Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1949

The Contenders:

All the King’s Men (winner)
The Heiress
A Letter to Three Wives
Twelve O’Clock High

What’s Missing

There are a lot of good movies from 1949, a number of them better than at least some of the nominees for Best Picture. The Fallen Idol is an interesting film, but perhaps too dark to be a serious contender for its era. The opposite is true of Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Champion seems like a natural nomination even if I probably wouldn’t put it there. A much more significant miss is Bicycle Thieves, which absolutely belongs on the list, even if it was actually from 1948 (but nominated for Original Screenplay in 1949, so eligible). Gun Crazy is listed on some sites as released in 1949 and others in 1950, and it probably wouldn’t ever really get a nomination, but I love it so. White Heat is a more likely noir nomination. The biggest miss, though, is The Third Man, which is inexplicably absent.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. As it happens, I like all five of the movies nominated for this year, but something has to end up in fifth place. I’m going to put Battleground here not because it’s a propaganda film (because it’s not entirely) but because the characters are less people than they are archetypes. There’s a great deal here to like, including the fact that many of the soldiers make bad but human decisions. It’s well made, but this turns out to be a surprisingly strong year for movies. Like I said, something has to come in fifth, and this is the weakest of a good year.

4. All the King’s Men is a pretty good film, but it has never really seemed like an Oscar-winning movie to me. The biggest part of that is that I think it’s focused incorrectly. This wants to be the story of Huey Long-like Willie Stark. But it’s just as much the story of Jack Burden. The movie can’t figure out which of the two stories it really wants to be, so it ends up being a part of both of them, but really neither. That’s a significant issue here when we’re talking about the best picture of the year.

3. I fully expected not to find a great deal I liked in Twelve O’Clock High, but ended up liking it pretty well. One of the main things it does right is that it doesn’t shy away from the very human cost of combat. In many a propaganda film, when a character dies, it becomes a noble act of sacrifice. Not here. Men simple disappear, their names erased from the board. It’s almost callous, and because of it, far more real and affecting. It’s too predictable, which is what prevents it from moving higher on the list. Still, I don’t hate it as a nomination.

2. A Letter to Three Wives is another film I expected to not care much for, but I liked it quite a bit. This is a story that could have gone in a lot of different ways, but it takes the right turn in just about every case. If there is a place where the movie falls down, it’s that I’m not entirely sure that it earns the ending it wants to have. It’s certainly the ending it wants to have and the one that it clearly needs to have for 1949, but it’s not really the ending it should have based on the story that we’re told. Still, I love its nomination and I’m happy to put it this high up.

1. The winner here is The Heiress. It features a monster performance from Olivia de Havilland and one from Montgomery Clift that just about matches her. Better, it doesn’t have any of the faults of its fellow nominees. We get a real sense of the characters, the focus is clearly on the story it wants to tell, it’s not predictable, and it absolutely sticks the landing. Of the nominated films, it’s the best of the bunch. In an open field, it would win maybe twice in ten times, but it wouldn’t win the majority of the time.

My Choice

Given the films that were eligible for this year, I’d award Best Picture to the Third Man most of the time and to Bicycle Thieves most of the rest of the time. This is not a knock on The Heiress, which is a damn good film. Of all of them, though, I’m much more likely to want to watch The Third Man again, and that’s where I’d hand the statue.

Final Analysis


  1. This was a very strong year and unlike some years all these nominated films are high quality affairs that don't necessarily seem misplaced though I'd have some others in place over three of them.

    My top two would be the same as yours and I'm very torn over which would come out on top. The resolution of Three Wives in a way could be seen as a compromise but could also be seen as a realization and for the film not to feel like a cheat perhaps has to end the way it does. Plus aside from Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn it's chockablock with fantastic work but the same holds true of the Heiress without any weak links.

    The Heiress's message is quite clear and well defined but its canvas is small whereas 3 Wives looks at so many issues that affect its characters with mostly clear eyes. So depending on the day I could go with either.

    However if we were talking lead actress there is no other choice this year but Olivia de Havilland, she's monumental-one of the best wins in the category's history, despite the brilliance of Linda Darnell in Wives and several other excellent pieces of work.

    As far as what's missing beside the pictures you mentioned I'd add The Reckless Moment and Thieves Highway which would make my list as would The Third Man along with Heiress & A Letter to Three Wives. I agree The Third Man is a superior film but it would finish in third for me behind the two that did score nominations.

    The one that would never make any list for me though is Bicycle Thieves. I hated that movie and never understood the love it continues to generate but I know that is not the common opinion, oh well every film isn't for everybody.

    1. I'll admit here (since I didn't above) that the most difficult decision I had here--in a list of difficult decisions--was what to put first and second. Twist my arm a bit, and I might see switching them, but I think based on the nominations, I'm going with The Heiress most of the time.

      I haven't seen Thieves Highway so I can't comment on it. I thought a lot of The Reckless Moment fell really flat and I had trouble caring about the romance, which made it hard to care about the film as a whole. We'll disagree on that one the way we do about Bicycle Thieves.

      As for Bicycle Thieves, I think it's a hell of a story and a hell of an innovation in the way stories are told. But yes, everyone has a few movies that just don't work for them.

      We'll get to Best Actress for this year eventually, but I'm still looking for My Foolish Heart.

  2. I've only seen The Heiress, The Third Man and the Bicycle Thieves, but I agree with you. The Third Man is one of the best films ever made. Every single element of that film is great. I love The Heiress and was moved by Bicycle Thieves, but The Third Man wins for me.

    1. There's so much good work in The Third Man. I think it got snubbed because the Academy hated Orson Welles, which meant some really good movies got ignored.

  3. We are in total agreement about the deserved top three (The Third Man, Bicycle Thieves and The Heiress), but I would like to add a contender. You already mention two Ealing comedies, but this is also the year of Whiskey Galore! I admit comedies rarely go down well with the Academy, but this is in my opinion the funniest movie ever to come out of Ealing and it deserves some recognition.
    As to The Third Man: Shame on the Academy!!!

    1. I thought about Whiskey Galore! for the first paragraph, but I don't think it belongs in the conversation for Best Picture. Screenplay? Sure.