Double Indemnity fails to win Best Picture in 1944.
It would help to get inside the Academy’s mindset in early 1945 in order to try and comprehend why one of the greatest of all crime dramas lost Best Picture to the relentlessly cheery and sentimental Going My Way.
It was early 1945 and World War II was near its end. The Academy, wishing to send an “uplifting” message to the world, chose the movie about two Irish Catholic priests trying to save their parish instead of the film about an adulterous and murderous couple killing the woman’s husband for the policy benefits. What’s not wholesome about the entrepreneurial spirit? That’s as powerful an illustration of the human spirit as teaching some incorrigible boys to sing, isn’t it? You mean it isn’t?
The single greatest Oscar travesty of the Golden Age is Going My Way 's Best Picture victory over Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The latter is the first truly brilliant Film Noir and the first time the writer-director gave the movie going audience a glimpse of his greatness. Never again would Wilder be as chilling or ruthless (that includes 1951’s Ace in the Hole) without the trademark Wilder humor. The very title “Double Indemnity” forever changed an insurance policy term into thought-association trigger words for cold-blooded murder.
The primary reason Double Indemnity didn’t win is because the story and characters are just so unappealing! The sweaty-lipped Fred MacMurray-as Walter Neff is the epitome of slime and Barbara Stanwyck is the definitive Black Widow, Phyllis Dietrichson.
Another reason why it lost was no doubt due to the popularity of Bing Crosby, whose multimedia power was second to none during the ‘30s and ‘40s. It's also worth noting that the tenor of those times helped the Crosby vehicle win scads of awards, so it’s no wonder Going My Way emerged as the Best Picture winner. However, in retrospect, Going My Way represents the toothless and overly-sentimental type of movie that gives classic film a bad name. Noir, on the other hand, has emerged as all that is stylish about great cinema. Double Indemnity is a work of art. The cinematography, music, set direction, and especially its dialogue serve to create the perfect cinematic environment, whereas Going My Way looks like a series of indoor sets. Double Indemnity creates a vivid Los Angeles of the mind. If the stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler (co-author of the screenplay), and Double Indemnity's author, James M. Cain could come to life in our most vivid imaginings, they would look exactly like Double Indemnity. The film’s atmosphere is smothering in its oppressiveness. Every flickering frame of this movie is sinister, and evil. Only the mighty presence of Edward G. Robinson emerges from the dreariness. The film is leagues ahead of the other Best Picture nominees:
Gaslight- Gothic psychological thriller that was the second-best movie of the five films nominated. Going My Way- That Barry Fitzgerald movie. Since You Went Away- Sentimental and mawkish to the extreme, though the ending is guaranteed to produce a couple of tears. Wilson- Heavily sanitized biopic of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; the kind of movie “designed” to win Oscars.
When watching these five films, I can’t help but think how of their time the other four are, but Double Indemnity is like some undying evil that only grows in stature with each subsequent viewing. As many times as I’ve seen it, the murder scene still has the ability to produce unbearable tension. Billy Wilder’s first bona fide masterpiece had no business losing to those other efforts by directors whose best work was in the previous decade. McCarey peaked with The Awful Truth, and Cukor with The Philadelphia Story. The other two, John Cromwell of Since You Went Away and Henry King of Wilson, were essentially competent, but journeymen directors; though to be fair, King had a couple of good efforts left in him in the 1940s yet his work comes nowhere near that of Wilder’s, largely regarded as the best writer-director of all time, which subsequent Oscar award ceremonies would prove; just not in 1944, when the Academy should’ve recognized how special a talent he was.