5 Must-See Movies of the 1940s from Jennifer Niven

Detail from cover of American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

Editor's Note: Jennifer Niven's first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly. Her second book, Ada Blackjack, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick. Her latest book, American Blonde: A Novel, tells the story of war heroine Velva Jean Hart, who in 1945 is lured to Hollywood by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where the promise of stardom awaits here. Inspired by this story, Niven shared her thoughts on the best films of the 1940s with Signature. Read on.

Naming my top five movies of the 1940s is nearly impossible. It would be easier to name my favorite day of the week or tell you which leading man I think is handsomest, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, or Errol Flynn. If the movie business hit its stride in the 1930s, the decade that followed was the very peak of Everest. Movie attendance in the United States was eighty million per week. By the end of 1948, that number had dropped to sixty million per week - television had arrived.

It was the death of the studio system, but the movies created during that Everest of a decade live on.

There are the ones I watch every December: "Miracle on 34th Street," "Holiday Affair," and "Little Women" (starring a blond Elizabeth Taylor as Amy). There are the Cary Grant charmers: "The Philadelphia Story," "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," "Arsenic and Old Lace." The much-deserved classics: "Casablanca," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Maltese Falcon," and the granddaddy of them all, "Citizen Kane."

Myrna Loy and William Powell gave us three "Thin Man" films that decade, which - though not as snappy as the earlier chapters in the series - still represent the best onscreen pairing in celluloid history. The second best, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, sparkle in "My Favorite Wife." At the other end of the spectrum is the devastating "The Bicycle Thief," a film so powerful I've only seen it once. The 1940s was also responsible for smart and suspenseful thrillers: "Shadow of a Doubt," "Rebecca," "Notorious," "Laura," "Double Indemnity."

But here are five films that manage to stand out by leaving a lasting impact on the head and on the heart.

"The Third Man" (1949)
The story opens as Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an out-of-work novelist, arrives in post-war Vienna to see his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Only - to Martins' shock - Lime is dead, the victim of a recent accident. With nowhere to go, Martins sticks around, and it soon becomes clear that the city is dangerously divided, the black market is thriving, and the circumstances surrounding Lime's death are mysterious (to say the least). Shot in film-noirish black and white, and accompanied by a quirky yet haunting musical score, "The Third Man" is utterly compelling, and one of those rare films that you wouldn't change at all, down to the very last shot.

"Brief Encounter" (1945)
Directed by David Lean, with a story by Noël Coward, this spare and simple British film is a love story about a married housewife (Celia Johnson) who meets a married doctor (Trevor Howard) at a railway station café. Neither is looking for love or friendship, but they begin meeting every Thursday at that same café, and gradually fall in love. Because the film wasn't produced by an American studio, you watch and worry that Laura and Alec may not have the happiest ending. The most touching thing of all is that they don't want to let themselves love each other because they know it's wrong.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith"/"To Be or Not to Be" (1941/1942)
Hitchcock's one and only comedy (or was it?), not to be confused with the Brad and Angelina spy flick of the same name. This "Smith" stars screwball queen Carole Lombard and a dashing Robert Montgomery as a husband and wife who discover they aren't legally married - no big deal in this day and age, but scandalous in 1940. While it certainly isn't the best movie of the decade, it's worth watching for Lombard alone, who is at once glamorous and goofy and who never minds looking ridiculous. Montgomery more than holds his own as the couple breaks up and as he attempts to make up before he loses her for good. Lombard's last picture, "To Be or Not to Be," was released in 1942, the year she was killed in a plane crash. She and co-star Jack Benny play a husband and wife acting team who accidentally find themselves involved in saving the lives of the Polish Underground. It's as ludicrous as it sounds - like something out of Mel Brooks - but Lombard, Benny, and the rest of the cast are so completely committed to it, you buy every word.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)
Directed by William Wyler, "The Best Years of Our Lives" tells the story of three servicemen returning from the war and struggling to adjust to civilian life. Nearly seventy years after the war's end, it's hard not to feel emotional over the reunion of Al and Milly Stephenson (Fredric March and Myrna Loy), the abrupt displacement of Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), who discovers his wife has been stepping out on him, and the tight-lipped heartbreak of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who lost both hands to the fight. Russell, a real-life veteran, won an Oscar for his first role. Maybe most poignant of all is the tentative relationship between Al and Milly's daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright), and the embittered Fred Derry. Derry, much like the country he served, is as weary and jaded as he is relieved to be on the other side of war. We share his hope as he wonders if - after all he's been through - he is truly capable and deserving of loving again.

"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)
We know it as one of the best loved Christmas movies of all time, but the story of the down-and-out George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) was such a bomb when it debuted that it nearly ruined the career of director Frank Capra. Post-war audiences found it too depressing. After all, the main character is facing complete financial ruin and contemplates suicide. But he's also granted a second chance by a bumbling angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), trying to earn his wings. At once tough and tender, the message of redemption is timeless, and every bit as relevant - and heartwarming - now as it was then.