Poodle skirts.  Mini-Skirts.  Burger joints and drive-in's.  The birth of Rock 'n Roll.  3-D and drive-in movies.  The hula hoop.  Coonskin hats.  Telephone stuffing.   


Ah yes...this was the 50's.


More than perhaps any other decade of the 20th Century, the 1950's would be a crucial period in terms of the emergence of the entertainment medium as a whole.  For the first time, television became the most significant and popular electronic device since the advent of the radio.  The historical significance of this device can't be undervalued and it's affects on the world in future decades would be be far-reaching and prevalent.  Just consider: by the 1960's people could clearly get a glimpse of the most integral events of their time as they were unfolding right in their living rooms before their eyes; everything from Presidential assassinations, to men stepping foot on other-worldly terrestrial bodies, to violent and polarizing wars and social conflicts and unease, and so on.  Like it or not, the television reigned supreme as a vital piece of our socio-cultural development.  It's simply the first and most important mass communications device developed in the last century.


Television did have a disastrous effect on the fiduciary side of the movie business in the 1950's.  Whereas in the previous decade more people went to their local cinemas to watch their favourite films than ever before (or since, for that matter), movie studios were desperately reaching out for ideas to lure their patrons back to public forums to view their product.  Two advents in the technology of the cinema would have decidedly different results.  The first, and most dubious, would be the development of 3-D films (the first of which was BWANA DEVIL), which sort of encapsulated the whole connotation of the term "fad."  Thankfully, it's impact would be short lived.  The second advance in the artform would be much more everlasting and important - the introduction of widescreen and Cinemascope formats that would give the silver screen a new, added majestic and panoramic dimension.  The movies, most assuredly, were never the same to look at after the 50's.


The 1950's were also socially significant in terms of the immergence of Rock 'n Roll and it was unleashed upon the world during a time when parents were clear in their minds that it was a less-than-civilizing influence on their children (gee, nothing has changed at all).   Developed from a blend of Southern Blues and gospel music with an added strong back beat, this "new music" was worshiped by teenagers who especially were trying to break free of the societal norms that their mainstream conservative, middle class American parents placed upon them. 


Linked heavily with the changing psychological landscape with American youth was the emergence of a more progressive educational system.  The 1950's saw incredible and systemic change throughout North American when it came to how children went to school.  In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren and other members of the Supreme Court wrote in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate facilities for blacks did not make those facilities equal according to the Constitution.  Integration was born as a civilizing principle across the nation.  The Civil Rights movement, which would reach a fever pitch in the following decade, truly began as a result of this landmark court ruling.  Surely, this post-war decade could be seen as a largely transitional one; a time in which huge changes both socially, technologically, and artistically paved the way for future generations.


And...as for the movies themselves?


They too saw an era of change in this decade.  The 50's was known for many things, some of which being post-war affluence and an increased choice of leisure time activities.  Spending time at the movies - albeit done much less than in previous decades - did not disappear.  Older viewers were more prone to stay home with their trusted old TV set, but the youth market felt more compelled to go to the cinemas.  If anyone doubts this one should only see the dominance of the new drive-in movie screens as a destination for young couples in love in the 50's.  There were over 4000 in the mid-50's alone.  Hollywood did not shy away from this new and growing youth market.  Films in the post-war period and well into the early 1950's were sanitized and woefully pedestrian in terms of the values they presented.  The young audiences demanded new images, symbols, role models and archetypes.  Portrayals of square-jawed and happy-go-lucky characters that cheerfully respected authority and cultural norms soon became blasé.  When James Dean and Marlon Brando erupted on the screen as refreshingly rebellious anti-heroes in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and THE WILD ONE, the movies changed with them.


I awoke to the films of the 1950's a bit later in life, having been born and raised into the relative, unintelligible fluff that the early 1980's presented to me.  Because of this, my cinematic education of Hollywood's Golden Age would develop and mature as I grew older.  It would be well into my teens and twenties when I discovered masterpieces by men named Hitchcock, Kazan, Welles, Wise, Ford, and Kurosawa.  These movies were different from what I was accustomed to viewing, but they still had that same transcending allure. 


So, as I have done with my previous lists of the best films of other decades, I have aimed here for variety.  My choices here include some popular classics, to be sure, but others that may have not have properly been given the credit they deserve on such lists.


Okay...enough from me.  Baby-boomers - if you're out there - let's unite and remember some great films...like...


1.  VERTIGO (1958)



VERTIGO is Alfred Hitchcock’s finest hour - a tense, absorbing, and thrilling masterpiece about inner obsession.  What many people fail to realize with this work is that it is a stunning film noir, but not completely in all of the literal definitions of the genre.  It does not necessarily have the visceral look of the more conventional film noirs (the fact that was also shot in color instead of the usual black and white reinforces that), but it faithfully captures the tonality and pathos of the great noirs.  VERTIGO is a multi-faceted work and an intense psychological study of a desperate, insecure man's twisted psyche.  It also reveals itself as a mesmerizing study of doomed love and how one man’s lonely fixation with the illusion of loving a woman long past dead.  In this way, it’s one of the more startling romances of the macabre ever conceived and rounds off Hitch’s trilogy of films with decidedly voyeuristic themes (those being his two other masterpieces – PSYCHO and REAR WINDOW).  Jimmy Stewart, the best actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, plays his greatest role as a man that not only must battle his own fear of heights (vertigo), but also must battle his own personal demons, such as a desperate search for identity, not to mention his sickening preoccupation with treachery and death, female victimization and his degrading manipulation of women.  VERTIGO is Hitchcock’s best, most intrinsically fascinating work.  The scene where Kim Novak – as fetching as she ever was – reveals herself as a woman transformed into the image of Stewart’s long lost love, with the great Bernard Herman score swelling in the background, still remains one of the cinema’s most indelible moments.



2.  SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)



I have seen far, far too many lists of the best films of the 50’s that seem to completely ignore Akira Kurosawa’s greatest opus – SEVEN SAMURAI.  Maybe because, after only one initial viewing, it’s quite a jarring, confusing, and exasperating endurance test.  At nearly four hours, with diverse story threads and a multitude of characters with odd names that are hard to distinguish from one another, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the work as a whole.  However, after viewing it for a second and third time over the last few years, Kurosawa’s film elicits stronger and more deeply resonating feelings.  It has a rich tapestry and texture that many films of the period completely lack, and with its 208 minute running time we are dealt up a series of interwoven stories and personas – a style that seems a bit ahead of its time.  The film is remarkably democratic look at social class structure.  Kurosawa paid equal attention to the 16th Century peasant farmers as he did with the samurai.  Some of the critics that found the acting stilted and theatrical missed the point – this is a stirring and majestic recounting of a legend that dates back centuries and deals with archetypal figures.  Filled with beautifully composed images and shots, as well as a story of complexity and emotional weight, SEVEN SAMURAI remains a landmark work for its director.  Watch it once and you’ll have difficulty immersing yourself in it.  Watch it again and again and you’ll see why it’s such a layered and faceted film-going experience.



3.  SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)



Every once in awhile - especially after I have endured countless films of such degrading and offensive nihilism and contempt for their audiences - I pop in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN into my DVD player and become lost in its effervescent glow, good natured spirit, lively energy, and unbridled whimsicality.  This is the greatest of all the screen musicals.  It really does deserve its accolades as the most cherished musical by cinemaphiles across the world.  SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a film of boundless, joyous euphoria that cascades throughout it’s running time through a series of song and dance numbers that have a penetrating, up-beat goofiness and charm that has yet to be duplicated.  Gene Kelly gives his most legendary performance and he and his co-star, the great Donald O’ Connor, reveal their incredible acrobatic stamina and fortitude with many of the numbers, especially in my personal favourite, “Make ‘Em Laugh”.  The film also manages to work beyond its genre by also being a smart and sly satire (it’s set in 1927 and concerns the then budding film industry and captures the paranoia as the silent era gave way to the talkies).  SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is pure, spectacular escapist fun.






Who was the single greatest and most influential actor of the post-war period of the cinema?  Well, Marlon Brando, of course, and his work in landmark films like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Elia Kazan’s masterpiece ON THE WATERFRONT only further reiterates this notion.  Kazan’s film was incredibly controversial for its time, a powerful and intoxicating look at the problems of trade unionism, corruption, organized crime, and racketeering.  To cement the film’s verisimilitude Kazan set it on New York’s waterfront docks where its workers struggled for working class dignity in an effort to make end’s meat and battle the mob that oversaw their operation and tainted their well being.   The film was a low-budget hit that struck a cord with modern filmgoers, and it was a morality tale that was both depressing and critical of society (a film with such a social heartbeat was kind of rare for this time).  And, yes, at the center of it all was Brando, who’s natural, effortless, “method” style of acting reinvented the cinematic performances of actors for the next five decades.  ON THE WATERFRONT deserves its place on my list on many levels – it’s a soul searching piece of editorial filmmaking; it’s a metaphorical work that revealed Kazan’s own sensibilities of the time (he justified admitting to the House Un-American Activities Commission two years earlier in 1952 as a 'friendly' witness the involvement of people he knew as Communist sympathizers.  The film seems autobiographical, as a result); and it’s a film that highlighted a new star in the making and how he left his mark on screen acting that is still felt today.



5.  REAR WINDOW (1954)



REAR WINDOW is Hitchcock’s other great masterstroke work of the 1950’s and it continued to demonstrate his confidence and assuredness with dealing with some of the similar themes of VERTIGO.  REAR WINDOW is every bit as sensational, dark, and stylish as VERTIGO, and it highlighted Hitch’s predilection for showing us flawed characters with obsessions.  In this film’s case, Jimmy Stewart obsession is unbridled, human curiosity.  He sits in his wheelchair daily with a broken leg, passing the time away watching the daily routines of his neighbours (the film was a virtuoso piece of spatial engineering and set design – it was made entirely on one confined set built at Paramount Studios - a realistic courtyard composed of 32 apartments, 12 completely furnished).  The film, again like VERTIGO, forges a strong commentary on the current nature of the male/female relationship in society (each group of tenants display differing sides of this theme, as does Stewart with his co-star, the luminous Grace Kelly).  Aside from its underlying themes, REAR WINDOW is pure Hitchcock through and through.  It's tense, exhilarating, and darkly entertaining.  The film’s final twenty minutes are as pulse pounding as it gets.



6.  BEN HUR (1959)



BEN HUR, MGM’S nearly four hour, Technicolor, and Cinemascope Biblical epic remains one of the cinema’s crowned jewels.  This was the most expensive and expansive film of its time, most of which can be seen on the screen.  At a $15 million price tag, six years of pre-production, and over six months shooting with thousands of extras (15,000 for one scene alone), BEN HUR was unveiled to a world that had yet to see a historical epic so grand.  The film is more stirring, thoughtful, and engaging than many of the other Biblical efforts by Hollywood in the past (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS from 1956 seemed sort of bloated and overstuffed by comparison).  Other lesser films of its kind were crude pageants involving all-star cameos and fluff, but BEN HUR was exciting, dramatically charged, and it still has the finest – if not most subtle – presentation of Jesus ever committed to celluloid (his face is never shown, only the reactions to him are).  With a daring and strong performance by Charlton Heston at the helm, BEN HUR is not only the most honoured Hollywood picture of all-time (no other film has won more Oscars), but it’s also still one of the most rousing epics ever made.  The chariot race sequence alone continues to be unmatched for its veracity and bold spectacle.



7.  THE SEARCHERS (1956)



John Ford's THE SEARCHERS is the greatest work of one of the cinema’s most honoured and respected filmmakers.  This 1956 western was his 115th film (an astonishing run of sustained work) and by its release he was already a 4-time Oscar winning director.  To many, THE SEARCHERS remains a true America masterpiece, as well as the best and – arguably – most influential western ever made.  Shot on location (in Ford’s favourite location – Monument Valley) in gorgeous and dazzling Vista Vision (the film still looks sensational today), THE SEARCHERS was one of the first revisionist westerns in the manner it looked at deeply-nuanced themes like racism, rugged individuality, the character and persona of the American lone cowboy figure, the battle of civilizations, and the limitless frontier that offered a world of possibilities.  This was also the first Anti-John Wayne role, where he played a narcissist anti-hero that was equal parts bigot and racist.  He was a tragically flawed and morally skewed figure that has lost his place in society (future westerns – especially the ones of Clint Eastwood – would borrow heavily on this).  Aside from being a western, THE SEARCHERS is a also a meditation on the inner drives of a tormented figure and his desperate and bloodthirsty quest for vindication and revenge.  It received not one Oscar nomination (one of the biggest miscarriages of Academy justice ever) but it’s influence with its themes and visuals on modern filmmakers, from the work of Martin Scorsese (TAXI DRIVER) to George Lucas (STAR WARS), to Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Eastwood (anyone of his own revisionist westerns) cannot be overlooked.  Ford’s film remains the greatest and most significant of all the westerns.






The anguished howls of the young James Dean in Nicolas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE changed the way filmgoers viewed and responded to troubled youth.  Early portraits of teen angst were largely invisible before REBEL, but with its release in 1955 the cinema was unalterably affected in how is took a decidedly sympathetic look at the rebellious, mentally troubled, misunderstood, middle class American teenager.  Yes, the film has dated (the problems and dilemmas that the film’s teens got themselves into seem woefully mundane by contemporary standards), but REBEL – if viewed properly in context – was a rich, stylized, and nail-biting bit of social commentary that sought to awaken American from their conformist slumber.  This reactionary work also was important in how it honed in its focus.  This might be one of the first films that I recall – historically – was made from the distinct teen point of view, not of the parents.  REBEL was a definitive springboard film in the annals of 1950’s cinema.  Not only did it help to propel two of its stars to popular heights (Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo), but it also crafted the archetypal image of James Dean as a legendary figure of brooding intensity, sullen sensitivity, and fiery charisma.






Robert Wise’s THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL may seem – at first glance – like an unusual inclusion on my list of the best of the 1950’s.  Science fiction films - in the 40’s, 50’s and even today - still do not get their due respect and credit.  Obviously, the sci-fi works of this decade were laughably inept in terms of production design, execution, and payoff.  However, Wise’s film stands boldly apart from all of the other vastly inferior works.  Yes, it was a traditional sci-fi film with familiar beats that have been repeated in countless other future films (i.e.- extraterrestrial beings visiting earth), but there was something notably different about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.  This was one of the first noteworthy sci-fi parables, a film that utilized the conventions and ideas of science fiction and married them to a story that resonated with the geo-political events of the time (this film conglomeration of real world concerns and fantastical elements predates STAR TREK by a decade).  The aliens of the film were not ostentatiously malevolent or homicidally evil.  Wise’s aliens were benign, but with an uncharacteristic twist – they come to Earth with greetings of peace and a clear-cut ultimatum: forget your warring ways, or be destroyed.  THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is easily  one of the first, great intelligent science fiction films that paved the way for future introspective works about aliens like Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and more recent works like Zemeckis’ CONTACT.  It was also a decisive film of the 1950’s, reinforcing that decade's concern with the growing Atomic Age and peoples’ growing concerns with military proliferation in the post war period.  It also managed to be a sharp attack on Cold War politics.  Other Sci-Fi films were never this involving and thoughtful in the 50’s.



10.  A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)



Moses as a Mexican!?  C’mon…I can’t be serious with this Chuck Heston starring vehicle…right?  You bet I am!   A TOUCH OF EVIL was a film that perhaps Orson Welles was born to make - a dark, ominous, mysterious and atmospheric film noir and yet another technical tour de force by the then aging director .  This was arguably Welles’ least appreciated film when it was released stateside in 1958, often lambasted as being nothing more that a B-grade, degenerate piece of sleazy, artsy filmmaking indulgence by the maverick director.  The film was also a huge flop, but it gained incredible notoriety in Europe (it went on to win Best Picture at the Brussels film Festival and was hailed as a great film noir of the year).  More than anything, critical respect for this timeless classic has grown in the last few decades, as it now can be seen as perhaps the last great film noir of the period when they were at their absolute peak (the 40’s and 50’s).  The film cheerfully teased with contemporary audience sensibilities of the time.  It was a raunchy, unorthodox, rebellious work that dived into controversial themes of racism, betrayal, drugs, and police corruption.  Its main character is a bloated and ungainly police captain and its supporting cast is a relative smorgasbord of seedy personas.  A TOUCH OF EVIL was Welles' 5th American film and, sadly, his last American one.  However, it still holds up as one of the last, most intoxicating noirs.






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