Armchair Oscars – 1957

Best Picture

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Directed by David Lean)
The Nominees: 12 Angry Man, Peyton Place, Sayonara, Witness for the Prosecution

Paths of Glory (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
My Nominees: 
12 Angry Man (Sydney Lumet), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)


If I associate anything with the Hollywood movies of the 1950s, it was their sheer size.  At a time when Tinsel Town was fighting for the attention of audiences that had become enraptured by the new phenomenon of television, movie studios scrambled to make large-sized epics that, even today, cannot be displayed properly on a TV screen.

This was the golden age of the movie epic and in the last four years of the 1950s, all four winners for Best Picture were epics.  Although between Around the World in 80 Days, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gigi and Ben-Hur, I think David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is the only one that earned its nomination.  The film is the perfect example of what Lean was famous for – a grand sprawling canvas that focuses on the small personal stories in the center. The film takes place within a Japanese prison camp during World War II and focuses on the personal battle between a resolute by-the-book British Colonel (Alec Guinness), the camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) and an escaped American (William Holden).

The battle of wills heads off with a competition between the officers over the construction of a railroad bridge and the American’s attempt to sabotage it. The story is compelling but, truthfully, not for three hours.  I think I got the point in two and I didn’t need a lot of extra material to drive the point home.

What the film has is Lean’s trademark of allowing intimate character relationships to flourish in the midst of a grand epic canvas.  My choice is also about the intimate details of men at war but on a much smaller, more personal scale.  While Lean’s film walked away with seven academy awards, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory wasn’t nominated for anything.  That’s a shame because while it’s one of Kubrick best films, it isn’t the one that comes immediately to the average filmgoer’s mind.

Paths of Glory has something in common with Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and to a lesser degree, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.  All of these films are about the useless, senseless, thoughtless motivations that governed the First World War and how it changed those men bold enough to ask what they were really fighting for.  It examines the brutish and traitorous way in which young soldiers have to pay a price when one of their officers doesn’t get the job done.

Based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory takes place at a time when the Germans and the French are at a stalemate along their dug- out trenches, stuck ceaseless tug-of-war in which neither has gained ground for two long years.  The cost in lives has been astonishing but the bullish officers continue to send men into No Man’s Land (that’s the battleground between the allied and enemy trenches) and then chalk up the dead as “acceptable losses.”  Despite this ongoing standoff General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) gives the order to General Mireau (George Macready) to take a German post called “The Anthill” despite the fact that he knows it is nearly impossible.  Mireau tells him that it can’t be done but after Broulard suggests that a promotion might be arranged, he is ready even when he is informed that, at best, he will lose more than half of his men.

The man who will lead the operation is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas).  He protests the order but he goes ahead anyway because he knows that defying orders would be treason.  Under cover of night he takes his men into No Man’s Land and many of the men are killed almost instantly.  The remaining soldiers decide not to advance but the bull-headed Mileau (safe back in the trench) orders mortar fire dropped on the area to get the men moving. The officer in charge of artillery refuses, informing Mileau that he cannot proceed without a written order.

The operation turns into a fiasco and despite the fact that it was impossible in the first place, Mileau charges the remaining soldiers with cowardice and orders them to be executed.  He wants to draw the light away from himself and make sure he still gets his promotion.  Three men are chosen (yes, chosen) for execution, one from each company to be made examples.  Dax can’t believe his ears and requests a military tribunal.  He was a lawyer back in the world so he acts as their defense, but because the military brass is so dead-set on saving face, they stonewall his efforts to build a case in favor of the men.  In the end, the General makes the outlandish proclamation that if the men had not been guilty, they would have died on the battlefield.

The surprising thing about Paths of Glory is that it doesn’t go easy on Dax, it doesn’t make his story grim and then spring a light at the end of the tunnel.  The story grows darker and darker as we see the stranglehold on Dax’s efforts to save the men’s lives.  It maintains a grim reality right to the end.  I will admit I was shocked.  I have been so brainwashed by most war films that somehow I assumed that justice would prevail.  After Dax finds out about Macready’s order to fire on his own men he informs Broulard but it doesn’t help.  The men go off to their deaths and the war goes on.  This is Kubrick, after all, a director that knows how to be cold and efficient.  Had the soldiers gotten a last minute reprieve, the point of the film would have been lost.

The production is beautiful. Kubrick shoots in black and white but he keeps his images crisp, using deep focus.  He is not in love with his images because they look good, no shots are held to entertain us, it is shot with sharp focus, like a military precision.  The only scene with a soft hue comes at the end, in a very curious moment when a young girl is forced to sing for the rowdy soldiers. Trembling, she begins a weak recitation of “The Faithful Hussar” that breaks the soldier’s hearts.  It really is the best scene in the film.

The theme of Paths of Glory is one that Kubrick would repeat for the rest of his career, the idea of people in a closed-in circumstance who become dehumanized by a machine they can’t control.  All through the film I was reminded of an interview I saw with Donald Hodge, an English soldier who fought in the trenches of the First World War who said “We learned to spell Duty with a capital ‘D'”. Watching Paths of Glory, I understand that entering this war they may have had the idea in mind, but once the killing began, they could be executed if they thought otherwise.

Best Actor

Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
The Nominees: Anthony Franciosa (A Hatful of Rain), Marlon Brando (Sayonara), Anthony Quinn (Wild is the Wind), Charles Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution)

Burt Lancaster (Sweet Smell of Success
My Nominees:
Marlon Brando (Sayonara), Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), Charles Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution)


Having seen the full-breadth of Alec Guinness’ work on screen, it makes me a little sad that my generation knows him mainly (if only) for Star Wars.  To see the great work that Guinness did in the 40s and 50s at Ealing Studios in films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob, is to see that he was so much more than Ben Kenobi.  He could use a myriad of makeup tricks and costumes to play a character so convincingly that you would forget that Guinness was in there.  He had an unremarkable face, which was used as a blank slate on which he could place prosthetics to transform it into a gallery of different looks.

Unfortunately, he won his only Oscar for playing a character who was patently unremarkable.  In David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, a British Officer who commands his troops while they are held in a Japanese prison camp somewhere between Siam and Burma during the Second World War.  Nicholson is resolute in keeping his men motivated and agrees to help his captors build a railroad bridge, despite the fact that he is clearly aiding the enemy.  He sees the bridge as a collaborative effort between British and Japanese but never realizes (until the end) what he has really  asked his men to do.

Colonel Nicholson was not one of Alec Guinness’ more well-rounded characters, especially when you’ve seen his earlier works like Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he played eight members of the same family.  This character seems strikingly one-dimensional.  Still, the performance would bring him international fame if not better roles.  I am glad he got some appreciation in his lifetime for his work though I wish that my generation would discover the films that best displayed his gifts.

My favorite performance of the year came from Burt Lancaster in Alexander Mackendrick’s great gossip column drama Sweet Smell of Success.  I will admit that before I started this website, I hadn’t given much thought to Lancaster but in the time that I have done my research and seen his work in films like The Rainmaker, From Here to Eternity, The Rose Tattoo, Elmer Gantry (which won him an Oscar as Best Actor), Birdman of Alcatraz, The Swimmer and Atlantic City, I have discovered the work of a truly great actor.

Burt Lancaster gave a dozen great performances in his lengthy career, but he was never better than in the role of J.J. Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell-type gossip columnist, the most powerful in New York.  He loves his job, loves the dirt around him.  “I love this dirty town,” he tells his underling.  He has the power to bend others to his will, he is not only one of those characters who has power over those around him but has one of those personalities where his presence is felt long before we meet him.  In fact, it is at least a half hour into Sweet Smell of Success before we get to J.J.  Up until that time we follow his weasely press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who has just failed at the task of breaking up a relationship between J.J.’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a boyishly handsome jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). That failure has turned Sidney’s already tarnished name into mud.

Sidney is one of those rat-like little men who will do anything to further his own interests. He has that reputation all around New York and those he approaches are always telling him to get lost.  He’s is a man of little significance, a man of so little respect that the name is on his office door is typed on a piece of paper and taped to the glass.  Even his secretary looks at him with a combination of pity and disdain.

He failed to break up the relationship of Susan and Steve and has fallen out of favor with J.J. – a very bad place to be.  When he meets J.J. at a restaurant, he doesn’t go to his table right away but calls him a payphone on the other side of the room.  When he approaches, J.J. asks the waiter to remove him.  At that moment, J.J. is having a conversation with a senator and Sidney dutifully takes a seat behind him.  The cost to Sidney for having failed on his mission is that it means he can’t get items into Hunsecker’s column.  He detests Sidney but he knows then this pitiless rat has a ruthless streak.  He’ll do anything to further his career, and J.J. is happy to keep dangling it just above his head.

Hunsecker is an interesting study.  He is one of the most powerful men in New York, a man who has the muscle to make and break the careers of anyone he chooses (We are told “He’s told Presidents where to go and what to do”) but, oddly enough, he seems to have no social life.  He lives in a large house with his sister but seems to have no other relationships.  His life is his work and there are no social connections.  His personal struggle is a strange hold that he has over Susan, whom he is determined to keep in check. We sense a pseudo-incestuous feeling that comes from him and that is probably true, but I think he’s more interested in exerting his muscle even into his own household.

He is also ruthless. When Sidney breaks up the relationship by planting drugs on Steve and getting the kid arrested, J.J. turns the tables on him. He takes the favor that he has asked Sidney to perform and then pulls a double-switch that leaves his press agent lying on the sidewalk covered in his own blood.  Why does he do this?  Because he can.

Casting Burt Lancaster in this role was a masterstroke, he has the physical stature to play a man with this kind of power.  He was a large actor, with the broad shoulders of a linebacker and the hard chin of a man who is not to be toyed with.  When he speaks, his bottom teeth were bared.  His towering build served him well, playing both heroes and villains, and there are scenes in Sweet Smell of Success where he towers over those around him, especially Tony Curtis, and it makes him a Goliath.  He also puts his trademark voice to good use. When speaking to Sidney, he speaks in quick bursts, he talks fast, reminding his underling that, “With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.”  Yet later when he speaks to his sister, trying to reason with her about Steve, his speech pattern is curt, more parental.

The plot of Sweet Smell of Success is beside the point.  The details aren’t as important as the relationship between J.J. and Sidney.  These are two personality types, the overlord and the underling and how one man uses his power over the other to do his bidding.  The story could have been about anything but they are so sharply drawn that we would have followed them anywhere.  Neither can reasonably be called noble, but it is interesting watching the dogfight as it unfolds.  It is fascinating the way J.J. is able to jerk at Sidney’s chain and elicit any mood he wants, the way he keeps him around despite the fact that he could easy dismiss him and his career just by batting an eyelash.  Yet, he keeps Sidney frantically spinning because he sees that there is a ruthless, immoral streak in him. “I’d hate to take a bite out of you,” J.J. tells him, ”You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Best Actress

Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve)
The Nominees: Deborah Kerr (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), Anna Magnani (Wild is the Wind), Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree Country), Lana Turner (Peyton Place)

Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve)
y Nominees: Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution), Eva Marie Saint (A Hatful of Rain)


I don’t know the first thing about multiple personality disorder. I don’t know if Joanne Woodward’s performance in Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation of The Three Faces of Eve matches the clinical accuracies of this disorder or not. I do know that she gives a heck of a good performance. Virtually unknown at the time, she won the role over heavy-weights Judy Garland and June Allyson and walked away with the Oscar for her work.

Woodward plays a mousy Georgia housewife, Eve White, who is a good mother to her daughter Bonnie (Terry Ann Ross) and lives under the restrictive thumb of her husband Ralph (David Wayne). She suffers from headaches, mood-swings and occasional lapses of memory that neither she nor anyone else seems to be able to explain. Her doctor sends her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Curtis Luther (Lee J. Cobb), to see if he can get to the bottom of why she attempted to strangle Bonnie with the cord from the window blinds and can’t seem to remember doing so.

While questioning Eve, a hidden personality emerges. Suddenly he isn’t talking to the same person. This woman claims to be Eve Black who is open, flirtatious and mischievous. She says she does not like Eve White and that she’s been getting her into trouble since she was a kid, doing things and then letting her take the blame. Dr. Luther is stunned and, in consulting a fellow doctor about this new development, tries to ascertain whether this could be a multiple personality disorder or whether she is faking. He and his colleague run a battery of interviews and come to the conclusion that this case is genuine. Meanwhile, Ralph becomes frustrated because he is convinced that she is playing a sick game and takes a job in Florida to get away from her.

Dr. Luther continues his work with Eve, trying to probe each personality to figure who which is the dominant and get to the root of where the problem may lie. Questioning both Eves, he finds that Black is aware of White but White has no memory of Black. When White goes to visit Ralph in Florida, she reverts back to Black and steps out for a night of debauchery. Fed up, Ralph divorces her.

That’s when Dr. Luthor meets Jane, a third personality who does not display any of the personality tics of the other Eves. She is intelligent, sophisticated, even her accent is different. It is through Jane that Dr. Luthor makes the breakthrough, discovering that as a child Jane was forced by her mother (Nancy Kulp) to kiss her dead grandmother (a common practice of the time), and it left mental and emotional scars.

Strange as this may sound, I like Woodward’s performance more than the movie itself. I suspect that it takes a lot of liberties with the psychological angle and spends too much time dealing with Ralph’s ignorance. I was bothered by the ending which allows Eve to arrive at a point where she is essentially “cured” of her problem and can continue with her life. I would have been more satisfied with the information that she and Dr. Luthor continued , working on the problem even though they had found a root cause. There is a scene late in the film in which Eve White essentially says goodbye to Bonnie – there is a lot of emotion in the moment but what hangs over the scene is the reality that Jane cannot simply “turn off” the other two personalities. The ending is a little too clean.

I don’t know if the clinical side of the film was accurate or not but I know that Woodward’s performance works. She is able to move convincingly between both Eves and Jane and convince us that we are looking at three distinct personalities. We see Eve White, quiet, dutiful and polite. Then there’s Eve Black, grinning, sexy, flirtations and quite happy to bring the other Eve a little misery. Then there’s Jane, intelligent, strong, and sophisticated, minus Eve’s southern accent. Woodward plays all of these notes to perfection, it is one of the most far reaching performances I’ve ever seen because she has to move between these personalities and convince us that Eve’s head stores three different personalities.

A great deal of Woodward’s performances lies in her face. White has a defeated look while Black possesses a silly grin, and then Jane’s face belies a great deal of intelligence. Woodward wasn’t happy with her performance but I think it is her best because she has so many notes to play and she plays them in a brilliantly modulated performance. She is able to successfully put up the walls between the three personalities. This is a very sad movie as we watch the three personalities deal with the reality of what is happening and Dr. Luthor try to arrive at which is the dominant. What happens at the end, ultimately, is far less interesting than the journey that we take.

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