Armchair Oscars – 1944

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Going My Way (Directed by Leo McCarey)
The Nominees: Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson


MY CHOICE:
Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)
My Nominees:
Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra), Gaslight (George Cukor), Laura (Otto Preminger), Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincent Minnelli), National Velvet (Clarence Brown), The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)

1944-DoubleIndemnity

Far be it from me to second guess the Academy voters on their choice of a comedy as Best Picture when they have ignored so many over the years. In the entire history of the academy awards only five flat-out comedies – It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, Going My Way, The Apartment and Annie Hall – were so honored (others probably qualify but fall into a gray area).  Anyone with a pulse can see that comedies are probably harder to make than just about any other kind of film that you can name, so it seems little ungrateful that The Academy would overlook them time and again.

Yet, the fact that Going My Way is a comedy is probably not the reason for it’s seven academy awards.  It is more likely that the presence of Bing Crosby had a lot more to do with it.  At the time Crosby was the biggest crossover star in the world with his record sales, his radio appearances and his films, it may have seemed that the voters had stars in their eyes when giving the film nearly every Oscar for which it was nominated.  Does that make the movie good?  Eh, not really.  I cannot deny that Going My Way, the tale the relationship between a young priest (Bing Crosby) and his crusty elder (Barry Fitzgerald), is a real charmer.  But, for me, the movie is a bit too laid back.  Director Leo McCarey is trying to match the pace of the film with Crosby’s easy-going charm, but for me it’s a bit too slow.  In revisiting the film I always find myself wishing that things could move along a little quicker, and that some of the more extraneous subplots could have been excised.

Yet, I found something odd about this movie.  If you were to watch all the Best Picture winners from the 1940s, Going My Way – flaws and all – would come as a breath of fresh air.  This is the only light-hearted Best Picture winner of the decade.  The others either dealt with domestic secrets, war, alcoholism, PTSD, racism, political corruption and the plight of Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane.

Ironically, despite the Best Picture winner, 1944 was a great year to be grim, at least in the movies. It was not a great year for light comedies, the best films were those about people operating on the wrong side of the law. My favorite film from that year is considered by many to be the greatest of the film noir genre, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.

To describe Double Indemnity is kind of superfluous, it is something that has to be seen rather than described. History would consider it the greatest of the film noir genre. It uses a framework to have the story narrated from the present, then presents the bulk of the story in flashback and then it ends back in the present.

The brilliance is not in the plot but in the details. It involves a bored insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and his unfortunate dealings with a lazy, ice-cold blonde housewife Phyllis Dietrichson. The first time he sees her she’s wrapped in a towel at the top of the stairs. I love the dialogue in which Walter, through narration, admits “I wanted to see her again, close, and without that silly staircase between us.” He is dumbstruck and she picks up on that. He also easily picks up on a scheme that she is concocting when she starts asking specific questions about his life insurance policy (in most films it takes the dimwitted hero an hour to pick up on the deception, but Walter catches on right away). He smiles and makes it clear that he wants no part of it. Later, at his apartment, Phyllis freely admits that she met her husband after his first wife’s “accidental eath” (she was the woman’s nurse). She also admits that their marriage is hardly a marriage at all, confiding in Walter that “I don’t want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face.”

She weaves a spell over him until he could practically do anything she wanted him to. As they talk, she begins to unfold her plot to rid herself of her skinflint husband and make off with his money. The plan is simple – Walter will talk Mr. Dietrichson into a $50,000 double indemnity policy, and then arrange for him to have an accident. It seems simple but the safety net is that he will be strangled, then placed on railroad tracks to make it look like he fell off the observation car. Simple, clean.

These are terrible people, terrible bored people who will do anything for the thrill. Walter will do anything just to be close to Phyllis and Phyllis, I think, enjoys seeing how far she can string Walter along and make a few bucks along the way. Like all great film noir, there are no clear-cut heroes, only villains who work in the shadows. The closest thing to a hero is Keyes, Walter’s boss who begins to question the validity of a man falling off a train car in the middle of the night. In one of the single greatest pieces of screenwriting, he rolls out a long dialogue about the actuarial table of suicides and accidents by traincars and by steamboats and the volumes and texts on suicidal and accidental deaths.

The strength of Double Indemnity is in the writing. Neff is the typical noir “hero,” a man not possessed with a criminal mind but with ordinary desires and weaknesses. Notice how quickly he falls under Phyllis’ spell. She’s the typical noir dame, sexy with a criminal intent and the ability to spot his weaknesses right away. She uses sex as a tactic, it keeps his mind from focusing, from figuring out that what she is asking him to do is preposterous.

Double Indemnity is typical Billy Wilder. He made films of vastly different types, some comic, some dramatic, some in between and some just plain baffling, but his characters always seem to be either sad sacks, psychos or rats. We love watching them, we love watching the messes they get themselves into and the means by which they try and get themselves out.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Bing Crosby (
Going My Way)
The Nominees: Charles Boyer (Gaslight), Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way), Cary Grant (None But the Lonely Heart), Alexander Knox (Wilson)


MY CHOICE:
Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
My Nominees:
Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity)

1944-CharlesBoyer

By 1944 there was no bigger star in America than Bing Crosby.  He was a triple threat.  He topped the charts in record sales; he was the biggest star on radio; and he starred in the highest grossing film of the year.  Going My Way was a gentle, sweet-natured comedy that fit Crosby’s easy-going style like a glove.  He played Father Chuck O’Malley, a handsome young priest who comes to a take over a half-century old church because its current pontiff Father Fitzgibbon (the invaluable Barry Fitzgerald) is getting along in years.

The part was tailor-made for Crosby and that’s exactly how he took to it, the public wouldn’t have expected less.  Yet, looking back over the year’s best performance, Crosby doesn’t seem to be doing anything more than the usual laid-back silk-voiced persona he mastered in other mediums.  There’s no challenge here and the movie is not much more than a vehicle for that persona.

Far more challenging is my choice for Best Actor of the year, Charles Boyer, who played the nightmarish manipulator husband in George Cukor’s Gaslight, creating one of the great screen villains.  In one sense, I feel bad for Charles Boyer. He was a handsome French actor with a commanding screen presence, but he gave his best performance in a film where all the attention (and the Oscar) went to his co-star, Ingrid Bergman. It must have been a joy to share the screen with such an amazing actress, but it must also have been a curse that the audience (and history) only remembered her performance.

Boyer plays Gregory Anton, a pianist who wins the heart of Paula, a singer, and proposes marriage even though he’s only known her for two weeks.  They marry and move into the home of Paula’s late aunt. At first, Gregory’s intentions seem genuine until we understand that he is not on the up and up.  Years ago, in Paula’s childhood, she was home when her aunt was murdered. Now a grown woman, the years have passed but she remains in a state of emotional shock.  Gregory commands a psychological hold on his wife, not using physical violence but cruel head games.  He wants the aunt’s valuable jewels which are supposedly hidden somewhere in the house and his means of acquiring them involve driving Paula systematically mad.  Having her in a state of emotional turmoil, he forbids her to step out for fear that she might have an “episode” and he keeps house guests from visiting.

Things go missing and he convinces her that she took them – a painting, his watch, a letter, some jewelry.  He has a way of spinning words and accusations and moods that shift from anger to sympathy.  He goes out at night, never explaining where he’s going, and while he is gone, the gaslight begins to dim even though none of the servants have turned on the gas anywhere else in the house.

Boyer is so convincing because he is able to shift his mood and the shape of his face almost instantaneously.  Cukor gives him tight close-ups in which we can see a pent up anger and releases them into looks of false pity.  He is expert at being able to hide something and then uses an accusatory dance of words to convince Paula that it was she who was responsible.  In one extraordinary scene, the two are attending a concert and he whispers in her ear, “My watch is missing.”  Paula breaks down as she finds the object hidden in her purse.

His mind is always ticking, always scheming.  He has to keep his performance going lest Paula find out what he is up to.  He is skilled at keeping his guard up and of playing the game against Paula so that it not only twists guilt in her direction but twists it in a way that even she begins to doubt her own sanity.  The path is laid for his intent early in the film when he takes Paula to see The Crown Jewels, and his eyes become fixated and his eyes dance with lust and greed.

Gregory is a fascinating study, a portrait of a man’s control over an emotionally fragile woman.  It is amazing to watch the way he begins with a simple question, dance around accusations, then moves into a speech pattern that sounds hypnotic (he repeats the word “Paula” a dozen times or more), and then leaves her to crumble. What comes of the situation is a perfect turnaround as Paula discovers his deception but plays the game on his level. She convinces him that she has indeed gone mad. “Are you suggesting that this is a knife I hold in my hand?” she says with wide, insane eyes “Have you gone mad, my husband?” The scariest part of his head game is that when the table turns he begins to question his own sanity, and we are privvy to see him wallow in a game that he himself has created.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)
The Nominees: Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away), Bette Davis (Mrs. Skeffington), Greer Garson (Mrs. Parkington), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)


MY CHOICE:
Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)

1944-BarbaraStanwyck

Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing a woman driven systematically mad by her husband in George Cukor’s Gaslight. Bergman’s performance is helped along by the brilliant performance by co-star Charles Boyer as a man who knows exactly what strings to pull and how and when to pull them to keep his mind game working. We sympathize with Paula Alquist because understand how fragile her mind is and how easy it is to watch her husband manipulate her, but honestly, I prefer to watch the antagonist at work.

That’s why my choice for Best Actress of 1944 is Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Stanwyck played a lot of bad women but she never looked sexier nor more tempting then she does as Phyllis Dietrichson, the bored wife of a skinflint who tries to tempt an equally bored insurance agent into helping her with a silly plot to bump off the old boy and collect on a $50,000 insurance policy.

The first time we see her, she is wrapped in a towel and she raises Walter’s eyebrows enough that he tells us in narration, “I wanted to see her again, close, and without that silly staircase between us.” There’s a look in her eye as she looks down at him that lets him know that “getting close” isn’t completely out of the question. What comes to her mind is that this simple-minded dope might be just the pigeon she needs to put her plan into action. She finally sits down to talk to him about the possibility of obtaining a life insurance policy without having to get the husband’s permission. Walter knows what she is really asking and wants no part of it.

Later she visits Walter at his apartment and lays out her situation: She had once been the nurse of her husband’s wife until she poisoned the woman to death. She married the old man for his money and now she is desperate because it seems that he will leave all his money to his goody two-shoes daughter Lola (Jean Heather). She convinces Walter that she has fallen in love with him and he, in turn, agrees to help her by getting an insurance policy that insures her double on everything if her husband dies in an accident. He gets the policy and then the two cook up a scheme to bump him off. The plan is pretty sound, it involves killing the husband in the front seat of his car then after Walter boards the train and jumps off the observation platform, Phyllis moves the body onto the tracks so it will look like he fell off and broke his neck.

Phyllis Dietrichson is one of the coldest, most ruthless women in the whole genre of film noir. She gets what she wants by, at the least, slutting around and, at worst, committing premeditated murder. She’s too lazy to actually work for her money. There’s a heartlessness about her, especially in her approach to her husband. She is completely without remorse for what she is doing – while Walter is killing him in the front seat of the car, she sits next to him looking straight ahead with a satisfied look on her face. She murdered her husband’s first wife so she could marry him and then made plans to bump him off when she found out she wasn’t going to get his money. She cares so little for her husband that she never even mentions him by name.

From the moment they meet, she senses that he isn’t too bright. She knows that with just the right confession, with just the right strokes of his male ego, that she can make him do her bidding. Note the way she sits, in some shots as she is all legs, or the manner in which she sits on the couch, her fully-formed chest catching the light just the right way. We see what Walter sees, a woman who could be his – for just a price.

Ironically, I saw this film for the first time on the same night that I also saw Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face, another role in which she played a woman who is skilled at spinning men into a sexual trap. In both roles she knows how to use the eyes, the body language and just the right soft words to make a man do anything. Anyone can play a tart but Stanwyck had a way of moving from innocent to snake, one performance on top of another. Double Indemnity, which was made 11 years after Baby Face shows how much Stanwyck had grown as an actress. Her movements as Phyllis and her methods are slower, more thoughtful, more methodical. Yet, while Lily Powers’ evil nature sprung from an unhappy childhood (her father was her pimp), Phyllis doesn’t seem to have any reason to be doing what she does. She gets rich and lures men to their doom simply because she likes it.

Stanwyck would spend much of her career playing warmer characters but to be honest, I think it’s a kick to watch her play the tramp. She has the face and the voice of a woman who seems to know better but plays vicious head-games to see how far she can go. She would develop this character through the 30s and early the 40s and I think with Phyllis Dietrichson, she perfected it.

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