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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1949-1950)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1949

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives

Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol

Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men

William A. Wellman, Battleground

William Wyler, The Heiress

Analysis:

A Letter to Three Wives is a really interesting film. Taking it on its own, as a film, I think it’s brilliant. Here’s why:

It begins with three wives ( on a boat trip with some kids about to go away for the afternoon. As they board, they receive a letter from a fourth woman (who is never seen) who says, “I’m running away with one of your husbands.” So now they can’t get back to land for the next couple of hours, so they all have to sit on this boat and wonder which of their husbands it is. (This is the 40s. No phones.) So we go from one wife to the other to the other, three different stories (all featuring the other characters), and see their relationships with their husbands. And it plays like a mystery melodrama. We’re watching this, wondering if we can spot which husband it is, all the while watching the melodrama of what these women’s lives are like. It’s really good. The concept is ingenious. Also great for a remake. The easy fix is going out in the woods or up a mountain where there’s no service until they climb back down.

Now, while the film is really, really great, and while the direction is solid, I feel as though this one is more screenplay than direction. I’m actually kind of surprised this won. It doesn’t feel like something that needs to win, and I’m really curious how the dynamics of that worked out in 1949. The rest of the category is actually really solid. It didn’t even win Best Picture. Very strange choice. One of the more fascinating categories for me, historically. I’m most interested in how people would vote for this category, having seen all five. They’re all solid efforts, but this, for me, is maybe third at best. I just didn’t see enough out of the direction to vote for it.

The Fallen Idol is a terrific, terrific film. A 1948 film that got nominated in 1949, it being British and all.

The film takes place through the eyes of a child. His parents are diplomats and not really home all that much. His surrogate father is his butler, who is his idol. (You see where this is going.) The butler makes up all these stories about going on adventures and entertains the boy. And the boy believes him wholeheartedly. The reality, though, is that the butler is stuck in a marriage to a woman who hates him, and lives a really sad and depressing life. He has a younger girlfriend, and wants to run away with her, but also has to keep it a secret. Eventually, he and his wife have an argument, and an accidental death occurs. But the boy thinks the butler murdered his wife. So when the police arrive, he tries to cover for the butler, even though he doesn’t really have to. It’s — just see it. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Carol Reed’s direction is superb, and I think most people would consider this a top two in the category. A lot of people would probably consider this #1 in the category. Hell, I might be one of those people too. This film might boast the strongest direction in this category, which would be ironic, two years in a row that Joseph Mankiewicz wins categories that should have been won by Carol Reed. But yeah, easily top two.

All the King’s Men is one of those films — it doesn’t hold up among the strongest Best Picture films, but it’s a really solid and incredible film, boasting some very underrated direction. I watched this again recently and as really surprised at how strong the direction was.

The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, about the rise and fall of a politician (based on Huey Long). The first half of the film shows him as an idealistic young politician, trying to get ahead. But he can’t seem to win, because he refuses to resort to the dirty tactics that are required to become elected. After a couple of failed campaigns, he finally hires a campaign manager willing to do all the dirty work (a great Mercedes McCambridge, who won Supporting Actress for her work). And slowly, we watch him get corrupted. Infidelity, alcohol, all of it. And we slowly watch his morals disintegrate as he gets more and more successful, culminating in the midway point of the film where he becomes governor. So now, the second half of the film features him completely successful, yet now completely corrupt, and we see the entire thing start to crumble around him. It’s a great, great movie. The performances (specifically Crawford and McCambridge) are top notch, and it makes complete sense as a Best Picture winner.

As for the direction — it’s much more solid than I remember it. It really brings you into the performances well, and I think I under-appreciated it the first time I did these articles. I feel like I had it third or fourth, when in reality it’s probably first or second. Again, this is one category where you could theoretically rank the films wildly differently because they’re so close overall. I couldn’t really argue if people put this fourth (fifth… maybe), and I also couldn’t argue if people put it first. It’s a solid category.

Battleground is such a great film. I loved how this felt like they were in the forest the whole time. I mean, it was clearly a soundstage, but it felt like I was there. Which is rare for me to feel in a 40s movie. I usually relish the theatricality of old movies, but this one felt like it transcended that.

The film is about Bastogne. All the soldiers stuck in the snow, surrounded by German troops, with no hope of supplies. It’s one of the great war films that’s sadly overlooked nowadays. The direction, as I said, made me feel like I was there. I haven’t seen it in years, and going back and looking at some clips, I feel like I may have overrated it a bit in my head, wanting to vote for it because it was William Wellman (whose films I love) and because it’s a war movie, shot in the snow — all of that. I think, objectively, it’s probably top three in the category, but again, I couldn’t really argue with what people feel, because the category is that solid. I think I originally called it “all #2s with no #1.” This could still be the vote.

The Heiress is an amazing film. Olivia de Havilland is so incredibly good in it, and it’s one of those melodramas that I think is better than what I typically think of as melodrama.

The film is built around two walks up a staircase. Olivia de Havilland is a plain looking woman who is also really shy. Her father is openly disappointed in her, and she has no idea. She meets Montgomery Clift and immediately falls for him. She thinks it’s love. Her father thinks Clift is a gold digger, after her inheritance. Her father says he’ll disown her if they marry. She says she doesn’t care, and plans to elope with Clift. Only on the night they’re supposed to run away, he never shows up. She waits patiently for him, but he never arrives. And so she has to walk up the staircase, heartbroken. And now, the second half of the film is a few years later. She’s still unmarried, and her father soon dies. She now owns his estate. Reenter Montgomery Clift. He says he loves her and that he wasn’t really after her money and does want to marry her. So they start to make plans to elope once more. I won’t ruin where it goes from here, but the final shot of the film is really powerful.

William Wyler directed this, so you know it’s solid. But it looked fairly average to me, by Wyler’s standards. He’s been nominated more than any other director, so he’s almost on a different curve from everyone else. That’s not how I’m voting, but it’s kinda true. I honestly would put him fifth in the category, purely because I see reasons to vote for all the others over him. Fourth and fifth for me are between this and A Letter to Three Wives. They’re almost interchangeable, but I appreciate the multiple stories aspect of that film, so I think that might be slightly ahead of this one at the moment. This is solid, but it’s not one of Wyler’s absolute best, and maybe would fare better in a different year.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Wyler and Mankiewicz fall to four and five for me. I couldn’t justify voting for either of them in the face of the other three. Wellman was my vote last time. This time, I’m thinking he’s actually third. I really like Rossen’s direction, and I think he’s a legitimate choice. But this time, unburdened by history and simply taking the category as the category — Reed is my vote. His direction is so well done, and brings such tension and emotion to his film that he has to be my choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol
  2. Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men
  3. William Wellman, Battleground
  4. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives
  5. William Wyler, The Heiress

Rankings (films):

  1. Battleground
  2. All the King’s Men
  3. The Fallen Idol
  4. The Heiress
  5. A Letter to Three Wives

My Vote: Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol

Recommendations:

Every film in this category is really good. Top ten of 1949.

All the King’s Men is probably the best and most memorable of the bunch. There’s a reason it won Best Picture. It’s one of those stories that works even now. It ages best of all the films. It’s also the most essential of the bunch. (Most Best Picture winners are.)

Battleground probably holds up second best, because it’s a war movie and is very contained. You’re in the snow, dug into the ground with these troops and that’s the film. If you’re into war movies, or you really loved those two episodes of Band of Brothers where they do Bastogne, then you’re gonna love this movie. It’s really terrific and I highly recommend it.

The Fallen Idol is really great and doesn’t seem to be remembered as well as you’d think. I had no idea what this was until I embarked on this quest. But this is one of the best films I saw. It’s really great and really grabs you as a viewer. This is one of those movies where, if you show it to people who don’t know what this is, most people will come out loving it. It’s that good. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

The Heiress is a great film. Best Actress winner, and directed by William Wyler. You have reasons to see this. Plus, Olivia de Havilland is so good here. Highly recommended for her performance alone.

A Letter to Three Wives is, as you can tell by the premise, a really good movie. It’s one of the more unique setups I’ve seen, and a setup like this in an era like this it stands out. Films that go against the typical Hollywood structure are always worthwhile to me, and this one managed to win Best Director and Best Screenplay. I think it’s worth checking out. Definitely in that tier below all-time essential films.

The Last Word: While I’d be surprised (and probably ask for reasoning behind and have a word or two to say about it) if people picked Wyler here, I couldn’t really argue with what people would choose. To me, I don’t think he’s the choice. Mankiewicz, I can understand, but I don’t think I’d put him higher than fourth. Maybe third. Wellman used to be my vote, and he’s still right there, but not this time. Rossen is close. I could see him being the vote. But for me, Reed is the choice. I think it’s between Reed, Rossen and Wellman, and maybe Mankiewicz. Like I said, I’d want to talk this one out with people who have an opinion and have seen all the films, because you can make a case for just about any of the nominees. My vote is Reed, but I can understand a vote for most of them.

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– – – – – – – – – –

1950

George Cukor, Born Yesterday

John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve

Carol Reed, The Third Man

Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard

Analysis: 

Born Yesterday is a really funny movie. Similar premise as you’ve seen before, but this version is almost forgotten. They remade it with Melanie Griffith and John Goodman, but that’s probably even less remembered than this one.

Broderick Crawford (fresh off a Best Actor win for All the King’s Men) is a mobster who comes to D.C. to bribe some congressmen. You know, go legit. He wants to hang around with the real crooks. He brings along his showgirl girlfriend, Judy Holliday (who won Best Actress for this part. When you see the film, you’ll understand why. Especially if you’ve never seen her in anything before). They stick out like a sore thumb. Crawford decides he wants to get Holliday some class. To learn her some knowledge. So he hires William Holden, a teacher, to class a dame up. You can guess where things go. The film, however, mostly centers around Holliday’s performance, because they realized very early on that they had gold with this woman. There’s an entire scene that is nearly impossible to write on the page. Her and Crawford play bridge, and for nearly five straight minutes, they’re just playing. Almost nothing is said for the first half, and she beats the shit out of him. You can see by how she plays that she’s an intelligent person, she just comes off as dumb. It’s an incredibly well-crafted scene. A lot of the film is based on scenes of her doing her thing, and then once in a while they move the story forward. It’s a really good movie, mostly because of her performance.

As for the direction, this film is unquestionably the number five nominee in this category. Cukor is an actor’s director. He’s not particularly known as a visual genius. The film is fine, and it’s nice to see him on here, but there’s absolutely no way anyone can argue that he’s not fifth. Especially in a category like this.

The Asphalt Jungle is a good film. The structure is terrific. It’s actually an influence on Rififi. When you watch the films, they’ve very similar in structure.

Here’s the film: a crook gets out of jail and plans a big heist. He assembles his team, they plan it, they have everything all ready. Then they perform the heist, which is an 11-minute sequence at the center of the film, and it goes as planned. And now the second half of the film is the unraveling of the first half. The cops look for them, people break, give up others, deaths happen, and eventually people die and/or go to jail. It’s a noir. The ending is inevitable. (Also, very Rififi, right? Five years earlier, by the way.)

I really like this movie, and the heist sequence is incredibly well-directed. John Huston knew how to make a great movie. However, in a category like this — fourth choice. Maybe third. I can see a case being made for third. Possibly even second, if you want to go that far. But given the other three nominees, he’s fourth for me.

All About Eve is an American classic. We have a couple of all-timers in this category.

This movie is really famous and really essential, so I imagine you’ve heard of it and/or seen it. If not, here’s the pitch: Bette Davis is a famous theater actress. One day, an adoring fan named Eve shows up saying how much she loves her. Bette loves hearing this, so she takes her on as her understudy. Only, over the rest of the film, things start happening, and we realize that Eve may be a little more ambitious than she came across at the beginning, and may be trying to take Davis’s place.

It is great. All the performances are pitch perfect, and the entire film is absolutely flawless. I cannot argue for one second with Mankiewicz having won for it. The direction is fine, and I wouldn’t vote for it, but I cannot argue against it. He’s a third choice for me, and if I’m going based purely on visual aesthetics, I may even make a case for Huston over him for third. That said — cannot argue.

The Third Man is, I’ll tell you now, one of my top five favorite films of all time. It is perfect. And when you see this film, I will not need to explain to you why this film should have won this category, and almost every other Best Director category in the 1940s, were it nominated in them. It is impossible to come away from this film with anything other than awe at what Carol Reed managed to achieve with this film.

It’s my vote, by the way, in case that wasn’t obvious.

Here’s what it’s about. I’m gonna be brief, because either you’ve seen this and know already, or you haven’t, and you know you ought to see this immediately:

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a pulp western novelist short on cash. He gets a letter from his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), telling him he has work for him in Vienna and that he should meet him there. He arrives in Vienna only to discover a funeral being held for Lime. A policeman is there and questions who he is and what his business in Vienna is. And Holly then meanders around the city, first at random and then with purpose. (The score is iconic that you’ll recognize it instantaneously.) Pretty soon, he notices some inconsistencies in the story of Lime’s death, and finds himself looking for the titular “third man” who helped carry Lime’s body away from the scene of the accident that killed him. This movie features some of the most memorable images, gorgeous cinematography, breathtaking chases and the greatest character introduction in the history of cinema.

I want you to watch all five films in this category and tell me this shouldn’t have won.

Sunset Boulevard is another American classic. Everybody knows at least a little bit about this movie: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” Right there, you go, “Oh, that movie.”

Billy Wilder, noir, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim. It’s perfect.

Holden is a hack screenwriter who ends up being a gigolo of sorts for an aging silent film actress who wants to make a comeback. That’s all you need to know. Everything about this movie is perfect, and it would have been a wonderful Best Picture winner. I can’t argue with All About Eve having won and may have even shifted my opinion over to that film (we’ll see), but you can’t deny that this film, too, is perfect.

Billy Wilder’s direction is wonderful, as it always is, and I put him firmly second in this category. To me, no one is beating Carol Reed. It’s impossible.

 – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s The Third Man. I don’t see how anyone can vote otherwise here, based on effort. I’d put Wilder second and Mankiewicz third. Huston is a close-behind fourth. Either way – how do you not vote for Reed here? There’s no change with this one. It’s cut and dry. Watch the films. It’s self-evident.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Carol Reed, The Third Man
  2. Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard
  3. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve
  4. John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle
  5. George Cukor, Born Yesterday

My Vote: Carol Reed, The Third Man

Recommendations:

All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and The Third Man are essential. If you are into movies even in the slightest, you NEED to have seen them. Full stop, no argument. See them.

The Asphalt Jungle is a great film and a great noir. John Huston, one of the great heist sequences of all time, and an influence on Rififi. Highly recommended. Not first tier essential, but second tier “you should really see this.” You won’t be disappointed.

Born Yesterday is a hilarious film that you should see because you will enjoy it. Judy Holliday lights up the screen in a way you almost never see someone do in their second film. (They put her in the first film, Adam’s Rib, in order to get her this film.) Trust me on this, it’s great, and she’s great. Worth seeing.

The Last Word: You have two all-timers here with All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard (and even The Asphalt Jungle would be a major player in other years), yet I cannot fathom how anyone could watch all five of these films and not say that Carol Reed’s direction is the choice and the one that deserved to win. To me it’s him and then everyone else far, far behind. I’d rank this as one of the ten or fifteen greatest directorial efforts of all time. But that’s not the discussion we’re having. To me, Reed is the choice by far.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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