Friday, August 24, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1948

The Contenders:

Laurence Olivier: Hamlet
Jean Negulesco: Johnny Belinda
Fred Zinnemann: The Search
Anatole Litvak: The Snake Pit
John Huston: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (winner)

What’s Missing

With the war a couple of years in the rearview mirror, Hollywood started coming back into its own. And yet, one of the key films of 1948 is Italian. Were the Academy not so focused on American films at the time (and still), I wouldn’t be shocked at a nomination for Vittorio de Sica and Ladri de Biciclette. I have no similar reasons for the ignoring of Alfred Hitchcock and Rope, which seems a huge miss. While I’m not a tremendous fan of the story of The Red Shoes, I would consider the Powell/Pressburger team worthy of a nomination for direction. Someone is going to mention Force of Evil and Abraham Polonsky, but I’m not as sold on that film as most. I’d be much more willing to consider Anatole Litvak and Sorry, Wrong Number.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It feels odd to put the greatest drama ever written in fifth place for anything, and yet that’s where I’m putting Hamlet. I’m honestly not sure it should have been nominated in the first place. There’s not a great deal here that is wildly different from a stage play. Well, Hamlet is a stage play, of course, but there’s so much that can be done with film to enhance the story that can’t be done on stage. That didn’t happen here, and it’s such a disappointment. It’s a dandy adaptation, but from the director’s chair, I’m not getting much.

4. Johnny Belinda is a fine movie, but another one where I wonder at the nomination for the director. This is a performance movie, and certainly Jean Negulesco deserves some of the credit for that. This is absolutely Jane Wyman’s movie and it’s her performance that makes it worth watching. But there are significant story problems here, and while Negulesco isn’t responsible for the screenplay, he is responsible for what is put on the screen. When that includes a story that could be short-circuited with a single conversation, I have issues.

3. Much of what I just said about Johnny Belinda could also be said about The Search and Fred Zinnemann. Actually, I like Johnny Belinda as a film more, but I like what Zinnemann did better. Part of that is the simple number of good performances throughout. I’m still surprised at the lack of nomination for Jarmila Novotna. Additionally, the story that is told is a lot more consistent and coherent. I think there’s more here from Zinnemann on the screen, and from the director, that’s what I want.

2. Literally the only thing that I don’t like about The Snake Pit is the fact that it cheats the ending. Insert another 10 minutes before the final five, and you’ve got one of the truly great movies about mental health from the first half of the last century. I mean, truthfully, you do anyway. This is Olivia de Havilland at her best guided willfully and sagely by Anatole Litvak. I mentioned Litvak in the opening paragraph, and while I really like Sorry, Wrong Number, this was the right nomination for him. In other years, it might well win.

My Choice

1. I think this is a first—my order is the exact reverse alphabetical order of the five nominations. And I’ll be blunt here: while there may well be differences in my other placements, I find it difficult to believe that many people will have much complaint about putting The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and John Huston on top. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, although it seems to me more and more that this happens only when there is an absolute, clear winner. In 1948, that was John Huston by a country mile. Add in de Sica and Powell/Pressburger and anyone else, and this is still absolutely going to Huston.

Final Analysis


  1. Absolutely. One of the truly great films. Should also have won Best Picture and Actor...but that's another story.

    1. I agree completely on Best Picture. I don't want to tip my hand for Best Actor at this point.

  2. I'm not as big a fan of Sierra Madre as most people are but it is superbly directed and would be the only one out of this lineup that I'd retain even if it wouldn't finish up in first. If Jean Negulesco had been here for his direction of the Ida Lupino/Richard Widmark noir Road House rather than Johnny Belinda I might have felt differently.

    I am somewhat surprised not to see Hitchcock among the nominees for Rope though I've never felt it was a dazzling achievement from the Master. It is an interesting try at something though and usually that would score a nod especially considering who was doing it.

    There are several other directors that I'd rather see among the nominees starting with Howard Hawks for Red River, then Vincente Minnelli for the rococo fever dream The Pirate, Jules Dassin for The Naked City and maybe Orson Welles for the bizarre but intriguing The Lady from Shanghai. But my choice for winner would land on Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger for The Red Shoes.

    I'd love to include The Fallen Idol but it didn't get to America until the next year.

    1. The Red Shoes won for both music and art direction (color), and I'm a little surprised it wasn't nominated for cinematography. It's a beautiful film to watch, and while I'd love to see Powell and Pressburger nominated, I'm still going with Huston.

  3. It is a strong year, no?
    I can only agree on The Treasure, but I would have no difficulty making a strong list of nominees.

    1. It's a very good year. Sometimes it takes doing one of these posts to realize just how good a particular year is.