22nd Academy Awards (1949) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Despite knowing nothing about the story going in, I had very high hopes for The Heiress, what with it being directed by William Wyler (his first film since The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]), and featuring one of the best casts of this or any surrounding year. And brother, did this movie exceed even my lofty expectations. The Heiress–a taut, exquisitely acted, mellifluously shot chamber piece, the true Best Picture of 1949–earned Olivia de Havilland her second Best Actress award, and was William Wyler’s fifth consecutive film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

De Havilland plays the titular heiress, Catherine Sloper, whose drab, socially isolated existence in 1840s New York is upended by the romantic overtures of an alluring young rogue named Morris (played by alluring young rogue Montgomery Clift)–she falls in love with him in about as long as it takes you to read this sentence, but her father suspects Morris is just out for her money (she stands to inherit an income of $40,000 a year upon his death–I checked it out, that would be over $1,200,000 a year today). He can’t be swayed from this opinion no matter what Morris or Catherine say, because he knows Catherine is so plain, uninteresting, and simple that no man would want her if a fortune were not involved.

Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is played by venerable British actor Ralph Richardson, and he plays the part to perfection, toeing a tricky line between showing his daughter utter contempt and doing everything he can to keep her from being taken for a ride. For my money, Richardson deserved the Best Supporting Actor award over Dean Jagger’s just-decent performance in Twelve O’Clock High. He is austere, unforgiving, arrogant, and stiff…everything an overbearing father should be.


It should have gone like this.

The best scene in the film is between Richardson and de Havilland, as Dr. Sloper finally reveals the depth of his scorn for his daughter, angrily telling her that it is impossible that any man could love her for anything but her money. Within hours, he is proven right–Morris flakes on their planned elopement upon finding out that Catherine is to be disinherited, and therefore live on only $15,000 a year (a paltry $462,803 in today’s world)–but soon discovers how wrong he was about Catherine.

I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a film everyone should watch, but I’ll just say that Catherine is a fast learner. Having seen how little her own father and the man she thought she loved care for her, she grows up fast and turns the tables on them in a deliciously satisfying way. Even when her father reveals he hasn’t long to live, she continues to taunt him by promising to return to Morris and allow him to squander her entire fortune, just to spite him. And when he does die, there is no cheesy tears, no Hollywood deathbed reconciliation. Just this:

Olivia-de-Havilland-Heiress-1949.JPGNo joke here. This is her reaction upon hearing the news that her father is going to die.

A character going from young and naïve to tough and resourceful is similar to de Havilland’s previous Oscar-winning performance in 1946’s To Each His Own, in which she learns to cope with the pain of having to give up her child after the father is killed in the war. The difference in this film, of course, is that her character sheds not only her naïveté but also her compassion and trust. It’s hard to fault this transformation, given what she’s gone through, and her final ascent (brilliantly staged as such by Wyler…it truly is a victory, if a pessimistic one) is just a thrill to watch. The sight of Morris pounding impotently against her door as she walks away like a goddamned badass is one of the few cinematic endings for which I actually cheered.

theheiress3.jpgending-the-heiress.jpgHahaha…eat shit, you loser.

It would have been very easy to stick them together as the credits rolled, implying that love will truly conquer all (or, even more insidious, that it’s better for a lady to marry a man who doesn’t love her than face the world as a weak, fragile woman). Either of those would have been a “happy ending” in 1949, and probably would have thrilled the Hays office. I was actually very fearful, coming down to the final sequence, that they would do exactly that, but I should have had more faith in Mr. Wyler to do the right thing.

Amazingly, Montgomery Clift went un-nominated for his tantalizingly ambiguous role as Morris. He keeps you guessing, almost for the entire story, about whether he is truly in love with Catherine or merely, as her father suspects, a gold digger. He acts the role with an easy grace and charm, his eyes as sincere as eyes can be…which is, of course, the whole point, and Clift seduces us right along with Catherine. Even after the façade begins to crack, you’re not sure…and because it’s Montgomery Clift–and because Catherine is Olivia de Havilland and nobody screws over Olivia de Havilland–you want him to be virtuous and true. (This was a deliberate and, it turns out, inspired bit of studio intervention, as they requested that Morris’ character be made less overtly evil than in the stage play, to capitalize on Clift’s budding leading-man status.)

In the end, his true colors are flown for all to see. The final, irrefutable proof of Morris’ duplicity comes very late in the film, and it is a devastating moment…

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No, no! He grew a villainous 1940s mustache! He IS evil! WHY, MONTGOMERY? WHY???

It is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect film. How Wyler was denied his third Best Director award in favor of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “point the camera at actors” approach in A Letter to Three Wives is mindboggling. De Havilland decisively earned her Best Actress Oscar, and the film picked up three more in technical categories, making it the biggest winner of the night. However, it was denied Best Picture by…

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Having stepped away from overt commentary the previous year in favor of some quiet Shakespeare, the Academy brought the former back with a vengeance by awarding Best Picture to All the King’s Men, a “vital, very great” movie about corruption in politics and how the only way to stop it is by gunning it down. Which makes it just about the most American American film of the 1940s. While I did enjoy the movie and was intrigued by the way it was edited and acted, it isn’t much more complex than that (admittedly snarky) summation, and I think it was the wrong choice for the top Oscar.

The best way to describe the film is that it is the exact opposite of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): instead of a young, idealistic progressive fighting to keep his wits and his integrity against the realpolitik of the Washington machine, All the King’s Men tells the story of an old, cynical reactionary who starts corrupt and fights to become even more corrupt, shocking his corrupt corroborators with the sheer depth of his corrupting corruption.

All-the-Kings-Men-2.jpgThough to its credit, the film fools you at the beginning by dressing him in grandpa pants and a very honest hat.

I suppose the film is trying to make a point about American politics, not about how power corrupts but rather how easy it is for such a nakedly power-mad individual to rise to power. Unfortunately, this makes for a static narrative and a terribly boring protagonist…while Willie Stark’s journey from country bumpkin to state governor might be what drives the plot, he himself doesn’t do a great deal to move the story forward, and nothing about him changes from beginning to end except that he loses his oxygen habit. Part of this might be the fact that he is played by Broderick Crawford, who I have trouble picturing as anything but a loudmouthed, brash, uneducated blowhard.

The role was originally offered to John Wayne, and man what an amazing performance that would have been. Despite his reputation nowadays (which he himself carefully cultivated), Wayne was a good actor before he realized there was more money in just stepping in front of the camera and being himself. And because he had that all-American, patriotic, beatnik-thumping persona, it would have been very interesting to see him in the role of Willie Stark. Watching Crawford bluster through the film, one simply accepts that he is evil and is just impatient for the supporting characters to figure it out…if it had been John “not-Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-would-have-been-in-this-film-instead” Wayne, the film could have been far more subtle, Stark would have been a far more dynamic character, and we the audience would have been right with the other characters, trying desperately to hold onto our idealized image despite the mounting evidence against it.

176452-004-7242C6DD.jpgUltimately, he elected to be simply John “Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-found-the-script-for-All-the-King’s-Men-unpatriotic” Wayne, which was much catchier on a marquee.

The film becomes a little better if one considers the supporting cast, the ones who aid and abet Stark’s machine, to be the true main characters. After all, it is a corrupt politician’s retinue of corroborators, bulldogs, and hangers-on that drives them to, and keeps them in, power, and in this respect the movie is very realistic and unforgiving. I’m thinking particularly of John Ireland as Jack Burden, the journalist who sells Stark to the people and quickly becomes his hatchetman–he’s the only character in the movie who changes (albeit only a little) by the end, and the only one to finally realize that Stark’s obviously immoral actions weren’t in pursuit of some nobler, populist end, but were simply a means to more power.

Beyond Burden, the rest of the film offers little in terms of character development, which was surprising for me, considering two of its performers won Academy Awards. If 1949 had an award for Most Badly Written Character, all five nominees would be from All the King’s Men. Don’t get me wrong, Broderick Crawford is wonderfully obnoxious and slimy as Willie Stark, but since, as I said, his character is never anything but obnoxious and slimy, his performance is terribly one-note. Stark goes through the whole film solving every problem by shouting at it or threatening it until finally he kills it, or it kills itself. Compare this to Gregory Peck’s Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High–a character with an actual arc and more than one type of reaction to a given situation–and Crawford’s Best Actor award makes very little sense.

Same goes for Mercedes McCambridge, whose character goes from jaded, faux-sassy politician’s moll to jaded, faux-sassy politician’s ex-moll. Clearly the acting challenge of a lifetime. It becomes even weirder when her character pretty much vanishes from the narrative halfway through and does absolutely nothing of consequence for the plot.

All-the-Kings-Men-3.jpgThat empty coffee cup turned out to be a more intriguing character…where’s its Oscar?

But the highest honor in the Badly Written Character category must also go to Joanne Dru as Anne Stanton, whose sole purpose in the film is to be Stark’s fawning, disturbingly loyal and naïve mistress. Her character literally has no agency or higher brain function, as she willingly and unthinkingly helps Stark drive her beloved uncle to suicide. She ends the film still in love with him, firmly believing that he is a moral, misunderstood champion of the people.

a5eddd9269909a48b8a64e07714b3de6--ireland-robert-richard.jpg“Oh, please, as if Abraham Lincoln never murdered a judge. Get off your high horse.”

If the film was innovative in any area, it was in the editing. The original cut of the film ran far too long–director Robert Rossen, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t seem to get it under four hours. So he instructed his editor to take each scene, find what he considered to be the emotional and/or narrative “center” of the scene, and chop off everything outside one hundred feet of film before and after that point. This resulted in short, sweet scenes with abrupt transitions, giving the film a nervous energy that imbues it with far more tension than does its script. The style–even though done out of necessity rather than artistic curiosity–anticipated the experimental jump cuts of the French New Wave a decade later, particularly Godard’s Breathless.

And that’s 1949…personally, I think of the nominated films, The Heiress would have been a far better Best Picture winner; perhaps it doesn’t have the political and social punch of All the King’s Men, but it, like almost all Wyler films, features fully-formed, impeccably-acted characters and a rich story that, despite being set in the 19th century, does not feel dated. Now it’s time to move ahead and give Joseph L. Mankiewicz a chance to redeem himself in 1950!

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22nd Academy Awards (1949) – Part I

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  • All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen
  • Battleground, William A. Wellman
  • The Heiress, William Wyler
  • A Letter to Three Wives, Joseph L. Mankiewicz*
  • Twelve O’Clock High, Henry King

Well lo and behold, with the 1949 awards the Academy managed to put two strong years together in a row, though this year was marred by the inclusion of one desperately boring film and a Best Picture winner that, while a scathing and sporadically brilliant indictment of American politics, suffers from a weak script and weaker characters. However, the weak script is given a boost by some clever and experimental editing, and the very weak characters are given a leg up by some very strong performances…two of which won Oscars. It is one of only two films to win Best Picture and two acting Oscars, but not Best Director, and the other is…

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Because not all trivia is fun.

Best Director, meanwhile, went to one of the most needless films ever made. But I’ll get to that. Even taking into account that waste of 105 minutes, strong performances were the real theme of 1949; it was the first of only eight years in the five-nominee/supporting acting era where every acting winner was from a Best Picture nominee.

This year’s crop is also notable for including the first postwar-era World War II nominees, Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High. Unlike the propagandistic fare we saw between 1939 and 1944, these two films each make use of the intervening years to cast an appraising, humanistic eye on the conflict, just as La Grande Illusion did for World War I in 1937. That said, they are not morally ambiguous by any means, but they both dug a bit deeper than films were willing (or permitted) to go when the war was still going on.

There’s plenty to say about these movies, so let’s not waste any more time…

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A Letter to Three Wives is a movie about…well, that. The letter, sent by one of their cattier friends, informs them that said “friend” has skipped town and absconded with one of their husbands…but neglects to tell them which. Which is absolutely something a real human with a functioning brain would do, even if she wasn’t an unseen character in the world’s dumbest screenplay. As fate would have it, our titular wives are on a day trip with a youth organization, so they are left to quietly panic and have flashbacks to why the letter could only be referring to their hubby. What a mystery for the ages…what a high-stakes thrill ride that definitely kept me interested and invested in which bland, caricatured housewives would lose which bland, caricatured husband. You won’t believe the surprise ending…but only because it is even stupider than anything you are possibly imagining right now.

ab70800ac6c9f4de62290c884e1d8e32--a-letter-academy-awards.jpg“Uh…and then they find $20!” –Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the pitch meeting, probably

Kirk Douglas is mostly tolerable as an impossibly easygoing high school teacher, but nothing else about this production has any merit and one can almost feel the brain cells dying as the film lurches from one cliché to the next with an almost gleeful abandon. I only watched it a few days ago, so it’s too soon to fully assess the damage it’s done.

It’s been a while on this project since I had to write a review of a movie I absolutely despised—that would be The Human Comedy at the 16th Academy Awards—and since I’m still in an era when I can mostly get away with it, I’m simply going to declare A Letter to Three Wives one of the worst films of the 1940s and move on. All’s I can say is, Mankiewicz better get his act together for All About Eve, next year’s winner.

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Based on the above poster, I’m guessing that at the initial studio meeting, Battleground was pitched as an extravagant MGM musical comedy about a bunch of kooks and knuckleheads fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Then, some new personnel were hired, producers added and removed some ideas, the script went through some rewrites, backs were patted and heads rolled, and eventually they landed on the quiet, almost philosophical, study of the stresses of combat that is the finished film…but no one told the art department, and they never revised their original concept.

I was very pleased to find this film among the nominees, because it’s one of the first movies I have a memory of watching, way back in the mid-1990s, while I was preparing a school project about the experiences of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne in 1944. Battleground was a favorite of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who was able to confirm, in realtime, all of the tiny details the movie got right–as well as fill us in on a few that got left out (for instance, there were a lot more f-bombs amongst soldiers than Code movies would have us believe). Just about every scene in the movie reminded me of his stories, and of him.

Upon returning to the movie twenty years on, all I remembered was a pair of scenes involving a soldier who refused to sleep with his boots on, and the consequences of his boot-hubris.

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Spoiler: they’re not good.

Battleground was directed by William A. Wellman, who, devotees will remember, directed the very first Best Picture winner, Wings. The film dramatizes the events of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, wherein the 101st Airborne Division held the Belgian town for just over a week before being relieved by the Third Army under Patton. However, the film shows almost none of those “big” events, focusing entirely on the day-to-day lives and struggles of a single regiment as they try to cope with the weather (the Germans had worked out the timing of the offensive specifically for the bad weather that would prevent the Allies defending from the air), short supplies of food and matériel, and the constant threat of sneak attack from the dense, claustrophobic forest.

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Here they are, enjoying the “gags and glory” promised by the poster.

One of the things I really like about the movie’s structure is that, since it never leaves the soldiers’ sides, the audience experiences the same disorientation, uncertainty, and disappointments that they do. We open on the regiment as they are ready to ship out to Paris for some well-deserved R&R…only to be sent to a tiny Belgian town they’ve never heard of, told to defend it at all costs, and soon find themselves surrounded by an unseen, ghostly enemy hiding in the foggy woods. Along the way, sporadic and often confusing news trickles in, which often only serves to isolate the troops more…just like it did for the real 101st.

Unlike most of the propaganda films made during the war, in which the soldier characters were merely moving scenery through which Western audiences could cheer the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, Battleground does the opposite: the war itself, its causes and outcomes, and even its purpose are unimportant next to the lives and minds of the participants. With the benefit of hindsight (and victory), the film was able to portray the human gripes, foibles, and even cowardice that the soldiers faced, and show that these were not only perfectly normal, but perfectly alright. In the heat of battle, any faults are secondary, and are quickly forgotten…even for Khan himself.

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Years later, he would find Lt. Frank Drebin far less forgiving, but that’s another story.

Of course, as I said in the opening, the film is not morally ambiguous, nor does it resist the temptation for an upbeat ending, as we finish with all of the soldiers (the ones who survive, anyway) marching and singing in unison as fresh troops arrive to relieve them. The ending is reminiscent of that of Grand Hotel, as the protagonists leave and are replaced by new ones with just as many stories to tell. In the end, like La Grande Illusion before it, the film is hopeful without bathos, celebratory without propaganda, and tender without sacrificing objectivity. Nostalgia aside, it’s my favorite of the nominees.

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Twelve O’Clock High, like Battleground, is a war film that barely shows any war, and, again like Battleground, features a very odd poster that I’m certain could have been improved with a little less (or maybe a little more) drinking. The tagline definitely could have been workshopped a bit more, and the copywriters must have been kicking themselves eight years later when they couldn’t use it for the gay porn parody 12 Horny Men.

Film_591w_12AngryMen_original.jpgWhich was notable for reuniting all of the original cast.

Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High tells the story of a ragtag group of aviation misfits in the early days of American involvement in the war, the Eighth Bomber Command carrying out daytime precision strikes on Luftwaffe airfields and munitions factories from their base in Surrey, England. They are becoming undisciplined and careless, and it’s up to General Gregory Peck to whip them into shape. The unit is so undermanned and short of supplies that he is quickly forced to fly missions with them, improving their performance but earning himself some pretty severe PTSD in the process.

It’s an extremely well-made film, if a bit overlong (more on that later); the script is lean and the editing brisk, as befits a movie in this genre. We’ve seen quite a bit of Henry King amongst the Best Picture nominees–In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and The Song of Bernadette (1943)–and his strong eye for mise en scène serves the story well. One scene in particular is a masterclass in lighting, blocking, writing, and acting, a five-minute unbroken take of Peck mercilessly dressing down an errant officer. The fluid movements of both the camera and Gregory Peck raise and lower the tension perfectly.


Since this is a 1940s WWII movie, you’ve probably already guessed that, by the film’s end, this officer is the bravest, most capable pilot in the entire war.

As professionally made as the film is, it does run longer than it should, mainly because of an extended air battle sequence late in the film. The scene is partly comprised of actual aerial combat footage filmed by Allied and Luftwaffe planes during the war, though as far as I know they stopped short of having Gregory Peck fly missions (after all, the film was directed by Henry King, not Howard Hughes). However, the whole thing takes place well into the third act, and though I understand why it’s there, it feels jarring and out of place within the human drama we have been watching and which picks up again immediately afterwards. Because of this, I lost the tension and excitement of what should have been a pulse-pounding spectacle, which wouldn’t have happened if it took place earlier in the film’s runtime.

Although I enjoyed Twelve O’Clock High, and although it features great performances and more than a few classic scenes, I don’t think it succeeded in portraying the physical and mental toll of war as successfully as did Battleground. Aside from the opening scene, the tribulations of the men flying the missions are largely ignored, instead focusing on those of the General and his command staff. When the men are shown to be at their breaking point, the commanders–and, since we are seeing the men through their eyes, the film itself–treat them as cowards and slackers who need to be pushed even further, and this is never really resolved in the end. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that, while it may tax the emotional stability of the commanding officers, pushing soldiers beyond their limit is what makes them good soldiers.

876d4a0f81b04b7c788fdf30dfd27680--stanley-kubrick-movies-arliss-howard.jpgFuture war films would disagree.

The film very briefly makes a halfhearted attempt at a better moral late in the film, as the squadron’s studious adjutant, Major Stovall–whose flashbacks from present day England bookend the film–remarks that he has dreams of all the men of the unit who have died, and how their faces all blend together, “and it’s a very young face.” It’s a powerful, understated moment…which is immediately laughed away by Peck and the others present, who brush it off as maudlin ramblings brought on by whisky–which, the film makes clear, it is. When Peck does finally snap in the next scene, it gives a little bit of weight to Stovall’s words, but he snaps back pretty quickly, so not a lot.

On the whole, Twelve O’Clock High is a good film, if not a great one. Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role, though it was more of a “thanks for a great career” Oscar and for my money it should have been Ralph Richardson. In fact, aside from Battleground,  there’s only one film this year that I would describe as “great”…and I’ll be covering that, and the year’s winner, next week in Part II!

 

21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part II

(Part I.)

Before we get started, I should give honorable mention to a film that was not among the nominees this year: I Remember Mama, directed by George Stevens. With nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and two for Best Supporting Actress, it is one of four films in Oscar history to receive four acting nominations without a nod for Best Picture, the others being My Man Godfrey (1936), Othello (1965), and Doubt (2008). Perhaps tellingly, none of these films’ acting nominations was successful. Anyway…

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The last two films of 1948 went even further than the previous three in their exploration of obsession, isolation, and the tragedy of the human condition; the winner is generally thought to be the English language’s foremost authority on these subjects. But first, there was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the best cinematic depictions of greed ever filmed and certainly the most visually stunning (the runner-up would probably be 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which was strongly influenced by this film).

It tells the story of three gold prospectors who go off into the wilds of the Sierra Madre Occidental range in search of the prosperity that has eluded them all their lives. One of them confidently declares repeatedly that gold will not absolutely, definitely not turn him into a greedy, murderous madman, only to immediately turn into one almost before they even find any.

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Try to guess which one.

That ragtag trio of ne’er-do-wells are Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, and director John Huston’s father Walter (remember him from Dodsworth?) as a wizened, sagely prospector known only as Howard. Dobbs and Curtin are decent men who have fallen on hard times, and when they hear Howard’s tales of gold lying about waiting for them, they ignore his warnings of its malicious effect on the soul and strike out to make good.

Howard, of course, knows better, and Walter Huston is absolutely brilliant. He portrays Howard as old and wise, but his wisdom has come at a great cost, one only hinted at in his dialogue and actions. He is confident that the enterprise will end bloody, having seen it all before–perhaps even been driven to madness himself. Nevertheless he takes Dobbs and Curtin under his wing, resigned to his fate, but spurred on by a glimmer of hope that his cynicism will be proven wrong. And maybe, it’s because he sees Dobbs and Curtin as two sides of his younger, ambitious self. It’s a wonderful performance that justly trounced the competition for Best Supporting Actor.

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He’s just lucky Hedy Hedley Lamarr wasn’t in the running that year.

As I said, the greed sets in almost immediately after they find the gold, for the compelling narrative reason that filming on location in Mexico was really, really expensive. I’ve read a few analyses of the film, most of which conclude that Dobbs was already greedy and ready to go insane (kind of like Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining), but I think this is unfair to the realistic and compelling character created by Bogart and Huston. Dobbs certainly is prideful when the film opens, but Bogart plays him as generally moral and unaffected by materialism, a man of shallow tastes to be sure but only trying, by honest means, to get a little ahead.

A pivotal early scene shows Dobbs and Curtin confronting a swindler who cheated them out of an honest salary. After one of the most realistic barfights in movie history, Dobbs grabs the man’s wallet, stuffed with ill-gotten gains, and promptly takes only what is owed to him and Curtin, throwing the rest back in the man’s battered face. This is consistent with his earlier pledge to Howard that, if he did strike gold, he would take only what he set out to make and not gorge himself, and makes his later descent into madness and murder all the more tragic.

Eventually, of course, Dobbs (or “Dobbsie,” as he liked to be called) is consumed by avarice and meets a bloody end, as must befall all men unlucky enough to be movie antagonists during the Production Code era.

treasure2.png“If this were sixty years later, I’d be caving in your head with a bowling pin.”
“Well, it’s not.”

He ends up beheaded by bandits, the same ones who earlier told him they didn’t have to show him any stinking badges (by the way, the line is often misquoted, most notably in Blazing Saddles, as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”, when in fact it is, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”). The scene in the film is violent, to be sure, but very tame compared to what Huston wanted to show us (and did, in fact, shoot, though the footage is lost): a shot of Dobbs’ severed head rolling down the hill into the dirty water from which he’d just drank. Shockingly, the censors had a problem with it.

Tim Holt’s quiet turn as Curtin is generally overshadowed by the legendary performances turned in by Huston and Bogart, but he holds his own in every one of his scenes. Howard and Curtin quickly develop a father-son bond, and Curtin soon proves himself the most honorable of the three as he desperately tries to hold the rocky fellowship together, at least long enough to return to Durango in safety. He could easily be seen as the obligatory “good” character, a one-dimensional foil for Dobbs and Howard to react against, but Tim Holt manages to show us a real person who chooses morality, despite fully understanding the temptations to which Dobbs succumbs.

In the end, the gold is lost, and we’re treated to one of the best denouements I’ve seen in this enterprise, as Curtin and Howard share a genuine, emotional, and cathartic laugh about the universe’s dark sense of humor before going their separate ways, as poor as they were at the beginning, but richer in wisdom and friendship.

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I’m not sure I would be so happy to accept this over a lifetime of financial security and knowing where my next meal was coming from, but it’s still a nice moment.

I should also mention the minor character of James Cody, a man who shows up just long enough to bring tension to the film and is swiftly killed by bandits. However, he proves to be the moral center of the whole story, thanks to a letter from his wife the prospectors find on his person after his death. I won’t go into too much detail, as I feel this review is already getting long and I still have Hamlet to cover, so I’ll just say that this letter, read with real emotion by Curtin, in just a few minutes imbues this otherwise forgettable character with a rich, fulfilling life outside the story we’re watching, and makes his death one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve ever seen in a film. He is, simply put, the person that our three protagonists all wish they were, and if only for that moment makes them forget all about their gold.

From a technical standpoint, Treasure was the first American film shot on location in Mexico–with the exception of night scenes and some reshoots, the entire movie was filmed in and around Tampico and Durango, as well as the Sierra Madre range–and, quite simply, it looks gorgeous. Being a psychological drama, however, the film refrains from too many wide shots, preferring instead to emphasize the isolation and entrapment of the characters without too many establishing shots.

Walter Huston finally earned himself an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his alternately over-the-top and quietly philosophical portrayal of Howard. John Huston, who this year beat out Laurence Olivier for Best Director, would go on to direct his daughter, Anjelica Huston, to a Best Supporting Actress win for Prizzi’s Honor (1985). The Hustons, then, became the first three-generation Oscar family, and John Huston remains the only person to direct two family members to Oscar wins.

However, the real surprise at Oscar night this year came when they opened the envelope for Best Picture and found it went to…

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Full disclosure, I have never read Hamlet nor seen a serious performance of it. Until I watched Laurence Olivier’s version, my experience with what is regarded as one of the finest plays in the English language was: a rather shitty modern-day reboot performed by a local theatre troupe in Dearborn; the comedy stylings of The Reduced Shakespeare Company in London in 2007; a throwaway joke in A Shot in the Dark (1964); and, of course, The Lion King (1994).

The_Lion_King_II-Simba's_Pride_poster.jpgI wanted to write a joke caption about the direct-to-VHS sequel being an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but Wikipedia informed me that that’s actually true.

So, what with that rather embarrassing lack of context, I cannot comment on the many, many criticisms Olivier received from Shakespeare enthusiasts who were mortally offended by how much of the play he cut out to fit it into an acceptable film adaptation. I can only comment on the film per se, and damned if it’s not a perfectly distilled, beautifully photographed, and–of course–exquisitely acted rumination on grief and the human psyche. It was the second sound adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, and the first in English (the previous adaptation, the 1935 Hindi/Urdu film Khoon ka Khoon or Blood for Blood, shockingly failed to win any Oscars).

Olivier excised all of the political subplots and characters from the film and confined all of the action to the dimly-lit, cavernous, and often smoke-filled rooms and turrets of Elsinore Castle. We’re left with, in the words of Olivier’s opening voiceover, “the story of a man who could not make up his mind,” an austere portrait of suspicion, betrayal, and psychological unraveling. In many ways, the story of someone becoming increasingly unsure of what his mind perceives anticipated the paranoid thrillers that would dominate American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s.

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And none of those films was dark enough to have a character rap about mortality with a human skull.

As plots go, the film follows a pretty basic one: Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that he (his father) was murdered, and that Hamlet must avenge him. Through a cunning combination of feigned-then-real madness and soliloquies, he exacts the requested revenge, but at a greater cost than he anticipated (typical of costs). Along the way, there’s a lot of death, but also a lot of laughter, mostly from Peter Cushing‘s deliciously campy portrayal of Osric.

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“That’s…great, Peter. Do you want to maybe try it with a different costume?”
“…’Costume’?”

Hamlet is started on his quest by the appearance of his father’s ghost, who has the good manners and foresight to appear to other witnesses who can corroborate his existence in the likely event that no one believes Hamlet’s claims. He helpfully tells Hamlet things about his murder that are objectively true, so when Hamlet does go off in search of vengeance, we don’t have much reason to doubt his righteousness. I think it goes a bit deeper than that, though.

Elsinore itself is a character in the film, and as Hamlet wanders its labyrinthian halls, both he and the audience find themselves trapped in its cold, oppressive confines. It’s a giant metaphor for Hamlet’s mind that lends a wonderfully distorted ambiguity to the entire film and leaves one questioning how much of what we see is real. Many of the scene transitions are slow, methodical pans and tilts through the empty halls, gradually becoming more and more frantic as Hamlet’s mental state deteriorates. So in the end, I was left wondering if I had just seen a character avenging his father’s murder, or a quintuple-homicide through the eyes of a deluded maniac driven insane by grief.

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“I’m fine. This is normal.”

Either way, the film was unambiguously praised in two areas: the performances and the direction, both courtesy of Laurence Olivier. As I said when discussing Henry V back in 1946, Olivier had the rare gift of understanding and interpreting the bard both as a director and as an actor, and he manages to keep his production balanced on the delicate tightrope between Shakespearean grandiloquence and sombre realism. Under his meticulous eye, no word is superfluous and every look, gesture, and action is perfectly staged and delivered. And, just as in Henry V, he is simply masterful in his use of the camera as storyteller.


The film would deserve Best Picture for this scene alone.

Of course, as is the case in all of his films that don’t co-star Joan Fontaine, Olivier stands miles above his co-stars and delivers one of his greatest performances in a career that pretty much only includes great performances (though he himself considered John Gielgud to be the century’s greatest Hamlet). Even in the aforementioned graveyard scene, he is so mesmerizing that you don’t even think about how freaking weird it is for a person to pick up a skull and start talking to it.

His Hamlet is brooding, dark, and more than a little dickish, and yet he still has moments–particularly later in the film, as he starts to believe his schemes will succeed–of boyish charm and humor, especially in his interactions with his mother, Gertrude. Their somewhat odd relationship drives the film, as he watches his uncle take the place that he–in true, then-trendy Freudian fashion–thinks of as his. And to make sure audiences got it, Olivier cranked the Oedipal undertones up to eleven by casting the role with Eileen Herlie, who was 11 years younger than he.

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“Hm, cut the bodice a bit lower.” “Um, it’s already pretty l–” “FOR ART.”

For his efforts, Olivier became the first person to direct himself to an acting Oscar–only one other has done it since: Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (1998)–and Hamlet shocked the pundits by winning the top prize at the 21st Academy Awards. It was the last film to win Best Picture without a screenwriting nomination until The Sound of Music (1965), probably passed over due to the fact that, despite the adaptation that went into trimming it to two-and-a-half hours, the surviving scenes retain the dialogue from Shakespeare pretty much exactly as written. However, he was denied Best Director, which went to John Huston. Much as I just heaped praise on his work on Hamlet, I can’t say I disagree with the Academy’s decision.

So, in a very strong year, did it deserve Best Picture over the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra MadreJohnny Belinda, and The Red Shoes? (The Snake Pit, while great, is not in the same class as these four.) As I said at the beginning of Part I, the Academy’s choices in 1948 were uncommonly consistent in terms of themes and preoccupations, and in comparing the films based on this, and their artistic merit, I would say they got it exactly right. Hamlet is, to my mind, a nearly perfect encapsulation of the trials of isolation and obsession, and Olivier’s innate understanding of the language of film both in front of and behind the camera made it possible.

I happen to agree with all the top choices this year, in fact. John Huston deserved his win for Best Director (and Best Screenplay); he wove a beautiful, humanist tale and brought out three truly remarkable performances. Given Humphrey Bogart’s (inexcusable) absence from the list of Best Actor nominees, Olivier was the only real choice in that category; Jane Wyman’s wordless turn as Belinda MacDonald was captivating; Walter Huston was sublime as the grizzled-yet-tender Howard, again the only just winner in his category; and even though I didn’t cover this film, Claire Trevor was definitely Oscar-worthy in her supporting role in Key Largo (which was also directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart).

So, the Academy got it all right in 1948, not just in the winners, but in the films they chose to nominate! Not since the 3rd Academy Awards have I said that…and they immediately disappointed me one year later. We’ll see if they can keep it going longer as we move into the 1950s! Stay tuned for the 22nd Academy Awards.