Top 50 of 1950s
It’s that time again, as the Criterion forum’s Lists Project focuses on the decade of the 1950s. As described in my list for the previous decade (here), a master list of 100 films is calculated from participating members’ individual 50 film lists. I probably take this whole thing way too seriously as I try to meticulously fill in the gaps of what I’ve seen and re-watch things where it’s been a couple of years since my last viewing. I’m not reluctant to include the films frequently honored in these type of lists, as long as I think something deserves to be there, but reputation alone isn’t going to be enough. Looking back at my list, it becomes a little too obvious the kind of film I like and a few directors (Wilder, Ray, Mann, Hitchcock) are particularly well-represented. This decade, while not as consistent as the forties in my mind, had more really good and great films than the previous one. As I said the last time around though, I’m content with the final flims included and their rankings. I’ve commented briefly on each choice and included links to pieces I’ve previously written where available.
1.) Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – For me, the most fascinating film ever made. A helpless, wheelchair-bound photographer can’t help spying on his neighbors after weeks of being confined to his New York City apartment. It’s a cracking suspense film, up there with Hitchcock’s (and thus anyone else’s) best, but the really interesting parts are Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of L.B. Jefferies, his relationship with Grace Kelly’s character, and, of course, the voyeuristic element. Writers tend to psychoanalyze Stewart’s Vertigo character ad nauseam, but Jefferies here becomes equally unraveled. Even though his suspicions ultimately prove accurate in Rear Window, his methods are still unhealthy, intrusive and creepy at best, disturbing at worst. Also, notice how little Stewart pays attention to Kelly and how their relationship suddenly becomes warmer when he tells her he thinks one of the neighbors he’s been spying on has killed his wife. Finally, the multiple levels of watching (Stewart on his neighbors, the viewer on Stewart, and, in a sense, Hitchcock on everyone) really showcase a master director at the very top of his game. I think my favorite scene is when Stewart is looking through his lens at Raymond Burr while Kelly is being escorted from Burr’s apartment by the police and suddenly Burr turns to look at Stewart, the camera, and the audience. It always makes me feel quite uncomfortable, like I’ve been caught watching something I shouldn’t have been.
2.) Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950) – Somehow Gloria Swanson is Norma Desmond. It’s difficult to think of another actor so associated with just one role. Even though she was Oscar-nominated twice before (in 1929 and 1930), Swanson has become Norma in most of our hearts. Wilder’s scathing look at the devouring nature of Hollywood is still unsurpassed in its depiction of the insanity of the movie industry. It’s no accident that, fifty-one years later, David Lynch used another famous Hollywood road for the title of his look at the destructive side of Hollywood with Mulholland Dr.
3.) In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950) – I wrote a lot about this one already so I don’t want to drone on, but I can’t think of another film in any language or decade that inspires the level of heartache found in Ray’s masterpiece.
4.) Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) – I like Rear Window better, but Vertigo (which ranked first in the last Lists Project go-around) may be the better film. Regardless, it’s difficult to argue with either’s place in cinematic history. Combined with the Capra and Mann films, shouldn’t these two make Jimmy Stewart the consensus top Hollywood movie star of all time? Really, who else could have pulled off so many variations and downright shake-ups of an image while maintaining their strong popularity. Vertigo, like Citizen Kane, can be watched literally dozens if not hundreds of times without becoming tiresome. It’s that layered and endlessly fascinating while somehow still being fun and entertaining.
5.) The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959) – Aside from Citizen Kane, this could be the greatest debut film in the history of cinema. Antoine Doinel is a remarkable character – a tad precocious, a little bratty, but ultimately a kid looking for escape. Like Welles, Truffaut probably never made anything else as perfect as his first feature. Certainly the other Doinel feature films didn’t approach the first’s brilliance and left many people disappointed. I like them all to varying degrees but The 400 Blows is in a class by itself.
6.) Ace in the Hole (Wilder, 1951) – Wilder’s long-neglected masterpiece of unbridled cynicism is as unrelenting as anything from the decade. Its power continues to increase as the pull of the media strengthens and the masses continue to give society a bad name.
7.) A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, 1957) – A perfect companion piece to Ace in the Hole, Kazan’s film outdoes Network by twenty years and still plays like a punch to the gut of all those talking head followers. Andy Griffith is remarkable and his television show persona might look just a little creepier after watching this.
8.) Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson, 1951) – A fascinating, moving look into faith, religion and the human struggle of balancing both with our own individual needs. Like Ordet, it doesn’t try to provide answers so much as encourage introspection. For Bresson, it was a leap forward from Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne stylistically and the first of his films to use his trademark “models,” or non-professional actors.
9.) Singin’ in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952) – The musical for people who hate musicals. The glorious Technicolor, the transition from silents to talkies and Jean Hagen are all icing on Gene Kelly’s cake. There just aren’t very many scenes in film as magical as Kelly’s performance of the title song.
10.) Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954) – It’s amazing to see the enduring popularity of Kurosawa’s film when you take into consideration everything it seemingly has going against it. Shot in academy ratio black-and-white, the film is nearly 3 1/2 hours in length and, of course, in Japanese. Yet, generations now have been introduced to Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Japanese filmmaking and even international cinema through this film. It makes for a wonderful entry point and remains a resoundingly entertaining epic.
11.) Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) – Hilarious, daring, and fun, Wilder’s first collaboration with Jack Lemmon proved to be a winning effort. I’m still amazed how the scene between Tony Curtis (doing his best Cary Grant) and Marilyn on the yacht made it past the censors.
12.) Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957) – I’m not sure how I find Giulietta Masina here so poignant and heartbreaking, but kind of annoying in La Strada. Her Cabiria is truly one of the most memorable, devastating characters in Italian film.
13.) North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959) – Endlessly watchable, Hitchcock’s frequent theme of mistaken identity was never played for as much pure entertainment as it was here. Cary Grant’s likeable screen persona goes a long way. When people opine that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, this is the kind of movie they’re talking about.
14.) Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957) – Impressive for its restraint, the film that really made a young Stanley Kubrick’s career has aged incredibly well. Sadly, it will remain timeless as long as powerful, insulated men send young, vulnerable soldiers to their deaths.
15.) The Big Heat (Lang, 1953) – Lang’s violent and sexy look at vengeance remains a potent noir.
16.) Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954) – What kind of western has a supposedly tough outlaw named “The Dancing Kid?” Maybe one that’s not a western at all. Whatever Nicholas Ray’s genre-exploding film is, it’s bizarrely incredible. Joan Crawford essentially playing a stereotypically male character and Sterling Hayden as a former outlaw now reduced to a guitar instead of a gun. Throw in Mercedes McCambridge (also in a masculine role) and the ubiquitous Ernest Borgnine and you’ve got a truly odd Western mash-up. These characters’ relationships are remarkably complex and fly in the face of the genre’s expectations. Ray’s use of color is but one of the many unexpected aspects found in the film. Make sure to pay attention to the colors of Crawford’s dresses as the film progresses.
17.) Mon Oncle (Tati, 1958) – I like to laugh, it’s just that my sense of humor doesn’t necessarily mesh with the general public. Thankfully, Jacques Tati shared the Chaplin slapstick combined with topical questioning of technology that I find appealing. Does that make it a mixture of lowbrow and highbrow or is it even worth trying to characterize? Either way, it’s satire with physical comedy and without the pretentiousness.
18.) Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955) – One of the finest noirs of the decade, Aldrich and Ralph Meeker give us the uncaring, callous Mike Hammer and a mysterious glowing briefcase. A great effort from one of the more underrated American filmmakers.
19.) The Searchers (Ford, 1956) – I’m always going to have a few problems with it, but Ford’s film has justly risen to the top echelon of the American western. Endlessly debateable, the racial undercurrent is stronger here than in any other American film I can think of, impressively doing so without hitting the audience over the head with clear-cut answers. We’ll never know exactly what John Wayne was thinking while playing Ethan Edwards, but we’ll keep on watching as we try to get closer to both the character and the myth of his portrayer.
20.) Winchester ‘73 (Mann, 1950) – First Mann-Stewart teaming and arguably the best. A great collection of actors, mingling together while the determined Stewart stays on the trail of a mysterious man from his past. This film, along with the other four director-star teamings, makes so many other Westerns before and after it look corny and fake.
21.) Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1955) – Sort of in the same vein as Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi, two other French noir classics about older men on the fringes of the law struggling to go straight, but Melville’s film is my favorite by a considerable margin. It’s the soul we see in Bob that makes him the most compelling and that wide stroke of final irony, as perfect an ending as one could possibly imagine.
22.) Ordet (Dreyer, 1955) – Challenging and difficult, Dreyer’s penultimate film raises a lot of questions and answers almost none. Even though religion and faith permeate the entire story, the viewer never gets the feeling we’re being told who or what is right or correct. The final act, whether as a result of faith, miracle or supernatural, opens the door for a remarkable amount of discussion and interpretation.
23.) On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1952) – Fine early effort from Ray, with the towers of noir Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino each performing near their peak. Bernard Herrmann’s jarring score is a highlight.
24.) 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) – The greatest American legal film, a riveting exploration into the prejudices and weaknesses of a jury. An engrossing, perfectly paced debut from Lumet. Along with The Grapes of Wrath, this is Fonda’s defining screen role.
25.) Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958) – A last chance for Welles that proved disastrous commercially, but now fits comfortably as one of his best two or three. I don’t know what it is about Mexican settings that lend themselves so well to film noir, the style/genre frequently cited as ending with this film, but it’s captured here perfectly.
26.) Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957) – New York City never looked more beautiful in black-and-white. I’m not sure there’s been many lines in film better than “you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” I’m also not sure Burt Lancaster ever gave a better performance or that Tony Curtis was ever used as well in a dramatic role.
27.) The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953) – Tension-filled excursion into the sweaty recesses of men’s souls and the inane lengths greed will take them. I probably shouldn’t enjoy Clouzot’s misanthropy so much, but I can’t help it.
28.) Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) – Beautifully sad and touching meditation on aging, generational change, and human nature. I seem to enjoy some Ozu films much more than others, but this and Late Spring are both nearly perfect examples of the director’s career.
29.) The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955) – A fairy tale like none other, Laughton’s try at film directing remains the greatest one-off ever made. L-O-V-E…we know, but we still can’t turn our eyes when Mitchum is on the screen.
30.) Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) – Important and extraordinarily influential, Kurosawa’s take on truth and first-person reliability was his international breakthrough. It’s been unfairly diluted by countless imitations and maybe suffers a tad from repetition, but remains inarguably required viewing.
31.) I Vitelloni (Fellini, 1953) – Not a lot of movies from this decade focus on a group of young adult screw-ups, but that’s exactly what we get in Fellini’s film. The autobiographical portrayal of young male struggle, through adulthood and all its trappings, rings true. If anyone doubts Fellini’s ability to make strong, affecting films without falling back on hallucinatory dreams (and an odd fixation on the circus), this and Nights of Cabiria should be mandatory viewing.
32.) Limelight (Chaplin, 1952) – I doubt this film would work with any other actor besides Chaplin. The nostalgia of an aged showman may seem sappy to some, but I find it tender, warm, and wonderful. Plus Calvero’s flea circus routine never fails to make me laugh.
33.) Night and the City (Dassin, 1950) – Widmark had a knack for making low-life losers completely watchable, brilliantly illustrated by his two appearances on my list here. Incredibly, Dassin made the film while exiled in London as his career in Hollywood crumbled at the feet of HUAC. The director’s reputation has benefited immeasurably by the release of five of his films in the Criterion Collection and this may be his best of them all.
34.) Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959) – Multi-layered brilliance from Bresson, who gives us a short, but substantial, look into the soul of a petty thief and his tedious criminal artistry. Quite amazing to look at this with Pickup on South Street as a companion, seeing as it inspired Bresson to make this film, since the two couldn’t be more different in style and approach.
35.) Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959) – The director claimed this as his reaction to High Noon, but you don’t need to have a strong opinion of that film to enjoy this one. I don’t think John Wayne was ever this likeable (or vulnerable, for that matter) in anything else and Dean Martin gives an actor’s performance instead of a singer’s. If you like male comraderie, this is the film for you. On a side note, fifties westerns liked to incorporate now-dated songs, but this is one of the few where the music (from Martin and Ricky Nelson) adds to the picture.
36.) Diabolique (Clouzot, 1955) – Great, essential French suspense from the reliable H.G. Clouzot. For those who are intimidated or put off by black-and-white and/or subtitles, this is the perfect, expectations-shattering antidote.
37.) Alice in Wonderland (Geronimi, 1951) – Vibrant colors and memorable characters make Walt Disney’s take on the Lewis Carroll story pop. This is animation with a remarkable detour from the safe princess and animal tales the studio had been producing.
38.) Stalag 17 (Wilder, 1953) – Not so much forgotten as sized up and dismissed, this Wilder film remains perhaps his most sheerly entertaining. It’s probably more popular among those who could care less who directed it than Wilder’s other films and basically ignored by the arthouse crowd. Still, the director found the perfect rebound from the commercial disappointment of Ace in the Hole and managed to still successfully combine war and comedy without venturing into jingoistic propaganda. Next year: a revival of the play on Broadway to be directed by Spike Lee.
39.) All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950) – This is an absolutely brilliant master work by Mankiewicz, who directed and also wrote the screenplay. Even though I find no real fault in Judy Holliday’s Born Yesterday performance, I still see the Academy’s snub of both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson as at least equal to its worst missteps ever. The film works beautifully even if you have no interest in Broadway. Eve’s unscrupulous climb is merely a fact of life, with or without the show business setting.
40.) Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954) – After a single viewing of this, Ugetsu and Street of Shame, Sansho is the only one that got under my skin. Mizoguchi’s classical style can be off-putting for someone preferring their Japanese cinema more along the lines of Imamura and Teshigahara, but this film is one that cannot be ignored. The story of a brother and sister tricked into slavery was apparently not the full intention of Mizoguchi, who instead wanted to focus on the titular slave owner, but the emotional wallop we get here plays much better with these two protagonists.
41.) Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953) – “Are you waving the flag at me?” You know how people say this director or that director is cinema? Well Sam Fuller is cinema. The man stripped away everything not essential in film to repeatedly give audiences the bare vitality of what excites and exhilarates us. This may be the best example of that, just as it could be Richard Widmark’s best 80 minutes on the screen. In my alternate universe, Thelma Ritter has the Oscar and Donna Reed is content to play mother to the perfect suburban family.
42.) The Lusty Men (Ray, 1952) – Robert Mitchum, in a beautifully layered interior performance, is a rodeo star on the decline, injured and looking for a home to latch onto. Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward are the married couple hoping to save enough money for their own home when Kennedy meets Mitchum and persuades him to train him for the rodeo life. Another wonderfully unique look at life (and America) by Nicholas Ray.
43.) The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Buñuel, 1955) – A man and his music box. More subtle than Bunuel’s overtly surrealist films, the tale of a wealthy man with the compulsion, but not the opportunity, to kill women is a sick delight. It’s a real treat for those with a dark sense of humor. In a macabre twist, this was the last film for the actress who played Lavinia, Miroslava Stern, who committed suicide in March 1955.
44.) Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Tashlin, 1957) – In a weak decade for comedy, Tashlin’s live-action cartoon is a decidedly bright spot. He was the only director who seemed to know how to use Jayne Mansfield and his advertising farce is a fun, romping satire.
45.) Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959) – Watching this brutal Japanese anti-war film, it’s easy to forget it was made in this decade at all. Unafraid to completely deglamorize the grueling nature of combat, including unsubtle hints at cannibalism, the film instead portrays both the mundane and the nasty aspects too often glossed over in other war movies.
46.) The Far Country (Mann, 1954) – Possibly the least heralded of the five Mann-Stewart westerns, but it blew me away on a recent viewing. It’s easy to lump the five together, forgetting how accomplished each is and how impressive Stewart’s performances are from film to film. I actually think this may be his best acting of the Mann films, completely shedding the folksy redemption that ekes through in the others. His character retains loyalty to Walter Brennan, but merely uses everyone else in the film. Maybe the darkest of the Mann-Stewart protagonists and thus the most interesting in many respects.
47.) All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) – Melodrama with a lot to say about closed-mindedness and prejudices. Sirk’s film is visually breathtaking and frustratingly relevant still today.
48.) The Naked Spur (Mann, 1953) – This has the best cast of the Mann-Stewart fabulous five, narrowly focusing on five characters, with Robert Ryan probably the best “villain.” Stewart once again is unhinged brilliance, but I’m a little disappointed in the finale. Burying Vandergroat is like burying $5,000. Sure I understand the statement being made, and that Stewart must wash his hands of this quest for vengeance in the name of a fresh beginning, but I don’t entirely buy it.
49.) The Man from Laramie (Mann, 1955) – The answer to the question, “what’s the best Mann-Stewart western?” is the one you’re watching at any given time. I ranked this at 49, but it could have just as easily been twenty spots higher. This was the last of the five and arguably the most vicious. Try not to wince when Jimmy Stewart has his hand shot at close range.
50.) The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957) – Fantastic Soviet Union film about a young woman whose boyfriend is sent to war and her struggle with the after effects involved. Some of the most outstanding black-and-white cinematography I’ve seen. The emotional pull repeatedly exercised is remarkable.
Last five I reluctantly had to leave off – Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953), Touchez pas au grisbi (Becker, 1954), The Asphalt Jungle (Huston, 1950), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958), Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959)