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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1944

1944. I consider this year a missed opportunity. The Academy could have really went out on a limb and gave a great film Best Picture. But instead they went with the safe choice. Going My Way, which is a very good film, but really didn’t need to win Best Picture, Best Director Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Best Actor is cool, because who dosen’t like Bing Crosby? I can’t remember who he was up against offhand, but let’s assume it’s okay. (Note: Looked it up. Totally cool with it.) Oh, also, Barry Fitzgerald, who won Best Supporting Actor, was also nominated for Best Actor for the exact same role. Only time that’s happened in Academy history. After this they just settled into the standard category fraud that we’re used to.

Anywho, the other two awards we haven’t covered yet were Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight, a makeup Oscar if I’ve ever seen one — she was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls and not for Casablanca the year before this, plus she did a great job here, so there was really no way she wasn’t winning — and Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart. I’m really not all that upset with most of the decisions this year — or at least, I don’t object too much, past Best Picture and this category, because those just weren’t necessary at all.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1944

And the nominees were…

Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat

Henry King, Wilson

Leo McCarey, Going My Way

Otto Preminger, Laura

Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity

Hitchcock — It amazes me that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Because in most years, you watch the films he was nominated for, and they blow all the competition out of the water. Like, obviously so. It’s like watching the 1963 Best Director nominees, and seeing 8 1/2. That’s clearly the best effort by far. And yet, it didn’t win. It’s so strange how the Academy thinks sometimes.

Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director five times. First was for Rebecca. Which is strange, considering the film won Best Picture. And yet, he didn’t also win Best Director. John Ford did, for The Grapes of Wrath. Now, I think we can all agree that film was the one that should have won Best Picture that year, but, if you’re gonna give the big award to Hitch, why not give him the other one too? It’s a very odd decision. And then this was the second time he was nominated. We’ll get to this in a second. The third time was the year after this for Spellbound. That one I get why he didn’t win. (It’s because they gave Billy Wilder a makeup Oscar for not giving it to him this year. Not that he didn’t deserve it for The Lost Weekend, it’s just, losing this year cemented it.) Then he was nominated in 1954 for Rear Window. On the surface, you’d say, “How the hell didn’t he win for that?” But, On the Waterfront was that year, and as much as I love Rear Window, I do understand why he lost. But then 1960, Psycho, his last nomination. Which makes sense, because how you gonna top that one? He loses to Billy Wilder again, this time for The Apartment. And while I love The Apartment — it’s probably in my top ten or top twenty favorite films of all time — I would have been totally okay if Hitchcock beat him there. Kind of a tit for tat for 1945. Okay, now onto this year.

Lifeboat is one of those experimental films that Hitchcock did. That is to say — Hitchcock liked challenging himself stylistically. Rope is a film shot in (seemingly) one long, continuous take. It’s actually four really long takes, but still. And this film takes place entirely in a single lifeboat. That’s the film. Eight characters (I think it’s eight. It’s somewhere around there), in a lifeboat, interacting with one another. (Note: For those wondering, he works in his cameo as a picture in a newspaper. Clever, right?) And how the film operates is, it begins after passengers traveling trans-Atlantic end up in a lifeboat after their ship is sunk by a U-Boat, and vice versa. They end up in the boat, and also ending up in the boat is a German officer. So the group wonders what to do with him? Do they throw him overboard? What do they do? And that’s basically the film. They try to get back to land while also being wary of the German, who stays on the boat with them. And the film ends up getting tense because, the German, saying he knows how to steer them to land, is leading them right toward a German ship. It’s very well done.

The film is really great, and Hitchcock does a great job with the limited space. However, I don’t feel the effort is as strong as his more “classic” efforts, like Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train. But — it is really good. It’s the kind of film that becomes an easy #1/#2. But, there is a general consensus classic on this list, and I think that takes precedent over this one when it comes to voting. So, once again, Hitch is screwed out of an Oscar.

King — Henry King is one of the unheralded directors of history. He worked all the way from the silent era into the 60s, which is admirable by itself. But, starting in the late 30s, he had a nice run of films that were very well-regarded and Oscar-nominated, including The Song of Bernadette, Twelve O’Clock High and In Old Chicago. But, the two films he directed that really have a special place in my heart are Jesse James and The Gunfighter. Jesse James is a brilliant western with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda and John Carradine as Bob Ford. Oh, and Jane Darwell as Ma James. Because Jane Darwell played “Ma” everything. It’s a great telling of the Jesse James story, one that wouldn’t be rivaled until The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, almost 70 years later. He also directed The Gunfighter, another incredible western, shot in “real time,” kind of the way High Noon is set in real time. It’s about Gregory Peck as a renowned gunfighter who just wants to settle down and live a normal life, but no matter where he goes, trouble finds him. Everyone wants to have a shootout with him. It’s a great study into the tragedy of the gunfighter. Highly recommended. So, for me, Henry King is a director I hold in high regard.

Now, Wilson, as the title suggests, is a biopic of Woodrow Wilson. It chronicles his life from professor to President. It was actually a very engaging film. In Technicolor too. I remember liking the film very much, though it’s not really a film I could vote for in any category. It’s a good film but not a great film. So I recommend it, but I can’t vote for it.

McCarey — Leo McCarey is a very historically significant director, as he directed film like Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, Love Affair, My Favorite Wife, this film, and it’s sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s. He won Best Director in 1937, which was a good decision, but it wasn’t for the right film. Also that year, he directed a film called Make Way for Tomorrow, which is an incredibly poignant look at what it’s like to get old and the way old people are treated in society. It’s a really great film, and he really should have won for that, but, the Academy went for the more upbeat film. Of course. But, him winning for this seems like nothing more than a popularity vote. They liked him, so they gave it to him. Gave him Best Picture too. That had to be what it was. I mean, it’s a great film, and it definitely made a lot of money (which I’m sure factored into it. The whole, country at war probably factored into it as well. They wanted something upbeat).

The film is about Bing Crosby as a young priest with progressive views, who is assigned to take over a parish from an aging priest, played by Barry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s the kind of priest that’s stern and strict. Teach by discipline. While Crosby teaches by song. You know how it is. And we see Crosby taking over the parish, even though Fitzgerald thinks Crosby’s there as an apprentice of sorts, as a helper. And most the film is random vignettes interspersed with songs. And the whole thing comes to a head at Christmas, where the church is lost in a fire, and the boys sing, Fitzgerald gives in and retires, and Crosby leaves to go off on a new assignment.

It’s a very charming film, but don’t get me wrong, McCarey should not have won Best Director for it. He was really the fifth choice in this field, if only do to the fact that he was the one that had an Oscar already. Add to that the fact that the direction was pretty average for a film — no way.

Preminger — Otto! It’s strange that Preminger was only nominated twice for Best Director (and once for Best Picture as producer). Both times he really was never gonna get voted for. Or rather, couldn’t get voted for. It’s a shame. But then again, he should have been nominated more times than he was. I mean, this man directed The Moon is Blue, Carmen Jones, The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent and In Harm’s Way. Okay, so maybe only a handful of those were worth Best Director nominations, but still — he was Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze. (And for that matter, so was Eli Wallach and George Sanders. Heavy company. Ice to see you too.)

This film is an interesting one. It’s a noir — it’s set up as such. It starts as a detective is investigating the murder of — guess who — and the whole story is told in flashback. We see Laura go about advancing her career through wealthy and influential people, and how a newspaper columnist falls in love with her, while she falls in love with Vincent Price. And the whole film is about who killed her. (Which, spoiler alert, she was never dead.) It’s a good film. I will admit though, that a lot of people really love this movie, and I just don’t. I just admire it a lot. But I don’t consider it a classic on the level that some people do.

As for the directorial effort, it’s really good. But, there’s another noir on here that’s much more worthy of a vote, which means that poor Otto falls by the wayside once again. But don’t worry Otto, you’re in good company. Hitch is there too.

Wilder — Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy. The amount of classic films that Billy Wilder has written and/or directed is mind-boggling. Seriously, mind-boggling. The next paragraph is going to be a list of them. Prepare to go, “Wow.”

Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One Two Three, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti!, The Front Page (1974).

Wow, right?

So, this film. Double Indemnity. If you’re a film fan and haven’t seen this — then you aren’t a film fan. This movie is about as classic as you’re gonna get. If there were a top five list of essential noir films, this film would probably be #2, behind The Maltese Falcon. It’s about a woman who coerces an insurance agent to murder her husband but stage it to look like an accident so as to collect double the money off — guess which clause? Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson are all fantastic in the film, and for my money, Stanwyck deserved an Oscar for her role (though I understand why she didn’t). Seriously, it’s one of the best films ever made. If you haven’t seen this, and you’re reading this article, there’s something wrong with you.

The direction is fucking perfect. This is the quintessential noir movie. It’s beautiful. How Wilder didn’t win here is beyond me. How Wilder didn’t win for half his films is beyond me. (He also lost for Sunset Boulevard, which, really?)

My Thoughts: It’s Wilder all the way, even though Hitchcock deserved it too, historically. I’d have been cool with him winning, knowing that he never got one. Those two are really the only choices here.

My Vote: Wilder

Should Have Won: Wilder, Hitchcock

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely not. McCarey was the least interesting of all the nominees. And he’d won before. Discounting the fact that Wilder won twice after this, it’s Double Indemnity. I mean, come on. And even if you want to play the “he won twice” card — Hitchcock won zero. So, no matter how you cut it, this was a terrible decision.

Ones I suggest you see: Double Indemnity is about as must-see as you’re gonna get. Lifeboat is always a great film to watch. You can’t really go wrong watching Hitchcock ever. This happens to be one of his better films. Definitely in the upper echelon of the oeuvre. Laura is also a really good film, but people who don’t like noirs or even melodrama (it’s kind of a mixture of both), probably won’t like it. Going My Way is a great film, and a fun little musical. People who enjoy those Bing Crosby type films will enjoy this one. It’s a very fun watch. And Wilson is also good, but it’s long, and I think it’s probably the least universal of the bunch. It’s probably the one the least amount of people are gonna like. I’m not sure how to recommend it past — normally I don’t go for these types of films, and found myself very engaged for the most part. (Could have been twenty minutes shorter, but on the whole, I did enjoy the film, which was a lot more than I was expecting. The performance is also really good.) So, really, I recommend all of them.

Rankings:

5) McCarey

4) King

3) Preminger

2) Hitchcock

1) Wilder

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