Students of Hollywood know the origin of the Academy Awards was in part to allow a small group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to give each other accolades at a gala affair within (or at the edges of) a culture that had excluded them from many facets of WASP privilege. Instead, these driven men had worked in the tawdry world of business, going from peddlers to salesmen to Nickelodeon owners and then, when it became clear that Edison owned the east coast, out west to found Hollywood, an alternate American dreamland where Jews could play at every country club, own posh estates in Beverly Hills, and make movies, mass entertainment that was deemed a trite, lesser art. It wouldn’t be until the Miracle Decision of 1952 that Hollywood saw both the end of the iron grip of the self-imposed but rigidly Catholic (e.g. anti-sex and antisemitic) Motion Picture Code and the identification of film as a legitimate art form. Far earlier (before the Code even) came the Academy Awards. Here films that lauded WASP values but allowed Jews (albeit with names often changed) to earn prizes, including awards both given and received by the predominantly Jewish producers of Hollywood.
Awards could be given to films that addressed antisemitism, such as 1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement and same-year nominee Crossfire. Yet, the larger goal was the championing of a role in which ethnicity and religion didn’t matter. (Race, by contrast, still would and does to the present day, of course.) In short, Hollywood and its awards played a key role in the construction of whiteness.
Film noir, with all of its war-era and postwar bleakness, threatened this vision of the American Dream. The original Hollywood cycle (which I’ll date for the sake of this post as many critics do, from about 1940 to 1958’s Touch of Evil) spans the formal implementation of the Nazi “Final Solution” and Japanese American internment through the Cold War and the launching of Sputnik, bringing the beginning of the space race. In other words, from the deadly heights of xenophobia and the blurring of borders between allies and enemies to cultural changes in gender and class roles, noir was born. And though it was wildly popular, the noir mood was often at odds with what Hollywood wanted to claim about itself and its nation for some time.
Four noir or noirish films did earn awards for Motion Picture (“Outstanding Motion Picture” from 1941-43 and “Best Motion Picture” from 44-61), but at least three of these stand in many ways as exceptions to what would become noir “rules.” Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is above all a Gothic romance that ends relatively happily for its central couple. We can make arguments about “the first Mrs. De Winter” as a femme fatale and Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) as her surrogate, but neither the plot nor setting and cinematography suggest what noir would soon become. Casablanca, the 1943 winner, has the dark bleakness of noir during the war era shot through it. And yet, it can as easily be classified as a melodrama with war film overtones. 1945 gave the award to The Lost Weekend, a dark drama about an alcoholic. To me, it’s more a landmark alcoholism film than a noir, but it does show Hollywood interest the dark side of the American family and the self. Then there is All the King’s Men, about the rise and fall of a corrupt politician, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. 11 Oscar wins and a bunch of Golden Globes speak to how well the film was crafted and how much people were ready for the story of Huey Long, however fictionalized. To me, this is more cinema vérité than noir in style, and so it wasn’t until writing this that I even thought of All the King’s Men as noir. In any case, we do see here that Hollywood’s noir winners weren’t quintessential examples of what has, in retrospect, become seen as typifying of the style/cycle/genre.
So what about “real” noir Oscars?
Below I’ll share some of the near-misses and omissions for the meeting of film noir and the Academy Awards. There’s much more to say, of course, including discussion of awards other than Motion Picture, including Best Actor and Actress, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, and Score. Maybe I’ll address some of these in a future post. For now, I present the lists of winners (in bold), noir nominees (in italics), and noir omissions (plain font), along with my thoughts about those omissions.
- How Green Was My Valley
- The Maltese Falcon
It’s great to see two noirs nominated here, and its understandable that a nostalgic and sentimental picture took the trophy as America watched the war unfold and debated its responsibilities. That said, I think Falcon was strong and unique enough to have taken the prize, and I don’t feel any other noirs, such as I Wake Up Screaming, were good enough to have displaced other nominees, such as The Little Foxes. (One can more persuasively argue that nominee Citizen Kane was the film that should’ve won altogether.)
- Mrs. Miniver
- This Gun for Hire
For 1942, I get why war-themed romance Mrs. Miniver won, though I’m more a fan of nominee The Magnificent Ambersons. I note This Gun for Hire mostly for its early noir status, though I don’t really find it particularly Oscar-worthy. Similarly, I’ve tossed in Moontide as a sadly forgotten delight starring Jean Gabin and Ida Lupino at their most endearing. (Does The Glass Key belong here? I can’t say as I haven’t seen it, though it is noir, based on a Dashiell Hammett novel.)
- Shadow of a Doubt
- Hangmen Also Die
I’m certain that Shadow of a Doubt and Hangmen Also Die should’ve been nominated, but they would still have to yield to the greatness of Casablanca in the end. Nonetheless, I’m confident when I state that both noirs should have been nominated over The More the Merrier and the Mickey Rooney vehicle The Human Comedy.
- Going My Way
- Double Indemnity
- Murder, My Sweet
- Curse of the Cat People
1944 was a great year for noir, and a real steal for Bing Crosby and the great American musical. Sure, Going My Way was the highest-grossing picture of its year and it made Crosby the biggest box-office draw for the year, but 10 nominations and 7 wins? I do enjoy musicals, but I’d argue Gaslight was a far better picture (again a Gothic noir, like Rebecca) and Double Indemnity, despite its arguable flaws, was more original anything nominated for the year. Then there are the slights, with Laura being the most egregious. Do you really want to tell me that the Technicolor biopic Wilson starring Charles Coburn could even then hold a candle to the evocative mood, style, and mystery of Laura?
- The Lost Weekend
- Mildred Pierce
- Scarlet Street
Even if you’re not a fan of Joan Crawford, you’ve got to love Mildred Pierce for its determined grit as a noir take on the woman’s film, so I’m glad to see it nominated, along with Spellbound, in which Gregory Peck has never been as vulnerably appealing, especially playing opposite one of my favorite actresses, in or out of noir, Ingrid Bergman. Whether or not I would call The Lost Weekend noir, as discussed above, it’s impressive that of the five nominated films, three can be called noir and only two nominations that year went to lighter fare, including the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra musical comedy Anchors Aweigh and the optimistic, plucky Bells of St. Mary’s, also starring Ingrid Bergman but this time as a nun, opposite good-old Bing Crosby. The only noir I’d argue as an addition to the list is Scarlet Street, a Fritz Lang-directed noir remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, that feels like a fantastic B flick with an A budget. (See my Face-off post comparing the two versions, if you’re interested.)
- The Best Years of Our Lives
- The Big Sleep
- The Postman Always Rings Twice
- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
- The Killers
What the hell, 1946? Immediately after the end of WWII, audiences were willing to engage with the struggles of the day (getting “the boys” home and putting them back to work and women back in the home — not including women of color or poor and immigrant women, of course), but not the filthy underside of post-war America. So, I guess it’s not surprising that The Best Years of Our Lives took the self-congratulatory Oscar and It’s a Wonderful Life was also nominated, offering warm fuzzies that have grown ever warmer over the years (bleh). The zinger for noir fans is just how many great noir films could have been nominated but weren’t. Topping the list for me is Gilda, despite its forced happy ending, and The Big Sleep. But the sheer number of noirs ignored is rather shocking.
- Gentleman’s Agreement
- Out of the Past
- Body and Soul
- Nightmare Alley
- A Double Life
- Born to Kill
- Brute Force
1947 was as big a year for noir as 1946, but you wouldn’t know it, once again, by the nominations for Best Motion Picture. I’m not a fan of Gentleman’s Agreement, which argues that Jews are just like “everyone else.” Equality and justice are vital for all, but sameness isn’t. But that’s the Hollywood message I discussed at the beginning of this post, so I can understand entirely why this took the Oscar. Crossfire is another “important” film on antisemitism, and it’s also noir, so I’m happy to see it was nominated. Interesting to me is that the Jewish character in the film was gay in the 1945 Richard Brooks’ novel on which the film is based. (Brooks, born Reuben Sax, was a screenwriter and director of such films as Blackboard Jungle (1955); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958); Elmer Gantry (1960); and In Cold Blood (1967).) That said, some stark and brilliant other films were being made the same year, and, once again, I’d drop films like The Bishop’s Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and Great Expectations (the other three nominees) for Body and Soul, Out of the Past, or most of the others listed above without a moment’s regret.
- Key Largo
- Force of Evil
While nominee The Red Shoes might ultimately be a more important film historically than Olivier’s Shakespeare, and though The Snake Pit and Treasure of the Sierra Madre were intense and surprising cinematic adventures, I miss miss the strong noir films ignored by the Academy in 1948.
- All the Kings Men
- They Live By Night
- White Heat
- Gun Grazy
As I noted above, I don’t really think of All the Kings Men as noir, anymore than I do Citizen Kane. So I see 1949 as another year that ignored noir, unless you consider A Letter to Three Wives as noirish. Wouldn’t it have been wild to see Gun Crazy among the nominees?
- All About Eve
- Sunset Boulevard
- Asphalt Jungle
- The Third Man
- Night and the City
- In a Lonely Place
- No Way Out
What a year! From heists and charismatic criminals to race riots and violent screenwriters, noir was in high gear in 1950, even if only Sunset Boulevard got Academy recognition. I’d never argue against All About Eve or bump Born Yesterday from the list, but Father of the Bride and King Solomon’s Mines don’t hold up to their multiple noir competitors as far as I’m concerned.
- An American in Paris
- Strangers on a Train
With Gene Kelly dancing his heart out in Paris and Marlon Brando yelling in a sweaty wifebeater in New Orleans (Streetcar Named Desire), there was no chance for noir taking the prize in 1951. The only real contender, to my mind, is Strangers on a Train, a glaring omission as the most noirish of all Hitchcock’s thrillers and one of his very best films.
- The Greatest Show on Earth
By 1952, there’s not as much noir as before, and no big omissions I can see. For me, the big issue of this year is The Greatest Show taking the prize away from High Noon, itself almost a noir western and so memorable in so many ways, from its challenge to western tropes to the character of Mrs. Ramirez (Katy Jurado), as a western-style femme fatale of color who turns out to be the strongest character in the film.
- From Here to Eternity
- The Big Heat
The big omission is The Big Heat. I’d be fine substituting it for nominees Roman Holiday or Julius Caesar. Take your pick.
- On the Waterfront
Like 1952, there’s not much I’d insist was a major oversight, so I’m fine giving it to the Brando vehicle, and I don’t see such fare as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Three Coins in the Fountain as significant competitors.
- The Big Combo
- Kiss Me Deadly
- Night of the Hunter
1955 was year of surprising noir resurgence, and it’s a shame none of the above were nominated. The Big Combo is one of my favorites, a brilliant portrayal of trope fatigue, featuring the noirest of noir cinematography, a perverse, sadistic villain played by an actor who more often starred as noir protagonist (Richard Conte), a pair of gay hitmen, and no femme fatale but a moll so washed out that her hair won’t even curl. Kiss Me Deadly took another route to noir fatigue as our brutal antihero searches for “the great whatsit” and ends with more bang for the buck than he bargained for. Finally, there is Night of the Hunter, a failure in its time but a truly unique piece of art. Love it or loathe it, Mitchum’s villain, Winters’ underwater shot, and Gish’s way with a gun are unforgettable. If I had my choice of what was nominated, however, it’d be The Rose Tattoo all the way.
- Around the World in 80 Days
- The Killing
Honestly, I got nothing for this year. I’m not a huge fan of The Killing, but it’s a noirish heist and worthy of attention. It’s up against huge blockbuster productions like Giant, The King and I, and The Ten Commandments, not to mention Around the World in 80 Days — and frankly I’d rather not mention it.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai
- Sweet Smell of Success
Noir was mostly out of fashion by 1957, and while some readers may think 12 Angry Men or Witness for the Prosecution should have won for Best Picture, I can certainly see why Bridge took the prize. But Sweet Smell of Success was certainly worthy of consideration, especially over nominee Peyton Place.
- The Defiant Ones
- Touch of Evil
While I haven’t read much about The Defiant Ones as noir, it is a crime film and closer than such award-worthy nominees as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and such comedic delights as Auntie Mame. And if 1958 is the end of the original cycle, then it surely went out with two powerful, if underappreciated punches: Welles’ Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Their omission says much about changing tastes and undervalued auteurs.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. I welcome your notes on my omissions, your own tastes, and how well you feel Hollywood valued what we now know to be the central original American film genre of the war and post-war era: film noir.