From The Naked City to Double Indemnity – why the 1940s is my favourite film decade

War changed everything, destroying whole film industries and heralding a new era of realism, grit and shoots on location

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The 1940s sundered the 20th century, dispatching an entire global framework and any number of abiding social orders to the ashcan of history. It offered both pinnacle and nadir of human achievement, along with 60 million dead, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the iron curtain. Inevitably, they changed cinema for ever, too. By 1939, the major Hollywood studios had perfected studio artifice in films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and bestrode the cinematic world like a colossus; by 1950, they would face the triple threat of the upstart new medium of television; the arrival of the “red”-phobic House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood; and the 1948 supreme court decision ordering the break-up of the studios’ monopoly on production, distribution and exhibition.

In between times, under the hot lamps of history, Hollywood, in common with other national cinemas, discovered reality instead of artifice. Its directors – and many of its actors – went to war and returned changed for ever; and audiences changed along with them, either in battle or on the industrially reinvigorated home front. In the US and Britain, war propaganda brought out the best in film-makers as diverse as John Ford and Humphrey Jennings, George Stevens and Powell-Pressburger, in both features and documentaries. Once people had seen what war looked like – neighbours bombed out, platoon buddies blown to pieces just yards away – their taste for artifice and escapism ebbed somewhat.

Filming on location and a documentary approach … Boomerang! (1947).
Filming on location and a documentary approach … Boomerang! (1947). Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20 Century Fox

This was true in European cinema sooner than in American: Italy’s neorealist ethic, born directly out of the experience of war and desolation, coursed through the bloodstream of world cinema in the decades to come (not least in Italian cinema itself, whose history for 30 years after the war is one long, magnificent argument with the tenets of neorealism). American film-makers, too, quit the studios for real-life locations and a documentary approach to narrative in post-war movies such as Boomerang! (Elia Kazan) and The Naked City (Jules Dassin). In 1945, the apex of big-budget, prestige Hollywood studio productions was the realist coming-home drama The Best Years of Our Lives, about as far from The Wizard of Oz as imaginable, and densely embedded in real life as it was unfolding in the moment, with not a fantasy in sight.

Whole genres of cinema – indeed, some entire national cinemas – had gone to the wall. Berlin’s UFA studios, silent-era rival of the Hollywood majors and emblematic of the greatness of German visual culture, was lost forever when Hitler took it over in 1933 (mainly because its best talent had already decamped for Hollywood); German cinema didn’t stand tall again internationally until at least 1970. In France, all the movies not exhibited under Nazi occupation became available overnight in late 1944, igniting the French New Wave in the hungry teenage minds of its future directors (although some of the greatest postwar directors – Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, Henri-Georges Clouzot – had made formidable early works, sometimes against all odds, during the occupation).

Returning to the Weimar-era expressionist visual wellspring … Double Indemnity (1944).
Returning to the Weimar-era expressionist visual wellspring … Double Indemnity (1944). Photograph: taken from picture library

In Japan, the great directors of the 1930s – Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi – freed of the yoke of propaganda and extreme nationalism, built new careers, while the upcoming Akira Kurosawa generation would take its commanding place in international cinema before the decade was out. With the advent of peace, economically strapped European nations enacted laws demanding that US studios’ foreign profits be largely reinvested in those countries, not repatriated, and a boom in US-European co-productions began that lasted until the middle 1970s, with a side serving of reinvigorated local cinema movements over the next two decades (including the British new wave of the 1960s).

Watch a trailer for Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring)

True, at MGM, that ultimate escape vehicle, the musical, was at its zenith in the mid- to late-40s. But its dour, grim obverse, a genre that would own the future and that prevails even today as paranoid style and pessimistic worldview, was film noir, a largely B-movie genre that reflected the pathologies and neuroses, fears and doubts of the American male as he faced the post-1945 economic and social dispensation. As the US economy inevitably dipped into postwar recession, noir featured emasculated heroes, frighteningly evil women (those who had taken the men’s jobs while they were at war), a moral universe of deceit and betrayal, sex and murder. These emerged in dark little films from the likes of Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and Anthony Mann (Raw Deal), and exiled Germans such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Fred Zinnemann (Act of Violence) and Edgar Ulmer (Detour), all returning to the Weimar-era expressionist visual wellspring they had drunk from back home, two decades earlier, before the fall.

Frivolity and artifice would have to await the 1950s to stage their wholesale comeback.


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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