7 Great Films From the 1940s

By 1940 ‘talkies’ were taking over as the norm for entertainment and the moving picture, with Film-Noir becoming rich with content and the war signalling the anti-Nazi films, and the international representation of different cultures dealings with it. It’s very much a decade that balances clear representation of society and the idea of distracting entertainment, with both particulars bringing quality films that would eventually stand the test of the time. Here are just 7 of those films, that speak volumes for their genre, and also for the contemporary world they were born into.

The Great Dictator (1940)

director: Charlie Chaplin | Runtime: 2h 5mins | Comedy, War

It’s pretty much cinematic folklore now to consider Chaplin an icon, but when he wasn’t using his genius to pioneer filmmaking he was also using his skills as a provocateur. Using the medium of film to express his right to freedom of speech, and in this case against the fascist movements coming out of Europe. On the surface Chaplin still uses his classic approach to storytelling to entertain as well, as we follow a Jewish barber trying to avoid the repressing regime of Tomanian Dictator, and lookalike, Adenoid Hynkel. As the barber continuously gets embroiled in the regime he gets confused with the doppelganger Dictator himself.

It cannot be understated how important this film’s message is, especially in a time when not everyone was so anti-fascist as well. As the Jewish barber has the people at his will, he uses his time to deliver one of the greatest monologues ever filmed or written, explaining the power of goodness in all it’s form making those who oppress it the pinnacle of hate. But for all it’s societal importance, Chaplin also uses his pioneering status to bring true filmmaking genius. With the ‘talkies’ takeover well into it’s peak by now, Chaplin’s transition could potentially come off as panic, an attempt to salvage his relevance by becoming too talkative. But the truth is Chaplin is honest in his own style, using is now iconic slapstick to deliver pure joy and laughter but using his new found words at the most perfect times, and in doing so becomes not just a master of comedy but a transitional genius as well.

Gilda (1946)

director: Charles Vidor | Runtime: 1h 50mins | Film Noir, Romance, Drama

One of the most prominent things about the golden age of Hollywood was the idea of the ‘star system’, and idea of that highlights the importance of the celebrity aspect of an actors life and the iconic representation they give the industry. Probably the biggest examples are people like Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and also Gilda‘s leading star, Rita Hayworth. In iconic Noir fashion, this film revolves around small-time gambler Johnny Farrell (played by Glenn Ford, another great product of the time ), struggling to work his new job when he finds out his ex-lover has become his new employers wife.

For all it’s classic Noir tropes the one it nails perfectly is it’s ‘femme-fatale’, Gilda. This is where the genius of the star power comes into play, with Rita Hayworth’s emphatic presence demanding the majority of the film, much like you’d imagine it did on-set. Even though all of the great Noir’s do have their ‘femme-fatale’, there’s something so agonisingly perfect in the portrayal of Gilda. Her radiant looks, her flirtatious behaviour, even her acting range is unquestionable. For all this film’s pluses, it’s biggest will always be the character introduction of it’s titular character, and for the genuine aura of glamour that Hayworth possesses from beginning to end.

Rope (1948)

director: Alfred Hitchcock | Runtime: 1h 20mins | Crime, Drama

Being one of the most iconic filmmakers in history it comes as no surprise to see Hitchock’s name on this list, the master of suspense has single handedly made more masterpieces than people have films in their entire career. But the one that wrongfully gets overlooked is probably his most experimentally shot film, Rope. Not experimental in the usual sense, but using long takes at around 10 minutes a pop was a big deal back then. Set entirely in an apartment, two murderers hide their victim’s body in plain sight, with guests arriving continuously, in order to complete their version of the ‘perfect crime’.

What makes Rope so elegant is it’s surfaced simplicity, as Hitchcock takes a step back from what makes him a genius and has faith in his own ability to tell a story. A simple set up with a bold opening shot (a man being killed), this film decisively picks and chooses where it wants to cut, but more importantly allows for it’s writing and acting to carry it through. The films stage play-like tendencies, of entering and exiting characters and single location, just add to the charm of the film. This truly is an unsung hero among Hitchcock’s filmography, replacing the iconic camerawork that’s filled parts of his other work, and simply becomes one beautiful motion of it’s own.

The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)

director: John Huston | Runtime: 2h 6mins | Adventure, Drama

With Film-Noir already being represented pretty heavily on this list, we decided against the inclusion of Huston’s other masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon (1941). But as one of the all time greats it seems wrong not to add this film, winner of Best Director, Original Screenplay and Actor in a Supporting Role, this truly is one of the decades finest achievements. Along with The Maltese Falcon, Huston teams with Bogart again, and follows down on his luck Fred Dobbs as he convinces an old prospector to go in search of gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

As an adventure film this actually has a lot of depth to it, packing in so much in it’s duration it’s absolutely no surprise just how much acclaim this film has. It speaks volumes about the human condition, it’s ability to survive and prosper, while also maintaining that magic of adventure to keep it grounded. Not only that but it’s commentary on the American Dream, while not being as thorough as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), feels strained with such optimism and desperation in equal measures. It’s full of beautiful direction, great chemistry between it’s leading stars and even manages to have a sense of humour – truly a great achievement in itself.

Double Indemnity (1944)

director: Billy Wilder | Runtime: 1h 47mins | Film Noir, Drama

Film-Noir in many respects is an enigmatic genre, even the term genre doesn’t quite define it really, but there are qualities to every single one that really begin to define the term, and no film encompasses every single one like Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity. The story revolves around Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who gets caught up in a murder/insurance fraud scam because of his persuasive new love interest Phyllis. With Phyllis’ husband being the murder in question, more and more heat falls onto the new couple, both from Walter’s boss, and each other.

When you watch Double Indemnity there is a certain familiarity to it, and that’s because every parody or Neo-Noir has taken something from it. It’s low bearing narration, the stunning and dim-lit cinematography and the down and out leading man, these are all tropes that exist because of Film-Noir, and Wilder captures them in all their glory. And despite Gilda being the standout ‘femme-fatale’ in Noir’s rich history, it cannot be understated how wonderful Barbara Stanwyck is as Phyllis. Here presence feels off, her (and the films) sexiness feels deceitful, and in great Noir fashion there is a level of doubt coursing through this film, something that only the best of it’s genre can really do.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

director: Vittorio De Sica | Runtime: 1h 29mins | Drama

The third film on this list from 1948, and our only International one (shameful I know), De Sica’s moving story is now considered to be first page in the book of Italian Neo-Realism. The story is relatively straight forward, it follows Father and Son, Antonio and Bruno, as they set out to retrieve their stolen bike in post-war Italy. With such a simple story though, it’s synopsis really can’t capture the true blessing that’s on show – or what the film is really trying to say.

For the first time on this list we get to explore one of the very first movements in cinema history, something that is talked about but can only really be experienced through the lens of great pieces of film, and it just so happens that this is considered the best of the bunch. It’s genius lies in the simplicity of both it’s onscreen ‘actions’ and story. It becomes apparent that you aren’t watching a man retrieve his bike, but rather guide us through a city in a state of near decay after the war, and with De Sica’s great eye you never lose sight of either the tremendously touching bond between a Father and his Son, or the bigger picture around them. It’s mesmerising in it’s ability to be so raw and so beautiful at the same time.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

director: Robert Hamer | Runtime: 1h 46mins | Comedy, Crime

It may not be the most defining film of the 1940s but in some respects it makes this films all the more sweeter. A dastardly British comedy about a cunning distant relative to the unbelievably rich Duke of D’Ascoyne, and his attempts to murder all eight remaining heirs in order to secure the inheritance. But what’s so unique and gives the film most of it’s hilarity, is all eight heirs being played by one fantastic actor, Alec McGuinness.

I used the term ‘dastardly’ in an attempt to be overly British, but the truth is this film really is just that. Where the majority of this list has been focusing on the Hollywood side of things, this feels like a fresh of breath air and allows you to experience another side of a similar culture, and a lot of this films upper class motifs are the pure embodiment of the British gentleman archetype. But first and foremost this is a comedy, a comedy that is driven solely by the wonderful performances by Alec McGuinness. From heiress to passioned photographer, from a banker to a General, it’s unbelievably clear that, despite not having much depth in the characters, McGuinness is having uncontainable fun with this film which in turn brings you to a similar level.

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