10 1940s Movies Everyone Should See At Least Once

Even in wartime, Hollywood’s Golden Age resounded throughout the 1940s. Many of the best and most successful American films of the era were patriotic and unifying – and the 1940s stood out also as a period of large-scale cinematic experimentation.

The technological leaps of the previous decade, such as sound and Technicolor, enriched the palette of the great filmmakers. Audiences flocked to theaters throughout the 1940s, and many of the era’s greatest spectacles came across as terrific art and entertainment.

casablanca (1942)


Casablanca-2x1-1

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are the most famous romantic couples in cinema Michael CurtisOscar-winning masterpiece. The always quoted, catchy and dramatically powerful script of Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch is widely regarded as the best screenplay ever written.

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casablanca is nearly 80 years old, and its ability to thrill and strike a chord remains intact. In the central love triangle, there are three good people with desires that just aren’t possible. It resonates so much because in the end, all of these people are making a choice for the greater good.

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It’s a wonderful life (1946)


It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The gold standard of holiday movies wasn’t hugely successful in its day, but over time, Frank CapraThe fantasy romantic comedy-drama has become widely recognized as perhaps the ultimate feel-good movie. It’s not fluffy though, with a dark Dickens-inspired plot that sees a good-natured man (Jimmy Stewart) rethinking suicide after a supernatural encounter.

Co-starring Donna Roseau, Lionel Barrymore and Henri Travers, It’s a wonderful life ultimately boils down to this simple universal truth: no man is a failure if he has friends.

Famous (1946)


Famous (1946)

With casablanca, it is the film most remembered by Ingrid Bergman. And frankly, it’s just as awesome. The post-war thriller centers on the infamous alcoholic daughter of a Nazi, who falls in love with an American agent (Cary Grant) as she is persuaded to infiltrate a scheming South American syndicate to clear her reputation. You’ll never see a movie so composed and elegant on the surface (the most intense action sequence is going down stairs), but with so much emotion underneath.

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Shot in silvery black and white, Famous don’t age. the Ben Hecht screenplay (Oscar nominee, as does supporting actor Claude Rains) is psychologically complex in a way few films of the time aspired to be. There are arguments to be made for this being Hitchcock’s greatest film.

The third man (1949)


The Third Man (1949)

caro reedthriller stars Joseph Cotten as a pulp novelist examining a mysterious death in post-war Vienna. Alida Valli co-stars as a grieving girlfriend, about a decade before the Polish-Italian star made a memorable appearance in a French horror film faceless eyes.

It’s something of a cinephile joke that The third man is sometimes credited Orson Welles in the same way Fighting spirit is mistakenly credited to Steven Spielberg. Welles did not The third manthough he is unforgettable as the villainous Harry Lime. The third man is often called the greatest British film ever made.


The Lady Eve (1941)


the-lady-eve-1
Image via Paramount Pictures

The 1930s and 1940s were the golden age of sophisticated sex comedies. With the brilliant tastes of It happened one night, His daughter Friday and trouble in paradise, Preston Sturges The Lady Eve is one of the best.

Barbara Stanwyck (at one point in the 1940s, America’s highest-paid woman) is at her best as a card-spoof who falls in love with a naive beer heir (Henry Fonda). At the start of the film, a long, unbroken take of her running her hands through his hair, teasing him, and then falling in love is perhaps the highlight of the romantic comedy genre to date.

Pinocchio (1940)


Pinocchio
Picture via Disney

waltz disneyThe second animated feature had a lot to do after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Followed Pinocchio is a technically and artistically superior film, with more confident storytelling and some of the best hand-drawn animation ever.

Pinocchio did not initially see the same level of box office success as its record-breaking predecessor due to its release at the dawn of World War II, but over time its reputation as one of Disney’s supreme achievements has only grown. It remains by far the best adaptation of Carlo Collodithe source material. Guillermo del ToroThe adaptation will be released in theaters at the end of 2022.

Double Indemnity (1944)


Double Indemnity

Billy WilderThe tense, dark and sinister thriller is the ultimate film noir. Barbara Stanwyck (in a bad wig which actually adds to the trashy nature of her character) is a ruthless femme fatale who seduces an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) in order to off her husband. This is the first mainstream image from Hollywood where the main characters are murderers. It’s always a disturbing visual experience.

Other must-have blacks of the decade include The Maltese Falcon, The big sleep and out of the past. But from head to toe, it’s the biggest and most influential. A masterpiece of enervating suspense, Double Indemnity is a key film in showcasing Wilder’s incomparable mastery across all genres.

The beauty and the Beast a.k.a The beauty and the Beast (1946)


The beauty and the Beast

A fantastic benchmark that had a significant impact on the post-war French economy. Jean Cocteauit is The beauty and the Beast adapts Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve‘s comes with extraordinary practical effects that won’t get old, stunning costumes and serious warmth.

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It’s one of the sexiest films ever made, and the fantastic visuals have influenced everything from the work of Guillermo del Toro to, most recognizably, much of Disney The beauty and the Beast.


The best years of our lives (1946)


The best years of our lives

The Weight of War is examined by the 1946 winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Upon returning from active duty, William Wyler directed a human drama about three American military personnel readjusting to civilian life. It’s a deeply human, quiet yet deeply moving film, full of top-notch performances. The cast includes Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Frederic March, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Harold Russell.

The best years of our lives was a stunning box office and critical success in its day (seven Oscars and eight nominations). This holds for many reasons, not least because so many scenes seem pulled from reality, with little distance between the filmmaker, the actors, and real life.

Citizen Kane (1941)


citizen-kane-orson-welles-social-featured
Image via Warner Bros.

At 26, Orson Welles wrote and directed a drama that is often called the greatest movie ever made. He also stars as tycoon Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on a real-life icon. Guillaume Randolph Hearst. Actors from the Mercury Theater round out the animated supporting cast.

Citizen Kane is a deeply American film about wealth, idealism and power. The themes will remain timeless as long as human nature is a thing and the cinema of Citizen Kane (including deep shots, crackling editing, and camera work) is still brilliant. For anyone who loves cinema, this is something deeply exhilarating.

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