The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1948

How the fuck were Powell and Pressburger not nominated here? We won’t dwell on that, because that’s now what this Quest is about. But the question bears repeating — seriously, how?

As for the rest of 1948, I love most of it, and despise their Best Picture choice. Hamlet a good film, but a boring choice for Best Picture, beats The Snake Pit, a great film about mental illness, Johnny Belinda, a wonderful film I love dearly about a mute girl, The Red Shoes, which is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. ’nuff said. Fortunately, though, aside from that category, they went mostly right everywhere else.

Best Actor was Laurence Olivier for Hamlet, which was well-deserved. Based on who was nominated, he was by far the best choice. Best Actress was Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda, which I talked about here, which is seriously one of the top five best decisions in that category of all time. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which was a well-deserved Oscar that he earned three times over by that point. And Best Supporting Actress was Claire Trevor, for Key Largo, which is the only other poor decision from this year, in my opinion. 4 out of 6 decisions were great though, this year, especially this one. This decision is just glorious.


And the nominees were…

John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit

Jean Negulesco, Johnny Belinda

Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Fred Zinnemann, The Search

Huston — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a perfect film. There’s a reason this makes all those lists of the greatest films ever made. No one has ever captured pure corruption and greed and paranoia on film the way John Huston did here. It’s just — great.

Humphrey Bogart (who was robbed of an Oscar nomination — and probably a win too — this year) and Tim Holt are laborers looking for work. Eventually they meet up with John Huston, an old gold prospector who tells them about a bunch of gold hidden in the Sierra Madre mountains. They save up the money and go out there. They go and mine a bunch of gold — enough to make them all rich. However, the more they find, the more they start to get paranoid. They worry that one of the three will steal from or kill the other two and make off with the money himself. And slowly, their paranoia grows, especially Bogart’s — and he starts to suspect the other two and gradually loses his mind over it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant film.

The whole thing is just perfect. And when you watch the film, Huston’s direction is clearly just far and away better than everyone else’s. The key really is that, unlike everyone else, Huston always shot his films on location. While everyone else is on soundstages and sets, this motherfucker was traveling to Africa and shit and holding a camera three feet from fucking crocodiles. That’s the difference here. This film is just pulsing with energy, and that’s not to say the other films aren’t — it’s just, when it comes to Best Director, this man is the only choice in this category. You can just see it when you watch them.

Litvak — The Snake Pit is a film I love very much. It’s tough to really explain, unless you’ve watched a lot of films of this era, but, if you have, when you watch this one, you can just feel that it’s different — grittier, in a way — than other films. It just has something about it. It’s stark. Like The Lost Weekend. Except, instead of alcoholism, it’s mental illness.

The film is about Olivia de Havilland waking up in a mental institution and not remembering how she got there. At first she thinks it’s a mistake, but she comes to realize that she’s been there for some time, and is actually schizophrenic. She doesn’t even recognize her own husband. And the film is told in a series of cuts between the past and the present. We get a little bit of de Havilland’s story at a time, while also showing what’s going on with her in the institution. Gradually, she begins to trust her doctor, and starts to figure out the underlying cause of her condition, and eventually gets better. But — the film is a great portrayal of schizophrenia, especially in an era where everything wasn’t dealt with in a realistic manner. Everything was always Hollywood-ized. This isn’t. This is very, very well done.

Olivia de Havilland is also perfect in the role. Had Jane Wyman not been so great, she’d have won this award in a landslide (this, along with her performance in The Heiress the year after this, which is just as good, led to her winning Best Actress again). But, Wyman was too good. Either way, we’re here to talk about the direction. Which, is great and all, but, it’s not John Huston’s direction. It just isn’t. I can’t even think about voting for this when John Huston is on the list for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Negulesco — Oh man, did I fall in love with this film, hard. It was one of the first films I saw on the Quest, and within fifteen minutes, I was in love with it, and completely hooked as to what happened. Some might consider this melodrama, and it kind of is, especially by the end, but, at the beginning, you fall so in love with Jane Wyman that what happens doesn’t even matter. It’s really just divine.

The film is about a doctor who takes a job in a small town. One of those deals where they call him up at all hours and he makes only house calls. That sort of thing. And one day, he meets a farmer and his sister and daughter. Now, the doctor is Lew Ayres (aka Paul from All Quiet on the Western Front), the farmer is Charles Bickford, his sister is Agnes Moorehead, and his daughter is Jane Wyman. She’s Belinda. I’m not kidding when I say every single one of them was good enough to win Oscars (though, really, only the women should have won, based on the categories). So, the doctor sees that the farmer has a mute daughter, and sees that he assumes she’s retarded and is basically useless. So he berates her and calls her stupid, because, she can’t really communicate with anybody. However, the doctor notices that she can understand people, and is actually intelligent, despite being unable to talk. So what he does is, he starts teaching her sign language, and the first half of the film is him teaching her how to communicate. And it’s just a wonderfully low key thing.

So, the doctor teaches Belinda how to communicate, and she falls in love with him, because he’s the only person she’s ever really felt close to. But he’s not really in love with her. He feels more like a father to her. Anyway, she is able to communicate and starts going around town. And one man in town, a huge dickhead, decides one night that he’s attracted to Belinda and wants her. Think like the asshole jock who’s going out with the head cheerleader who sees the shy girl who became pretty and decides, “I have to fuck her.” That’s what this is like. But this is like, turn of the century, so, they’re all on farms and shit. And the guy, at a dance, rapes Belinda after she says she’s not interested in her. And she can’t talk so she never tells anybody. And she gets pregnant. And she refuses to say anything about it, so everyone assumes the baby is the doctor’s. And there’s a huge scandal and the doctor is basically run out of town. Not even Belinda’s father and aunt really believe her.

But then, after the baby is born, the doctor decides he wants to take Belinda away from the town, so she can raise the baby and live in peace. However, now, the asshole who raped her wants the baby. He figures he has a right to see his son. One day, he comes by to see the kid, and Belinda’s father sees him, and realizes what happened. So he runs to go into town and expose the whole thing. But then he and the asshole get into a struggle and he falls off a cliff and dies (of course).

So now, Belinda’s father is dead and she has no one to fight for her, since Agnes Moorehead is a woman and can’t really do as much. Like I said, turn of the century. But, the asshole still wants the kid. So he gets his fiance, the head cheerleader woman, to organize a committee to declare Belinda an unfit mother, at which point, her and the asshole, good Christians that they are, will adopt the baby and raise it as their own. And they basically hound her and try to get her to legally give up custody of her child, which, of course, is fucking preposterous. Belinda refuses this. And one day, the asshole comes back for the child, and, to stop him, Belinda shoots him dead. So, of course, there’s a trial. There’s always a trial.

And Belinda is put on trial for murder, and the doctor has to come testify, and eventually the asshole’s wife admits that she knew and that he admitted the whole thing to her, and everything ends happily, and Belinda is left to care for her child in peace.

I fucking loved this movie. Insanely so. Words cannot describe how much I loved this movie. Honestly, were it not for John Huston, this would be my vote in this category. But, honestly, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is just too perfect. I have to vote for that.

Olivier — Yeah, Hamlet. It’s a good film. Don’t mistake my bashing it as dislike for the film. My malice is aimed strictly at the Academy for their shitty decision-making this year. Olivier directed the hell out of the film.

Also, it’s Hamlet. You don’t need a description. If you do, pay more attention in school.

Olivier did a really great job directing this film. It’s much better than his direction on Henry V and better than his later efforts as well. The moody atmosphere he gave the film really enhances it. It looks great. But, honestly, he was only ever gonna win Best Actor for this, and quite frankly shouldn’t have won this award. That’s all their is too it. You might love the direction, but I think we can all agree — John Huston deserved to win this award instead. John Huston not winning this award would be like Kevin Costner beating Martin Scorsese for Best Direc— oh.

Zinnemann — I honestly didn’t know what I was getting with this film. I found it rather late into the Quest, and really only watched it very recently. It was during that one month I watched that absurd number of films. And, I was not only surprised by the subject matter, but also how much I loved the film. It was really good.

The film is about a young boy, who had been captured by the Germans with his mother and separated from her. And he’s rounded up by the UN with a bunch of children and taken to a center for lost kids. However, the kids, not understanding the language, believe the Nazis have them. And, having heard a story where the Nazis used ambulances to gas children, the kids all run out and escape. And the UN guys try to round them up, but the kids think the men want to kill them, so they run away. And the main boy ends up escaping them and getting away (mostly because he swims across a lake an another boy ends up drowning).

So the boy gets away and is met by Montgomery Clift. Clift is an army officer, sitting in his jeep, eating his lunch, when he sees the boy standing there. He sees the boy is hungry and gives him part of his sandwich to eat. He figures to just go along on his way, but then his conscience takes over and he goes back. But the boy, wary of anyone who looks like an officer, runs away. Because he’s Czech, and doesn’t speak the language. So he’s just afraid of everyone and everything. And Clift rangles him up and takes him with him. But the boy keeps trying to escape. So he brings him to his apartment, and shows him to a fellow officer. And they realize the boy doesn’t understand they’re trying to help him, so he lets him run away again. And when the boy sees they’re not chasing after him, he comes back. And then a big chunk of the film where Clift teaches the boy English. That’s a big chunk of the middle of the film.

And then after Clift teaches the boy English, he tries to help him find his mother. And then there’s a parallel storyline where the mother is also looking for the boy, but that’s only a brief scene here or there. The main story is Clift and the boy. And they go around, trying to find the whereabouts of the mother, and eventually they reach this one processing station where the mother was very early on in the film. And the lady at the desk recognizes the case, and eventually the boy admits that he was at this place earlier (but, he was scared, so he didn’t say anything to them because he thought they were Nazis), at which point the woman realizes who his mother is (she’d been dealing with her all film).

And the mother, who had given up her search and was just about to leave, is about to board a train to leave. And the woman races there to tell her that her son is alive. And they get there, but the train has left. But, of course, miraculously, the mother decided at the last second she didn’t want to leave. She gave up hope for her son, but decided she wants to be around and help all the other children who lost their parents. And she asks to walk with the children as they’re taken to the UN center. And the woman — in a kind of cruel fashion, but also, in a perfectly great movie fashion — lets her do this, and, as she walks with the kids, she goes back to the jeep with Clift and the boy and tells the boy to go along with the kids. And as he walks along, his mother recognizes him, and there’s this beautiful moment where they’re reunited. It’s seriously beautiful. I lost it when that happened. (To be fair, I cry at most movies.)

It’s a wonderful film. I’m glad it got nominated, so now people can see it. I wouldn’t vote for Zinnemann at all here — he’s a #5 in this category. Though maybe a #4, since Olivier really didn’t need the win, but let’s call him a 5 — and, really, it doesn’t matter. He’d win twice in the future, and, this nomination seemed like the Academy embracing a young, up and coming director (this was his sixth movie or something like that, and his first great movie. The rest were mostly small and/or forgettable). That first nomination is the, “welcome to the party, pal,” nomination, and the rest are, “solid work” nominations, with the occasional win if they’re good enough of if it’s just their time. So, he wasn’t going to win, but, the film is wonderful and he did a great job with it.

My Thoughts: John Huston is the only choice here, especially since Powell and Pressburger weren’t nominated. Olivier shouldn’t have won — his award was Best Actor. Zinnemann wasn’t going to win, his film was the weakest of the bunch, despite being very good. He’d have his time in a few years. Litvak wasn’t going to win — his direction was solid but not win-worthy. And Negulesco — great film, great direction, but it just doesn’t hold up against Huston’s direction. It was just too good. The location shoot really makes all the difference. It’s Huston by a mile here.

My Vote: Huston

Should Have Won: Huston

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. It’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston directed the fuck out of this. This is classical filmmaking at its finest. He never actually won another Best Director Oscar, so he really needed this one. Great job, Academy. You didn’t fuck up here. (Though, Powell and Pressburger weren’t nominated, so it’s not like this was a very difficult choice to make.)

Ones I suggest you see: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a perfect film, and, if you like cinema and have not see this, you should probably stop trying. You’re doing it wrong.

Johnny Belinda is a film that I consider one of the best films on this Oscar Quest. By that I mean, based on what I hadn’t seen already. This will definitely be in my list of top films I’m glad I discovered from this Quest. Top five, for absolute certainty. It’s that good. You seriously just fall in love with Jane Wyman’s character and go with the film all the way. It’s just brilliant. I’m convinced this would have won in a weaker year.

The Snake Pit is just a tremendous, tremendous film. I’ve never seen such a realistic (for this era) portrayal of mental illness. This is like The Lost Weekend of schizophrenia. It’s really just incredibly well done. In a weaker (much weaker) year, it might well have won Best Picture. It’s that good.

Hamlet you should see because it’s the definitive film version of the play. It’ll help you in high school. Plus, I say you need to watch it because, if you see all five Best Picture winners (and you totally should, they’re all great), you’ll see (and possibly even agree) why I consider this the worst Best Picture decision of all time. Great film — terrible choice. See it.

And The Search is a very enjoyable film as well. It gets you. It works really, really well. Highly recommended. Really solid film. You’ll enjoy this one.


5) Zinnemann

4) Olivier

3) Litvak

2) Negulesco

1) Huston

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