John Sturges: Bad Day at Black Rock
Elia Kazan: East of Eden
Delbert Mann: Marty (winner)
Joshua Logan: Picnic
David Lean: Summertime
I’m going to start by saying this is going to be one of “those” entries in this series. I have two full slates of replacement suggestions, and while my own list of nominations might well include one or two from the actual nominations, there’s room for a ton of improvement. I should start by mentioning Alain Resnais and Night and Fog. A half hour documentary isn’t the sort of thing nominated for Best Director, but Night and Fog might be the most important film of this year. I’m also going to put Robert Aldrich’s work on Kiss Me Deadly up front, because it’s not a film I love, but I respect Aldrich’s sense of style in it. The same could be said of Otto Preminger and The Man with the Golden Arm, although I do like this film more. Given the choice of James Dean movies from 1955, I’d have preferred Nicholas Ray and Rebel Without a Cause to be here. On the foreign front, we’ve got Bergman and Smiles of a Summer Night, notable not just because it’s great but because it’s very different. We also have Henri-Georges Clouzot and Les Diaboliques, a true classic in every sense of the word. The three-man team of John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, and Joshua Logan gave us the no-war war film Mister Roberts, and Richard Brooks directed the urban “war” film Blackboard Jungle. And then we have a melodramatic trio that is surprisingly effective. This starts with Fred Zinnemann and Oklahoma!, continues to Douglas Sirk and All that Heaven Allows and finishes with Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort, the masterful The Night of the Hunter.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. As tends to be the case when there are this many good films or performances left off the list, there’s a race for bottom. Ultimately, I’ve decided to put Picnic because there’s just too much here that doesn’t work. Part of the problem comes from the screenplay, no doubt, and bigger problems come from the casting (like a 40-year-old William Holden playing early 20s). Beyond that, though, there’s just nothing here that I find that interesting. It’s an uninteresting tale told uninterestingly. Joshua Logan would have been better served with one-third of a nomination for Mister Roberts.
4. That nomination racing for the bottom was David Lean’s Summertime. The only reason it didn’t hit the bottom here is because at the very least it’s pretty to look at and it’s well acted. The problem is that I just don’t care about any of the characters or anything that happens in it. There’s potential here that simply never gets fulfilled. I find it damning to say this, but I would have probably been more satisfied with a long-ish travelogue about Venice, since that’s more or less what this turned out to be.
3. I know that East of Eden has its fans and Elia Kazan is certainly a director worthy of a great number of plaudits. Truthfully, I think James Dean is the best part of the film, and he’s better in Rebel Without a Cause. I don’t dislike the film, but I find it flat in many ways. The characters come across less as people and more like a series of character traits. Kazan does what he can with it, but it’s not nearly enough. This is yet another film that I want to like and respect a lot more than I ultimately do.
2. Marty is a fine little film, and Delbert Mann handled it about as well as it could be. The issue the story has is that it’s delicate. It’s something that, handled a little too roughly would be crushed under the weight of that handling. If handled too loosely, it would fly away. Mann does everything he can to keep the story worth watching and compelling without letting it become gloopy or syrupy. It stays real when it has so much potential to become something drippy and horrible. I give him a great deal of credit for that.
1. This leaves me with Bad Day at Black Rock for the top. Of the five nominations, it’s the one I would clearly keep in my own set of five, although Delbert Mann might make it through due to his deft work. John Sturges manages to give us a surprisingly deep tale with clear villains that is so spare that it finishes up in roughly 90 minutes. I’m always surprised at how fast this film is for how deeply it goes. In an open field, it wouldn’t win, but given the five choices, I don’t really think there’s anywhere else to go but to reward Sturges for his tight reins and bold storytelling.
But, of course, I’m not limited to the five choices and so I’m not going to stick with them. Of all the films and directors that were snubbed, it’s Henri-Georges Clouzot who I think got the shortest end of the stick. Les Diaboliques is a true masterpiece not merely of its genre but of film in general. If you’re more comfortable sticking with a film that is in English, you could do a lot worse than The Night of the Hunter, even if it wasn’t well-received in its day.