By John H. Foote
The 1940’s marked the second full decade of movies with sound, and this new form of entertainment continued to evolve, often for the better. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 drew the United States into World War II which altered the face of American cinema. Many of the films covered the war, sometimes beautifully realistic, sometimes for propaganda. There was a greater darkness in cinema that saw movies exploring tougher subjects such as alcoholism and mental illness, while westerns became the most popular genre for the next few decades.
Major new directors such as Billy Wilder, John Ford, William Wyler, and Elia Kazan emerged to join the pioneers of the 30s in their efforts to create excellent films.
The art of acting was forever altered when Marlon Brando strode onstage in 1947 bringing to the screen a new realism known as the Method Acting movement.
Hollywood began to seek greater realism in their films, perhaps spurred on by the stunning Neo-Realistic Italian cinema that emerged on the heels of the war. Nothing fancy – just remarkable studies of life in the streets.
And no, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film of the decade.
10. DUMBO (1941) — I defy anyone to watch with dry eyes the scene in Dumbo where the little elephant is taken to see his mother, who is locked in a trailer after she tried to protect her big eared little son. They find each other, their trunks touch, and she gathers Dumbo close to her and rocks him gently. He suddenly embraces her trunk with all he has and holds it a few second before being taken away. Dumbo was a magnificent work of animation, the best Disney movie of the decade, even better than the wonderful Pinocchio (1940). Beautifully drawn and brought to life, a lovely telling of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. Luminous and haunting.
9. CASABLANCA (1943) – Some will argue it should be higher up the list as a sentimental favourite, but I genuinely believe this is where it belongs. Casablanca had it all, great acting from Bogart (at his most cynical) and Bergman (lovely) in this profound love story about self-sacrifice for a noble cause. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is a rough and tumble guy who years earlier was in love with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris. But she deserted him, and he has never heard from her again, until she walks into his bar in Casablanca on the arm of her husband, a famous freedom fighter trying to avoid the Nazis. Against all odds Rick becomes his ally, even when the man finds out the truth about his wife and Rick. In the end, Rick lets her go with her husband, reminding her that there are more important things than two people who love each other. Her husband is trying to make the world a better place and needs her with him far more than Rick does. Casablanca was that rare film that came along at the perfect time in history to make its impact. The story is outstanding, the acting superb, direction perfect and it all works. Magical. And Bogart was truly Bogart with this performance, and he deserved to win the Oscar that he didn’t.
8. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) — For me the greatest film noir ever made, though Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997) run close behind, and in some circles have arguably slipped past. There is an undercurrent of nastiness running through Billy Wilder’s dark film, a cynicism of cruelty that is shocking even after so many years. Barbra Stanwyck is frightening as the dangerous seductive woman men would do anything for, which she is counting on. Seducing a man portrayed by Fred MacMurray, she convinces him to murder her husband. Neither of them realizes a snoopy insurance investigator suspects wrongdoing. Edward G. Robinson is superb as the investigator, as is MacMurray, but the film belongs to the vicious Stanwyck. Like a spider, she traps her prey, fearlessly, callously, and then makes her move to eliminate them. Unsettling and brilliant, leaving one wondering how did Going My Way beat this for Best Picture? Near criminal.
7. THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) — No one in American nor Hollywood really took Hitler all that seriously, but Charlie Chaplin did. As always, he was fiercely aware of world politics and paying attention to the situation in Europe. When Canada and Britain joined the war, he waited for the Americans to make a move, but it did not come until 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. By then, his film had been released, won awards and earned the wrath of Hitler. No one in movies wanted the film made, fearful of the reaction, but Chaplin needed no permission to make the films he wanted to make. For the first time audiences would hear him speak in dual roles, as a gentle little Jewish Barber, and as a surrogate of Hitler, Adenoid Hynkel, a buffoonish leader. Chaplin studied Hitler’s speeches in preparation for the film, turning the German language into silly gibberish, matching his energy in the speeches perfectly. He took it just over the top enough to look like a spoiled child, enraging Hitler, who once adored Chaplin. There are so many great moments, the dance with a globe is pure cinematic joy, with an undercurrent of horror when one realizes what is really being said, and of course that final, stunning plea for peace. Chaplin won the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, a popular choice, and was nominated for an Academy Award. A masterpiece, however dark, however true.
6. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) — President Harry Truman credited this film with playing a huge role in healing America after World War II. It is a truthful depiction of what the men and women had gone through during a long time apart while the world raged war. How does one come home from terrible combat and within two weeks return to a job at a bank, or store or factory before the war? Nothing was known about PTSD in the 40s, very little was known about the intense psychological damage men and women went through during their time in war. Fredric March is superb as a husband and father returning after battle—a changed man returning to a changed family. He feels safe with his buddies, and seeks their company, causing issues with those at home.
5. RED RIVER (1948) — Howard Hawks directed this superb western, sort of a Mutiny on the Bounty on the cattle drive, featuring John Wayne in the first role that tested his acting chops. I still run into people who argue that Wayne couldn’t act, and every time I recommend this movie. Wayne was a fine actor. Limited to be sure—he was out of place in a Shakespearean drama or comedy, just as Olivier was out of place in a western. But with the right director and in the right role, Wayne was a formidable actor. Here as Thomas Dunson, he is a hurricane of rage, hellbent on revenge throughout the film. Montgomery Clift plays his adopted son Matt, who rebels against him. Seeing the brutality with which Dunson treats his men, Matt (Clift) takes the herd and leaves Dunson with his cook alone on the trail. He tells Matt he is coming for him, and one day Matt will turn around and he will be there, and that will be the day he will kill him. Of course, they meet again, and indeed they fight, and the fact that Matt fights back likely saves his life. The ending feels tacked on and in fact was not the original one, but the studio insisted on it after testing the first. Beautifully shot, the film has an epic feel to it, but never loses sight of the intimacy of the characters. Wayne is astounding, and Clift, a hard-core method actor, holds his own. The two actors are electric from their first scenes together to that last fight. John Ford famously said about Wayne after seeing this film, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” A masterpiece and a film that set the standard for films of this genre right up to the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove (1988).
4. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) — After returning from duty in the war, James Stewart took his time to come back to the screen, wanting the right project, and no doubt dealing with PTSD. Stewart had been a fighter pilot and shot down more than 20 enemy aircraft, known kills, and what does that do to a man? It certainly made his acting darker, and he was more daring in his choices of roles. Here, as George Bailey, he gives what I believe to be his finest post-war performance as a likable man who has dreamed his entire life of getting out of the small town in which he lives and seeing the world. Yet something always holds him there—his father dies, leaving him to tend to the family business, a savings and loan operation that gets hit hard by the depression, he gets married and has kids. Yet George does not realize the impact he has had on others, from his own family to the hundreds, maybe thousands, he has helped or provided for. Given the chance to see what would have transpired in that small town had he not lived. Escorted by an angel named Clarence, he sees that without him in the picture, a darkness would have befallen most of those around him, including his own mother and family. George chooses to live and returns home to his family a changed man, no longer complaining about his life, and its troubles, but embracing them and accepting the help. Like Frank Capra’s best films, the central theme of “love thy neighbour” runs through this picture. Stewart is magnificent as George. Whether railing about the viciousness of evil Mr. Potter, weeping about his insurmountable troubles as his child decorates him with tinsel, or joyfully running through the streets, energized with the gift of life, Stewart is superb. The film failed on release, but television brought it to a bigger audience and far greater appreciation. Masterful.
3. THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) — John Ford won his second of four Academy Awards for Best Director (though never for a western) for his powerful adaptation of the John Steinbeck book about Oklahoma farmers heading to California for work and a better life during the depression, only to find despair. One of the greatest American novels ever written was considered too controversial to bring to the screen given the honest portrayal of this dark history, but Ford, who was at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker, found a way. Brilliant casting with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, the actor responded with the finest performance of his career and the one most deserving of an Oscar instead of On Golden Pond (1981) 41 years later. We watch Joad return from a prison stay to his family uprooting their dying farm, the earth dusty and barren around it. They are heading for the west coast for a fresh start. Instead, they find corruption and resentment toward their intrusion. The promised land flowing with milk and honey is very much a myth. Joad’s grandmother dies on the journey, and he faces challenge after challenge, finally joining a movement that will fight what is happening to those in poverty. In the greatest scene of Fonda’s career, he tells his mother, portrayed by Jane Darwell, that he will be part of something bigger than himself and whenever she sees a cop beating up a guy, he will be there, he will be there in spirit, fighting a greater fight. Darwell won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, and though nominated, Fonda lost to his dear friend James Stewart. Breathtaking black and white cinematography make this one of the greatest films ever made.
2. CITIZEN KANE (1941) — What? Number 2? Is this critic mad? No, it is not the greatest film of the forties, nor is it the greatest film of all time, not for me. For while it has many attributes, and was beautifully created, it has since been surpassed by many greater films. It remains the most innovative film of all time, and many of those innovations have been utilized since by filmmakers around the globe to make their films works of art. Orson Welles was just 24 years old when he was signed to RKO Films to make any film he wanted to make. This trust was based on his huge success on Broadway, his bold, thrilling film productions, and his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds that many thought was a live reporting of an invasion from outer space. Loosely based on the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, which Welles denied, the film traces his life from childhood through death, focusing on his many character flaws that prevented him from being a truly great man. He has everything within him and at his disposal to be a great man but lacks the character to get there. The focus of his life is his newspaper, which initially is going to be a way for the people to be heard but becomes something quite different. Welles gives a stirring performance as Kane, aging from 24 to 80, without one false moment. He is superb.
1. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) — John Huston’s masterpiece was not a huge success at the box office, but film critics loved it, rightly so. Perhaps they saw the daring and brilliance in the work, the risks that Huston took, pushing Humphrey Bogart to the best work of his career in this cynical, stark story about humanity, greed, gain and loss, and most of all, the irony of life. After winning a lottery, Frank Dobbs partners with two other men to try their luck mining for gold. Warned by old Howard (Walter Huston) that the gold will change them, they ignore his warnings and forge ahead, sure enough finding gold in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Paranoia slowly takes over Dobbs, believing the men are going to steal his share of the gold, which he hides and guards ferociously. They eventually split up and go their own way, ironically never ever really having a chance to spend their hard-earned money. Dobbs is ambushed by a group of Mexican bandits who do not even realize what the gold is and let it blow back to the mountains. John Huston won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for the film, a masterpiece, the greatest film he ever made. His father won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Bogart went farther into a character than he ever dared before, portraying Dobbs as a weakling, a paranoid little man covetous of his gold. He was never greater on screen than he was here. A glorious masterpiece, the greatest film of the 40’s.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.