The Best of 2017: The 1940s

The Best of 2017The 1940s

(As with all of my lists – other than the Rewatch list – these are all films I saw in 2017 for the first time.)

This has definitely the hardest list to compile so far. The 1940s is my favorite cinematic decade largely due to the fact that so many film noir titles came from this era. Yet for this list I’ve tried to avoid most of the noir movies (although you might find a few, depending on your definition of film noir). I’ve also eliminated many British films, saving most of those for a separate category later. Eliminating those two categories takes a big chunk out of what I watched in the 40s, so don’t be surprised if you find a few British films and a few noir titles.


Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean
FilmStruck streaming (1:26)

So right off the bat I’ve broken my “No British Films” rule. (Here’s a spoiler: I’m about to break it again.) The reason? Brief Encounter is such a powerful well-known film that I simply had to include it here. Not only was this the very first movie I watched in 2017, it’s also a film we screened as one of our Great Movies at the Severna Park Library. Please read more.


Black Narcissus (1947) Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Criterion Blu-ray (1:40)

Why not break my “No British Films” rule again? Okay… With each Powell and Pressburger film I see, I keep thinking, “These guys just can’t top themselves any further” and yet they do. Black Narcissus certainly deserves far more space than I have time to devote to it here, so I’ll only say that this story of a group of Anglican nuns being placed in a remote Himalayan mountainside dwelling examines so many themes and emotions you could write dissertations about them. (People probably have.) The use of Technicolor combined with Jack Cardiff’s brilliant cinematography will literally steal the breath from your body.


A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century Fox DVD (1:43)

A woman (whose voice we hear off-screen) sends a single letter addressed to three women, Deborah (Jeanne Crain, right), Rita (Ann Sothern, left) and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell, center), informing them that she has skipped town with one of their husbands. The three women are forced to spend the day together on a school field trip, trying to maintain their composure while attempting to figure out whose husband has abandoned his wife. This is a wonderful film that you must see, one that balances drama, melodrama, suspense, comedy, and social commentary with surprising wit and effectiveness. It deserves far more space than I’m giving it here, but do watch it. As impressive as the actresses are, the men do an admirable job as well, featuring Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas. (And don’t miss an early performance by Thelma Ritter.)


All Through the Night (1941) Vincent Sherman
Warner Bros., TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Humphrey Bogart (1:47)

Tough gangster Gloves Donahue (Humphrey Bogart) is really a pretty likable guy, that is, until he discovers a cell of Nazis who knocked off the man who makes Gloves’s favorite brand of cheesecake. The comedy is madcap and absolutely infectious as Bogart and his pals take on the bad guys, led by Conrad Veidt. While certainly not Bogart’s best film, I was thoroughly entertained. A bit on the long side, but worth every minute.


Pursued (1947) Raoul Walsh
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:45)

You could certainly make a case for classifying Pursued as a film noir and many have done so, yet I’m including it here mostly as a Western. Robert Mitchum plays Jeb, an orphan traumatized by the murder of his parents. Although his foster mother Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson) and her daughter Thor (short for Thorley, played by Teresa Wright) have brought him up as part of their own family, Jeb’s trauma and sense of dread continue to build. To make matters worse, Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law Grant (Dean Jagger) holds a grudge against Jeb for something Jeb’s father did years ago. Pursued contains several very good moments but believability is often questionable. Excellent cinematography by James Wong Howe and a score by Max Steiner.


Battleground (1949) William Wellman
Warner DVD – interlibrary loan (1:58)

Before there was Band of Brothers, there was Battleground, which became MGM’s highest grossing film following the end of World War II and winner of two Oscars (Black-and-White cinematography for Paul C. Vogel, and Writing, Story and Screenplay for Robert Pirosh). The movie follows a company of infantrymen in the midst of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, but the story is more about the personalities and relationships of the men (Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, Marshall Thompson, James Whitmore and others) than anything else. Although a fictionalized account of the siege, Battleground is a film that caught the attention of audiences well after the end of the war, something that MGM head Louis B. Mayer didn’t think possible. This was a strong contender for my library Veterans Day movie, but it lost out to the film I’ll discuss next:


They Were Expendable (1945) John Ford
Warner Archive Blu-ray (2:15)

John Ford’s story of the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (or PT boat) unit defending the Philippines against Japanese forces in World War II is one of the finest (but rarely discussed) World War II films of all time. Although a fictionalized story, we see the uniqueness of the boats and the men who served on them. The film stars Robert Montgomery as the commander of a PT boat (and he actually was the commander of a PT boat during the war), John Wayne, Donna Reed, and the ever-present Ward Bond.



We were proud to present this film as the culmination of our Veterans Day events at the Severna Park Library this year. I was also pleased to be joined by my friend and author/historian Paul Stillwell, who contributed to both the introduction to the film and this discussion afterwards. (Photos by Dan Burkarth)


The Heiress (1949) William Wyler
DVD (1:55)

Olivia de Havilland won her second Best Actress Oscar for The Heiress, the story of Catherine, a young woman who stands to inherit a fortune from her father (Ralph Richardson) when she falls in love with the handsome Morris (Montgomery Clift), who may or may not love her only for her money. Set in mid-19th century New York, and adapted from the Henry James novel Washington Square (as well as the play The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz), the film version is simply magnificent, one of those great films you simply must see, made even more spectacular by the costume design by Edith Head and Gile Steele.


The Snake Pit (1948) Anatole Litvak
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:48)

Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit begins with two women conversing on a park bench. They could be any women anywhere, but they’re not. Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is confused, not realizing where she is. When she rises from the bench, things move at an alarmingly fast rate with visual clues building upon each other so quickly you probably won’t realize you’re holding your breath. A nurse walks among a group of women, barking orders at them as if she’s been doing this for years (and perhaps she has). There’s a marvelous 180° turn of the camera from one end of a long line of women to the other, a dizzying moment in which Virginia realizes that she’s trapped in a mental institution.

Capitalizing on such a powerful opening is difficult, but Virginia’s story is so compelling (as is de Havilland’s performance) we can’t look away. We learn how she got there, why she doesn’t recognize her own husband (Mark Stevens), and wonder how in the world this will all get straightened out. Or will it? The Snake Pit was one of the first Hollywood films to take a serious look at mental illness and it still packs quite a punch.


A Woman’s Face (1941) George Cukor
Warner DVD – library (1:46)

Told mostly in flashback, Joan Crawford plays Anna Holm, the leader of a group of blackmailers operating in Stockholm. Anna’s face was disfigured by a fire when she was a girl and she attempts to hide it with broad-brimmed hats pulled down over that side of her face. She guards her heart just as closely, that is, until aristocrat Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) pays her some attention, seemingly oblivious to her disfigurement. Barring also knows a plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas) whom he thinks can help Anna. All this seems to indicate deep melodrama, and there’s certainly some of that present, but A Woman’s Face also serves as an excellent early film noir with wonderful performances and excruciating suspense.

That’s it for the 1940s, a decade that’s filled with so many other films besides film noir and movies from across the pond. I hope to explore more of the dramas, melodramas, horror films, Westerns, and more from the 1940s in 2017. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “The Best of 2017: The 1940s

  1. As with the 20’s & 30’s I can offer some suggestions but this time of more obscure films since it being your favorite movie decade (as it is mine) I’m guessing you’ve seen more of the big titles from the period. Many of my faves have heavy noir influences so I’ll save them for when you get to that list.

    It Started with Eve-Deanna Durbin’s best picture is a sweet comedy with she and Charles Laughton making a delightful team.

    The Velvet Touch-Terrific stage set drama with Rosalind Russell a famed star who is driven to murder then tries to figure out how things came to such a pass while concealing her crime. With fantastic support from Claire Trevor and Sydney Greenstreet (who appears to be having a marvelous time not playing the villain for a change)

    Cry “Havoc”-Wartime drama of nurses and volunteers on Bataan with an incredible array of actresses lead by Margaret Sullavan and Ann Sothern set almost exclusively in their bunker and the message center which brings ever more dire news.

    Escape-Taut drama of American Robert Taylor’s efforts to rescue his foreign born mother (Nazimova) from Nazi Germany with an assist from expatriate Norma Shearer (in one of her last and best performances).

    My Dream is Yours-Cheery musical about a young widowed singer (Doris Day) and her young son discovered by an ambitious agent (Jack Carson) and his friend (Eve Arden) who are determined to make her a star. Though it bears little resemblance to it Martin Scorsese sited this as his inspiration for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

    Miranda-Sly comedy with the very comely Glynis Johns as a mermaid who decides to try it on land and causes many problems with her minx like ways.

    The Great Gatsby-Imperfect but intriguing take on the Fitzgerald classic with Alan Ladd the best fit for Jay Gatsby I’ve seen. It does suffer from the flaw all versions seem to share, a good actress miscast as Daisy, in this case Betty Field.

    Day of Wrath-Fantastically directed Danish film, by Carl Dreyer of persecution of suspected witches in the 17th century.

    Out of the Blue-Nutty comedy of henpecked George Brent (surprisingly relaxed) getting in deeper and deeper trouble while beautiful but shrewish wife Carole Landis is away.

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  2. All good films, and some great ones plus a few I’d number among my all-time favorites.

    I liked All Through the Night, Pursued, Battleground, They Were Expendable and The Snake Pit but can’t say I return to them often if ever.

    Then there’s Black Narcissus which I admire for its visual splendor, the story and the performances-Kathleen Byron is absolutely sensational but have never loved as much as many people do.

    A Woman’s Face is definitely a high point in Crawford’s filmography even if it slips into melodrama towards the end. I know she campaigned fiercely for the role, both Olivia de Havilland and Margaret Sullavan were earlier candidates for the role when Hitchcock was considering directing it. Maggie Sullavan in particular would have been a fascinating choice but Joan takes it between her teeth and runs with it.

    But it’s the other three that are the really special films.

    Speaking of Olivia de Havilland her performance in The Heiress is I think one of the top best actress performances. There are just so many layers to her work as Catherine. The extraordinary scene where she realizes her father’s indifference to her at last and she changes before our eyes is breathtaking. She’s the major force of the film but it has so much more. Ralph Richardson is her match-a great touch is that he, Miriam Hopkins and Selena Royale resemble each other enough to be believable as siblings. One of my favorite scenes in the film is between the three where the sisters try and convince Richardson Catherine would be happy with Morris but he is too obdurate to consider any opinion but his own. As played their interaction is complexly authentic. And of course the ending just rocks.

    I put off seeing Brief Encounter for years thinking it would be a stodgy stiff upper lip parlor room slog. Obviously I was so wrong, well about everything but the stiff upper lips!, with seemingly very little going on the film explores a world of emotional truth.

    Which leaves A Letter to Three Wives. Love that movie!! While it could never happen today what with the near impossibility of being out of touch for one second the situations it presents are timeless. The first vignette is the weakest because their problem could be simply resolved if she opened her mouth and her husband wasn’t such an oblivious dolt-in addition to the fact that Jeanne Crain & Jeffrey Lynn are the weakest actors but not so much that they mar the picture. But the gold is in the other two stories especially the Linda Darnell/Paul Douglas (both brilliant) final chapter. I could go on and on about this one so I’ll just say it’s a great film and Linda Darnell was robbed of a nomination.

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