Monday, April 6, 2009

The Best Movies of the 1950s

The outstanding blogsite Wonders in the Dark has for the last couple of months been covering the best films of the 1950s, with the 50 best of the decade counted down by Allan Fish. Additionally, Allan and his co-contributor Sam Juliano—frequent visitors to The Movie Projector will recognize Sam as a regular and most articulate commenter—have been soliciting personal top-25 lists from their readers in preparation for collating the results into a ranked list of the 50 best movies of the 1950s. After spending the last few weeks filling in some (but alas, not all) of the more conspicuous gaps in my knowledge of the best-regarded films of this decade, I have finally submitted my own list.

I began with a list of 63 movies from the 1950s—31 American, 7 British, and 25 foreign-language films. These are the movies that over the years I have seen and deemed worthy of a full **** rating. Narrowing the list down to 25 proved to be quite a feat. I began with two ground rules.

First, I wanted at least a few of the movies to be English-language films. The 1950s were a rough time for the American film industry, which was essentially set adrift by the dissolution of the major studios. The decade saw the rise of producer-directors like Otto Preminger and Stanley Kramer, the creation of independent production companies like Hill-Hecht-Lancaster and the Mirisch Brothers, and the increased power of non-studio distributors like United Artists. The situation was further complicated by the advent of television—which gradually appropriated the B-movie and low-budget market, the source of many creative filmmakers and film ideas during the studio era—and the conflict between the desire of filmmakers to explore more adult themes and the still-powerful stranglehold of the Production Code on subject matter and presentation.

American filmmakers of the 1950s were also artistically confused. Encouraged by the creativity of foreign directors and by the ideas of contemporary film critics about directors being responsible for the "authorship" of their movies, many directors asserted their newly recognized status by pushing the boundaries of subjects and filmmaking styles considered acceptable. If American directors sincerely wanted to make more artistic movies, their artistic impulses were often undermined by uncertainty about exactly what constituted an artistic approach.

Real cinematic art was often subordinated to the belief that art was somehow synonymous with significance—tackling serious social issues head-on and making large thematic statements. This belief led too often to dull, pretentious, and overblown "message" pictures that made Hollywood feel good about its serious-mindedness but today seem relics of a naive and unsubtle mindset. As a result, when an objective standard of artistic quality is applied to the movies of the 1950s, the decade is dominated by foreign-language movies, particularly Continental and Japanese films.

As for British cinema, the 1950s were a comparatively barren decade, nowhere near as fecund as the 1940s—when cinema geniuses like Carol Reed, Michael Powell, and David Lean created one masterpiece after another—or the 1960s, which produced the memorable films of the British New Wave directed by the likes of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Jack Clayton, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson, and Bryan Forbes. In the U.K. the 1950s were most memorable for the later Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers.

The other ground rule I established at the outset was to include only one work per director on the final list. Otherwise I ran the risk of having the list dominated by a handful of personal favorites, masters working at the height of their powers during the 1950s. The two greatest dilemmas I faced with this self-imposed stricture were choosing which film by Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa to include.

With Hitchcock, it came down to Vertigo or North by Northwest. The question I asked myself was "Would I rather be disturbed (by Vertigo) or entertained (by North by Northwest, the epitome of film entertainment)?" I opted for entertainment and therefore North by Northwest. The quandary with Kurosawa, the choice between Ikiru and The Seven Samurai, was not so simple. The chief virtue of Ikiru is its focus: everything that happens in the movie evolves from the main character's fatal illness. By contrast, the chief virtue of The Seven Samurai is its scope: it deals with the full spectrum of human emotions and expresses the full range of cinematic moods from pathos to rousing action-adventure. Which to choose—microscopic focus or panoramic sweep, concentration or expansiveness? In the end I asked myself, "Which of the two would I rather watch tonight?" and chose The Seven Samurai. I also had difficulty with two other Japanese directors. For Mizoguchi, it came down to Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff, for Ozu Floating Weeds or Tokyo Story. These were really a toss-up, and I ended up going with the one I liked better, while recognizing that artistically, in both cases the two contenders were neck-and-neck.

Then I faced the perennial dilemma of exactly what is meant by the word "best." As Mick LaSalle, the movie critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, observed not long ago, when most people say "best movies" what they really mean is their favorite movies. I have written many times of the essentially subjective nature of an individual's reaction to a particular movie and why there is no right or wrong reaction to a film, a belief that certainly came into play as I whittled down my list of 60+ to a list of the 25 best. To my mind each of the films on my original list is of the highest artistic quality. Yet there is no denying that I like some of these more than others.

Bobby J, a regular commenter at Wonder in the Dark, recently proposed the concept of movies appealing simultaneously to the "three brains": the emotional brain, the intellectual brain, and the visual brain. This is an idea that makes absolute sense to me and that I have no problem embracing. When I watch a movie of artistic merit—generally the only kind I watch unless I'm feeling in a rare "guilty pleasure" mood—I find that I am watching simultaneously with all three of my movie brains. At certain points, one or more may be dominant, but for me none of the three is ever completely dormant. As I watch, I am constantly asking myself, "What is happening? Why is it happening? How is it being shown?"

The movies that ended up on my final list are ones that appeal strongly to all three of my movie brains. These are movies that not only make me admire them on a qualitative level, but that inspire emotional and narrative connection rather than detachment. Movies that invite me in rather than keep me at a distance, but that also engage my intellect and provide the appropriate level of visual stimulation. Movies whose people and the emotions they evoke, whose meaning, and whose images linger spontaneously in my memory. One last comment: In order to arrive at a ranked list, Wonders in the Dark required that titles be listed in order of preference. This didn't prove too difficult for the first ten films or so, but beyond that point my rankings are pretty arbitrary.

  1. North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock (1959)
  2. Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
  3. Forbidden Games, René Clément (1952)
  4. Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)
  5. The Nights of Cabiria, Federico Fellini (1957)
  6. The Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa (1954)
  7. Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu (1959)
  8. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Jacques Tati (1953)
  9. Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly (1952)
  10. Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray (1955)
  11. Umberto D, Vittorio de Sica (1952)
  12. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel (1956)
  13. Touch of Evil, Orson Welles (1958)
  14. All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1950)
  15. Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder (1950)
  16. The Naked Spur, Anthony Mann (1953)
  17. The Earrings of Madame de, Max Ophüls (1952)
  18. The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959)
  19. Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli (1956)
  20. Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville (1955)
  21. Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel (1950)
  22. The River, Jean Renoir (1951)
  23. Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich (1955)
  24. The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957)
  25. The Ladykillers, Alexander Mackendrick (1955)
American: Father of the Bride, A Streetcar Named Desire, Strangers on a Train, Pickup on South Street, High Noon, Roman Holiday, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, A Star Is Born, Rear Window, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Marty, The Night of the Hunter, The Killing, Funny Face, Paths of Glory, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Vertigo, Gigi, Some Like It Hot, Anatomy of a Murder

British: The Magic Box, Scrooge, Summertime, Room at the Top, Peeping Tom (a 1959 release according to Wonders in the Dark)

Foreign Language: Rashomon, Tokyo Story, Sansho the Bailiff, Ikiru, Sawdust and Tinsel, Smiles of a Summer Night, Les Diaboliques, La Strada, Throne of Blood, The Seventh Seal, Mon Oncle
Final results of the Wonders in the Dark 50 best movies of the 1950s poll have been posted.


Ed Howard said...

I think it's funny that you say that the 50s were a relatively weak decade for American cinema and then go on to list a ton of American films, both in the top 25 and in the runners-up. I could easily do an all-American top 50 for this decade and be relatively satisfied with it. None of the things you say about Hollywood cinema of the 50s are necessarily false, but they didn't seem to prevent plenty of great filmmakers from making great films. The 50s was a fairly strong decade for Hollywood if you ask me. Maybe the last overall strong decade.

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, you make a lot of sense there, can't argue with you at all. A lot of people that I know have been turned on by you to Preminger's BONJOUR TRISTESSE for example, and for that we are eternally grateful. Your own list is a veritable treasure-trove, Sir. I will venture to corroborate what you say there about the 50's as being the last truly great decade for American cinema, as there is a marked fall-off in the 60's where 17 of my 25 choices I believe are foreign language films. But then it picks up in the decades after that, especially by way of independent cinema. In any case, I have been endlessly enriched by my visits to ONLY THE CINEMA, which offers film criticism on the highest level; Ed is an amazingly prolific and quality guy! He belongs at THE NEW YORK TIMES or at THE NEW YORKER.

R. D., thanks so very very much for this red-carpet treatment in behalf of the WitD staff. We have been enriched for months now with your unending insights on the threads of so many of these masterworks. I know you embarked here on an arduous adventure, and i'm sure the upcoming 60's poll will be perhaps even a greater challenge.

Ironically, you named Mr. Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST placed at the top on your list, which those two others (REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO) were No. 1 and 2. Shows you how the man practically owned this decade, especially when you add STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH to the mix.

I will have more to say later and throughout the week on this magisterial thread, and I again want to thank you for all you have done for us, our very good friend.

Sam Juliano said...

By the way, it's great that you mentioned Bobby J's "three brains" analogy. Extraordinary stuff.

R. D. Finch said...

Ed, I didn't exactly say that the 50s were a weak decade for American movies, but that it was a "rough" and artistically "confused" decade, that with less studio control, American movies were going in all sorts of directions at once, not all of them good. What I had in mind when I wrote that was that even though a lot of American movies were on my shortlist, I foresaw that I would have to work at it to move a significant number of them to the final 25. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. As it was, only 9 of the final 25, or about a third, were American. If I had been making a list of the best 25 movies of the 30s or 40s, nearly all would have been American. So relative to those prior decades, I saw the 50s as a decade when American films were seriously challenged, perhaps even overshadowed, on the artistic level by foreign movies. I notice too that more American movies I cited came from the first half of the decade than the second half, perhaps suggesting a falling-off of overall quality as the decade progressed. Also, I've just plain seen far more American movies than foreign ones, so it was inevitable that a lot of American movies would be under consideration. I guess watching so many movies on TV, especially on TCM, is largely responsible for this. I didn't see my first foreign-language movie until I was in college. I always have problems comparing American movies to foreign ones. My ideal list would separate the two into best English-language movies and best foreign-language movies. To me one of the sensible things the Oscars do is to make this distinction (although the way they choose the foreign-language films leaves much to be desired).

You did have a point, though, and made it clearly, and I thank your for your comments. I am always on the lookout myself for generalizations that don't seem to be supported by the specifics and am quick to point them out!

John said...

R.D. – I am in awe of your list, many of the same films would appear on my own. While I love “North by Northwest” , I have to admit I would select “Rear Window” as the best Hitchcock film. I love the challenge Hitch took with this film working within a confined space yet making a film that is so visual or as Hitchcock says "pure cinema.” For me, Hitchcock’s work reached its highest peak in the 1950’s.
I was glad to see your recognition of Minnelli’s “Lust for Life”, a film that I always felt was one of the best films on the subject of an artist life (along with Peter Watkins’s “Edvard Munch”) . Minnelli’s use of colors is extraordinary.

As you mention, making list is such a subjective task and most people when they make a list of the ‘best” mean their favorites. When reading best of lists you have to take them with the proverbial grain of salt, unless you are familiar with the taste of the person who is compiling the list. In your case, I have great respect for your taste, as I do for the gentlemen at Wonders in the Dark, yet all you have to do is take a look at IMDB and some of the lists there and it can be scary on what some folks consider the best. That said, I look at your list as one of recommendations, for the films I have yet to have seen. “Ugetsu”, “Forbidden Games” and “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” to name a few.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks so very much for the compliments John. I agree with everything you say there, but ironically, while you would choose REAR WINDOW, and R.D. would choose NORTH BY NORTHWEST (as he did in fact) I believe VERTIGO as the greatest, narrowly edging out REAR WINDOW. But this just shows you how great an artist Hitch is. It's true that R.D. has championed some superlative films here, and that it IS scary when you look at some of those list on the IMDB.

I must say though John, that for me EDVARD MUNCH (I'm a big Watkins fan) is tops in that genre, but LUST FOR LIFE if a bit uneven is still a valid choice, and I applaud R. D. for bringing it up.

Joe said...

Great list. I saw it of course last week, but it's great to read about the machinations that preceded the listing. I think it's bold and exciting to place "North by Northwest" at #1.

Anonymous said...

R.D.,I must admit are a lot of these films that I haven't seen, as I tend to concentrate more on the 1930s and 40s - but I'd like to see more 50s films and will use your list for recommendations, along with the one from Wonders in the Dark.

Sam Juliano said...

HAPPY EASTER to you and your family, R.D.

Sam Juliano said...

The downside to blogging is that on occasion what you WRITE is NOT what you mean. In other words, it comes out in a way that it can be rightly read as far differently than intended.

R.D. Finch has been a dear friend to Wonders in the Dark over the past months, and I'm afraid I have issued unintended insult to him on this thread, which frankly is the very last thing I wanted to do here.

When I said THIS to Ed Howard:

"Ed, you make a lot of sense there, can't argue with you at all..."

I was referring to the LATTER part of his comment to R.D.:

"The 50s was a fairly strong decade for Hollywood if you ask me. Maybe the last overall strong decade."

That is what I was referring to when I evinced agreement with Ed. I was NOT in any way expressing any kind of agreement with the earlier contention. I didn't feel it was a serious charge in any case, and that R.D. would be able to explain his own position, which he most certainly did.

I could have defended R.D. (and would have) except for the fact that I didn't feel there was any issue here. R.D. could (and did) explain himself quite well as I knew he would.

I feel terrible about this whole business, and I apologize to my good friend for the apparent insult I have given him here.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, no offense was taken at your comments in any way, and no apology is necessary. I appreciate all your comments and respect your opinions, which are always thoughtful and respectful.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much for that reassurance, and my apologies for a lamentable mis-read on my part, my very good friend.