Let me take you back 60 years to a much simpler time in America. Americans were wealthy again, post-WWII. There was a rise in the middle-class. Things like television sets and cars were becoming more of necessities than luxuries. Rock n’ Roll changed the way people listened to music. Things like diners, fast food restaurants, and drive-in movie theaters were becoming bigger than ever. And people were making a lot of babies. Yes, I’m talking about the 1950s of course, and what a glorious decade it was. Especially for film.
This was the final era for the Hollywood Golden Age. Some of the great actors, actresses, and directors of the previous two decades were making some of their final films. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Akira Kurosawa would go on to make their masterpieces. Also this decade launched the careers of some of the most recognizable faces ever in cinema like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. Monroe and Dean would die at a very young age, so they would always be recognized as the superstars that they were during this time, and really have this timeless quality to them that makes them even more fascinating to watch to this day.
As I mentioned earlier, most Americans had television sets, and this hurt the film business drastically. Going to the movie theaters became a thing of the past, and most people preferred to just stay at home and watch things on television. It saved them a lot of money, and they were able to watch things like comedies, westerns, crime thrillers in the comfort of their own home. 77% of Americans purchased their first TV sets in this decade, and with television’s growing popularity, there was a decline in movie revenues. Hollywood was thus prompted to seek ways to draw audiences back to the theaters. Movies, in return, had much larger aspect ratios, were primarily in color (TV was always in black and white at this time), and studios even forbade their movies and stars to appear on the small screen at all, fearful that TV might destroy film-going all together. As I mentioned, there was a major decline in movie revenue, and the studio system declined as well. Filmmakers had more power than the big studio heads. Even though the rivalry of TV and film hurt the business of Hollywood, it forced filmmakers to think outside the box and in return “modernize” film in ways that are still true to this day.
The 1950s simply was when films started to look like they do today. Even actors started to act more realistically thanks to Marlon Brando and James Dean’s revolutionary way of acting. It was called “method acting” and was a new generation of acting style that was much more gritty and raw and would influence actors like Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino in the 1970s. Science Fiction films like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still were taken more seriously, westerns and musicals were as popular as ever, and epics were as significant as they would be in the 1950s. Because of the much larger aspect ratio and use of color, films like The Ten Commandments, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Ben-Hur were massive successes at the box office and during award season.
This list is going to include my personal favorite films of this era, and what I believe to be movies that still hold up extremely well today and still have something to speak about. This is not a list simply based on what are the “greatest” movies, so it may not be as obvious as some other lists, and I will probably leave out some movies that are considered classics, but I don’t like as much as other ones. I am using this to share films that people should watch even 60 years later, and that mean a lot to me personally. So, with all that being said, here are my top 25 movies from the 1950s, starting with numbers 25-16.
Honorable Mentions: All About Eve, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Band Wagon, Paths of Glory, Nights of Cabiria
25. Umberto D. (1952)
Why? Powerful Italian neo realism film directed by the great Vittorio De Sica. This stars Carlo Battisti in the title role as an honest and respectable elderly man who has been driven to poverty in post-WWII Italy. This was not only Battisti’s very first film role, but the only one he will ever do. He gives an incredibly deep and personal performance. There are some other memorable characters like his dog Flike, the greedy and selfish landlady, and the young and pregnant maid who bonds with Umberto throughout the film.
The film is very sad, but De Sica gradually lets the story play out, realistically, like it is actually happening in real life and he’s documenting it. Like all the great Italian films during this time, Umberto D. is very powerful, but also expressed in full realism. There is no silly gimmicks or unrealistic actions between character to make it fall out-of-place. It’s just a straightforward linear story, with characters that have a lot of depth, in a setting that feels like it is decaying and being taken over by ants.
Fun Fact: Legendary filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, cited Umberto D. as his favorite film.
24. In a Lonely Place (1950)
Why? Stellar performances, especially from Humphrey Bogart who gives the performance of his career as a temperamental Hollywood screenwriter who is wanted for murder. Director Nicholas Ray proved to have been a perfect match for Bogart, and one could only wonder how many more films they would have made together if not for their age difference or Bogart’s early death.The film uses the typical Hollywood romance you normally see on-screen and dissects it. It shows us things, behind the scenes, that we wouldn’t normally see.
Fun Fact: In her essay “Humphrey and Bogey,” Louise Brooks wrote that more than any other role that Humphrey Bogart played, it was the role of Dixon Steele in this movie that came closest to the real Bogart she knew.
23. Rashomon (1950)
Why? Akira Kurosawa described his film as “a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings.”
Through an inventive use of camera and flashbacks, Kurosawa reveals the complexities of human nature as four people recount their own versions of the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife. Rashomon brilliantly depicts how we can be dishonest with others, and even ourselves to better a situation and make us feel grander than we actually are. Also interprets how all men are motivated by self-interest. You can watch this film over and over from different perspectives and get something new from it each time. You can sit and ponder your own theories. This film is art because it is not explained to us. It is shown in an ambiguous way and allows us to decide exactly what it means.
Fun Fact: In the downpour scenes showing the Rashomon Gate, Akira Kurosawa found that the rain in the background simply wouldn’t show up against the light gray backdrop. To solve this problem, the crew ended up tinting the rain by pouring black ink into the tank of the rain machine.
22. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Why? A great Billy Wilder film that ages like a fine wine. Kirk Douglas gives one of the best performances of his career as a desperate newspaper journalist, who does whatever he can to gain publicity by manipulating a man stuck in a cave.
Fun Fact: When the film was released, it got bad reviews and lost money. The studio, without Billy Wilder’s permission, changed the title to “The Big Carnival” to increase the box office take of the film.
21. High Noon (1952)
Why? A morality play that just so happens to be a western. High Noon tells the story of a local town sheriff, Will Kane, who learns that local criminal Frank Miller has been set free and is coming to seek revenge on him for turning him in. The film takes place in just one day, in just one location, but not one second is wasted. The tension builds, and director Fred Zimmerman does this by repeatedly reminding us that the clock is ticking. The climax is extremely well done and affective. A very well made, tense western with also a great soundtrack!
Fun Fact: In 1951, after 25 years in show business, Gary Cooper’s professional reputation was in decline and he was dropped from the Motion Picture Herald’s list of the top 10 Box Office performers. In the following year he made a big comeback, at the age of 51, with this film.
20. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Why? I’m sure most of you have seen this American classic, or at least heard of it. Sidney Lumet directs this masterpiece that is very similar to High Noon in how it all takes place in one day, and one location, and gets more and more tense as the film goes a long. Lumet and his position of the camera from high angle to low angle (above and below eye level) is what makes this film absolutely brilliant. You can say the writing and acting are great, but that’s obvious. What people don’t mention enough of is what Lumet did with his camera to heighten tension and provoke claustrophobia.
Fun Fact: Sidney Lumet had the actors all stay in the same room for hours on end and do their lines over and over without filming them. This was to give them a real taste of what it would be like to be cooped up in a room with the same people.
19. Touch of Evil (1958)
Why? One of the great film noirs of all time, and the last true classic film noir. A genre that ruled Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. The ethical debate of law, ethics, and human behavior between the viewpoints of Orson Welles’ character and Charlton Heston’s character is very fascinating and is still very relevant today. This film isn’t necessarily so black and white. Pretty much all the characters here are morally grey and not totally evil or totally heroic which makes the film more fascinating.
The way the camera moves in this film is like no other movie. It’s fascinating to watch. It also has one of the great opening scenes in film history that is entirely one shot.
Fun Fact: This was the last film Orson Welles directed in Hollywood, and unfortunately was never able to see a final cut of the film how he wanted it to look. He famously wrote an 80 page memo begging the studio producers to release the film how he attended to, but it was ignored by the studio. It wasn’t until 1998 when famous Hollywood editor, Walter Murch, edited a final cut based on the memo that Welles had written. Unfortunately Welles was already dead by then, and was never able to see the version.
18. To Catch a Thief (1955)
Why? Man, I love this movie. To be fair, it isn’t as “great” as some of Hitchcock’s best films like Psycho or Rear Window, but it’s still super entertaining. It stars two of Hollywood’s most glamorous screen legends Cary Grant, as a former notorious cat burglar, and Grace Kelly as a woman who gets robbed by an unknown person, suspected to be Grant’s character. To Catch a Thief has a tight and flirtatious script, and beautiful Technicolor cinematography all in a beautiful France setting. There’s plenty of gorgeous establishing shots of France and its beautiful architecture and landscapes. A real treat and one that isn’t as dark and complex as some of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but still very much enjoyable just for how fun and intriguing it is.
Fun Fact: On 14 September 1982, Grace Kelly was killed in an automobile accident in Monaco, supposedly on the very same road as her famous chase scene in this film and not far from where she had a picnic scene with Cary Grant. She was 52 years old and lost control of her car after apparently suffering a stroke while at the wheel.
17. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Why? One of Hitchcock’s darker films. It tells the story of a psychotic socialite, played wonderfully by Robert Walker, who confronts a pro tennis star with a theory on how two complete strangers can get away with murder. A theory that he plans to implement himself. The film takes many unexpected twists and turns, features some of Hitchcock’s greatest directing maneuvers, and has a thrilling climax on a carousel at an amusement park.
Fun Fact: The stunt where the man crawled under the carousel was not done with trick photography. Alfred Hitchcock claimed that this was the most dangerous stunt ever performed under his direction, and would never allow it to be done again.
16. The 400 Blows (1959)
Why? A moving story of a young boy, named Antoine, who, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime. This was based heavily on director François Truffaut’s own life growing up. It speaks about how children can be affected with growing up in a dysfunctional household and how their innocence can lead them to very dark places unintentionally. A great film that isn’t afraid to go places it needs to, but also doesn’t feel too depressing. There are some joyous moments as well as some really sad ones. Also has one of the best final shots in film history.
Fun Fact: All the young actors who unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Antoine were used in the classroom scenes.