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Top 50 of 1940s January 31, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , trackback


The unofficial Criterion forum has been conducting a “Lists Project” for a couple of years now. Members submit a list of 50 films from a particular decade every few months and the results are tallied into the top 100 vote getters. At the end of January, a new list for films from the 1940s will be compiled and I’ve been studiously watching and re-watching as many titles from that decade as possible. I thought I would share my contribution, which probably reaches into old Hollywood, especially film noir, more than many of the other members’ lists since that’s what interests me most from the decade. There are still a few notable films I’ve not yet seen due to unavailability, such as several classics of Italian Neorealism, but I feel pleased enough with my final list. I’ve included some brief thoughts on each title, a few of which I’ve also previously discussed.

1.) Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) - Too easy? Perhaps, but Welles’ achievement is undeniable and his masterpiece makes almost every other film of the decade look like a relic of the past while Kane remains as fresh and vibrant as ever. It’s Welles’ own performance, especially in the film’s first half, that pushes Kane past its technological innovations and into a remarkably modern and vital piece of cinema. The perfect American film.

2.) Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946) - Hitchcock’s first true masterpiece. Cary Grant, inching further away from his persona without abandoning it, and Ingrid Bergman have incredible chemistry as possibly the best romantic couple in a Hitchcock film. Grant, in particular, is very effective as the emotionally conflicted Devlin. “Dry your eyes baby, it’s out of character.”

3.) Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) - The true quintessential film noir and a breakthrough for Wilder that established his unmatched versatility and set up scores of pale imitations. Somehow withstands the test of time despite numerous rip-offs and parodies; also managed to inspire a very good pseudo-spin off 35 years later with Body Heat.

4.) The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942) - My favorite of Sturges’ great screwball comedies; Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea are perfect embodiments of the Sturges style and this is the funniest of his many classics. Just thinking about the Ale and Quail Club puts me in stitches.

5.) It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) - My favorite film of any of these, but I controlled myself on placing it higher since even I realize it’s probably not the best picture of the decade. Unfairly maligned by film snobs for its sentimentality (which is an unearned criticism since it’s much darker than its reputation), it affects me like no other film I’ve seen. One of the definitive post-war Hollywood classics and an incredible come back vehicle for Jimmy Stewart, who hadn’t made a movie for five years while on active duty for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

6.) Monsieur Verdoux (Chaplin, 1947) - I can’t possibly imagine how audiences felt after seeing their beloved Charlie Chaplin, the little tramp who had last been seen wickedly mocking Hitler, as a cold-blooded bluebeard, murdering innocent old women for their wealth. An incredibly daring and quite successful attempt at pitch black comedy from Chaplin that obliterates the sentimental tag with which he’s often labeled.

7.) Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) - A film most everyone loves, which hinders it among arty, contrarian circles, but well deserved of its bedrock status as a classic. Still incredibly enjoyable to watch with a little bit of everything that we enjoy in movies (laughs, action, romance, intrigue, etc.).

8.) Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau, 1946) - A magical fairy tale that remains an enchanting film experience. If I can fall under its spell then any movie lover can most definitely succumb to its charming story and visual feast.

9.) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948) - Bogart appears quite a bit on my list and rightfully so, as he had an incredible string of successes in the decade, but his performance as Fred C. Dobbs is the pinnacle of his career in my mind. Huston’s portrait of greed is unmatched in American cinema and Bogart’s refusal to be pigeonholed in the good guy role was nearly unheard of for a major Hollywood star. His risk in playing the crazed and mostly unsympathetic character pays off, even if Academy voters inexplicably denied him even a nomination.

10.) His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) - My favorite Cary Grant comedy and the fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue is used to perfection by Hawks. Look for the unforgettable tongue-in-cheek lines apparently ad-libbed by Grant referencing Ralph Bellamy (whose character is described as looking like the actor) and Archie Leach (Grant’s real name).

11.) The Third Man (Reed, 1949) - Every time I watch it I think it’s slightly overpraised…until that glimmer of light shines on Orson Welles and immediately the film is elevated to another level. Up to that point, the pacing seems a tad off, but the appearance of Welles sets up one of the most memorable characters to ever appear on film with so little actual screen time. His performance here makes me mourn not only the lost opportunities for Welles as a filmmaker, but also the relatively few roles that allowed him to display his remarkable and charismatic talent as an actor.

12.) Late Spring (Ozu, 1949) - I’m certainly not an Ozu expert, but I can still recognize the subtle mastery he displays here. His characters seem more like multi-dimensional, living and breathing human beings than the fictional subjects we often see in movies. I also don’t feel qualified to provide any kind of confident analysis into why the film succeeds, but I trust my own reaction enough to know it’s something special.

13.) The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941) - Barbara Stanwyck at her sexiest, making Henry Fonda no match for her cunning charm. This is where Sturges really began to hit his stride with still no one matching his short burst of creativity since.

14.) The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) - Faithful adaptation of Hammett’s novel makes me wonder why more filmmakers don’t just film the source material as written when adapting. Bogart somehow makes Sam Spade vicious, likeable and legendary as generations of viewers have sought to emulate the private detective to no avail.

15.) Day of Wrath (Dreyer, 1943) - An exceptionally powerful film, set in the 17th-century and concerning religious executions of “admitted” witches, as well as a forbidden love, that perhaps peaks too soon, but still leaves a lasting impression.

16.) Laura (Preminger, 1944) - Otto Preminger made the best of his opportunity replacing the fired Rouben Mamoulian, directing the story of a woman so beautiful that her portrait inspires the detective investigating her death to fall in love. Gene Tierney should star in every movie.

17.) The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946) - Too often judged as having an incomprehensible plot, it more accurately weaves its way from one crevice to the next while keeping the viewer interested enough to pay close attention and keeping the story fresh on repeat viewings since few people can really remember every little detail on subsequent viewings. Bogart’s not my favorite Marlowe, but he’s always interesting here as he became the standard bearer for others to be judged by.

18.) The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940) - Sure it’s set in Romania with a couple of American actors in the lead who don’t even try to stray from their regular accents, but it’s a fine story (good enough to be filmed again twice) and the chemistry between Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart is invitingly real due in no small part to the latter truly being smitten with his co-star in real life for many years. In some ways, my favorite Lubitsch movie and it speaks to the crusty-hearted romantic in all of us.

19.) The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940) - Incredibly prescient portrait of Hitler’s maniacal rule with laughs. Chaplin tugs at the heartstrings while making a bold statement about the murderous tyranny lurking in the Nazi leader.

20.) The Fallen Idol (Reed, 1948) - Possibly the finest portrait of the descent from childlike innocence into the realization that adults can be inherently self-serving, director Carol Reed’s precursor to The Third Man is impressive in its own right as an engrossing reflection of the lengths to which children will go to protect those they most admire.


21.) Scarlet Street (Lang, 1945) - Arguably Lang’s best American film and working from the same source material as Renoir’s La Chienne, the director gives us a sap hero played by Edward G. Robinson. Trying to shake his tough guy image, Robinson is remarkable as a born loser ready to give up his life for the cunning Joan Bennett.

22.) Red River (Hawks, 1948) - Boldly placing a young Montgomery Clift as the hero and John Wayne as the out of touch ranch owner mutinied on a cattle drive, Hawks’ western is a superlative example of a versatile director expanding on an established genre to great effect.

23.) A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger, 1946) - After watching most of the Archers’ output from this decade, I think this has emerged as my favorite. The innovative camera work and mixture of color and black and white are just part of what makes this romantic and witty film such a delight.

24.) Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1941) - In maybe the greatest one-two punch for one year in cinema history, Preston Sturges followed up The Lady Eve with this end of the year triumph about a comedic director in search of a project that would go beyond mere laughs (and maybe with a little sex thrown in for good measure). Joel McCrea’s greatest role is perhaps Sturges’ greatest achievement, though not my personal favorite.

25.) The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942) - The story of a well-to-do family unable to change with the times and, like an animal who’s become too fat and lazy, slaughtered (figuratively) when they fail to adapt. Despite moments of brilliance, it still feels like a gutted epic and probably holds the distinction as the biggest what-if in cinematic history.

26.) Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949) - The Japanese master’s reflection on post-war Japan in the form of a story about a young police detective who loses his firearm and is forced to roam the seedy areas of Tokyo in search of his missing weapon. Toshiro Mifune, as the inexperienced officer, adeptly portrays the confusion and frustration resulting from the realization that his character could have easily descended into the thuggish lowlife he’s pursuing.

27.) The Set-Up (Wise, 1949) - Seventy minutes of sweat and grit with Robert Ryan at his best as an aging fighter unwilling to take a dive.

28.) The Killers (Siodmak, 1946) - From a script written by the uncredited John Huston adapting Ernest Hemingway’s short story, this high-level film noir gave Burt Lancaster his fortuitous film debut and moviegoers much more to chew on than typical cops-and-robbers stories. The fact that we’re never told exactly what the Swede did to put him on the titular characters’ hit list is part of what makes the film so great.

29.) A Canterbury Tale (Powell & Pressburger, 1944) - Functioning as both a retelling of and a tribute to Chaucer’s stories, the Archers’ film is a thrilling celebration of life and spirit. Sheila Sim’s arrival to the changed, recently bombed Canterbury is incredibly moving.

30.) The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943) - Chosen over the director’s more celebrated Cat People, this is the film that I find spookier and creepier and the pinnacle of RKO’s Val Lewton-produced atmospheric classics.

31.) Hangmen Also Die (Lang, 1943) - Lang’s mostly unheralded masterwork starring Brian Donlevy as a Czech doctor who assassinates a Nazi leader. Incredibly engrossing despite its lengthy running time, the film openly defies the German director’s homeland at the height of World War II and provides a virtual blueprint for translating German expressionism into American cinemas.

32.) Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945) - Achingly romantic classic that almost makes an adulterous fling seem perfectly acceptable. It also provided the seed that Billy Wilder used in writing The Apartment.

33.) The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) - With Grant, Hepburn and Stewart, how could it not be a delight. The movie that gave the latter his only Oscar, it’s too often considered a make-up award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the scenes where he’s had too much to drink are some of the finest work in his pre-war career.

34.) Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945) - You can see early shades of the style Bresson would later adopt in his second film, but it holds up well on its own merits. More than a simple melodrama, the story, with dialogue by Jean Cocteau, of a woman spurned by her beau to seek a cruel revenge is bolstered by a chilling performance from Maria Casares and a stunning finale.

35.) Thieves’ Highway (Dassin, 1949) - Rescued from obscurity by the Criterion Collection’s fine DVD and full of great performances, especially Valentina Cortese, Jules Dassin’s noir centers around overnight truckers hauling fruits and vegetables to market with war vet Richard Conte out for revenge against boss Lee J. Cobb. Its biggest flaw is a studio-imposed ending that Dassin was still upset about 55 years later.

36.) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls, 1948) - Stunning tragic love story with a flashback narrative and great direction from Ophüls. Joan Fontaine’s journey through obsession, love, betrayal and tragedy is unforgettable.

37.) Ride the Pink Horse (Montgomery, 1947) - Director-star Robert Montgomery’s underseen noir perfectly embodies the post-war pessimism of the genre with its grimy Mexican setting and mysterious anti-hero, who finds comfort and friendship in unlikely sources.

38.) Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941) - Sentimental propaganda, but done at the highest level. Hawks’ handling of the rural small town atmosphere and Cooper’s natural performance support the film’s status as an enduring classic.

39.) Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) - Joan Fontaine won her Oscar here, but it’s Cary Grant’s charming ambiguity, forcing the audience to wonder if the movie star could possibly be a cold-blooded murderer, that makes the film. That and the eerie, glowing milk he brings her near the end.

40.) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger, 1943) - Epic and controversial telling of the life of a British career military man based on a bitingly satirical comic strip. Particularly memorable is the majestic overhead shot of the duel between Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, seen through a skylight as snow falls.


41.) High Sierra (Walsh, 1941) - Bogart’s break-out role as Roy Earle, a just-pardoned bank robber who missed the concept of rehabilitation. The character walks a tightrope between savage, impatient thug and kind-hearted soul searching for love. The filmed on location finale is a pinnacle in genre filmmaking of the era.

42.) Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, 1943) - Welcome sentimentality in the form of a man forced to face both the good and the bad of his past before settling into the afterlife.

43.) Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943) - Made during the occupation of France, the film served as Clouzot’s own poison pen letter to Nazi informants. It was banned by nearly everyone imaginable at the time, but is now seen as an important work by a major filmmaker.

44.) Rope (Hitchcock, 1948) - The master’s experiment in continuous long takes marked his first collaboration with James Stewart, who replaced Hitch’s original choice of Cary Grant. The Leopold-Loeb murder case has provided fertile ground for dramatic interpretations, none more successful than this film.

45.) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, 1944) - Maybe the director’s most daring achievement where he somehow managed to get a picture released where a young Betty Hutton gets knocked up by an about to be deployed soldier after a one-night stand without remembering who the guy was. Very funny performance from Eddie Bracken as her fractured fairy tale white knight.

46.) Force of Evil (Polonsky, 1948) - Later blacklisted, director Abraham Polonsky made his debut with this corrosively devastating story of a crooked lawyer seeking to protect his somewhat estranged brother from a numbers running scam. The second half is especially dark and the remarkable scene when gangsters come to collect the accountant Bauer at a cafe is spellbinding.

47.) Nightmare Alley (Goulding, 1947) - In my opinion, Tyrone Power’s finest film and performance as a carnie with ambition. Its bleak ending is still strikingly unexpected.

48.) Remember the Night (Leisen, 1940) - Neglected Christmas classic written by Preston Sturges and starring Stanwyck and MacMurray four years before their most famous teaming. More of a love story than a comedy, but a highly enjoyable piece of Hollywood fluff nonetheless.

49.) Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945) - Flawed, but compelling film that stands out today for mixing Technicolor melodrama with icy noir undertones and Gene Tierney’s career-best performance.

50.) This Gun for Hire (Tuttle, 1942) - Early Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake vehicle, based on a Graham Greene novel, that provided an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Ladd’s character is a solitary hitman who’s forced to go on the run from the police and is somewhat reluctantly aided by Lake, who plays the fiancee of one of the detectives searching for the professional killer.

Last five I reluctantly had to leave off - Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945), Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947), White Heat (Walsh, 1949), Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948), The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, 1947)


1. Mike - January 31, 2007

Excellent article, and I hope you get the wealth of comments you deserve for it.

Personally, I’m a little disappointed to see The Third Man come in at 11th (though accept the reason), and Blimp ranked as only the third best of P&P’s output, while at the same time it’s lovely to find both soaring into the best 50 of a huge decade for the cinema. As for Kane at number one, you can be as reluctant as you like about it, it’s still as good as they come.

Thanks for this - a truly impressive achievement.

2. JohnH - January 31, 2007

I echo Mike’s comments clydefro, and don’t you just hate it when someone comes along and says ‘why didn’t you include…’, but no love for John Ford?

3. ColinP - January 31, 2007

Brilliant post - I’ve got a lot of watching to do to get through your list above having only watched an abysmal seven of them!

The problem with these top x lists is that it just highlights how few films I’ve actually seen!

4. Nat - January 31, 2007

Great list, but I’m shocked (”…shocked!”) to see that you’ve left off my top two favourite films of all time: Les Enfants du Paradis (1944) and The Red Shoes (1948).

5. clydefro - January 31, 2007

Thanks for the comments. This decade was very fertile for quality films and the hardest thing about making a list like this is what you don’t include. My approach was mostly to make sure I included the films I categorically love first and foremost. Then, I wanted to throw in several that maybe don’t get their due. That’s why some of those films mentioned aren’t on here.

I also tried not to have too many of any particular director, which is part of the reason other P&P movies didn’t make it. I anticipated you’d be disappointed by no John Ford on here, John, and maybe I should have found a spot for The Grapes of Wrath. A lot of his films, though, I find myself admiring but not necessarily enjoying so much. I still have a lot of his catalog to explore so maybe there’s hope for me yet!

6. Flemming Kristensen - February 8, 2007

I think a film that ought to be in top 50 from that decade, is William Wylers “The Best Years of Our Lives”. I recently saw it for the first time and I was blown away by the story and great acting from especially Fredrich March.

But great to see Notorious right “up there” where it belong. A movie I adore for the intelligent and satiric dialogue. Claude Rains possible the best supporting role actor of all times.

Otherwise, I second your taste and especially such directors as Sturges and Powell & Pressburger.

7. Shawn "Masterofoneinchpunch" McKenna - June 16, 2008

Clyde, what is your feelings on Children of Paradise (1945)?

8. clydefro - June 16, 2008

^ I have the Criterion DVD. I want to see it (and I know I should), but I haven’t found the right night for a 3 hour plus film about theatre and mimes in 19th century Paris. It was mentioned a couple of comments up, as well, so it’s a priority at some point.

I do enjoy the other poetic realism films I’ve seen.

9. Shawn "Masterofoneinchpunch" McKenna - June 16, 2008

“It was mentioned a couple of comments up, as well, so it’s a priority at some point.”

Ahhh, I text searched by Children (noticed it was written Les Enfants du Paradis (1944), so I missed it.

The best way to watch it is in two segments (this is mentioned in the Criterion thread on well you know :) ) so you can watch 100 minutes one night and 90 the other).

I’ve been going through Emerson’s list and this film is also on Paul Schrader - Film Canon, Time Magazine - All Time 100 Best Films and a few more. I ended up really liking it.

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