Welcome back, Cinema Lovers. If you recall our discussion of our picks for the Best Genre Films of the ‘30s, last time we established some parameters for what we meant by “genre”. We also noted that the list did not pretend to be exhaustive. This is our immediate take, open for discussion, on the best. Use it as a viewing guide or a starting point or a chance to add your own choices. When I’m done, the floor is yours.
Regarding the 1940s, it should be noted that while it was a slightly weaker decade for “pure” science fiction film (certainly not the mad scientist happyland that the ‘50s would become), it’s generally regarded as one of the strongest decades for films, period.
Amid this gilded age, you have the emergence of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and dozens upon dozens of other worthy films. Film noir was in full swing, Disney was rolling, and the horror boom of the ‘30s continued to bear fruit. Serials were still to be found, and some were great fun (like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and The Mysterious Doctor Satan, who fought masked hero The Copperhead).
This time around, you’ll notice that our genre films hail primarily from three areas: film noir (or a reasonable facsimile), horror, and fantasy (mostly represented by animation). When we get to the 1950s, science fiction on screen rolls back in a big way as Sputnik, atomic power, and other cultural forces push audiences imagination further in that direction. But that’s next time. So, in no particular order, let’s start the ‘40s with:
Out of the Past (aka Build My Gallows High) (1947): One of the finest examples of film noir, Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur (along with his favored cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca) demonstrates an amazing affinity for the use of light shadow in this film and our later entrant Cat People (Tourneur also did the terrific I Walked With A Zombie, which I almost added as well, with cinematography by J. Roy Hunt).
Past adheres to all of the conventions that we’ve come to expect from film noir, including a looping plot with many intersections, characters with troubled or shady pasts, sudden violence, and betrayal. To say too much might give too much away, but it’s impossible to discuss the film without saying that Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are incredible. This is one of Mitchum’s finest hours (and he has many); like Bogart, he’s one of the archetypal visions of this genre. This film and its brethren certainly cast a long shadow over projects like Sin City and even A Dummy’s Guide to Danger.
Cat People (1942): Some fans incorrectly recall super-producer Val Lewton as the director of Cat People, when it was really our pal Jacques Tourneur from above. That’s partially because Lewton’s personality was so strong that it could often be felt in his various films. A more contemporary example of this would be Poltergeist, which many people attribute to Steven Spielberg, though it was actually directed by Tobe Hooper (of the original, good, Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
Cat People works by slowly building suspense; a young woman (Simone Simon) from Serbia Europe falls in love with an American man (Kent Smith). Believing herself to be cursed, Simon eschews physical affection, fearing that certain extreme emotions (sexual passion, unreasoned anger, etc.) will cause her to turn into a panther. Smith loves and marries her anyway, but finds himself drawn to Jane Randolph as the film progresses. That’s when Simon starts to get a little (no! can’t ...but ...must ...have to . . .make ...joke) catty.
The film boasts two champion suspense pieces, both featuring Randolph being menaced by an off-screen ... something. One has her pursued on a city street, light and shadow alternating as she races between street lights. The more disturbing of the two has her alone in the middle of an indoor pool when the lights go out. Photography, editing and sound playing perfectly together make this into an indelible moment.
The Wolf Man (1941): There were werewolf films before, and there have been many since, but there’s just so much that’s good about this. A lot of the familiar Hollywood lore stems from this film, and the performances (which include Lon Chaney Jr. as poor bastard Larry Talbot, Claude Rains as his dad, and Maria Ouspenskaya as the all-time best Gypsy Fortune Teller Lady, Maleva) are uniformly great.
Among the immortal bits? The classic poem (an invention of the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak), the reliance on silver as a plot device, and Bela Lugosi in a small but pivotal role. One testament to the film’s popularity is the fact that, though he was killed off in this one, Lon Chaney Jr. brought the Larry Talbot Wolf Man back to the screen four more times in various monster team-up and crossover films.
Pinocchio (1940): Sometimes you can measure a film’s greatness from how many times that it’s been ripped off or “homaged”. Consider for a second Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Data from Star Trek: TNG, and Tezuka’s Astro Boy, among others. They all owe a crucial debt to Pinocchio (itself adapted from an 1883 story by Carlo Colladi).
As with all things Disney, there are divergences from the story and what appears on the screen. Still, what appears on the screen in Uncle Walt’s second feature length animation is extraordinary. The quality of animation and color palette are amazing for the time, and many sequences are very memorable (and occasionally frightening). Obviously, the entire plot occupies ground in the pure fantasy genre, but it’s the expression of those elements that make this special. Jiminy Cricket, Monstro the Whale, the Blue Fairy, the final transformation ...simply beautiful.
Dead of Night (1945): I was introduced to this film in college by my primary film professor, the great Dr. Sharon Russell. Doc Russell (who has published a number of articles on horror film and one book on Stephen King) knew that I’d like it, and she was right. This British anthology still delivers the chills, and you can see its influence in later things like The Twilight Zone and any film that features a ventriloquist’s dummy. Actually, the diabolical dummy here can also be seen as the ancestor of Fats in Magic and That Damn Clown in Poltergeist.
Overall, this might be a bit of an acquired taste to younger movie-goers who are used to immediate payoff. The reward of this film is actually the build and the tools used to achieve suspense (fine camerawork, acting, and music). I personally find that the golfing segment (written by H.G. Wells!) to be a bit of a drag, but the mirror sequence and the dummy bit make it very, very worthwhile.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946): I list these together because they’re so inextricably linked in the minds of many fans and scholars. United by the greatness of Humphrey Bogart, the films practically cement the archetype (and the stereotype) of the hard-boiled P.I. In fact, more than a few people are confused by the fact that Bogart was in both, often mistaking which detective was in which film.
In Falcon, we get Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as directed by John Huston; Spade is a hard man that appears in only one novel (Falcon) and three short stories. However, it’s this film adaptation of the 1930 novel that really makes American audiences begin to understand what film noir is all about (though that term itself isn’t officially applied until 1946). Spade is a complicated guy with a capability for cold detachment. The narrative offers many twists and turns, and is supported by a number of great performances (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre would also join Bogart in Casablanca two years later).
The Big Sleep, from Raymond Chandler’s novel, features Phillip Marlowe as its lead character. Marlowe, the star of many of Chandler’s books, is a somewhat more idealized character than Spade (though by no means is he without flaws).
Again, Bogart in fedora and trenchcoat is the order of the day; just as in Falcon, he slings one-liners while staying smarter than everyone else. Sleep is elevated by a screenplay by Jules Furthman, William Faulkner (you may have heard of him) and Leigh Brackett (yep, she of Rio Bravo and Empire Strikes Back).
Great performances abound, including Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers as alternately duplicitous and troubled sisters. Many people remember the film for its complicated plot; it’s said that Chandler himself got confused, even forgetting who killed one murder victim. Honestly, it didn’t help that some of the engine components that drive the plot of the novel (like pornographic photos and a homosexual affair that Marlowe uncovers) had to be omitted in the days of heavy Hays Office interference. The film retains the overall plot, but there is a resultant wonkiness in some of the fine points due to the trims. No matter; it’s still great.
With both films, atmosphere, acting and dialogue combine to present a shadowy world of damaged people. Bogart’s almost a comforting presence. In many ways, Bogart helped birth a new American archetype with many of his films from this period: the competent wiseass. True, the Marx Brothers and others were anti-authority, but Bogart did everything with confidence while throwing it back into the face of the rich, the powerful, and the law. Even if he wasn’t the best guy, he was the guy you backed because you wished that you didn’t give a ---- on the same level. Echoes of that attitude can be found in everyone from Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters to Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces.
La Belle et la Bete (1946): French filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece, this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is staggeringly influential. Not only does the look of the Beast completely inform the later Disney version, the visuals evoke an aura of surrealism that finds its way into the films of everyone from Dario Argento to David Lynch. This film is a prime example not necessarily of the power of story, but of the way in which the story is told. Anyone can do a by-the-numbers recitation of the fairy tale. Cocteau attempts, with limited 1940s equipment, to realize a true fantasy world. Amazingly, he succeeds.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): 1946 was some year, wasn’t it? Though it may seem a bit out of place among the P.I.s and Beasts, Life certainly encapsulates the idea of fantasy. Though widely regarded as a Christmas film (and really, rightly so), much of Life takes place in years of flashback as we learn about George Bailey. Bailey’s life motto might as well be “I’ve got no power, but I still have great responsibility.”
Despite the obvious echoes to A Christmas Carol, Life helps plant the tradition of characters seeing what the world would have been like without them (remember that Scrooge saw what had happened, what was happening, and what might happen after his death, not what would have happened had he never been born). The darker moments (yes, there are darker moments) are tempered by the gentle inspiration of the whole thing. As for George himself, you can’t say enough about Jimmy Stewart. Stewart played a wide variety of characters across drama, comedy, westerns, and more, but it’s hard not to think of George Bailey first.
Fantasia (1940): Talk about ambitious. Disney’s third (mostly) animated feature combines the power of orchestral music with some amazing visuals in an anthology of epic proportions. Of the eight pieces, it’s possible that the best-known is the iconic “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which gives us the oft-marketed version of Mickey in hat and robes.
My favorite, as a long-time horror fan, is the first half of “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria”; the incorporation of Walpurgis Night and Chernabog (the Disney version of Satan) was actually pretty ballsy for the time, and the vista of ghosts and monsters is brilliantly done.
The other pieces run from the comedic (dancing hippos in tutus!) to the mythic (centaurs and pegasi) and beyond. It’s a wonderfully animated experience that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an indisputable classic.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Though it had the side-effect of taking the teeth out of the Universal Monster franchise, this remains one of the greatest genre comedies/parodies ever. Part of the authority of it is that it had the “real guys” in it. Bela Lugosi plays Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. is The Wolf Man, and frequent post-Karloff actor Glenn Strange is Frankenstein’s Monster. It also helps that it actually manages to be both funny AND scary. There are some big character reversals, and some classic lines (My favorite? Talbot attempts to explain his dilemma to Costello: “You don't understand. Every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf.” The reply? “You and twenty million other guys.”)
Some (including the late Boris Karloff) didn’t care for the blend of horror and humor. I happen to think that it’s both an essential piece of the horror cycle and an example of the versatility of genre film.
The Mark of Zorro (1940): Tyrone Power is terrific as the masked avenger in this classic bit of action. Film legend Basil Rathbone delivers a fine performance as villain Captain Pasquale, and together he and Power tear up the screen in what many regard as the best swordfight in cinema. It’s hard for many to agree that there is anything like a definitive version of Zorro on screen. Some lean toward the ‘50s TV series with Guy Williams, while others prefer the Douglas Fairbanks silent version (which, frankly, provided the template for this one). This one retains a special place in the hearts of fans for the aforementioned duel, Power’s charm, and the general energy of the production.
And that’s our look at the ‘40s. Once again: not pretending to be complete. Feel free to continue the discussions below. We now take a brief rest before charging into the Science Fiction fray that is the 1950s.