Armchair Oscars – 1955

Best Picture

Marty (Directed by Delbert Mann)
The Nominees: Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo

The Night of the Hunter (Directed by Charles Laughton)
My Nominees: 
The Man With the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger), Summertime (David Lean), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)


Delbert Mann’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty was kind of an enigma among the films that have won the Oscar for Best Picture. At a time when Hollywood was fighting the battle of the new medium of television by making films bigger, here was a movie that was written for television and had been a television production. Yet this story of a lonely butcher (Ernest Borgnine) who finds love after having resigned himself to a life of loneliness, was immensely popular, won seemingly every award in the book and even became the first American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Alas, time has not been kind to Marty, and today the film has more or less passed out of common knowledge. My choice was just the opposite, a critical and commercial failure at the time, The Night of the Hunter today endures as an oddball classic. Those who appreciate film and the artistry of the medium, regard this as some kind of a masterpiece although trying to categorize it is not as easy as you might think.

Directed by Charles Laughton, his only directorial credit, The Night of the Hunter tells the story of a slick preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who goes to jail for 30 days and while there meets a man (Peter Graves) who is serving time for robbery and murder. The man admits that when he was on the run from the cops, he stopped by his home and hid $10,000 in stolen money somewhere on his property. The police never found it and the only two people who know the location of the loot are his two children, John and Pearl. Their father is executed and after Powell’s month-long sentence, he is released and immediately goes to pay the kids a visit.

Working his way into their small community is not difficult. Powell is a smooth, slick, fast-talker – a man who presents himself as a man of God and talks a good sermon. The God-fearing townsfolk are taken in by his line, “Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?” and so he does. The letters L-O-V-E tattooed on his right hand, and H-A-T-E tattooed on his left, to lay out the conflict between the two. The story isn’t very deep but he’s able to snooker these small town people with a good performance.

Visiting the children, he finds a weakness in the form of their widowed mother Willa (Shelley Winters) who has a history a sexual misbehavior. The good preacher has a way of tapping into her weakness and shames her into marrying him. She does not know, of course, that he is a bluebeard (a man who marries and murders wealthy women), and it isn’t long before she is found dead behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of a lake. Now, Powell has full access to the children and the house and can easily look for the money at will. Threatening to cut John’s throat in order to find out where the money is, he convinces a frightened Pearl to reveal that the money is hidden inside her doll.

The two kids outwit Powell and run out of the house and down river where they are improbably pursued by their step-father, who follows them on horseback. They find refuge in the house of the elder Rachel Cooper (beautifully played by Lillian Gish), who takes in orphaned or abandoned children. “I am a strong tree with branches for many birds,”  she says “I am good for something in this world and I know it too.”  She protects John and Pearl from Powell, whom she knows is dirty. She reminds John, who feels guilty because he is keeping secrets from a man of God, of Matthew 7:15, to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.”  Powell comes to the house to collect the children but Rachel chases him off her property and he threatens to return that night. He does and it leads to a showdown that ends with the police hauling him away for Willa’s murder.

The Night of the Hunter is like no film I’ve ever seen. It has a visual palette that can best be described as abstract. The buildings don’t look right, the settings look artificial, the personalities of the characters seem a little outsized. The dialogue is delivered with an old country twang, but it seems deliberately forced. The chase sequence in which the children move down river in the boat looks particularly artificial. The river looks as if it is indoors, the stars in the sky are outsized, and the moon looks a little too close to the earth. Even the details look artificial, there are close ups of frogs, owls and a strange spider web that looks as if it is made out of string. Then, of course, there is the scene in which we see Willa sitting dead behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of the lake. It is a macabre scene, she looks ethereal with her hair flowing like the seaweed.

These odd touches create a film that resembles a storybook nightmare. Laughton borrowed a great deal from silent films and especially from German Expressionism to give his scenes an odd angular shape. He set his lights in a peculiar manner such as the moment in which Powell returns to Rachel’s house, and she sits on a well-lit porch bathed in darkness while the preacher sits in the background on a stump. Another moment that always strikes me is scene earlier in the middle of the night when John and Pearl are hiding in a hayloft and John hears the preacher singing. Then preacher comes into the frame silhouetted against the night sky, riding by on horseback.

Powell is one of the great villains of all time. This is not a typical performance by Robert Mitchum, who is usually quiet and unassuming. Here is his more boisterous, much larger than the characters we’ve seen before. He is able to sell his snake oil with a sleepy-eyed charm and a performance that convinces you that he’s been preaching the word all his life. Under the guise of a humble preacher, he dispenses sermons that sound good but mean almost nothing. He is a profanity, a mad killer with a distaste for loose women, a bluebeard who marries them and murders them. He has moments we don’t expect, like the moment when he chases the kids out of the basement, lurching forward with his arms extended like Frankenstein’s monster. Or when the kids get away in a boat, and he roars like a wounded animal.

I could go on and on about The Night of the Hunter – it isn’t like any film you’ve ever seen before or since. It is one of those films that is hard to define in almost every respect. It saddens me that the film’s failure at the box office effectively ended Laughton’s career as a director. I would love to have seen what he was fully capable of and what a contribution he could have made to his craft.

Best Actor

Ernest Borgnine (Marty)
The Nominees: James Cagney (Love Me or Leave Me), James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause), Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock), Frank Sinatra (The Man With the Golden Arm)

Alec Guinness (The Ladykillers)
My Nominees:
James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause), Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter), Frank Sinatra (The Man With the Golden Arm)


After playing a bully who kills Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, Ernest Borgnine turned his public image around and won an Oscar for playing a loveable butcher in the title role of Delbert Mann’s Marty. As a loveable soul who is not-so-smart and not so good with the ladies, he played the film very close to his heart.  Borgnine has never been an actor lucky with his looks, so he seemed tailor-made to occupy Marty Pilleti, a regular Joe who represents those of us who weren’t blessed with an sparkling physical appearance.  You can’t help but like Marty, but it is difficult to watch his performance and convince yourself that it deserved an Oscar for Best Actor.

My initial choice was James Dean who, in Rebel Without a Cause, gave a face to the lost, lonely and frustrated youth that would become emblematic in the decade to come.  I changed my mind when I remembered that Alec Guinness gave one of his best performances in 1955 and so I am going in that direction. Watching this great chameleon in film after film, you have to admire an actor who manages to remain illusive even in a leading role.

While I was revisiting Alexander MacKendrick’s The Ladykillers recently, I was sitting in my living room when my wife came in and sat down beside me.  She looked at the screen for a moment and said, “Is that Alec Guinness?” “Yes,” I responded. After a few beats she squinted and said, “Is it?” In a way, this is a compliment to what Guinness brought to the screen, in real life he had an unremarkable face, a less-than-boastful voice and the charming manner of an ingratiating butler.  Out of costume he didn’t stand out, he wasn’t memorable, and that blank slate allowed him to disappear into his roles so brilliantly that you had to look twice to make sure it was him.

It makes me a little sad that my generation only knows Guinness for playing Ben Kenobi in Star Wars because after you’ve seen his remarkable range of character roles, you realize that he was so much more. He could disappear inside various characters so brilliantly that he could become invisible. Often he could play multiple characters in the same film and no two would be alike. He found an avenue to be able to play those roles.  In the years just after World War II, he found a happy home at Ealing Studios making comedies about crime and punishment. One of the best, and my favorite performance of 1955, was The Ladykillers. Here he plays Professor Marcus, a skinny, polite chap with knobby teeth, a pleasant manner and a crime in mind. He takes up a room at the home of sweet old Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) under the pretenses that he will use the room to practice with his band. In truth, they plan to rob an armored car, stuff the money into a steamer trunk, leave it at the train station and then very politely ask the old lady to go and collect it for him.

Mrs. Wilberforce turns out to be a disaster to their plan. She is a sweet old lady with a pleasant smile and a few bats in the belfry. She makes regular trips to the police station to report on strange goings on around town like a spaceship that has launched from her neighbor’s flowerbed. Her house sits lopsided on the edge of town near the train yard and it is this information that brings Guinness to her door.

Professor Marcus has a charming manner and a way of keeping his charges in check just when things seem as if they are about to burst at the seams. He is a picture of control even if it seems as if he won’t be able to keep it in check. Take, for example, a moment when Mrs. Wilberforce nearly makes it back to the house with the trunk but stops of to dress down a fruit vendor for abusing a horse who is eating his inventory. The scene escalates into a comedy of errors with characters running in and out of the frame as the chaos escalates. And just when we are sure that the plan is doomed, a bit of luck pulls it out of the fire.

The story is just one damned thing after another, as Mrs. Wilberforce nearly destroys the plan at every turn without ever realizing it. The second half turns as she discovers the plot, and the boys in Guinness’ mob decide that they must bump off the old girl. That plan turns the last half of the film into a ballet of double crosses and murder.

The strength of Guinness’ performance is in crisis management. Every time the plan seems about to burst, he has to step in to patch up the holes. When Mrs. Wilberforce threatens to go to the police he kindly reminds her that she could be named as an accomplice. In the end, when bodies start piling up, we aren’t surprised when he is done in by simple karma.

Guinness would win an Oscar two years later for her performance as Colonel Nicholson, the man who brings an end to The Bridge on the River Kwai and received nominations on three other occasions for The Lavender Hill Mob, Star Wars and Little Dorritt. He would be given an honorary Oscar by the academy in 1979, in the wake of the Star Wars frenzy, and it was then that he confessed “I feel very fraudulent in taking this but, letting no expression cross my face, I’m grabbing this while the going’s good.”  It is a statement that would have made Professor Marcus proud.

Best Actress

Anna Magnani (The Rose Tattoo)
The Nominees: Susan Hayward (I’ll Cry Tomorrow), Katharine Hepburn (Summertime), Jennifer Jones (Love is a Many Splendored Thing), Eleanor Parker (Interrupted Melody)

Katharine Hepburn  (Summertime)
y Nominees: Kim Novak (Picnic), Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause)


Katharine Hepburn won four competitive Oscars in her lifetime, but I never felt that any of those performances were showcases of her best work. In all four performances she was either a chatterbox or a dutiful wife. I have already given Hepburn my Armchair Oscar for Alice Adams and then The Philadelphia Story, both of which show her dramatic skills and then her skill as a comedienne. This time I am rewarding her in a seemingly forgotten David Lean film Summertime, a story about a middle-aged woman trying one last time to find love.

Hepburn plays Jane Hudson, a spinster somewhere in her early fifties who has saved her money and treated herself to a vacation in Venice. We see Venice in the same majestic eye that Jane does. Her rapture begins to dim, however, as she notices the large numbers of couples arm in arm. She has never had the opportunity to experience true love in her life, and she begins to fear that she won’t have any more opportunity to find it here than she did in the states.

Yet potential does arise one day as she sits in a café in Piazza San Marco and notices a handsome gentleman (Rossano Brazzi) admiring her. Being a lady, she waits, pretends not to notice him but fate later brings him into her path when she enters an antique shop and not only discovers him there but finds that he owns the place.

He introduces himself as Renato Di Rossi and in attempting to offer her a goblet at a reduced price, it is obvious he is less interested in the sale than in her. The third time is the charm. He shows up at her hotel and asks her out. Smitten, she accepts his offer because she cannot deny that she has fallen in love with him. For a time, she has the world at her feet, enjoying the kind of love-struck rapture that she has been searching for all her life.

Unfortunately, her joy is interrupted by the information that he is married and has a son. Deeply hurt, her dream is smashed before she even had a chance to enjoy it. He implores her to listen to him and he reveals that he is married but separated. He convinces her to take this romance for the moment and not weigh it down with pettiness. Jane’s perspective changes. The romance might have to end when she goes home but better to have loved only briefly than to have missed it all together. Jane’s remaining time in Venice with Renato is joyful and their story does, as all great stories do, come to a close. What happens in the end, I will leave for you to discover but suffice to say it is one of the truest moments that I can remember.

Hepburn is wonderful in the film, beginning with an overjoyed sense of one of the most lush and beautiful cities in the world. When we meet her, we understand that she is not physically attractive and that in her romance-free life, she has learned to accept defeat. She has moments when her face betrays a broken heart more effectively than in any other actress I can remember. Also her physical look, in the beginning, her hair and her clothes, suggest an older woman who is trying to look younger. Later, when she sits with Renato, she looks younger, her face glows, and that famous smile crawls across her face.

The magic of Summertime is not just its location but its perspective. This is one of the few films about older people falling in love and it is refreshing to see a story told about two people who find the kind of romantic dance that seems to have eluded them. They both have experience in life, they both know the wages of heartbreak and betrayal, and we see them work through that.

Hepburn was so well known for playing smart women that we tend to forget that she was just as good playing the insecure wallflower. In this film, and in Alice Adams, she stands for all the plain girls who have stood on the sidelines, found disappointment and were never the first (or second) to be asked for a dance. Jane Hudson is looking for the love that she feels she has missed but in finding Renato she realizes that a moment of happiness can be cherished for a lifetime.

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