It was in the 1940s they truly found their voices.
Though the studios were still in charge, more and more directors of note were less inclined to be assigned films and were choosing their own projects which brought a greater passion to the work that might not have existed otherwise. In the days after Pearl Harbor, five major filmmakers left their careers in Hollywood to volunteer for the War Department to document the war effort, both at home and more importantly overseas. Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler shot documentaries that were shown in movie theaters as newsreel footage, shorts or feature length docs which brought the war home to the audiences. Never before had audiences seen such footage, that was startling in its realism, some of it banned for years as it was so horrifying. They had been gifted directors before going to war, but emerged masters of the art form, the darkness they saw reflected in their work which saw them create masterpieces.
Cinema became darker in the years after the war as American directors were impacted by the war and the new-realist cinema emerging from Italy after the conflict ended. Most notably affected by those films was Elia Kazan, emerging as a major talent in the forties, he would become the most important filmmaker of the fifties, his films striking in their realism.
Orson Welles broke all the rules of movie making no because he did not know what they were in the first place, and in making ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), he helped evolve the art form with several important innovations used to this day. The broken narrative, deep focus cinematography, use of cinematography to suggest character or tone, editing for the passing of time with years going past in a single cut, use of sound, lighting, the creation of a fake documentary with Kane in scenes with historical figures, the metaphors within the film, and of course, rosebud, and the audience being left to discover what it meant. Critics loved the film, hailing it as the greatest ever made, but it failed with audiences, only to be re-discovered in future years on TV, and by French critics. It is safe to say all films that followed in one way or another were impacted by ‘Citizen Kane’ and Welles.
Here are the ten best directorial Achievements of the forties.