Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Best Movies of the 1950s

10. Touch of Evil (1958) – d. Orson Welles

This story of police corruption in a border town was one of the last great film noirs. Sure, Charlton Heston isn’t very believable as a Mexican, but Orson Welles created one of the cinema’s great villains in police captain Hank Quinlan. This obese, unwashed, corrupt killer completely dominates every scene that he’s in, even when he’s trading dialogue with a gypsified Marlene Dietrich. There are so many great moments in this film and many that were outrageous for the time like Mercedes McCambridge’s leather-jacketed lesbian gang leader tormenting a drugged-up and half-naked Janet Leigh or a truly trippy performance from Dennis Weaver that seems to be the prototype for several of David Lynch’s characters. I also have to mention the legendary tracking shot that opens the picture. You can hardly even bring yourself to blink until after that explosion. Leave it to a genius like Welles to turn a simple B-picture into an all-time classic.

9. Paths of Glory (1957) – d. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick created one of the all-time great anti-war statements with this film. A story of the sham trail and execution of three innocent French soldiers to cover up the incompetence and sociopathic ambition of several unscrupulous officers set amidst the horrors of the trench warfare of World War One. Kirk Douglas delivers one of the finest performances of his career as the idealistic officer who attempts to defend these doomed men. In fact, all the supporting performances across the board are extremely strong as well. How this film was overlooked at the Oscars is a mystery to me. This indictment of militarism, nationalism, and jingoistic patriotism is still deeply moving today. Kubrick revisited the theme of the futility of war in the 1980s with the devastating Full Metal Jacket. If you were impressed with that movie, then you should definitely experience this one as well.

8. The Searchers (1956) – d. John Ford

Ethan Edwards is a violent, racist asshole and he is also the most interesting character that John Wayne ever portrayed. This was the finest performance of his career and it should have earned him an Oscar, but he didn’t even get nominated. This story of a man obsessed with tracking down the kidnapped child of his slaughtered family is deeply engrossing on many levels. Throughout the movie, you’re never sure if Ethan intends to rescue the girl and bring her home or track her down and kill her because she was “defiled” by the Comanche. Besides the intriguing story and the intricate characterizations, this is one of the most beautifully shot Westerns in the history of the genre and, alongside “The Grapes of Wrath”, it was legendary director John Ford’s masterpiece. The moral ambiguity of Ethan also presages the anti-heroes of the revisionist Westerns of the sixties and seventies. This film is, arguably, the most influential Western ever made.

7. North by Northwest (1959) – d. Alfred Hitchcock

The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, created one of the all-time great thrill rides with North by Northwest. An advertising executive, played with immense charm and wit by the always cool Cary Grant, becomes the victim of a mistaken identity that soon has him running across the country while several people try to kill him. Along the way, he meets up with a gorgeous blonde played by Eva Marie Saint who turns out to not be what she seems. There are also several great supporting performances from James Mason, Martin Landau, and Leo G. Carroll as the spymaster who orchestrated much of the web that Cary Grant got himself caught in. This movie is filled with classic sequences including a murder at the United Nations, a fight atop Mount Rushmore and the much copied crop duster scene. Hitch made dozens of classic films in his career, but this one may very well be his most entertaining.

6. In a Lonely Place (1950) – d. Nicholas Ray

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Humphrey Bogart is the coolest man who ever walked the face of the Earth. This may not be one of his most well-known films, but it certainly should be. Dixon Steele is among the most complex roles he ever had and with the exception of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” it was his best performance as an actor. I do have one big question in my mind after seeing this film. Considering her performance here and her turn as a disfigured gangster’s moll in Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat”, how the hell is it that Gloria Grahame didn’t become a huge movie star? Very few people remember her today and that is a terrible injustice. This story of a screenwriter with anger management issues who becomes a suspect in a murder and how that affects a burgeoning love affair with his beautiful next door neighbor is engrossing and, due to some bad timing, ultimately heart-wrenching.

5. The Night of the Hunter (1955) – d. Charles Laughton

Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Harry Powell is one of the most terrifying performances I’ve ever seen. He is as purely evil a villain as the cinema has ever produced. The film itself is stylistically stunning. Charles Laughton emulated the style of the early German expressionist directors like Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau in a very effective manner which added to the tension and horror of the scenes where Mitchum is chasing the children. It wasn’t very well received by critics or audiences at the time however, which is a great shame as Laughton never directed a film again. As evil and frightening as Mitchum’s character was, silent film legend Lillian Gish portrayed his perfect opposite. Watching her, shotgun in hand, guarding the children and her home from the monster lurking in the dark was truly inspiring. The influence of the film is far-ranging. How many times have you seen those L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E tattoos across someone’s knuckles in a movie?

4. Some Like It Hot (1959) – d. Billy Wilder

One of the funniest movies ever made, Some Like It Hot is the story of a pair of musicians who witness a mob hit and have to get out of town and disguise themselves in order to avoid a similar fate. So Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne and join up with an all-girl band on the way to Florida. Things get really interesting as Tony Curtis’ character falls for Marilyn Monroe, who sings for the band, and Jack Lemmon becomes the object of Joe E. Brown’s affections. The performances and situations are hilarious across the board. Jack Lemmon, in particular, was fantastic and he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Marilyn Monroe was incredibly sexy as always. When they encounter the gangsters again, at the Florida hotel, they rush off to make their escape in Joe E. Brown’s yacht, setting up one of the greatest last lines in movie history. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

3. The Killing (1956) – d. Stanley Kubrick

This may be the greatest caper film ever made. Stanley really outdid himself with this incredibly creative movie. The story is told in a non-linear form, like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, but this method of storytelling was almost unheard of in the fifties. The casting was impeccable. Elisha Cook, Jr. who was so memorable in “The Maltese Falcon”, plays a pathetic cuckolded man whose wife proves to be his ultimate downfall. Sterling Hayden is Johnny, the mastermind of the plot. This guy should have been a much bigger star. His coolness factor is very high and if you read about his actual life story, that coolness factor goes off the charts. Kubrick’s genius shows through in every frame of this film. The planning of the caper itself was perfect, but the ironic twist at the end is devastating. The look on Sterling Hayden’s face as his dreams blow away in the wind is priceless.

2. Strangers on a Train (1951) – d. Alfred Hitchcock

Some movies teach us valuable lessons. The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t just write off crazy talk. You never know what some people might just do. Robert Walker gives an incredible performance as the psychopathic Bruno Anthony. Bruno wants his father dead and he makes a bargain with a stranger he meets on a train, famous tennis player Guy Haines, to trade murders and kill Haines’ cheating wife. Of course, Haines doesn’t take him seriously. This was a huge mistake as it isn’t long before his wife Miriam turns up murdered, police finger him as a suspect, and Bruno shows up demanding that Guy kill his father for him. This is one of the most suspenseful of Hitchcock’s films and Bruno Anthony is one of his most disturbing characters. The whole thing ends up with an edge-of-your-seat sequence with a carousel gone wild. The premise has turned up time and again in various crime dramas, but none have surpassed this classic.

1. The Seven Samurai (1954) – d. Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village is being menaced by a gang of bandits. Some of the villagers go into the city seeking ronin, masterless samurai, to help them defend their village. This is the beginning of one of the greatest movies ever made. They gather one hell of a group of warriors. Kambei Shimada is the older, more experienced warrior who becomes the leader of the group. Kyuzo is a silent, aloof master who displays amazing skill with his blade. However, the most intriguing member of the group has to be Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune is one of the coolest guys to ever grace the silver screen. When I make my list of the coolest movie stars ever, I believe that Mifune may place second only to Bogart. Akira Kurosawa was, arguably, the greatest film director of all time (I have a hard time deciding between him, Hitchcock, and Kubrick for that title). He was certainly the greatest visual director of all. Every frame of film was perfect. The final battle between the samurai and the bandits in a drenching downpour is one of the most indelible sequences in film history. I can declare with the utmost confidence that The Seven Samurai was the best movie of the 1950s.

Comments and opinions are encouraged and appreciated.


Steve Rothwell said...

A nice eclectic selection. I agree Akirosawa is a master. His use of a combination of tracking and crane is superb. His influence on modern film is incalcuable and the Seven Samurai is up there, for me, as one of the greatest piecesof cinema of all times.

Scott Sheaffer said...

I'd definitely include Stalag 17 on my list of the best 50's movies. I was disappointed not to see it here.

BigRuta said...

Very cool list! Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa - how could you go wrong! This is one of those posts that remind me of the gaps in my DVD collection. Well done! Perhaps you could do a list of the best B-movies of the 50s?