The best movies by decade, part 3: The 1950s.

26 Jun

The war years dead-ended into the House hearings on Un-American Activities, the great schism of Hollywood. The impact of the hearings was profound, reverberating throughout the community (as well as the films Hollywood produced) for years. Postwar decadence set in, and the early seeds of discontent began to flower. Our cities were full of single men—it was the last era of bachelors—and with single men came late night pool halls, bars, gambling, prostitution, murder. And if the best films of the 1950s are still about crime, they also begin to deal with justice. The foreign film became a source of puzzlement to some, joy to others. The 1950s were a great time for musicals, westerns and crime pictures, but each genre was seeing its own end. Finally, the enormity of the atom bomb seeped into the popular consciousness; humanity was now capable, with the pressing of a few buttons, of destroying the world.

1. Seven Samurai—A film that encapsulates the entirety of human experience. A beleaguered village, beset by rampaging bandits, hire seven masterless samurai to protect them. The film starts slow, as the samurai are gathered together, but the last hour has the greatest battle scenes ever put to celluloid. Kurosawa utilizes his regulars, including Toshiro Mifume and Takashi Shimura. The film holds within it the spectrum of human existence: love, longing, fear, hatred, jealousy, rage, greed, lust and death. Kurosawa had an incredible career, with a few significant misfires, but his patience and mastery over the form are undeniable. If we’re lucky, the movie by which humanity will be measured.

2. Vertigo/Touch of Evil—Hitchcock’s most beautiful film is also his most disturbing. Murder, obsession, perversity and fear—Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on full display. Stewart is at his best playing a private eye with a fear of heights hired to follow the wife of a wealthy man. The wife (played by Kim Novak) seems to be possessed by a long dead woman. As Stewart watches her wind her way through her daily routines, he begins to fall in love. It’s too late for love, however, and soon Novak is dead. The second half of the film focuses on Stewart’s obsessive recreation of the woman he’s lost. (And bears resemblance to Hitchcock’s own preference for blond-haired actresses: Tipi Hedren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, and so on.) His performance is astonishing, and by film’s end he’s transformed into a growling, wild-eyed creature. The fact that he knows he’s right does not change his destructive obsessions, it only validates his baser nature. Touch of Evil: Dirty deeds in shabby border towns, and further proof of Orson Welles’s eccentricity. Charlton Heston plays a Mexican cop, newly married to American Janet Leigh. When a car bomb goes off that almost kills them both, Heston is brought into the case run by corrupt fattie Hank Quinlan. Heston catches Quinlan planting evidence, and the two cops begin to scheme against the other. The camera swoops and dips and zips into ragged close ups. Dennis Weaver jitters his way through a very strange performance as a motel clerk, and Marlene Dietrich delivers an incredible performance as a stoic, defeated fortuneteller devoted to ruined men. Right at the end, one of my favorite lines: “He was a great detective, but a lousy cop.” The best B-movie ever made.

3. Wild Strawberries/The Seventh Seal—Ingmar Bergman explodes onto the international scene with two of his best films. Wild Strawberries has its roots in harsh, realistic theatre; I think of Ibsen and Strindberg. The story follows Borg, a cold-hearted professor, at the end of his career, traveling to receive end of career accolades.  Along the way he meets family, friends and strangers. The film follows the minor characters through emotional epiphanies, as well as Borg’s confrontation with a life he begins to believe has been meaningless. It sounds stuffy and boring, but it’s not. Instead it’s a puffed up version of a hard-lived life, and an astonishing meditation on regret. Seventh Seal is earthier, more fantastical, and fun to watch. Max Von Sydow plays a knight returning home from the crusades, where he meets death on a beach. It is his time, but he isn’t ready, so he challenges death to a game of chess. As they play, in barns, bars, churches and fields, the knight and his growing entourage travel across a surreal countryside. There’s a subplot involving circus performers that hasn’t dated well, but the bulk of the film is hypnotic, bewitching and essential. Bergman seems to have sprung out of a cinematic history of his own devising.

4. Some Like it Hot/Sabrina—The best of its kind, and a comedy that doesn’t seem to age. Two musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and hide out with an all-girls’ band. The drag jokes are fine, the double entendres hilarious. The movie is a compendium of memorial lines: “If I were a girl, and I am!” “I used to travel with a male orchestra, but it got too expensive.” And so on. Marvelous. Sabrina: The best romantic comedy of the decade, with a fantastic script. Two brothers, played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, vie for the romantic attentions of the daughter of the family chauffeur. The gawky daughter leaves to study cooking in Paris, and returns a swan (played by Audrey Hepburn). Think Mad Men with more jokes, and better acting. At turns scathing, delicate, slapstick and heartfelt, this is a great introduction into old films for non-movie fans.

5. Sweet Smell of Success/On the Waterfront—My favorite noir, my favorite performance by Burt Lancaster, and a surging study of ambition, greed, and moral decay. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, an unscrupulous press agent who is being frozen out by the number one gossip columnist in New York, J.J. Hunsecker (based on Walter Winchell). Hunsecker gives Falco an ultimatum: break up his sister’s relationship with a local jazz guitarist or never get mentioned in his column again. Falco jokes, intimidates, pulls favors, lies and cheats and steals his way through a long weekend, at times conniving, sniveling, groveling and triumphant. Tony Curtis gives the performance of his career—along with his Cary Grant impression in Some Like it Hot. As an aside, it’s this movie that strange kid in Diner keeps quoting. Waterfront: Kazan’s best movie, and it’s because Budd Schulberg wrote the script. The story of dockworkers, unions, sibling betrayal and the stand-up priest is well known, as is Brando’s improvisational acting. He plays Terry Malloy, a busted out boxer with nothing meaningful in his life but his gangster brother and his pigeons. He’s soon an unwilling accessory to murder, and at the center of a battle between a corrupt union and the dockworkers who just want to work. Kazan loads up his arguments, but the movie is good, really good. Lee J. Cobb, one of my favorite actors, Rod Steiger, Eve Marie Saint and Karl Malden co-star.

6. Singin’ in the Rain—The best musical with the best songs and the best dancing. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds star in this song and dance version about silent movie actors, and an entire industry, adapting to the new technology of synched sound. The fabulous Cyd Charisse taps and sashays her way through the silent dancing sequence in the middle of the film. Kelly co-directs with Stanley Donen. Sometimes a movie can be about beauty and fun and that’s just fine. Can be watched again and again.

7. The 400 Blows—Truffaut’s first and best film, the one he will be remembered by, and the one he never measured up to again.  Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego, endures the trials and tribulations of childhood. Doinel is sensitive, serious, and misunderstood, but he suffers from neglect. Adults don’t seem to see him unless he breaks their rules, and his episodes of petty crime offer the only joys in his isolated, lonely existence. The movie is warm and funny without being sentimental, which is very hard to do, and it inhabits the child’s point of view better than any film before or after.

8. Paths of Glory—The best movie about soldiers and generals and war. A French attack on a German trench goes wrong, and the French generals demand that three soldiers be tried for cowardice. Kirk Douglas plays their commanding officer who is also a lawyer, and tries to defend them. The trial is as absurd and futile as the war. Stanley Kubrick directs, and crime writer Jim Thompson wrote the screenplay (although there are conflicting reports of how much of his work remains in the final cut). The story goes that the movie couldn’t find backers, so Kirk Douglass put up the money himself. The movie is short and compact, beautiful to look at, but as powerful and moving as they come.

9. Riffifi/Night and the City—Jules Dassin’s best film, Riffifi is an unsentimental study of hard men. Dassin is my favorite director of black and white films, and in Riffifi has astonishing set pieces, including a 20-minute heist sequence that is all squeaks, huffs, coughs, and footsteps. There are many great French crime movies—many of them are on my lists—but I would argue that this is the finest. Night and the City has a strong focal point in Richard Widmark, a nasty, wolfish actor who always seems to be thinking aberrant thoughts. Here he plays a double-dealing wrestling promoter named Fabian, and the movie follows his self-sabotage over the course of a few days. His self-deception leads to the ruin of everything he touches. Dassin’s London is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

10. Anatomy of a Murderer— Along with the Verdict and Witness for the Prosecution, this is the best legal thriller ever made. A great cast—Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazarra, Lee Remnick, George C. Stott—and a great director in Preminger make this a puzzling, challenging, even thrilling whodunit. Stewart reveals a sly, manipulative persona that was, looking back over his career, there from the start. The story is simple: Gazarra is accused of murdering a man who was sleeping with his wife. Stewart takes the case. Gazarra admits to the murder, sort of, but is a slippery client, elusive, shady, temperamental. Stewart must balance his client’s apparent guilt against his desire to beat the two hotshot prosecutors who take up the state’s case.

11. Sunset Boulevard/All About Eve—Sinister, perverse and wicked. Billy Wilder reinvents Gloria Swanson as an aging silent movie actress (she was) deranged by her years in and then out of the spotlight. William Holden had his hand in dozens of good films, and one of my all-time favorites in Network. Here he plays a down on his luck screenwriter will more self-pity and rationalization than talent. He falls into the clutches of an eccentric aging silent film star living in a desolate mansion out in the Hollywood hills. The background players are fascinating: Hedda Hopper, Cecille B. DeMille, and Eric Von Stroheim as Swanson’s butler. Wilder made a more cynical movie with Ace in the Hole—which has its merits—but here he balances the world-weariness with gothic macabre, and it goes down like a smooth martini cut with strychnine. Eve: Verbal gymnastics, wanton greed, and social climbers make this movie about an established actress being eclipsed by an ambition newcomer. Anne Baxter plays Eve, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who pretends innocence while worming her way into a group of powerful theatre people. Bette Davis plays Margo, an established actress who sees what Eve is doing, and is powerless to stop her. This dynamite film was supposedly based on real people, but it doesn’t matter; the film soars on enough wit and charm for a dozen movies.

12. Bob Le Flambeur/ Touchez pas au Grisbi—Jean Pierre Melville has been called the godfather of the French New Wave and it’s easy to see why. All of his movies are beautiful, and most of them are thrilling, but his later films have a chilly, almost mechanical, feel. Here he centers the story on a rakish gambler, with a gentle, raconteur’s voice over, and the result is a superb love letter to the French way of life. There’s some crime, sure, and plenty of gambling, but the movie rambles from one scene of beauty to the next. Touchez: A gangster movie with style, wit, charm, and plenty of bodies. Jean Gabin plays a retired tough guy who wants to take it easy, drink white wine, eat strong cheese, and listen to his theme music. But when Gabin is betrayed by his ex-girl, and his best friend is kidnapped, he enlists the help of some old still-with-it breakers and settles the score. The great thing about this film is the moments of relaxation, the intense pleasure in small things that even a killer can enjoy.

13. Rear Window/Strangers on a Train/ Stage Fright— My favorite Hitchcock movie. Jimmy Stewart plays a voyeur with a broken leg. His only pastime is looking out his back window at the people’s lives across the way. He sees newlyweds, a dance instructor, some spoiled kids, an annoying dog, and perhaps a murder. Stewart’s obsession with the murder interferes with his relationship with his fiancé, Grace Kelly, until she absorbs his obsessions as his own. The confinement of Stewart’s apartment is palpable, and his only outlet a necessity. Strangers on a Train is a great little murder movie with plenty of wit and more than a touch of madness. Two strangers, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train. They talk, and in talking, they each reveal a problematic person in their lives. Bruno’s proposal is simple: they switch murders. Guy thinks they are joking; Bruno is serious. The movie is slim and its thinness makes for a great movie. Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay. Farley Granger (I’ve always liked his work) does a good job as the tennis pro, but Robert Walker as the effeminate Bruno is affected but fantastic: he’s sinister, weak, capable yet strangely docile. Stage Fright is a bizarre little English cheapie that works because of Hitchcock’s enormous bag of tricks. He uses them all here, misremembered flashbacks, various camera lenses and disturbing close-ups. This is more of a guilty pleasure, but it’s got Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman against the backbiting theatre culture of London.

14. Winchester 73/Rio Bravo/The Searchers—The first collaboration between Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart, and an intriguing take on the western. Before the war, Jimmy Stewart cut his teeth playing aw shucks nice guys. During the war he was a bomber pilot, and he returned a changed man. Violence, toughness, and pathology entered into his roles. Here he plays a haunted gunslinger tracking down the man who killed his father. The movie is low budget, and Stewart opted for a percentage of the profits instead of his usual fee; this, along with the anti-trust legislation against the studios, effectively killed the studio system. The factory style of moviemaking was over. There is some silliness here, but overall it’s thrilling. Rio Bravo: Howard Hawks slows it down, adds humor, atmosphere, a couple of great songs, a great supporting cast, and the Duke, John Wayne, striding through the moral filth with fists and guns. The movie does so many things right it’s hard to see how so many other movies get it all wrong. Co-stars Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson. Ten years later Hawks Made El Dorado, basically a remake but almost as good. The Searchers: John Wayne was never better than he is here, in this John Ford directed revenge western about a racist soldier out to wipe the slate clean. Alongside a half-Indian relative, he’s searching for his brother’s kidnapped daughter, to save her from captivity, or kill her for throwing in with the enemy. For those who think John Wayne couldn’t act, take a look.

15. From Here to Eternity/No Time For Sergeants—The best film about the ennui facing men of war at rest. Montgomery Clift plays Pruitt, a champion boxer who refuses to fight. Burt Lancaster plays Warden, an officer who’s fallen in love with his commander’s wife. Frank Sinatra plays Maggio, a hard-drinking screw-up who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Donna Reed plays Lorene, a call girl without a heart of gold. These characters and a half a dozen more fight, drink, cheat, and betray against the backdrop of Hawaii in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor. A large, epic Hollywood film that lives up to the hype. Sergeants: My dad says I don’t have enough comedies in my lists and he’s right. Here Andy Griffith plays a corn-fed kid drafted into the army, who ruins everything he touches and can out drink anyone. Myron McCormick plays the sergeant who tries to drive him out of the military. But every punishment he devises is a reward to Griffith, who hams it up but somehow still plays it just right. A very funny movie.

16. An American in Paris/Gigi—Hollywood found fertile ground in Paris, and it shows. Gene Kelly plays a down on his luck painter who is promoted by a wealthy woman who isn’t just interested in his art. He meanwhile meets and falls in love with a young Parisian ingénue (played by Leslie Caron). Oscar Levant is in the story, too, and he delivers his usual deadpan jokes and dazzling piano playing. The story is intriguing, and the final 19 minute montage of two dozen or so dance numbers is hurts and helps the film, as the stories sort of dissolve into beautiful wisps of cigarette smoke. Gigi: A movie with bad songs, no stars and a clichéd plot, and yet, it works. Leslie Caron is back, and much more convincing as Gigi, a young Parisian girl looking for love. She finds it in Gaston Lachaille, a chronically bored bachelor who pals around with the loveable letch Honore Lachaille (played by all-around performer, and Vichy collaborator Maurice Chevalier). The main appeal is the on-location shooting and the splendid interiors lit, designed and lovingly captured by Vincent Minnelli. I’m telling you, it’s good.

17. Shane/A Place in the Sun—George Stevens made three very good films: A Place in the Sun, Giant, and Shane, his leanest and purest film. Alan Ladd plays a wandering gunslinger who wants to lose himself in honest, decent work. He settles in with settlers/farmers on the edge of a dirt town. But in the West, trouble/violence/greed is always close. In this case, a local hard man and angry rancher wants the farmland, and brings in a gunman from Cheyenne (played by Jack Palance) to do get it. Ladd stands in his way. A meditation on the absurd costs of masculinity, pride, and violence. Those who think they know this movie should give it a second chance. Place: An unclassifiable movie that is beautiful, bold, disturbing, and rich. Montgomery Clift plays an outcast social climber who falls in love with the most beautiful girl in town, played by Elizabeth Taylor. But, he’s knocked up townie Shelly Winters, and she refuses to let him go. Will he murder Winters to get the life he’s always wanted? Entertaining madness.

18. The Asphalt Jungle/Kiss Me Deadly—A story of a bank robbery gone wrong, professional criminals who work together until they don’t, and then out come the guns and knives. John Huston directs this white-knuckle heist movie about the integrity of hoodlums and the immorality of the suits. A great cast: Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, and a then-unknown actress named Marilyn Monroe. Huston adapted from the book by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote Little Caesar. The standard against which all other heist movies are compared. Grim, grim, grim. Kiss Me Deadly: Low brow meets high art in this, the granddaddy of them all, the weird, violent crime-soaked tale of an amoral detective in an insane world. Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, on the trail of a mysterious trunk that appears to be the focal point of the entirety of underworld and political attention and activity. There’s torture, fistfights, shootouts and the like, but through it all stands the enigma: what’s in the box? Here’s an old movie that watches like new, with its layers of irony, its stylized violence, its lack of empathy. It’s as if a psychopath wrote and directed a film with marionettes. When Hammer finally finds the trunk, with two words the movie shifts into surreal territory: “It’s . . . hot?”

19. Rebel without a Cause/In a lonely Place/Bitter Victory— Maybe the 1950s belong to Nicholas Ray after all. He made the best noir of the decade, the best war movie, and the best drama, all shot with arresting visuals that somehow told the whole story without words. Teens are taken seriously here; it’s the adults who are doped up, bottomed out, and ruined. Looking back, it’s Ray’s film and not Dean’s, who by the standards of other actors before and after was interesting and talented, but overcooked. Rebel made James Dean a star, and the racing scene by the cliffs eerily predicted his death. Godard: “Nicholas Ray is cinema.”  Lonely and Victory: Two great Nicholas Ray films, the first a study of loneliness, psychopathy and despair, the other an examination of war and divided loyalties. In a Lonely Place does more with Bogart’s broken face than the rest of his films put together. The despair, the anger, the rage, the features both slack and strangely rigid, a thousand years of human suffering and it’s all there on Bogie’s face. The plot is simple. Bogart plays a screenwriter accused of murder. He has a history of losing his temper, drinking too much, and when he begins a relationship with his neighbor, who slowly begins to doubt his innocence. A great little movie. Bitter Victory follows two British officers who hate each other forced to embark on a dangerous desert mission.

20. 12 Angry Men/Marty—A great film about men, juries, racism, justice. An absurdly talented cast, including Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam (my nominee for best character actor of all time), Jack Klugman, jack Warden and Ed Begley, among others, and director Sidney Lumet keeps the camera close and steady, scrutinizing those now lost, lonely faces. It’s a talkie for people who like action and suspense, a showcase for different acting styles (just watch Henry Fonda’s lanky laconicism with Lee J. Cobb’s bellowing bluster) Lumet, as always, makes making movies look easy. Marty: Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplays to three of my favorite movies: Network, The Hospital, and this, his gentlest and humane film. Ernest Borgnine plays a lonely, working class butcher looking for love while taking care of his mother. His life is simple, unadorned, and miserable. His friends and family all try to get him hitched up, but when he finally meets a girl he likes, those very people try to tear the fledgling relationship apart. Borgnine is perfect for the role, warm and vulnerable. A great movie about regular people.

21. Guys and Dolls/Oklahoma!/King Creole—Bold, bright, and brassy. Damon Runyon’s tale of a loveable gambler his incompetent minions is transferred to the big screen with great songs. Sinatra belts his way through the songs with gusto, while Marlon Brando does a fabulous job, despite being unable to sing or dance. Oklahoma!: The exclamation point says it all. A favorite from my childhood and still a great musical. Follows a group of cowboys and cowgirls as they romance, sing, dance, and lasso their way through the lush countryside. King Creole: Elvis Presley’s first and best film, directed by Michael Curtis and set in New Orleans. Elvis plays a teenager failing school, working at a nightclub and flirting with petty crime. He becomes a singer instead, but his new career path brings him into a higher breed of criminal, namely Walter Matthau, a local up and coming hood. A musical, a drama, a thriller, a little bit of everything, but it isn’t an over-seasoned stew. Elvis can move on screen, and he isn’t a half-bad actor. In some alternate universe, he could have been a star.

22. Blackboard Jungle/The Big Knife/Face in the Crowd—Glen Ford plays a new public school teacher besieged by hoodlums, bureaucratic bullshit, and apathy. Things sure haven’t changed. He stays the course, however, and soon he is making a difference, albeit a small one, with the hardcases in his class. Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow co-star. Big Knife: Clifford Odets is an acquired taste, but I love his work, his ragged edges, his sharp-shooting speeches. Here Jack Palance plays a compromised actor who has chased fame and money instead of quality and art. He is buffeted by the outsized personalities and needs of the people in his life. Just look at the cast: Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Jean Hagan, Shelly Winters. Face: Andy Griffith, unleashed. Patricia Neal plays a reporter who discovers a cornpone redneck smart enough to play his slapdash appeal to big shows, and then alarming political power. Griffith is fantastic as a hard-edged rambler who is both manipulator and manipulated. Kazan directs, and although the end is a bit much, the rest of the film is a shock, relevant and mean. Also, for what it’s worth, entertaining as hell.

Honorable Mention: The Big Heat; The Earrings of Madame De . . .; A Man Escaped; Night of the Hunter; The Lady-killers; Executive Suite; Giant; Ben Hur; The Naked Spur; Big Country; The Bridge on the River Kwai; The Wages of Fear.

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