Armchair Oscars – 1953

Best Picture

From Here to Eternity (Directed by Fred Zinneman)
The Nominees: Julius Caeser, The Robe, Roman Holiday, Shane

The Big Heat (Directed by Fritz Lang)
My Nominees:
Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller), Roman Holiday (William Wyler), Shane (George Stevens)


In 1953, hot off the success of the crowd-pleasing High Noon, director Fred Zinneman moved to a more adult venture, an adaptation of James Jones’ seemingly unfilmable 1951 novel “From Here to Eternity.” No one thought it could be done because the book, about the various relationships in and around a Hawaiian Army Base just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been loaded with sex and four-letter words that would have to be removed in order to be passable as a film.

I have not read Jones’ book but based on the film, I can’t see where the absence of explicit sex and language are a hindrance. The film is, essentially, a soap opera that focuses several characters: one, a young, hard-headed recruit (Montgomery Clift) who fights with his commanding officers over his refusal to join the inter-camp boxing league. The other is a tough sergeant (Burt Lancaster) who has a secret relationship with the wife of the company’s base commander. Then there’s Frank Sinatra and his battle with a bullish stockade warden played by Ernest Borgnine.

The performances are great but I’m not really a fan of the film mostly because, at the end when the Japanese attack, it feels as if the film is using the attacks to cover up for having to tie up loose ends with the characters.  The film would win eight Oscars including an undeserved Supporting Actor prize for Frank Sinatra (who hardly gets a chance to sing!), while my favorite film of the year received no nominations for anything.

Fritz Lang’s great, violent noir thriller The Big Heat is as tricky as anything Hitchcock ever made simply because it poses as a straight-forward cop-versus-mob crime drama but contains a dark undercurrent of questionable morals.  It stars Glenn Ford as Detective Dave Bannion, dedicated as much to his job as he is to his wife and daughter. He loves his job but detests the city’s police department which is under the protection of the local mob run by the powerful Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby).

We meet Bannion on the case of the suicide of a police officer. It looks pretty open and shut – the cop was on the mob’s payroll and bumped himself off as an exit from the festering sickness of corruption.  His wife Bertha (Jeanette Nolan), who curiously wastes no tears on her dead husband, tells Bannion that he was suffering a terminal illness.  The case seems simple until the cop’s very nervous girlfriend Lucy (Dorothy Green) meets Bannion in a bar where she tells him that there was something more to the case than just a simple suicide and that Tom was in good health.  Bannion doesn’t take her seriously and when he confronts the wife with this information, she informs Lagana which results in Lucy’s body being found on a dirt road.

Despite the evidence that this case is obviously more than a suicide, Bannion is ordered by his superior to back off (police chiefs in movies are always doing that).  Yet Bannion is not a guy who knows when to lay low and as a result his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando – Marlon’s sister) receives a threatening phone call.  He storms into Lagana’s house and beats up one of his men to which Lagana responds by later placing a bomb in his car that kills Katie.  Bannion becomes a man possessed; he is determined to take down Lagana’s mob. His chief source of information is Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), the girlfriend of Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), one of Lagana’s bricks.  She is sick of Lagana and Vince.  Bannion tries to make her talk, taking her back to his hotel where she gives him the info he’s looking for.  Stone knows what she has done to and, after she laughs at him, he responds by throwing hot coffee in her face.  Horribly scarred, robbed of what she thinks is her one valuable asset, Debby asks Bannion for help.  She knows what’s going on within the mob, she knows that Bertha is involved and offers him the information if he will protect her.

What happens in the third act makes perfect sense and is based more on the personalities of these two people more than just wrapping up the story.  What is striking is how much of a standard cop vs. mob picture The Big Heat seems to be on the surface but how dark and violent the picture is underneath.  The Bannion character is especially a surprise, since he’s played by Glenn Ford with his perfect hair and his handsome good-guy face, we expect that he’s a straight arrow by-the-book cop, but no, he’s a violent reactionary who does things without thinking and inadvertently get several women killed, including his own wife.  He has a nasty habit of simply rushing in and making threats without considering the consequences.  After Lucy tells him what she knows about her boyfriend’s death, he confronts the man’s wife and it leads to her death.  Later, after he drags Debby to a motel room to get information she is disfigured by her boyfriend.  Worst of all he barges into Lagana’s place, makes a threat and then beats up the bodyguard, leading to his wife’s murder.

At the center of the film is Debby, whom we don’t spend any real time with until the film’s second half. At first seems to be just a gangster’s moll, a pretty girl with a little girl bounce who values her looks because they get her what she wants.  It is only after Vince burns her face with coffee that she realizes what she’s really worth.  She determines to help Bannion and it costs her dearly.  In most other movies, a girl like Debby would have been just eye-candy but as the film progresses she is brought to the front. This was Gloria Grahame’s single best performance

The Big Heat comes from Fritz Lang, one of my favorite directors.  He was a true cinema artist who was an expert at adding an extra dimension to otherwise ordinary genre pieces.  He would direct less than fifty films in his long career, but he specialized in quality, not quantity.  The overriding theme of his best work was exploring the dark heart of human lusts.  His best known film is Metropolis (1927), that great silent epic about an oppressive future world that is brought to its knees when a mad scientist lets loose a robotic clone of an important motivational leader.  He also made the eerie M (1931) with Peter Lorre as a filthy child murderer who keeps his community under a reign of terror and paranoia for eight years. And there was also the forgotten Scarlet Street (1945) which features, arguably, Edward G. Robinson’s finest performance, playing a hen-pecked milquetoast who is conned out of a fortune by a venal woman.

For each of these films, I have given them an Armchair Oscar either for the film or the performances. Lang was one of the great artists in the realm of German Expressionism and he knew how to build a story that had an undercurrent of pure evil.  He saw it first hand, having fled Germany to escape Hitler’s takeover of his country’s film industry, divorcing his second wife Thea Von Harbou (who wrote the screenplay and novel of Metropolis), because she was fully committed to the Nazi ideals.

What is special about The Big Heat and with nearly all of Lang’s work is that you feel that you are in the hands of an old master; like Kubrick, you understand that watching his work, there is nothing dull or ordinary about his storytelling. He adds extra levels, extra dimensions to his films that make them more than just entertainment.

Best Actor

William Holden (
Stalag 17)
The Nominees: Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser), Richard Burton (The Robe), Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity), Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity)

Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday)
My Nominees:
Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser), Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity), Vincent Price (House of Wax)


William Holden was an intense actor, the kind that almost always had you on his side. He was one of those actors who seemed to appear in every other film, and yet you can never point to any of his films and say that he gave a bad performance. He did, however, have moments when he wasn’t at the top of his game.

Take, for example, his Oscar-winning performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 in which he plays Sergeant J. J. Sefton, a POW accused by his fellow prisoners of being in league with the Germans and thwarting their every escape attempt. Holden wasn’t terrible in Stalag 17 but matched amid his range of work in Sunset Blvd., The Bridge at Toko-Ri, Sabrina, Picnic and Network, this one seems kind of mild. Amid the nominees for Best Actor, William Holden’s was the only performance from 1953 that I didn’t like. That’s too bad, because I have liked him in most everything else.

For 1953, I was stuck between Marlon Brando’s performance as Julius Caeser and Mongomery Clift’s underrated work in From Here to Eternity. I was about to choose them both, until the other night when I was introduced to the work of French comedian Jacques Tati. Watching several of his films over the course of an evening, I was happily introduced to one of the most unique talents I have ever experienced. Discovering his work is like watching the sun come out. You feel with his films the same as you did when you were first introduced to Chaplin.

Tati only made a handful of films over the course of his career and my selection for Best Actor is rewarding him for the role for which he is best remembered, that of the odd little man known only as Monsieur Hulot (so far as I know he was never given a first name). He made a handful of features in which he plays Hulot and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is where he began. There are no complexities here, no broad or overblown comic mishaps. Hulot’s lot in life is that he is alone and invisible and only exists within the natural order – which, in this film, he often upsets.

The story involves his misadventure on a beach vacation in Brittney. He arrives in a car fit for Mr. Magoo, squeezed behind the wheel in a space that seems about a size four. He’s an odd man, tall, with a lurching walk that would suggest he left the hanger in his pants. When he isn’t walking, he surveys his surroundings with his arms on his hips and his elbows slung back. Dressed in short pants with a long-stemmed pipe sticking out of his mouth, and his fishing hat, he would not stand out in a crowd. His face is unremarkable, with chubby cheeks and a pleasant smile. He is, seemingly, offensive to no one.

What I expected from Mr. Hulot was a kind of natural disaster in short pants, the kind of man who could crumble walls by looking at them (something along the lines of The Money Pit). I was relieved that this is not the case, Hulot specializes in minor irritations as when he opens the door to the hotel and a gust of wind blows in, aggravating the patrons who are trying to relax. Another scene has a quiet moment in the sitting room that is interrupted by raucous jazz music. The waiter opens a door and finds Hulot sitting with his hands folded listening to the phonograph, apparently unaware of the volume.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is not one of those films that makes your sides hurt with laughter; rather than laugh you smile with a great admiration of what Tati is displaying. Take for example a moment when he is on the beach painting his boat and his paint can is washed out by the tide only to return just when he needs it. Or another moment, (for me, the funniest in the film) when he is driving his little car and stops by a cemetery to change a flat tire. He drops the tire on the wet ground and when he picks it up it is covered with leaves. A pallbearer walks by with a large round flower arrangement and assumes that Hulot is paying his respects by bringing a similar arrangement. The man takes the leaf covered tire and walks away with it. Later, we see the tire hanging on the tombstone just as the tire deflates.

Another smaller moment takes place when an oft seen vacationing blonde disappears inside a changing room on the beach. Hulot tips his hat as she disappears inside the tiny room. At the side of the structure, Hulot notices a man leaning over, apparently spying on the young lady through a hole. Without fail, Hulot kicks the man in the keister and runs away. Another camera angle reveals that the man is not looking into the dressing room but is standing behind it, leaned over his camera taking a picture of his family.

Tati’s work has been compared to that of Chaplin, but I think only in terms of technique. Chaplin’s Tramp was an outsider who used his wits to survive within a world that had no use for him. Hulot exists within his world but is, for the most part, invisible. He is a simple tenant in God’s creation, often bumbling, but not a natural disaster.

As with Chaplin’s Tramp, he has sweet moments like an opening shot in which he is driving toward his hotel and stops to interrupt a dog that is taking a nap in the road. It takes a moment, but eventually the dog gets up and moves to the side of the road. Then comes a sweet moment when we see Hulot’s arm leaning out the side gently rubbing the dog on the head. Another involves the often seen pretty blonde who, like Hulot, is vacationing alone. Pretty but not remarkable, with Princess Leia hair buns, we assume she will find love with Hulot. It never happens, but there is a sweet moment during a masquerade ball when the two share an awkward dance.

Tati allows us to observe Hulot but not to engage him. Beyond his name, we never learn anything else about him. He never speaks except when spelling his name for the hotel desk clerk. We don’t get very close to him, he remains at a certain distance for most of the film. The idea, I think, is that we are put in the position of being another tourist. Like a passerby, we see his behavior, but we are never a part of it. The key word is observance – we aren’t watching a circus act, we are observing human behavior from an odd little man who’s every movement is infectious.

Best Actress

Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday)
The Nominees:
Leslie Caron (Lili), Ava Gardner (Mogambo), Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity), Maggie McNamara (The Moon is Blue)

Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat)
The Nominees: Jean Peters (Pick Up on South Street), Jean Simmons (The Actress), Jean Simmons (Young Bess)


I don’t think there was ever a more luminous face in the movies than the one belonging to Audrey Hepburn. She was beautiful but always seemed accessible – you felt like you could tell her anything. More over, she was a lady, refined and enchanting. She seemed to have stars in her eyes and possessed a smile that was like the sun coming out. I loved her films, especially the ones in black and white where her stunning beauty seemed ethereal and timeless.

Looking back over her career and the way the public took her to their hearts, it seems fitting today that she won her Oscar for playing a princess. In William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, she plays Princess Ann, who has embarked on a tour of Europe only to meet-cute into the arms of Gregory Peck. Roman Holiday is Romantic Comedy 101 – a giddy romance, an exotic location and two people that you can’t help but hope for. Yet, in terms of Audrey’s performance, it isn’t anything to get worked up about. She is a luminous presence, but her Princess Ann isn’t much beyond beauty, grace and the hope that she will get to stay with Gregory Peck.

This was Hepburn’s breakthrough role but to follow the films that were to come is to find that she became a better actress as she went along. Her best work came in The Children’s Hour, Sabrina, Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Two for the Road where she showed a wider range and more depth. She isn’t bad in Roman Holiday, it is just that better roles awaited her.

My favorite performer of 1953 didn’t receive the attention or respect that she should have. While Hepburn was movie royalty, Gloria Grahame had a scandalous off-screen life that included innumerable affairs, four marriages (one of whom was her former stepson!) and four divorces. She won an Oscar in 1952 for her supporting work in The Bad and the Beautiful, but she is remembered by most movie lovers as Ado Annie, “the girl who cain’t say no” in Oklahoma and as Violet Bick, who has eyes for Jimmy Stewart, in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet, I wish more people would discover her performance in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat.

As Debby, the mistress of mob brick Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), we don’t get any significant screentime with her until the film’s second half. Up until we get to Debby, the movie tells the violent story of good detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who starts by investigating the suicide of a police sergeant who was tired of being on the mob’s payroll and ends by sending several women to their deaths in order to avenge the murder of his wife Katie.

What we notice about Debby from the start is that she seems to be a kid bound in a grown woman’s body. When she bounces through her boyfriend’s apartment, we sense the spirit of a 10-year old girl that she seemed to have forgotten (or refused) to leave behind. We see her decked out in jewels and pearls and sporting a pretty dress, but what we sense is that her looks have always gotten her exactly what she wanted. She has not discovered her self-worth beyond the pretty face that she sees in the mirror.

All of this changes when she gets involved with Dan Bannion (Glenn Ford), a police detective who is trying to bring down Vince’s boss Mike Lagana as revenge wife. Debby becomes fed up with Stone’s animalistic behavior and trails Bannion where he discovers her and tries to force information out of her. She is spotted by Vince, who later punishes her by throwing a pot of boiling hot coffee in her face. When she wakes up in the hospital, she has an ugly scar on one side of her face, covered for most of the time by a large bandage.

Debby knows that Stone and Lagana will come to the hospital to kill her, so she escapes and begs Bannion to protect her. He lets her in on the secret, that the chief of police was in bed with the mob and that the chief’s wife Bertha will send all the information to the papers if anything should happen to her.

What happens to Debby after she is scarred is interesting. Her perception changes. Before Vince disfigured her, she thought of her worth only in terms of what she saw in the mirror. When she suddenly doesn’t have looks to rely on, there isn’t anything left for her. Her focus falls on helping Bannion take down Lagana and his mob so she can get revenge on Vince. She becomes focused on helping him get to Bertha by warming up to her. “We should use first names, Bertha,” she tells the scheming widow. “We’re sisters under the mink.”

This is a cold and sometimes disturbing drama. This is the story of a cop who is blinded by revenge and sets up a series of women for slaughter in order to get revenge for the death of his wife. Debby is no exception, but she changes in the course of the story, even to the point of giving her life for a noble cause.

Debby Marsh is the kind of role that Gloria Grahame played to perfection. She didn’t have the look or the stature to play the lead, but she was best at playing women who lust after good men but never thinks herself worthy of them. Debby knows the sexual power she can have over men and pours her time and energy into dolling herself up in pretty dresses and sparkling jewels. But underneath beats the heart of an insecure kid. Her face retrains the expression of a kid who knows she is hanging with a group of bad kids but isn’t confident enough to do anything about it. Her voice can be hard when she needs it to be but mostly we hear a little girl squeak. Deep down she loves Bannion because he seems to be the first normal guy who has ever given her the time of day. She sees the violent lengths that Bannion is willing to go to avenge the death of his beloved wife and makes her confident that she could be more than just a toy to a lot of lunks.

She believes her life has been worthless, that she has squandered it when she could have had the kind of life Katie had and sadly it takes her disfigurement to jog this realization loose. She knows that her life is a hopeless case, that she can never have a man who is as good and devoted as Bannion so instead of trying to lead the good life she tries to do the greater good by dying for a worthwhile cause. She has made some contribution and – oddly enough – we admire her sacrifice.

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