Armchair Oscars – 1949

Best Picture

All the King’s Men (Directed by Robert Rossen)
The Nominees: Battleground, The Heiress, A Letter to Three Wives, Twelve O’Clock High

The Third Man (Directed by Carol Reed)
My Nominees:
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica), The Heiress (William Wyler), A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankewicz), On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly), White Heat (Raoul Walsh)


Of all the films that won Best Picture, I find Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men to be the most unpleasant. Based on the book by Robert Penn Warren, the film is an angry look into the corruption that consumes honest dirt farmer Willie Stark. He wins the hearts of his voters by promising to clean up the dirty political structure of Louisiana but becomes just as corrupt and dishonest as those he railed against.

I think the first thing that turns me off about All the King’s Men is the lead performance by Broderick Crawford who is so loud and crass and mean that I didn’t care what happened to him. I also disliked the fact that the movie becomes too distracted by side characters and the attempt to accommodate the full breadth of Warren’s novel. I find that few people agree with the academy on All the King’s Men. Most, I think, would agree with my choice for the Best Picture of 1949, Carol Reed’s brilliant film noir classic – The Third Man.

The Third Man is a film lover’s dream, a movie that is richly detailed, beautifully photographed, brilliantly performed and contains arguably the best musical score ever written. Filmed in gorgeous black and white by Robert Krasker, The Third Man takes place in post-war Vienna, a city still rattled by the shell shock of World War II. The city is divided into American, British, French and Russian sectors, but that doesn’t mean they are bosom chums. Vienna is also divided by a political climate stuck between the aftermath of World War II and the paranoia of the oncoming Cold War. The reminders of the war are present in the landscape but signs of the rising cold war are present in the atmosphere.

Into this chaos comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American who drinks too much and makes his living writing fluff westerns. He has come to Vienna at the invitation of his old friend, Harry Lime, but finds that he is just in time to attend the man’s funeral. What happened to Lime becomes Holly’s focus and plunges him into a strange cast of characters that Lime left in his wake. There is Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s girl, whom Holly first sees at the funeral. There is Calloway (Trevor Howard) a police detective who views Lime as a creature lower than an insect, and who suggests to Holly that he forget the whole business and go home. There is the kindly Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), a British officer and Calloway’s right-hand brick who knows of Holly’s books and is kind to him even after giving him a right cross. There are Lime’s associates: Kurtz, a polite little man who lays out the details of Harry’s death but regards Holly with a less than well-intentioned smile. There’s Popescu. There’s Dr. Winkle. There’s the porter who speaks broken English and reveals fragments of information about a “third man” who was present on the night Harry died (he doesn’t last long).

All of these actors seem to have been cast based on their faces. They are broad-lined, with the kinds of expressions that reveal turmoil and regret, as if breathing even a single misspoken word means instant death. Even Hansl (Herbert Halbik), a little boy who comes into the story only to chase his ball, has a face that suggests that perhaps he knows more than he should say.

Out of all these characters, however, none is more memorable than Harry Lime himself, who is revealed in one of the most famous introductions in film history. It is a moment so perfectly executed that whenever I watch the film I get chills knowing that the moment is coming. I remember every detail: The street, the close-up of the shoes, the cat meowing, the light in the window as we hear the voice of an unseen woman, Holly calling out for the hidden figure to reveal himself, sounding like an adult scolding a child. Then of course that moment we see Harry’s face for the first time, revealed as a light shines across it. Harry smiles with an expression that would be at home if he were caught in a game of hide and seek. Is this a ghost? Is this Holly’s hallucination? Has Holly been drinking too much? What’s going on here? This becomes an education to Holly, whose American sensibilities are shattered as he begins to realize that everyone has a secret to tell, that things are not as they seem, that even his best friend cannot be trusted.

We sense his distrust in a scene that follows, during a ride on a ferris-wheel when Harry opens the door to the carriage and Holly wraps his arm around a pole. The film plays with his loyalties, he doesn’t trust his friend (who would?) and he doesn’t listen to good advice. Holly is in love with a woman who is defiantly in love with Harry, a man seething with loathsome disgust. It is a union that Holly doesn’t have the mental capacity to begin to understand.

All of this is played out in a landscape that plays like another character. Post-war Vienna is a backdrop that no art director could have conceived. With all of these nationalities converging and a political climate that is creating a state of paranoia, we get the sense that nothing is as it seems, that no one is to be trusted. This is present in Robert Krasker’s black and white photography which creates blind alleys, rainy streets and dimly-lit windows. The camera tilts at odd angles to suggest a world in chaos, and there are shots that seem disjointed and don’t quite add up.

The film plays with our sensibilities even down to its genre. We are so familiar with the structure of the typical murder mystery, that it is a kick to watch the film break down our expectations one by one as we go along. The mystery isn’t linear in a traditional sense with all the players established around a mysterious death, it leads us along a particular path and then breaks that path and moves on to something else – this story must set a record for the number of red herrings.

No traditional element is broken down more than in the relationship between Holly and Anna. He is desperately in love with her (given her beauty, it is only natural) but she is tied, past and present, to Harry. She has a deep abiding loyalty to this man that Harry won’t ever be able to understand. Things have happened in the past that Holly could never understand. He does the right thing and in the end does not get the girl. This movie is really an answer to the films that Hollywood made during the war years – films that soft-soaped the brutality and told patriotic stories with happy endings. There are no happy endings in The Third Man. With the exception of a few deaths, the story ends pretty much the same way it started. In a way, it is a mirror on reality.

Best Actor

Broderick Crawford (
All the King’s Men)
The Nominees: Kirk Douglas (Champion), Gregory Peck (Twelve O’Clock High), Richard Todd (The Hasty Heart), John Wayne (The Sands of Iwo Jima)

Kirk Douglas (Champion)
My Nominees:
James Cagney (White Heat), Joseph Cotten (The Third Man)


Broderick Crawford spent most of his career playing variations of the same character.  A beefy actor with hard looks and a booming voice, he was perfect to play the role of a soft-headed bully.  He put that persona to good use in his best role in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday as Harry Brock, the bullish boyfriend of a ditzy blonde (Judy Holliday), whose troubles begin when he hires a handsome tutor to smarten her up.

Crawford got that role because of the attention he received for the one that got him the Oscar, as crooked politician Willie Stark in the film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men. The performance is one-note because Crawford operates at two speeds: shouting and looking mean.  I am sure he has his defenders but, for me, his is the worst performance ever to be given the Best Actor prize. While watching him shout, bellow and strong arm his way through All the King’s Men, I started to wonder how the role of Willie Stark might have been handled by an actor like Kirk Douglas.

Where Crawford had a limited acting range, Douglas could act the daylights out of any scene. He was an actor with a multitude of notes, colors, moods – even his tirades were examples of pure acting.  He could give a full-blooded performance even when playing a character we didn’t particularly like.  That’s why I am choosing him as my Best Actor for 1949 in Mark Robson’s Champion.

Douglas plays Midge Kelly who, as the film opens, talks himself and his lame brother Connie () into a job at a diner.  It isn’t long before Midge finds himself forced into marrying the owner’s daughter after the owner finds out they’ve been fooling around.  Midge and Connie hit the road almost before the ink on their marriage license is dry.  Out of work and looking for money, Midge finds himself in the boxing ring one night when a manager’s regular fighter has been told he can’t fight.  Midge cleans his opponent’s clock and suddenly realizes that he likes it.  He also realizes that boxing has a sleazy side when the manager, who offered him fifty dollars, is only willing to give him ten.

He convinces a worldly-wise retired boxing coach named Haley (Paul Stewart) to come out of retirement and manage his career.  He proves to be an effective fighter and soon becomes famous.  Working his way to the championship with only one more fight to go before he gets the shot, he is told that he needs to throw the fight to help out the local mob or else he will never get another shot.  He refuses and beats the champ to a bloody pulp.  The mob returns the favor and Midge becomes a hero in the press for his courage.

Unfortunately, in the wake of this hero worship, Midge begins to sell his soul.  He fires Haley in order to sign on with a big-time promoter for the title bout.  His ego gets the best of him, and he loses the respect of his own brother.  As he wins fights and rises in popularity, his personal life suffers under his over-inflated ego.  Chasing away those who care about him, he becomes greedy with money and with women.  His personal life is so full of his own interests, he misses a call that his beloved mother is dying, he misses the opportunity to say goodbye to her.  Connie tries to talk some sense into his brother but they get into a fight and Midge knocks him to the floor.  During the heavyweight bout, with his emotions in knots, Midge’s opponent tears him apart but he comes back in the last moment and knocks Dunne cold. But in the end, Midge has lost everything and in the last moment, his brain damaged, he begins jabbering and then punches the locker before he drops dead on the floor.

What is amazing about Douglas’ character is that he is not a guy who was turned corrupt by the world of boxing.  He is crooked and immoral and just happens to find himself in an industry that gives him what he wants.  Raised in poverty, Midge is an example of the danger of what happens to someone who goes from having almost nothing to someone who suddenly has almost everything.  This wouldn’t be so bad except that Midge contains no moral filter except when it comes to his one obligation – his brother, who has a bad leg, and his sick mother so we get the sense that at some point there will be a change of heart, a moment of clarity when he realizes that he needs the relationships of those who don’t love him for his money or his body. But just when Midge arrives at a point of finding his conscience, he seems to void himself of it as if the demon on his shoulder is too strong a voice for him not to follow.  I somehow expected his character to open his eyes to the trap he set for himself just as Douglas’ character Chuck Tatum does in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.  Yet, what I sense from Midge is that he is a perfect test case of fame addiction.  He has become attracted to the amenities that come with instant fame and, just like any unreformed addict, it becomes an addiction that eventually consumes him.

Best Actress

Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress)
The Nominees: Jeanne Crain (Pinky), Susan Hayward (My Foolish Heart), Deborah Kerr (Edward, My Son), Loretta Young (Come to the Stable)

Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress)
The Nominees: Jeanne Crain (Pinky)


Had it not been for Carol Reed’s The Third Man, then William Wyler’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Heiress would have been my choice for Best Picture of 1949. The film is uncompromising in its portrait of a plain spinster (Olivia de Havilland) who lives under the watchful eye of her wealthy father who becomes suspicious of the man who courts and offers her marriage in a matter of only days.

Olivia de Havilland would win the Oscar for Best Actress, her second after winning for To Each His Own in 1946, but this time I think they made the right choice. This is the only time of the decade that I agree with the academy’s choice for Best Actress which proves nothing beyond the fact that, as Catherine Sloper, I think she did the best work of her career. The film takes place “A hundred years ago” and we meet Catherine, a shy, plain-looking spinster who lives with her father, the respected doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), in a large house in Washington Square.

Austin doesn’t think much of Catharine. He repeatedly compares her with her late mother and deems her “unmarriageable.” She is shy, with few social graces and bears little ability to hold a conversation. She is easily hurt but something about her manner tells us that she has gotten used to it. During a society party one night, she tries having a conversation with a man who excuses himself to get them both drinks and never returns. Later she sees him happily dancing with someone else. When she is later approached by handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), she assumes he will be no different. He seems genuinely interested in Catherine; he laughs with her, talks to her and doesn’t seem to be finding reasons to leave her side. When he goes off to get drinks, she assumes that he will not return. She accepts an offer to dance with an older gentleman and is surprised when she sees Morris looking for her with drinks in hand.

He charms her and she is surprised when he comes calling the next day and professes that he has fallen in love with her. There is tenderness about him that startles Catherine. She has never experienced love, never had a man approach her in this manner, and she is taken aback, especially several days later when he comes calling again with a proposal of marriage.

Understandably, Austin is suspicious. Why, suddenly, would this handsome young fellow come calling on a woman with no social skills, who isn’t beautiful, who can barely hold a conversation? He learns at dinner that night that Morris isn’t very good with money, that he squandered an inheritance. Since Catherine earns an inheritance of $10,000 per year as part of her late mother’s will, and stands to earn another $30,000 a year upon her father’s passing, Austin suspects that Morris wants her money. Still, everything in Catherine’s heart tells her that Morris’ intentions are completely honorable and for the first time she begins to defy her father’s wishes even though he threatens to divert her inheritance to his clinic if she marries this man.

Austin takes Catherine away to Europe, hoping that the trip will clear Morris from her mind. It doesn’t work and when they return home, she finds that Morris has regularly been stopping in. On a rainy night, they stand in an archway and he says they should elope. Catherine tests his love by telling him that she is willing to give up the inheritance and marry him. Morris says he will return the following night to pick her up but he never returns. She is deeply hurt and as the days and weeks pass, her heart and her soul become hardened. She becomes cynical, unfeeling. Upon her father’s deathbed she tells him that she won’t marry Morris.

Some time after her father’s death, Morris returns but by this time Catherine has had enough. She walls up her emotions and her heart and decides to feed this man the same hurtful cruelty that he played on her. She accepts his offer of marriage but when he returns she orders the maid to bolt the door. Walking upstairs as Morris stands outside pounding on the door and calling her name, she resigns herself to a solitary, emotionless life that her father always said would be her destiny.

In praising The Heiress, I never forget to mention three names: Hal Lierly, Wally Westmore and William Woods, the makeup artists who succeeded brilliantly at the task of making Olivia de Havilland look unattractive. In the first half of the film, she is dowdy, her eyes are dark, her face is colorless, her clothes are drab, her hair pinned back in an unflattering bun. It really is an amazing transformation, and it couples nicely with de Havilland’s performance. She allows Catherine a certain desperation in wanting to be accepted. She barely speaks above a quiet whisper and when she speaks so that others can hear, it is with a fumbling attempt at conversation. But something opens up when she falls in love with Morris. Her eyes lose their desperation and appear to dance. Olivia de Havilland has large eyes that express so much, and she has never used them to better effect then in this film. They go from downcast, to sparkling, to cold and calculating.

It is in the latter half of the film is where we really see her transformation, after Morris has left her – her voice becomes deeper, her speech patterns become deliberate. She has the look of someone who has been deeply wounded but who has hardened over time. It is in the closing scenes that she comes around, as she tells her aunt that she accepts his second proposal. She is tired of being jerked around and tells her aunt “He’s grown greedier over the years. Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house – and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time.”

What is amazing about The Heiress is that Morris’ approach to Catherine is so beautifully handled, so genuinely tender and so believable that the viewer is drawn to him as well. We genuinely think that he loves her and it breaks our hearts when we find that Austin was right about him. Those of us who weren’t blessed with great looks or social graces find something in Catherine that we recognize and understand when her emotions are broken beyond repair. Was it spite that made Catherine want to leave Morris wanting her? I don’t think so. I think that, for the first time, Catherine was taking control over her own destiny. Caught between money and a marriage that would likely have been based on a lie, she chooses a life of solitude.