10 great fantasy films of the 1940s

When fantasy was a matter of life and death…

4 April 2024

By Sam Wigley

All That Money Can Buy (1941) © Criterion

The decade bookended by Disney’s aptly titled Fantasia (1940) and Kamal Amrohi’s interdimensional romance Mahal (1949) deserves to be considered among the greatest for film fantasy. Monster movies had been the dominant strain of fantastic cinema during the 1930s, but as war raged across the globe in the 1940s, filmmakers became preoccupied with matters of life and death. Feelings of loss, absence and trauma were mirrored in movies full of friendly ghosts, debonair Devils, and romances between this world and the next.

Taking their lead from vanguard 30s fantasies Peter Ibbetson (1935), Lost Horizon (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), these films delight in bending space and time, often matching their flights of fancy with dazzling formal invention. In Marcel Carné’s courtly romance Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), two envoys from the Devil disguised as minstrels arrive at a medieval castle and simply stop the dancers of a ball in mid-motion to begin their seductions of a newly betrothed couple. In Basil Dearden’s The Halfway House (1944), travellers arriving at a Welsh inn find that time seems to have stopped there. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) famously gives a despairing George Bailey (James Stewart) a chance to see what Bedford Falls would have been like without him. René Clair’s It Happened Tomorrow (1944) gifts a journalist access to a newspaper that carries the next day’s news.

In William Dieterle’s All That Money Can Buy (1941), also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Devil himself descends on 19th-century New Hampshire in order to buy up the soul of a desperate farmer. First appearing in negative in genuinely spooky subliminal flashes, he’s embodied in the person of a mischief-making hick called Mr Scratch, played with diabolical, Cat-in-the-Hat menace by Walter Huston. Eerily scored by Bernard Herrmann, the ensuing battle for salvation anticipates both the heavenly trial of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and the expressionistic clash of good and evil in the American heartland of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).

As Dieterle’s supernatural marvel arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion, we turn back the clock to the 1940s: a decade when fantasy was at once whimsical and as serious as the grave.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Directors: Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
© Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan/Alexander Korda Film Productions

Begun in Britain, finished in Hollywood after the outbreak of war, Alexander Korda’s glorious Arabian Nights super-production started the decade in a riot of exotic colour. Upgrading the magnificent 1924 silent version of the story, The Thief of Bagdad sees Indian-born child star Sabu playing the boy thief who helps the usurped king of Baghdad regain the throne taken from him by the evil vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Their magical journey takes in a mechanical flying horse, a magic carpet ride, an all-seeing eye and a giant, wish-granting genie – all rendered with primitive but forever enchanting blue-screen and matte painting effects. 

Michael Powell was one of the six directors, including three who remained uncredited. In his autobiography, he recalls a child excitedly clinging to his leg during a screening at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in the 1980s and claiming: “It’s the best movie I ever saw.” Even now, its influence handed down through Star Wars and Indiana Jones, it prompts a similar gee-whiz awe.

Les Visiteurs du soir (1942)

Director: Marcel Carné

Les Visiteurs du soir (1942)
© Criterion

Made in occupied France, Les Visiteurs du soir found Marcel Carné, a director known for the noirish fatalism of Le Quai des brumes (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939), turning to fantasy and the world of courtly romance to better appease Vichy censors. Like All That Money Can Buy, it finds the Devil (here played by Jules Berry) interfering with the affairs of men. “…And so, in the lovely month of May, 1485,” the storybook opening title begins, “the Devil sent two of his envoys to this world, to drive humans to despair”. In common with other 1940s fantasies, however, what follows is more sprightly and affirmative of the human spirit than that threatens. At large in a fairytale chateau, its otherworldly meddlers are soon schooled in the corporeal matters of desire and romance.

Arletty and Alain Cuny play the visitors attempting to prevent an upcoming marriage by seducing the betrothed, and – four years before A Matter of Life and Death – Michael Powell must have been watching that moment when they freeze the action in the chateau to step amid the suspended scene. The closing moments offer another magical touch: lovers turned to statues whose hearts are still heard beating inside the stone.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Directors: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

This landmark avant-garde film from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid slips into the language of dream as it conjures the anxious reveries of a woman falling asleep in her Hollywood home. As the dreamer repeatedly pursues a hooded figure with a mirror for a face, jump cuts, subjective camera and slow motion effects establish a haunting visual logic in which the repeated motifs of a key, a knife and a flower feel like clues forever just out of reach.

In attempting to replicate the surreality of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929), Deren and Hammid created one of the great irruptions of fantasy in cinema. Unmoored from the mainstream industry’s need to couch its flights of fancy within a legible narrative, the DIY avant-gardists produced a 15-minute film that seems to have bubbled up directly out of the id. Long before David Lynch made his cyclical Hollywood-set nightmares of the female gothic, Meshes of the Afternoon ventured down a similar forked path, transmitting its strange Morse code of erotic disquiet.

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

The 1940s saw a whole cycle of films involving heavenly interventions, bureaucratic mistakes in the afterlife, and the recently deceased being given second chances on earth. It would be easy to pin this preoccupation with the transmigration of souls on the destabilising trauma of war, yet 1941’s inaugural Hollywood entry Here Comes Mr. Jordan in fact arrived in cinemas four months to the day before Pearl Harbor and the US’s subsequent entry in combat.

With bit parts for Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut Cabin in the Sky offers a jazz musical twist on the trend and – rare for a Hollywood film of the time – an all-Black cast. The plot pivots on the fate of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson), a “shiftless no-account” and incorrigible gambler in the Deep South who gets killed in a drunken brawl but – thanks to the prayers of his forgiving wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) – is given another six months on earth to redeem himself, else he’ll be damned in hell for eternity. Lucifer is determined to claim him, however, and so sends a gold-digging temptress (Lena Horne) to lure him off the straight and narrow. 

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Director: Jean Cocteau

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

It’s often forgotten that this most exalted of film fantasies begins with a Brechtian device. We hear a voice saying “Action! Rolling!” as a man on screen with a clapperboard marks the beginning of ‘take one’ of La Belle et la Bête by “Monsieur Cocteau”. Only a moment later, however, Cocteau’s opening narration is asking “childlike simplicity” of us before he reveals his fantastical images, and it’s part of the sublime tightrope walk of Cocteau’s cinema that these are not contradictory gestures. Somehow revealing the workings of his illusions only adds to their magic.

His ravishing retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story moves between scenes of village life inspired by Vermeer paintings and a rambling gothic ruin of a castle that’s touched with enchantment. Self-igniting candelabras are held aloft from the walls by human arms. Living faces gaze out of the mantelpiece stonework. At dinner, a disembodied hand pours the claret. A major influence on Disney’s later animated version, Cocteau’s film brings together surrealism, fairytale and the illusion-making potency of cinema itself. 

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

The crown jewel of British fantasy cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death impishly flips The Wizard of Oz’s spectacular move into colour for its fantasy sequences. Instead, it’s earth that’s in colour and the hereafter that’s shown in black and white. “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” says heavenly messenger Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), moving between worlds and breaking down the fourth wall with equal abandon.

Powell and Pressburger’s film takes the heavenly mix-up idea of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and runs with it. David Niven’s RAF pilot is supposed to die when his plane goes down in flames over the Channel in the film’s extraordinary opening moments. But Conductor 71 can’t find his body in the British fog to claim it, and meanwhile Peter has fallen in love with the American radio operator (Kim Hunter) who intercepted his SOS. Building to a tribunal in the afterlife with Peter’s life and love on the dock, A Matter of Life and Death is by now well canonised as a classic. But it’s also fascinating as a patchwork of ideas from other recent fantasy films of the time, from All That Money Can Buy to Les Visiteurs du soir. Even its famous stairway to heaven has a cinematic precursor in Cabin in the Sky. 

Fireworks (1947)

Director: Kenneth Anger

Fireworks (1947)

Like Meshes of the Afternoon, this milestone of underground cinema is another trancelike reverie filmed in a home in the Hollywood Hills. Now that fantasy in cinema has become codified to mean anything downstream of Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons, it might seem unconventional to include these short avant-garde works in a list of fantasy films. But both films offer intriguing correspondences with the narrative films of the period, when flashbacks, dream sequences and psychological subjectivity were becoming the fashion. And what else is Kenneth Anger’s shimmering, scandalous dream of sailors if not fantasy?

At a time when homoerotic content was either absent or buried within mainstream cinema, Anger’s short was astonishingly frank about bodies and sexual desire. Filmed at his parents’ house while they were away, it stages the surreal and sadomasochistic encounters between a waking sleeper and a barroom full of sailors in white uniforms. The dreamlike poetry of Fireworks owes something to Cocteau, but its lurid scenes from the subconscious also stake out new terrain for cinema in explicitly tackling teenage desire, illicit or otherwise.

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Director: William Dieterle

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Among the strangest of Hollywood’s supernatural fantasies of the decade was this concoction from producer David O. Selznick and All That Money Can Buy director William Dieterle, based on a 1940 novella by Robert Nathan. At 20th Century Fox in 1947, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir had imagined a love story between a widow and the spectre of a salty sea captain. Portrait of Jennie similarly bridges dimensions as it sees a down-on-his-luck painter (Joseph Cotten) in 1930s Manhattan meet and fall in love with an enigmatic woman (Jennifer Jones) who ages rapidly from girlhood to womanhood to old age between each encounter.

Scored to the mix of Debussy themes and a swirling Bernard Herrmann original, the resulting tale of obsessional love plays like a blueprint for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as Dieterle’s film engulfs us in the painter’s pursuit of an otherworldly muse. Awash in romanticism and melancholia, it dramatically switches from black and white to a green-tinted shipwreck sequence and finally bursts into full colour to display the eponymous painting. 

The Queen of Spades (1949)

Director: Thorold Dickinson

The Queen of Spades (1949)
© BFI National Archive

A tale of diabolical pacts to rank alongside All That Money Can Buy. This neglected British classic is a fever dream of old Russia, bringing an Alexander Pushkin short story to the screen with a stylised period flair worthy of Josef von Sternberg or Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films. In this snow-globe vision of early 19th-century St Petersburg, Anton Walbrook plays the military officer and keen gambler who tries to prise the secret of winning at cards from an elderly countess (Edith Evans) rumoured to have sold her soul for it.

Bristol-born director Thorold Dickinson had begun the decade with the original version of Gaslight (1940), but triples down on the gothic atmosphere here. The Queen of Spades rivals Powell and Pressburger’s films of the late 40s for its fully created world, with sets and costumes designed by noted stage designer Oliver Messel. The young Ken Adam also worked on the sets as an uncredited draughtsman.

Mahal (1949)

Director: Kamal Amrohi

Mahal (1949)

In Kamal Amrohi’s eerie romance, Ashok Kumar plays Shankar, the new owner of an old palace who becomes infatuated with an apparition, Kamini (Madhubala), claiming to be his lover from a previous life. Although often considered the first Hindi horror film, Mahal also belongs to the 1940s tradition of interdimensional romance, adding reincarnation into the heady mix that, in films from Here Comes Mr. Jordan to Portrait of Jennie, saw love transcend mortality. 

Making his directorial debut, the future director of Pakeezah (1972) films the palace like a haunted Xanadu, with much of the screen given over to pockets of impenetrable darkness. Lattice windows create grids of shadow across the floor. Doors flap open and shut. Chandeliers sway in the permanent draught. The delirious gothic mood is intoxicatingly sustained across a lengthy running time, punctuated with songs that launched the career of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. As Kamini sings her beguiling siren’s call, even the camera seems to feel a magnetic pull.