Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.
As we move into our third month of looking at the best per decade, we come across a decade where agreement is surprisingly limited. With some of the greatest filmmakers in history all working furiously to provide some of history’s greatest films, it’s really not all that surprising that we hardly agreed. Of the forty selections we made, only eight films showed up on multiple lists. That means a total of thirty-two different films made up our lists. Those eight films were All About Eve, All That Heaven Allows, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and Vertigo.
In terms of filmmakers, two directors had three films featured on our lists: Alfred Hitchcock was represented in North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Vertigo, three of the eight films with multiple mentions; and Billy Wilder with Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution.
There were five directors with two films each on the list. Stanley Donen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and co-director of Singin’ in the Rain); John Ford (The Last Hurrah and The Searchers); Elia Kazan (East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire); Akira Kurosawa (Ikiru and Seven Samurai); and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon and The Nun’s Story.
After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.
Wesley Lovell: The 1950s was a diverse decade with plenty of terrific films from various genres. It was a challenge to narrow to ten, but ultimately, I feel fairly confident about this list overall even if I could fill another list of ten to make it twenty.
Peter J. Patrick: In looking over my list of favorite 1950s films I was struck by the number of great films that were made by the same directors, so for this roundup I decided to go with my favorite film from ten favorite directors who gave us more than one to choose from. In not all cases did I pick the most obvious one, preferring to go with the film from each that I most enjoy watching over and over more than any other regardless of overall merit. With Stanley Donen, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, there was more than enough to choose from.
Tripp Burton: The 1950s are one of the great decades in film history. Hollywood was in its zenith, making bold color films and difficult black-and-white ones, while post-World War II gave birth to a plethora of great foreign directors who gained notice worldwide. It is hard to pick just 10 films from this wide lot, but I went with 10 that really strike me as devastatingly great cinematic works.
Thomas LaTourrette: I have found this the most difficult list to winnow down to ten films. I got it down to about 16 and none of the films wanted to leave. I have finally managed, but it hurt to drop some of them off the list. Rififi, La Strada, The African Queen, A Star is Born, and 12 Angry Men were very close to making the list. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s landmark film, was under consideration too. It was visually striking and stayed with me for a long time, but I found the film itself just too perplexing to finally keep it on the list. It is one I still find myself thinking about. The 50s were a great decade for film, perhaps they all are, and many have held up well.
The African Queen (1951)
(dir. John Huston) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Huston also had The Asphalt Jungle, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison this decade, but none of them hold a candle to The African Queen in my estimation. This is the first film I saw that I was aware of having won an Oscar. Told that Humphrey Bogart won but Katharine Hepburn didn’t, I couldn’t understand why even at the age of 8. That either should win over Marlon Brando or Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire became a later quandary, but that’s a matter for discussion on another day.
All About Eve (1950)
(dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – A terrific screenplay by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz forms a solid foundation for one of the most acidic and clever comedies of the 1950s. The sublime Bette Davis plays a successful Broadway star who takes an up-and-comer (Anne Baxter) under her wing only to find herself a victim of Baxter’s scheme to supplant Davis as the toast of Broadway. Baxter and Davis are terrific, as is the supporting cast that includes George Sanders, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter all giving unparalleled performances.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Joseph Mankiewicz won back-to-back double Oscars for directing and writing screenplays. His second pair were for All about Eve, a witty film about backstabbing in the theater world. A young fan insinuates her way into a star’s life and one is never sure of anyone else’s motivations. It gave Bette Davis one of her classic roles and offered great supporting parts to many. George Sanders was the only one of the five acting nominees from the film to win, and his acidic critic is a brilliant portrayal. It set a record of 14 for most Oscar nominations for a film that has never been passed, though has been tied twice. It is a gem of a film.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
(dir. Douglas Sirk) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Sirk also had All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life among his films this decade, but All That Heaven Allows with its cup half-full, half-empty title remains his most quintessential film and the one that other filmmakers most love to imitate, as proven by Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes with Far from Heaven. It’s the film that makes you think of TV in a completely different way when Jane Wyman’s kids give her one to take the place of hunky gardener Rock Hudson.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – The 1950s in Hollywood is mostly thought of for its sweeping melodrama and glorious Technicolor, and both were never on display better than All that Heaven Allows. The rich colors and visuals that director Douglas Sirk created for the film are among the most gorgeous in Hollywood history, but they are supported by a perfectly melodramatic story — it is no wonder that filmmakers have reused this story in unofficial remakes for decades since. This is an intelligent tearjerker, of a type that doesn’t come about often.
The Apu Trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959)
(dir. Satyajit Ray) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The journey from childhood to adulthood has been captured thousands of times on film, but no one got at the brutal honesty of growing up like Satyajit Ray did in The Apu Trilogy. Through three films — Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu — we follow Apu from his childhood in poverty living in the country to life in the city and a career as a writer. On the surface, everything about The Apu Trilogy seems steeped in the tropes of the genre, but Ray tackles them with such grace and humanity that they transcend everything we think we know about growing up and dealing with life.
Auntie Mame (1958)
(dir. Morton DaCosta) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – If you had been raised by an aunt like Mame Dennis, played with wit, charm, and exuberance by the unbeatable Rosalind Russell, you would have had a wonderful life. Based on the popular novel, Auntie Mame is one of the most life-affirming, hilarious comedies ever made and Russell is the one most responsible for that success with director Morton DaCosta, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Coral Browne and Peggy Cass adding terrific support.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
(dir. Robert Wise) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One of the first narrative films ever made was a French science fiction film called A Trip to the Moon. Science fiction has been an indelible part of cinema history since and The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the pinnacles. The story of an alien arriving on earth seeking peace, but finding hostility, was one of the seminal films of the 1950s with its rich socio-political allegory and iconic production design. It still remains as one of the most relevant and intelligence films of the science fiction genre.
East of Eden (1955)
(dir. Elia Kazan) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Kazan also had A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and A Face in the Crowd worthy of consideration this decade, but this adaptation of the last section of John Steinbeck’s Cain and Abel novel in which the sins of the father are visited upon his sons makes the film version of East of Eden as fine an adaptation of Steinbeck as John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath was of his earlier masterpiece. This is the film that made a star of James Dean and remains his greatest accomplishment, supported with equally fine work from Richard Davolos, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet.
The 400 Blows (1959)
(dir. François Truffaut) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The film that launched a revolution in the French New Wave, The 400 Blows is much more than just an important historical marker in the history of cinema. It is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and exciting portraits of young life ever captured on film. Anchored by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who gives a phenomenal child performance at the center of the film, François Truffaut’s autobiographical account is both gritty realism and poetic cinema wrapped into one fantastic film.
High Noon (1952)
(dir. Fred Zinnemann) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was a new kind of western, not filled with beautiful vistas or the usual certainty of right and wrong that most films of this genre had. A sheriff who has dedicated his life to cleaning up a town is getting married and is ready to leave it when he hears that one killer he has put away has been released and is coming back for him. His pacifist wife wants him to leave and the town folk are not sure that they want to engage in a bloody battle for his sake and some are openly hostile to him. The showdown is inevitable, but how it will take place is uncertain until the end. Gary Cooper deservedly won an Oscar for this.
(dir. Akira Kurosawa) Commentary By Tripp Burton – I could have filled this list with Akira Kurosawa films from the 1950s — Rashomon and Seven Samurai were serious contenders — but he never made a film as tender and humane as Ikiru. This is a great film about confronting our own mortality, but it is also a satiric look at bureaucracy and a hopeful look at what we can do with our brief time on Earth. It may not be what we think of when we think Kurosawa, but it may be his greatest achievement and is a heart-breaking masterpiece.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
(dir. Don Siegel) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, science fiction saw a resurgence of potency in the 1950s. Set against the backdrop of the Red Scare, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fascinating political commentary that remains as significant and important today as it did more than 60 years ago. The iconic narrative has been remade several times including a fantastic remake in the 1970s, but none of them hold a candle to the atmospheric original.
The Last Hurrah (1958)
(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Ford also had The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line, Mister Roberts, and The Searchers to consider this decade, but The Last Hurrah from Edwin O’Connor’s novel with its ironic old man’s title is the film that resonates most when I think of the careers of Ford and his actors, most of whom were getting in their own last hurrahs, their last chance to shine the way they used to throughout lengthy careers. Among them are Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, James Gleason, Donald Crisp, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Edward Brophy, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh, and Jane Darwell.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
(dir. Charles Laughton) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – The frightening production design of The Night of Hunter deepen the psychological thriller as it follows a murderous former preacher as he stalks a young mother and her children in search of the treasure he is certain they know the location of. Legendary actor Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is one of the greatest ever made featuring a chilling performance by Robert Mitchum who was never better and a terrifically terrified Shelley Winters. It is one of the most important films made in the 1950s that fewer people know than should.
A Night to Remember (1958)
(dir. Roy Ward Baker) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Watching this film again this past week made me realize how much I still enjoy it. Filmed on a small budget with mostly little known, at least to American audiences, British actors, this is a film about the sinking of the Titanic adapted from Walter Lord’s book. It captures life for people in the first and second classes, steerage and the crew, from the captain down to the radio operators and a cook. Once the ship has struck the iceberg, it grows tense as one waits to find out what will happen to all of them. It is a low key, but very well done film.
North by Norhtwest (1959)
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Alfred Hitchcock continued his delivery of thrilling masterworks well into the 1950s with this story of a mistaken identity leading an ordinary man (Cary Grant) on an adventure across the country, including the iconic scenes featuring a cropduster and the face of Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock’s inventive visual style has been imitated a lot since his passing, but among his most memorable films, North by Northwest is handily one of his most accessible, even if not his absolute best.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. An advertising executive, ably played by Cary Grant, is mistaken for a spy and murderer and has to flee cross country. James Mason made for a terrific bad man and Eva Marie Saint is good as the woman who helps him but may be involved in nefarious deeds too. The movie boasts two of the most famous of Hitchcock’s scenes, Cary Grant being attacked by a crop dusting plane and later climbing on the face of Mount Rushmore. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman said he wanted to write the “Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” and he pretty well succeeded.
The Nun’s Story (1959)
(dir. Fred Zinnemann) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Zinnemann excelled this decade with High Noon and From Here to Eternity among others, but his greatest accomplishment was his film version of Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story based on the life of a Belgian ex-nun. It was the first film in which the religious life was shown to be less than ideal, causing a major crack in the Hollywood Production Code. Audrey Hepburn was never better and Zinnemann gets equally fine performances from Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Ruth White, Barbara O’Neill, and Colleen Dewhurst.
Paths of Glory (1957)
(dir. Stanley Kubrick) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Before he butted heads with producer Kirk Douglas on Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick had been a studio player, directing a handful of atmospheric features, culminating with this anti-war drama starring Douglas in the role of a conscientious colonel leading what he believes to be a suicide mission. Kubrick’s well-heeled narrative style had already taken hold and while this might be his most accessible film, it is certainly not his most politically docile.
Rear Window (1954)
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Gimmicks in cinema aren’t unheard of and while Hitchcock wasn’t remotely the first, he was certainly among the best. While the concept at the heart of his 1948 film Rope didn’t work as well as had hoped, the gimmick he employed with Rear Window was carried out with great success. The story of a wheelchair-bound photographer who swears he’s witnessed a neighbor murder and bury his wife featured everyman James Stewart in his second of four collaborations with the director. The end result is a taut drama filmed exclusively from within Stewart’s apartment.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – When asked what the greatest movie ever made is, I usually answer Rear Window. Not only is this Alfred Hitchcock at his best, with every shot framed to perfection and every cut carefully executed, but it also challenges the act of moviegoing ourselves. It is about being a voyeur, and spending your time watching someone else’s life through a framed box; as we spy on Jimmy Stewart spying on other people, Hitchcock is cleverly testing why we go to the movies at all. But this is still vintage Hitchcock, so this is all undercurrent to an entertaining, tense journey filled with lovely blondes, gorgeous set pieces, and a deceptively funny script. It is pure entertainment and deep cinema all rolled into one.
The Searchers (1956)
(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Tripp Burton – John Ford’s seminal western has been cited as an influence on generations of filmmakers that followed. Watching the film, you see why it had such a grand influence. The film is action-packed, but it is also dark and thoughtful in its characterization of a true antihero in search of a missing niece. It is everything that Ford was masterful at doing, and one of the great westerns ever made.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
(dir. Stanley Donen) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Donen peaked this decade with such films as Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, and Damn Yankees, but the most joyous of his great screen musicals was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Jane Powell as the shocked newlywed and Howard Keel as the husband who really wanted a maid, have never been better, and neither have any of the other brothers and brides-to-be including Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Julie Newmar, Virginia Gibson, and Ruta Lee. Every scene and every song in it is a treasure.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This tuneful MGM musical may not be as well-known as some, but it boasts some of the most energetic choreography put on screen. It also boasted a brand new score. The eldest of the seven brothers goes to town and finds a bride and his brothers are jealous. His wife tries to refine the men and takes them to a barn raising to show them off. The ensuing dance and fight is exhilarating to watch. The younger brothers finally decide to take things into their own hands and kidnap six women, which sounds bad but it does all end happily. It never tries to look like more than a backlot filmed show, but the memorable music and the rousing dance numbers put it a notch above a lot of the other musicals of the age.
Seven Samurai (1954)
(dir. Akira Kurosawa) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This will probably always be known as Akira Kurosawa’s most famous film. A group of desperate farmers hire a group of samurai to protect them from armed robbers who will steal all of the food they are raising. For the samurai, it is a step down from their usual work as they will not be paid nor get any glory for it, but they finally decide that it is a cause worth fighting and dying for. The samurai also train the villagers how to fight back. The action scenes are intense, but very bloodless compared to modern films. It is a long film, but it never feels it.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
(dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly) Commentary By Tripp Burton – If you’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain, chances are you have still seen a lot of the film through montages and clip shows — from the title number to Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the joyous “Good Mornin’” to the classic shot of Gene Kelly finishing up his epic dream ballet by opening up his smile and arms to the camera. More than just a series of great set pieces, however, Singin’ in the Rain is a sharp satire of classic Hollywood and a clever play on the tropes of the American musical. It is everything wonderful about big Hollywood musicals rolled into one fantastic film.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Unlike some of the other MGM musicals, this mostly used older songs from earlier musicals. When it was first released, it was only a modest hit, but has taken on legendary status. Set during the transition of films from silent to talkies, the film has a suave Gene Kelly as a matinee idol, Donald O’Connor as his vaudeville partner, Debbie Reynolds as the young ingénue, and Jean Hagen as one of the best dumb blondes ever put on screen. It does not try to be deep, but it is a lot of fun.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
(dir. Billy Wilder) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This delightful Billy Wilder comedy follows two musicians who accidently witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre. While fleeing from the mob, they end up dressing as women and joining an all-female band that has Marilyn Monroe as its lead singer. Of course lots of hijinks occur over the course of the film with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in and out of drag, and Monroe in one of her finest screen roles as Sugar. It’s all a dizzying delight.
A Star Is Born (1954)
(dir. George Cukor) Commentary By Tripp Burton – With its bold color scheme, dark undertones, and seering score of songs, A Star Is Born remains one of the most powerful and moving musicals to ever come out of Hollywood. This isn’t as easy as most of Hollywood’s song-and-dance output, but it is still filled with joyous moments and some of Judy Garland’s most gorgeous singing.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
(dir. Elia Kazan) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This Elia Kazan-directed film is a feast of method acting. Marlon Brando made a huge splash recreating his Broadway role and showed a new way to act on film. I always will wonder what Jessica Tandy would have become if she had been allowed to take Blanche from Broadway to the screen, but the role went to better known Vivien Leigh who had played it in London and is devastatingly good as the deluded southern belle. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden also reprised their Broadway roles and won Oscars, along with Leigh. It is a very moody and atmospheric film.
(dir. David Lean) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Between Hobson’s Choice, his last black-and-white film, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, the first of the literate spectacles that would define the remainder of his career, came Lean’s first color film, the exquisite Summertime based on Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo. Beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, the cuckoo is Katharine Hepburn at her most unforgettable as a middle-aged spinster who spends her life savings on a trip to Venice before settling down to a life of loneliness. There, against her instincts, she falls in love with a man she can never have.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
(dir. Billy Wilder) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Billy Wilder could lean on the cynical at times, but he perhaps was never darker or more weary of the world he helped create than in Sunset Boulevard. This Hollywood satire is among the darker films to come out of the studio system, merging the film noir styles that Wilder helped pioneer with an epic Hollywood tragedy and a larger-than-life melodramatic flair. The acting is superior, the film is thrilling and funny and touching, and it remains the quintessential look at a bygone era of American artistry.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Gloria Swanson had the role of a lifetime when she played Norma Desmond, a silent film star who has faded into obscurity. When a screenwriter ends up at her house by mistake, she decides to have him collaborate on what she knows will be her triumphant return to film. Miss Desmond may be delusional, but Billy Wilder and others wrote such a canny script that the audience ends up rooting for her to succeed despite long odds and the fear that she really is mad. Swanson is amazing in the role and has able support from William Holden and Erich von Stroheim. Truly, Mr. DeMille, she was ready for her closeup.
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
(dir. Vincente Minnelli) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Minnelli was at his most prolific this decade in which he gave us everything from An American in Paris and The Bad and the Beautiful early into it and Gigi and Some Came Running at the end of it, but reached his zenith in the middle of it with Lust for Life and Tea and Sympathy with the latter, his adaptation of Robert Anderson’s play, representing the best the director was capable of. Repeating their stage roles, John Kerr as the sensitive student and Deborah Kerr as the house mother who gives him comfort and a great deal more are nothing less than sublime.
Touch of Evil (1958)
(dir. Orson Welles) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While this film wasn’t the last one Orson Welles made, it is generally considered his last truly great movie. The film surrounds an incident where a car bomb leads to an examination of tensions along the American-Mexican border. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are at the center of the drama, which features one of the greatest long takes in cinema history, a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot. Welles was one of the most inventive filmmakers ever to work in the medium and this was one of his best.
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – As the 1950s were coming to a close, Alfred Hitchcock was making one of his best films, his final collaboration with James Stewart. Vertigo tells the story of a police detective forced into private practice thanks to his fear of heights and titular vertigo. As a private investigator, he’s hired to follow a client’s wife (Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely. The film weaves together a fascinating mystery that only gets better with age. After this, he would only make two more arguably great films, and neither of them (North by Northwest or Psycho) would be better than this film.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Hitchcock warmed us up with Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much and followed it with North by Northwest, but if he had made only Vertigo this decade it would have been enough to guarantee him a place on this list. Critics of the day gave it scant praise but now fall all over themselves proclaiming it the greatest film Hollywood ever made. James Stewart’s obsessive detective suffering from acrophobia and Kim Novak’s mysterious object of his obsession share the spotlight with the San Francisco bay area in all its glory.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
(dir. Ingmar Bergman) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Often imitated but never matched, Ingmar Bergman’s tale of a dying professor reflecting on his life is one of his more accessible film. It is just as devastating as most of his output, but there is something tender with the way he deals with the professor character and enough glimpses of hope to not completely devastate the viewer. With one of the great ensemble casts, filled with most of Bergman’s regulars, this is a mandatory film for film lovers.
Witness for the Prosecution (1958)
(dir. Billy Wilder) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Wilder gave us the cynical Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and Stalag 17 before and the hilarious Some Like It Hot after Witness for the Prosecution, but his expanded version of Agatha Christie’s hit play (based on her own novel) shows his fertile mind could still be mischievous even when adapting someone else’s work. Wilder gave Tyrone Power what would be his last completed film, Marlene Dietrich her best screen role, Charles Laughton his best in decades, and even invented an entire character for Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester to play as well as tacking on multiple surprises to the already surprising ending.