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