as to why he should take off and hide Haskell’s body instead of calling the police for help. He reasons to take Haskell’s wallet – he never intended to rob him of course, but how else will he pay for gas?

Did you know? Wim Wenders described Ann Savage’s performance as Vera as ‘30 years ahead of its time’.

09. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)

‘Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.’

You want ‘banter’? You could do a lot worse than His Girl Friday: a lightening quick screwball comedy starring the untouchable Cary Grant as an unscrupulous journalist that tries to keep his ex, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) around through, well, unscrupulous means. As far as we know, it’s the first film to have characters talk over each other, but aside from the comedy (and it is very funny, I assure you), Hawks explores themes such as journalistic ethics, the judicial system and political corruption and all this means His Girl Friday has lost none of its punch 70 years on.

Favourite bit: In light of a new murder scoop, Walter drops a news item about a Chinese earthquake and relegates Hilter to the funny pages to make room. He insists, however, that a story about a rooster stay put as it is ‘human interest.’

Did you know? The Coen brothers took inspiration from Rosalind Russell for Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s character in The Hudsucker Proxy.

08. Bambi (1942, David Hand)

Disney’s greatest film is often remembered solely for the death scene of Bambi’s mother, but it is the 70 minute whole that has seen it last as the studio’s masterpiece of masterpieces. The delicate, flowing animation; the misleadingly dark plot; the brilliant cast of characters; the intelligent use of colours to outline Bambi’s psychological state; the perfectly internalised forest world that the film’s cast exist in. Disney peels away the Hollywood gloss, leaving us with something beautiful, haunting and unforgettable.

Favourite bit: Bambi learns that he must be prepared to fight other males in order to mate.

Did you know? A test animation of baby Bambi stuck on a fallen tree-trunk was sufficiently charming to convince Walt Disney to make the film.

07. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)

‘I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.’

Louis Mazzini is in the business of cutting tress – family trees, that is. His mother was once part of the wealthy D’Ascoyne family, but after choosing love over status, was renounced and disinherited. Following her death, Mazzini learns that she is to be denied a burial in the family plot and as an act of vengeance, decides to become Duke of D’Ascoyne by leapfrogging eight other relatives to the position – setting the stage for the classiest, most chivalrous murder spree in cinema.

Favourite bit: Louis ponders how to deal with one Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, but as fortune would have it, Admiral Horatio’s naval vessel sinks in an accident and being the honourable sort, decides to go down with the ship.

Did you know? Alec Guinness plays all eight D’Ascoyne family members.

06. Citizen Kane (1940, Orson Welles)

‘I always gagged on the silver spoon.’

Yes, yes, the obligatory entry for the Greatest Film of All Time. While it’s known primarily for its inspired utilisation of techniques like deep focus, non-linear narrative, montage, even just plain old sticking the camera on the floor and showing us the ceiling . What keeps me returning to this classic is Welles’s performance as the titular character, as well as a script so good you will struggle to find a handful of films more elegantly or sharply written. It isn’t eulogised solely because it’s important, or because it was so revolutionary, or because it’s the darling of the critics and directors, or because it’s de rigueur, Citizen Kane is loved because it is a film of tremendous, enduring quality.

Favourite bit: ‘A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.’

Did you know? This was Orson Welles’s first feature film. He was just 25-years-old.

05. Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

‘The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.’

It’s puzzling that when people debate as to what is Hitchcock’s best work, Shadow of a Doubt is seldom mentioned. Every bit the equal of his more famous canon, we’re presented a darkly comic look into the lives of an ordinary American family that gets an injection of spice in the form of good ol’ Uncle Charlie – very possibly a serial killer on the run. His niece (also called Charlie) swiftly goes from fawning adoration to suspecting her uncle of being a mass murder. Shadow of a Doubt is one the master of suspense’s true masterworks.

Favourite bit: Two old farts at the dinner table discuss how they’d go about killing each other in pursuit of the perfect murder.

Did you know? Hitchcock has famously cited Shadow of a Doubt as his favourite film. Great taste, great director.

04. The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)

‘You live and you suffer.’

Antonio has a problem. It’s post-war Italy and he’s finally managed to wrangle himself a job sticking posters up around town. He needed a bike for the job, so sold precious items to fund the purchase, but as the title of the film suggests, it is stolen. Cue Antonio and his son (played by the remarkable Enzo Staiola) rushing through the city to find the pilfered bicycle. The story could be written on a napkin it’s so sparse, but is the uncompromising portrayal of everyday life (as well as the use of non-professional actors) that has rightly given this film its reputation as one of the all time greats. A neo-realist masterpiece.

Favourite bit: The ending will make you feel like going for a long, solitary walk.

Did you know? Young Bruno was nearly run over twice in the film as he crosses the street. The entire film was shot on location so this incident was unrehearsed – the cars just happened to be passing by at the time of shooting the scene.

03. I Love You Again (1940, W.S. Van Dyke)

‘Eighteen days alone on a boat is certainly a long time to be alone on a boat for eighteen days!’

William Powell plays a frigid business man who, after banging his head on a joyless cruise, awakens as the charismatic conman he’d apparently been nine years prior. It also turns out that he’s madly infatuated with his wife (Myrna Loy) who plans to divorce him, which sees him trying to win her over (again). Roger Ebert once said that William Powell was to talking what Fred Astaire was to dancing. A truly apt description – this is one of his most accomplished comic performances and when you chuck in Myrna Loy, you get an underrated, criminally under seen delight that is every bit the equal of any screwball comedy of its time.

Favourite bit: Powell imitates a cooing bird.

Did you know? This was the ninth film Powell and Loy made together. They’d go on to do five more.

02. The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’

‘Why do you want to dance?’ asks ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov. ‘Why do you want to live?’ retorts would-be ballerina, Victoria Page. The Red Shoes at its heart is about how far one is prepared to go to excel at an art. Page (Moira Shearer) finds herself in quite an unconventional love triangle where she must choose between professional success (Lermantov) or love (prodigious music composer, Julian Craster). What makes Powell and Pressburger so unique is that while other British directors of the time were concerned with cinéma vérité, the Archers produced bright, colourful fantasy films with distinctively British characters at the centre. The Red Shoes takes this mantra, throws in a dark undercurrent for good measure and paints it all with the most spectacular Technicolor cinematography.

Favourite bit: The entire 15-minute ballet sequence is astonishing.

Did you know? This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films, influencing the boxing scenes in Raging Bull.

01. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

‘War starts at midnight!’

What does it mean to be British? At its core, that is the take-home message of The Archers’ 160 minute magnum opus. We are taken wistfully through the life of General Clive Candy: from a young, impertinent solider with gentlemanly ideas of what is considered acceptable wartime behaviour; to the same man, only much older, with less hair, but possessing the same principles regarding war’s code of conduct. The difference being that the latter iteration of Mr. Candy is living through Nazism: where fair play is an extinct concept and where guys like Candy are now relics of a bygone age. It would be a triumph in filmmaking with this story alone, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp also tracks the remarkably touching friendship between Candy and German soldier, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) – daring for a film made in 1943 – as well as Candy’s search for true love.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film made with overwhelming heart, warmth and love that I watch at least a few times every year. I had my first viewing of it several years ago and to this day, it is still the most wonderful movie I have ever come across.

Favourite bit: Clive is told his speech to the BBC has been scrapped: ‘What was your position before this (war), sir?’ he probes. ‘What? A lawyer! Well, I was a soldier. And before that, I suppose you were at college. And I was a soldier. And I was a soldier when you were a baby, and before you were born, sir, when you were nothing but a toss-up between a girl’s and a boy’s name, I was a soldier then!’

Did you know? Winston Churchill hated it and wanted the film banned.


Craig Nye