10 Movies From the 1940s Everyone Should See At Least Once

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10 Movies From the 1940s Everyone Should See At Least Once

Even in wartime, the golden age of Hollywood roared throughout the 1940s. Many of the best and most successful American films of the time were patriotic and unifying—and the 1940s also stands out as a time of cinematic experimentation on a grand scale.

The technological leaps of the decade prior, like sound and Technicolor, enhanced great filmmakers’ palettes. Audiences flocked to theaters throughout the 1940s, and many of the era’s greatest hold up as formidable art and entertainment.



‘Casablanca’ (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are cinema’s most famous romantic pairing in Michael Curtiz‘s Oscar-winning masterwork. The ever-quoted, snappy and dramatically potent script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch is widely considered the best screenplay ever written.

RELATED: 10 Movies From the 1950s Everyone Should See At Least OnceCasablanca is nearly 80 years old, and its ability to thrill and to tug at the heartstrings remains intact. In the central love triangle exists three good people with desires that simply aren’t all possible. It resonates so much because in the end, all these people make a choice for the greater good.

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)

The cast of It's a Wonderful Life

The gold standard for holiday films wasn’t a huge hit in its day, but over time, Frank Capra‘s romantic fantasy dramedy has become widely recognized as perhaps the ultimate feel-good, inspirational film. It’s hardly fluff though, with a dark plot inspired by Dickens that sees a good-natured everyman (Jimmy Stewart) rethinking suicide after a supernatural encounter.

Co-starring Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers, It’s a Wonderful Lifeultimately boils down to this simple universal truth: no man is a failure if he has friends.

‘Notorious’ (1946)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman pressing their lips together in a picture for

Casablanca is certainly the romantic 1940s movie Ingrid Bergman is best known for, but this Alfred Hitchcock stunner is another crown jewel in the Hollywood icon’s legacy. In Notorious, Bergman plays the infamous daughter of a Nazi, seeking to clear her notorious rep by infiltrating a web of remnant conspirators in South America.

RELATED: 10 Movies From the 1930s Everyone Should See At Least Once

Notorious is Hitchcock’s most romantic movie, and easily one of his top-shelf greatest. Bergman’s romantic chemistry with Cary Grant is psychologically gripping, and ultimately quite affecting. Ben Hecht‘s screenplay (among the WGA’s picks of the 101 greatest ever written) has aged in reverse.

‘The Third Man’ (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

Carol Reed‘s thriller 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 French horror film Eyes Without a Face.

It’s something of a cinephile in-joke thatThe Third Manis sometimes credited to Orson Welles in the same way Poltergeist is mistakenly credited to Steven Spielberg. Welles didn’t make The Third Man, though he is unforgettable as villain Harry Lime. The Third Man is often named among the greatest British films ever made.

‘The Lady Eve’ (1941)

Image via Paramount Pictures

The ’30s and ’40s were a golden age of sophisticated, sexy screwball comedies. Along with the brilliant likes of It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and Trouble in Paradise, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is one of the very best.

Barbara Stanwyck (at one time in the ’40s the highest-paid woman in America) is at her best as a card shark who falls for a naive ale heir (Henry Fonda). Early in the film, a long, unbroken take of her running her hands through his hair, teasing him, then falling in love, is an all-timer.

‘Pinocchio’ (1940)

Image via Disney

Walt Disney‘s second animated feature had a lot to live up to in the wake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Follow-up Pinocchio is technically and artistically a superior film, with more confident storytelling and some of the finest hand-drawn animation ever.

Pinocchio didn’t initially see the same level of box-office success of its record-breaking predecessor due to its release at the dawn of World War II, but with time its reputation as one of Disney’s crowning achievements has only grown. It remains far and away the best adaptation of Carlo Collodi‘s source material. Guillermo del Toro‘s adaptation hits theaters in late 2022.

‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)

Double Indemnity

Billy Wilder‘s taut, shadowy and lurid thriller is the ultimate film noir. Barbara Stanwyck (in a bad wig that actually adds to her character’s trashy nature) is a ruthless femme fatale who seduces an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) in order to off her husband. This is the first mainstream Hollywood picture where the main characters are murderers. It’s still an unsettling viewing experience.

Other essential noirs of the decade include The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Out of the Past. But from head to toe, this is the greatest and most influential. A masterpiece of unnerving suspense, Double Indemnity is a key film in showing the incomparable Wilder’s mastery across all genres.

‘La Belle et La Bête’ aka ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1946)

La Belle et La Bete

A fantasy benchmark that had a significant impact on France’s economy post-war. Jean Cocteau‘s La Belle et La Bête adapts Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve‘s book with extraordinary practical effects that won’t age, eye-popping costumes and earnest heat.

RELATED: 25 Classic Monster MoviesThis is one of the most extraordinarily romantic films ever made, and the fantasy visuals have influenced everything from the work of Guillermo del Toro to, most recognizably, much of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)

Best Years of Our Lives

The weight of war is examined the 1946 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Upon returning from active service, William Wyler directed a human drama about three United States servicemen readjusting to civilian life. It’s a deeply humane, quietly but profoundly moviing film full of top-notch performances. The cast includes Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Harold Russell.

The Best Years of Our Liveswas an astounding box-office and critical success in its time (seven Oscar wins and eight nominations). It holds up for so many reasons, not least of all because so many scenes feel plucked from reality, with little distance between filmmaker, actors and real life.

‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

Image via Warner Bros.

At the age of 26, Orson Welles wrote and directed a drama that’s often named the greatest film ever made. He also stars as tycoon Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on real-life icon William Randolph Hearst. Mercury Theatre players round out the lively supporting cast.

Citizen Kane is a deeply American movie about wealth, idealism and power. The themes will remain timeless as long as human nature is a thing, and the filmmaking of Citizen Kane (including deep-focus shots, crackling editing and camera work) is still awe-inspiring. For anyone who loves the medium of film, it’s deeply exhilarating stuff.

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