The response to my review of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) showed me that we never tire of good stories well told.
When I was a kid growing up in the Fifties I remember my parents’ ritual of watching Saturday Night at the Movies on our mahogany-colored black-and-white TV. I can still hear the sound of Dad making popcorn in the kitchen.
None of the movies in this list were shown in the 50’s on Saturday Night at the Movies, because Hollywood would only allow older flicks to be shown on the new (competing) medium. Can’t say I blame them.
The thirst for movies, however, was so insatiable that the industry began making movies for television. Eventually cable television would provide seemingly countless hours of new programming and 24/7 movie channels.
In the 21st century the biggest developments have been series television, stories that go on and on for years, and streaming media. It’s being called The Third Golden Age of Television by some pundits. Check out the ratings for the season finale of The Hunger Games.
I’ve found that great films, like great stories in any medium, are capable of rewarding you over and over again. For this reason I sifted through a couple lists of the Top 100 Films of the Fifties to recommend a few of my own favorites, just in case you’re looking for something different to watch this coming month.
I’ve watched all of these more than once, most three times or more over the years. They’re listed here in the order in which they were released.
I personally hate being asked to name a single favorite of anything, whether a fave Beatles song or favorite artist. Instead I prefer to list a pool of favorites which might shift on any given day. Feel free to add a couple of your own recommendations in the comments.
Ten Favorite (Great) Films from the Fifties
The Gunfighter . 1950
Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo. When Bob Dylan was growing up in Hibbing, MN his uncles owned the theaters in town and he no doubt saw a lot of films. The opening line of his song “Brownsville Girl” (from Knocked Out Loaded) no doubt refers to this film.
Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
It’s a great film, with Peck getting pretty tired of all the stupid young punks who think they can make a name for themselves by being the one who outdrew the fastest gun in the West. I’m reminded here of Robert Redford in The Natural, who originally thought it would be great to be “the best.” He also caught a bullet he didn’t expect.
A Streetcar Named Desire . 1951
Elia Kazan director, with Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter and (of course) Marlon Brando. The film that put Brando on the map. Based on a Tennessee Williams play, this one hits you like a Hemingway right hook. You can see it coming but can’t stop it. There are many references to the film in pop culture. In the film Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen hilariously attempts to regain his identity by getting everyone to act out a scene from Streetcar Named Desire.
Strangers on a Train . 1951
Film noir at its best. Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) is listed in the screenplay credits. Hitchcock leaves you riveted in this psychological thriller involving a tennis star (Farley Granger) and a psychopath (Robert Walker) who is charming and unsettling at the same time. The opening shot tells the story as Hitchcock films the criss-crossing tracks and before long the intersection of two lives will create a disturbing series of consequences.
Shane . 1953
Another Western, a genre that was especially big in the 50s. I’d read the book in school, the theme a common one about good people exploited by rich and powerful bad guys. The Magnificent Seven is a variation on this, though larger in scale. Shane (Alan Ladd) is a veteran gunfighter who, like Johnny Ringo, just wants to settle down. Circumstances deal him a hand he doesn’t want to play. (Jack Palance is one very intimidating bad man.)
Rear Window . 1954
Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr
Hitchcock’s mastery in limiting the scope of the story is legendary. Rope and Lifeboat come to mind. In Rear Window, Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is a globe trotting photographer who broke his leg and is confined to a bed in his apartment. His rear window faces the interior yard around which the complex wends and he spends his days people watching. Raymond Burr’s behavior in the apartment across the way cause him to be suspicious that a murder has been committed. His high society lady friend (Grace Kelly) and other believe he has an overactive imagination.
To Catch a Thief . 1955
French Riviera, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly
OK, I threw this in because it seems we need at least one light-hearted story and a Cary Grant film should be included here. Charade is my favorite but that was 1963. North By Northwest could be substituted here. When I think French Riviera I think Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, another film about how the other half lives. Cary Grant, a retired jewel thief, is suave, and Grace Kelly is… Grace Kelly. (Trivia: Did you know that Cary Grant experimented with LSD?)
The Killing . 1956
There’s nothing new under the sun, they say. Creativity is simply taking old elements and putting them in new arrangements. This early Kubrick film though seems to have been a truly original approach to telling the story of a major heist at a race track. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has just been released from five years in the slammer where he’d spent every day crafting the perfect crime. It’s not the story, but the way the story is told that really knocks you out. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was nothing new. It was a re-packaged version of The Killing.
12 Angry Men . 1957
Henry Fonda is one of 12 jurists who just heard testimony regarding a murder, so a lot is at stake. On the surface the case seems cut and dried, but Fonda still has questions. It’s hot, there’s a ball game in town, the pressure is on Fonda to just let it go. One by one he manages to create enough doubt to have them become engaged in seriously considering the evidence that had been presented. Having served on a grand jury, I know what it’s like to have your perceptions altered as you really listen to what has been said.
Paths of Glory . 1957
I’ve twice written about this powerful Stanley Kubrick statement. Paths of Glory is a heart-breaking account of a moment in history that must have repeated itself endlessly in that horrific bloodfest called the trenches of World War I. Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax is stellar, the camera work, script, acting and symbolism all simply perfect. I can’t say enough about it. It’s worth studying as regards how to tell a story in film.
Touch of Evil . 1958
Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh
I’ve gone through periods where I watch every film by a specific director, Kubrick and Hitchcock being favorites. Orson Welles is another who produced some memorable stories, one of them being this one, Touch of Evil. It would be easy to criticize the choice of Charlton Heston as a Hispanic lawyer, but Orson Welles’ screenplay about murder, kidnapping and police corruption in a Mexican border town is both memorable and daring. And that opening “long take” is legendary.
Do you have a couple favorite 1950’s films you’d like to share?