Double Indemnity: Billy Wilder's brilliant film noir has insurance man Fred MacMurray taking up with housewife Barbara Stanwyck and plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money.
Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, from James Cain's book. Cain reportedly thought the screenplay was stronger than his book, high praise indeed. The dialogue crackles, and Wilder gets terrific performances from his stars -- MacMurray, who was never better; Stanwyck, who was reticent to take the role before Wilder challenged her by questioning whether she was a good enough actress; and Edward G. Robinson, great as the insurance honcho who smells a rat. In terms of the Oscars, the only shame is that MacMurray wasn't nominated for best actor. He certainly deserved it -- but a freak loophole in the voting may have been the culprit (see "Going My Way" below).
Gaslight: MGM's drama/thriller stars Ingrid Bergman as a Victorian-era wife who is slowly going mad, unaware that it may not be her fault. It's a glossy affair, lushly appointed in the usual MGM way, and director George Cukor capably directs.
Although I like the film, I always felt it was a bit obvious, with no subtlety to many of the characters -- they are either good or bad. Bergman's level of intensity seems to be a few notches above everyone else's, although Angela Lansbury is fine in her film debut as a cockney maid, and as a result she landed her first Oscar nomination.
Going My Way: This gentle, episodic film about a new priest being sent to an aging church was the equivalent of comfort food for war-weary 1944 audiences. It was the #1 box office hit of the year and it had Bing Crosby, the country's #1 singer, performing "Swinging on a Star," which would become a monster #1 hit. That's a lot of #1's.
The interplay between Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, the parish's aging priest, is priceless. Fitzgerald's performance was so well-liked that it was a cinch he'd receive an Oscar nomination. But in which category? Well, he received enough votes to place him in both lead and supporting, which was a real headscratcher. The Academy rules were rewritten to prevent this from happening again, but the nominations remained, and his lead nod probably knocked out Fred MacMurray for "Double Indemnity."
Perhaps this film oversimplifies life at home and went for emotion rather than realism, but the production hit all of the right notes, with a fine cast, many memorable scenes and a lovely score from Max Steiner. Selznick obviously knew what he was doing, as this film was one of the year's top moneymakers behind "Going My Way."
Wilson: Producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox was obsessed with this historical biography of President Woodrow Wilson. He felt it was the best movie he ever made, and he poured millions into its making, going for historical accuracy and unafraid to tackle political issues.
He succeeded in making a fine movie, and Alexander Knox nails the title role. However, while the critics praised the movie, the public was less enthusiastic, and Zanuck's dream project lost money.
So why were these five films nominated? It's a combination of many factors, and I can only guess at the reasons: the runaway popularity of "Going My Way," the popularity of "Since You Went Away" coupled with Selznick's ability to sell himself and his film, Zanuck's respected position in Hollywood and his power to influence voters into backing his pet project, the overall excellence of "Double Indemnity," and MGM's powerful push for its Oscar-bait drama.
But if I was nominating five movies today, what would they be? Hindsight always provides perspective and it helps you get over Academy biases. For example, "Meet Me in St. Louis" was also a big moneymaker in 1944, but it failed to get a nomination, partly because MGM was pushing "Gaslight" and partly because the Academy overlooked most musicals. It's intriguing that the very next year the popular "Anchors Aweigh" made it into the best picture lineup, almost as if to say "Whoops! Sorry about overlooking 'St. Louis!' "
If I was selecting five top films from 1944 -- a very difficult task -- I would go with the following, a mixture of excellence and personal favorites: "Double Indemnity," "Laura," "Lifeboat," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Since You Went Away."
But that's just me. What do you think? If you had to pick five nominees, what would you select? Leave me a comment listing your top five.
Then, take the Oscar poll. I'm putting up my list of 10 -- the five actual nominees and the five additional nominees from my last column. On Sunday, March 7, I'll review what film I would select as the best from 1944.