We all know 1942’s Casablanca would be #1 on this list, so we’ve left it off to avoid being too obvious. Instead, we’ve got the best 40s movies, in our opinion, each of which is well worth streaming to see how it used to be done.
6. Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime)
Three-time Best Director Oscar winner Frank Capra directed this adaptation of the 1941 play. The dark comedy stars Cary Grant in rare form, and his famous line, “Insanity runs in my family — it practically gallops” is a fitting summary of the film.
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The premise revolves around a writer named Mortimer Brewster (Grant). He has to deal with his aunts who lure lonely bachelors to rent a room in their home and kill them to put them out of their misery.
It sounds crazy, but with a game cast, Capra’s trademark direction and Grant shining in the central role, Arsenic and Old Lace stands the test of time.
5. The Big Sleep, 1946 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime)
An incredible writing team made this Howard Hawks-directed noir happen. Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner William Faulkner had credit, as well as prolific screenwriter Jules Furthman. Leigh Brackett was also credited; she penned the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.
In spite of all that, The Big Sleep‘s complicated plot even confused the screenwriters. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall co-starred and had such good chemistry that Warner Bros. heavily altered the theatrical release to focus more on their relationship.
This is an excellent, golden age of Hollywood showcase for the stars. It’s fun to pull apart the murder mystery and draw your own conclusions.
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4. The Letter, 1940 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime)
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, The Letter stars Bette Davis in one of her most acclaimed roles. She plays Leslie Crosbie, who shoots a man (revealed to be her lover) dead within the opening minutes of the movie.
What follows is a fascinating yarn in which Leslie successfully argues self-defense. Her ulterior motives and manipulative actions throughout make it a performance that holds up to this day.
It doesn’t sound like Davis’ adulterous, murdering character is likeable, yet she pulls it off. The Letter features an exceptional score that feeds into the melodrama of this twisted story.
3. The Maltese Falcon, 1941 (HBO Max)
One of the most intricately plotted movies of all time, this is another Bogart classic noir. The source material comes from arguably the best-hardboiled detective novelist ever Dashiel Hammett.
This marked John Huston’s directorial debut, and he earned a third Oscar nomination as a screenwriter for his phenomenal script. All these factors make The Maltese Falcon iconic in a multitude of ways.
Bogart’s Sam Spade is a private investigator who’s implicated as a murderer. Then, the titular MacGuffin drives the rest of the thrilling plot, which wraps in a complex, compelling conclusion.
2. Now, Voyager, 1942 (HBO Max)
It’s Bette Davis again! However, she’s not a killer this time, but a repressed, lovesick protagonist named Charlotte who’s easy to empathize with.
She takes a long, oceanic voyage and falls in love with Paul Henreid’s Jerry. Although they don’t really wind up together in the end, it’s a great story of Charlotte finding her self-confidence and independence.
Now, Voyager features the famous scene in which Jerry lights his and Charlotte’s cigarettes, and ranks No. 23 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Passions” among U.S. cinema’s best love stories.
1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime)
Huston won Oscars for writing and directing in this Bogart-led feature, which is a departure from the star’s previously mentioned noirs.
Set in Mexico, Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs and his partner Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) join forces with the writer-directors father Walter Huston, who plays a gold prospector named Howard. Fred spent his last money on a lottery ticket, and won! Thus, they go off in search of gold.
Mixing in humor and irony to a desperate situation of thematic avarice, Huston and Co. deliver a magnificent ’40s classic.