The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940’s: ’46-’49

We continue our series of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade. Here are our our picks for the last five great movies of the 1940’s.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Notorious (1946).

16. Notorious, 1946. No American actor has tampered with his own charming image more successfully than Cary Grant. In Only Angels Have Wings (1939) he is the tough boss of a suicidal jungle mail service. In Suspicion (1941) one is forced to ask: Is Grant playing his usually charming self but capable of cold-blooded murder? In None But the Lonely Heart (1944) a film I loathe, Grant convincingly plays a Cockney tough with mother issues. And in Notorious, Hitchcock, who understood Grant’s image better than any other director, cast Grant as a sexually repressed government agent who recruits bad girl Ingrid Bergman, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Grant’s dark side is brilliantly exploited as his character initially treats Bergman with contempt but gradually falls in love with the damaged, vulnerable beauty. Notorious succeeds, not because of the plot—tedious spy stuff—but because the love story is central and brilliantly convincing.

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, The Killers (1946).

17. The Killers, 1946. Try and remember the first time you saw this film. It’s first impressions that Seraphic Secret tries to recapture when evaluating great movies. Like a Rembrandt portrait, Burt Lancaster, making his spectacular screen debut, is framed by shadows in a miserable rented room—a weary man awaiting his executioners. It’s a noir nightmare that touches us because we have all experienced that feeling, that existential exhaustion. With a structure spinning as finely as a Breguet watch, The Killers unfolds in flashback as we learn how the Swede, Lancaster, ended up in that room. Ava Gardner as the femme fatale doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time, but the image of Lancaster and Gardner entwined like hungry beats, lingers in our collective consciousness.

Jean Simmons, Great Expectations (1946).

18. Great Expectations, 1946. I’ve read the book and loved it. But I have to confess that David Lean’s film, a slimmed down version of the sprawling Dickens tapestry, is the work that defines Dickens imagery and language for me. The first act, in which Pip runs into Magwitch, the escaped convict, and then becomes entangled with Mrs. Havisham and Estella, are so vivid that almost every scene is alive in my memory. In fact, I imagined myself as Pip when I first laid eyes on my wife Karen—she looked so much like Jean Simmons it was scary—when we were nine years old. Dickens adaptations are a minor industry but this Great Expectations is, in my opinion, still the most fully realized and satisfying.

Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru, Red River (1948).

19. Red River, 1948. Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Montgomery Clift’s cowboy hat looks about two sizes too big. Monty’s head looks lost. Okay, this was the least of the troubled actor’s problems while shooting Red River, but what an actor feels during production and what an audience sees on the screen are very different. Clift, a serious NY method actor, schlepped his acting coach to the Red River set essentially usurping director Howard Hawks’ authority. But the wily Hawks quickly undermined the meddling coach. Playing opposite the great John Wayne, Clift feared getting blown off the screen. Hawks wisely counseled Clift not to compete with the big guy but to underplay his scenes with a “pensive cool.” Hence, Clift’s quiet performance is perfectly calibrated against Wayne’s larger-than-life ferocity. The movie, centering on a desperate post Civil War cattle drive, is really about the love and rivalry between an older man and his adopted son. Most critics fault the movie for a meandering love story between Clift and the lovely Joanne Dru. But let me dissent. The moment when Clift sucks the blood—she’s been shot with a poisoned arrow—out of Dru’s shoulder is one of the most eloquent expression of love ever filmed. Hawks claims that after screening Red River, John Ford, in a pique of professional jealousy, said something like: “You son of a bitch, you got a performance out of Wayne.” Hawks was a notorious liar, but in away he was telling the truth because John Wayne’s performance in Red River is brilliant.

John Dahl and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1949). The film is also titled Deadly is the Female.

20. Gun Crazy, 1949. Produced as a B movie, Gun Crazy has emerged as one of the most important films of the noir genre. It’s unusual in that it does not take place in a cold, impersonal urban environment. Rather, Gun Crazy finds its darkness in small American towns and its dirt roads. John Dahl and Peggy Cummins, intelligent and gifted actors, turn in the best performances of their careers, as sharp shooters who fall in love and then turn to crime. Dahl plays Bart, a confused kid who gets mixed up with Laurie, a carnival Annie Oakley. Cummins wants money so she can buy nice stuff. And she’ll do anything to get what she wants. They both have a passion for guns, but this passion plays itself out in a deadly, obsessive relationship that can only end in tragedy. Joseph H. Lewis pulls out all the stops in a bank robbery sequence that is one of the most thrilling and suspenseful ever filmed. So impressive is this sequence that Billy Wilder asked Lewis how he did it. Truth is, Lewis didn’t have enough money to shoot the sequence in the traditional shot-counter-shot method and so he improvised a one-take scene with the camera fixed in the car’s back seat. The post-modern guy-girl crime-spree story is the blood drenched Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Gun Crazy, deeply restrained by today’s standardsis thematically a far more ambitious and profound film.

Seraphic Secret will take on the 1950’s in a few weeks, after we’ve had a chance to refresh our memory by screening that decades most memorable films.

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  1. Barry
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    The Killers  has an indelible Burt Lancaster debut performance and a smashing look. The first fifteen minutes are memorable enough. After that, striclty routine pretensions that are entertaining enough,  but certainly not  more than that. At least, not without that first 1/4 hour.

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  2. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a fine film, but I think it would have been even better if David Lean had restored Dickens’s orginal ending, instead of retaining the “happy ending” that Dickens stuck on to please Bulwer-Lytton. In the original ending, Pip and Estella do not leave Satis House, hand in hand. Estella marries first the wife beating Bentley Drummle, then, after Drummle’s death in a riding accident, she marries a doctor. Pip and Estella meet in a London street, and Pip realizes that Estella has matured and softened up to the point where she feels sincere remorse for her cruelty to him.
    (I will say that Dickens has enough compassion for Estella to refrain from actually showing Drummle beating her. In Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a scene where Bailey, the servant, listens from the bottom of the staircase as Jonas Chuzzlewit beats up his wife, “Stern truth against the base-souled villain!” Before her marriage, Estella is cruel to Pip. Before her marriage, Mercy Pecksniff, Jonas’s wife, is airheaded, bouncy, and sure she can dominate him.)

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  3. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Salon just named Notorious as one of the 10 best spy movies  

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  4. Earl
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    ‘Red River’ is great, but ‘The Killers’ is breathtaking, one of my alltime faves.  In part, because it gifts me a real sense of a world that pre-dated my birth.
    I’ll say the same for ‘The Misfits’, on teev tonight – ahh, my tax dollars at work! – and moreso.  Take ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’, bundle them up and throw it away, nothing puts together a sharp script, beautiful photography and the perfect cast like ‘The Misfits’ when it comes to nailing the Hollywood star system and the inherent exploitation.

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    • Earl
      Posted December 17, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Watching ‘The Misfits’, I couldn’t but think of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ and this track…

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    • Miranda Rose Smith
      Posted December 18, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

      ‘Red River’ is great, but ‘The Killers’ is breathtaking, one of my alltime faves. 


      If I remember correctly, TWICE in THE KILLERS, they do the cliche scene where somebody sticks his hand in his breast pocket, ostensibly to pull out his glasses or his handkerchief or a package of gum-and pulls out a gun. 

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  5. Barry
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Red River:

    Love the ending. It offers hope and reconciliation. But, it also signals the demise of Dunson. His future is similar to  Ethan’s and more directly, Doniphon’s. In all this work, John Wayne is superb. Could have won an Academy Award for any, or all three. I have heard and read the arguments between Midnight Cowboy and True Grit. Similar things could be said re Red River and Hamlet.

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  6. kishke
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen none of these but Red River, and oy, did it shlep. I also didn’t care for the hokey ending.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink


      Red River is an epic story, with quite a few plots and counterplots that need to be resolved, hence its length. The ending has been criticized endlessly by critics. Originally, the John ayne character dies, but Hawks felt that killing him off would be a huge downer.

      I’m with Barry. I like the ending. A film without hope is like a Jew without Shabbos. 

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  7. Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve never seen any of these movies, Robert, but I should hunker down over Christmas and catch up on my education.  However, I have seen Only Angels Have Wings; I caught a screening of it because I wanted to hear Richard Barthelmess’ voice.  I know a sequel would have watered down the whole movie, but it was one of the few films I’ve seen where I wanted a sequel, because I wanted to see what would happen to Grant and Arthur (who was absolutely luscious and funny in her role, IMHO).

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink


      By all means, hunker down. In a way, I envy you coming to these films for the first time. It’s a rare opportunity. Let me know what you think of my choices. I’m really curious. Have a Merry Christmas.

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  8. Barry
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink


    Re Notorious. In Hitchcock’s work, it is always the relationships and sexual innuendo that drive the narrative. Good observation, great picture. Makes you want to be bisexual, so you can have both.

    Red River comes in two versions. The one with Walter Brennan’s narration, preferred by Hawks, and the one available and preferred by those who write about movies with diary pages turning. I like Brennan.

    Gun Crazy is of interest. But, you have ranked it pretty highly. Which means omitting something. Too bad.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink


      I’ve never had a preference in the two Red River versions. Sometimes I like one, sometimes I like the other. Basically, I just really like the film. 

      I assign Gun Crazy such a high rank because it’s an amazing film with a moral and formal power that punches way beyond its weight.

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