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.
THE 25 BEST MOVIES OF THE 1950s
- North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock (1959)
- Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
- Forbidden Games, René Clément (1952)
- Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)
- The Nights of Cabiria, Federico Fellini (1957)
- The Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa (1954)
- Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu (1959)
- Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Jacques Tati (1953)
- Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly (1952)
- Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray (1955)
- Umberto D, Vittorio de Sica (1952)
- The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel (1956)
- Touch of Evil, Orson Welles (1958)
- All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1950)
- Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder (1950)
- The Naked Spur, Anthony Mann (1953)
- The Earrings of Madame de, Max Ophüls (1952)
- The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959)
- Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli (1956)
- Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville (1955)
- Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel (1950)
- The River, Jean Renoir (1951)
- Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich (1955)
- The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957)
- 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.