Nolte: What Should’ve Won the Best Picture Oscar – 1940 to 1949

UNSPECIFIED - 1941: Photo of Humphrey Bogart in 'The Maltese Falcon'. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In part three of this series, we look at the movies that should have won the Best Picture Oscar between 1940 and 1949.

Let’s begin…


  • What Did Win: Rebecca

While director Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar, his first American film did win a Best Picture Oscar and launched a career that would ride success after success right into the ’70s, including on television.

Rebecca is remembered today as something of a stiff. Well, it’s not. What we have here is a masterpiece of mood and mystery anchored by a breathtaking performance from Joan Fontaine, in her first starring role.

If you give this one a chance, if you shut off the lights and turn off your phone, Rebecca will transport and thrill.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Grapes of Wrath

John Ford’s stunning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel has lost none of its power. The director (who won his second of a still-record four Best Director Oscars) brilliantly shaped Steinbeck’s dark work into something all his own: the story of a family that will never give up on themselves or the future.



  • What Did Win: How Green Was My Valley

Ford won his second Best Director Oscar in a row with this lovely and enduring story about a Welsh coal mining family facing the end of their way of life at the hands of the inevitable march of time. My personal #124.

As much as I admire Valley, time has proven The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and Citizen Kane (#129) to be superior titles.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Maltese Falcon

Depending on the day you ask, I could award the Oscar to both Sergeant York and Citizen Kane. Today, though, feels like a Maltese Falcon kind of day. John Huston’s directorial debut set the tone for hard-boiled detective films for the next eight decades and serves up a dream cast of Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond, Barton MacLane, Elisha Cook Jr., and Huston’s own father, Walter, in a small role.

The dialogue, the relationships, the mystery and mood, along with Bogie’s final decision, all remain iconic.



  • What Did Win: Miniver

A still beautiful and affecting film about a rural English family determined to survive the war. A movie about faith, family, and loss that sticks with you long after the lights go up.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Magnificent Ambersons

To the end of his life, director Orson Welles (who also narrates) complained about the studio hacking his second movie to pieces. Well, whatever they did, it works. A stunning work of art from Welles, gorgeously shot and edited with superb performances.

I’m not a member of the Welles’ cult. In fact, I think his later works, other than Touch of Evil, are a bit of a slog. Ambersons, however, is every bit the movie Citizen Kane is, and in some ways better.



  • What Did Win: Casablanca

What we have here is pure studio magic that only improves with age; something insanely rewatchable and filled with unforgettable characters and dialogue.

  • What Should’ve Won: Casablanca




  • What Did Win: Going My Way

Few things are as iconic as Bing Crosby and Christmas and Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. Going My Way offers both and was a major blockbuster hit in its day. Nearly 80 years later it still enchants, although it does feel about 15 minutes too long.

  • What Should’ve Won: Double Indemnity

Billy Wilder directs Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray to immortality in this gripping tale of murder, sex, and betrayal. Not to be missed.



  • What Did Win: The Lost Weekend

As if to make up for the Academy’s Double Indemnity mistake, director Billy Wilder won Best Picture and Best Director with this now rather creaky tale of alcoholism.

  • What Should’ve Won: Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford won a long overdue Oscar in this timeless adaptation of James M. Cain’s potboiler about a mother who sacrifices everything for a spoiled daughter. A perfect melodrama that improves with each viewing.



  • What Did Win: The Best Years of Our Lives

Legendary independent producer Samuel Goldwyn finally won his Oscar for this unflinching look at the much-changed world our veterans returned to after saving that same world from German fascism and Japanese imperialism.

Goldwyn understood the power of movies and utilized that power to help the public understand that every American has a responsibility to the transition for those who protect our way of life.

A movie filled with heart, heartbreak, hope, and unforgettable performances.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Best Years of Our Lives

Even during a year that delivered It’s a Wonderful Life, The Jolson Story, The Razor’s Edge, The Big Sleep, My Darling Clementine, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Song of the South, and The Yearling, it’s hard to argue Oscar didn’t make the correct choice.



  • What Did Win: Gentleman’s Agreement

A perfectly agreeable piece of issue-filmmaking examining the ugly underworld of American antisemitism., but were it not for the presence of The Mighty John Garfield, I wouldn’t even rank it as “agreeable.”

  • What Should’ve Won: Nightmare Alley

A stunner of a tale where Tyrone Power proves he was much more than a pretty face as an unscrupulous carnival worker willing to do anything to make something of himself.

What an ending.



  • What Did Win: Hamlet

Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play has largely been forgotten. All I remember about it is a lot of talking.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

John Huston directed himself to Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars — and his father Walter to a Best Supporting Actor trophy — in this timeless adventure story about the poison of greed. Humphrey Bogart is nothing short of a knock-out and should have taken home his own Little Gold Man.

Overlooking Sierra Madre for Best Picture is, in my opinion, one of Oscar’s most embarrassing flubs.



  • What Did Win: All the King’s Men

A timeless story of political and media corruption anchored by Broderick Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance.

  • What Should’ve Won: Battleground

Part of me wants to cheat and declare 1949 a three-way tie between Battleground, On the Town, and White Heat.

Today I’m choosing William Wellman’s World War II stunner about a regiment facing the Battle of the Bulge all alone in a lilting fog that is part dream and part nightmare. Battleground has never received its due, probably because it was so far ahead of its time, but it’s an all-timer, practically an art film, and one no one should miss.

Tune in tomorrow for the years 1950 to 1959.

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