Whether the most important movie of the decade was Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront, it was a movie directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan, by the way, testified on behalf of the UnAmerican Activities Commission and pointed the finger at many fellow individuals in the movie industry. That justification of this act became the impetus for On the Waterfront, a movie that otherwise seemed well made, adds only to the strangeness of the political climate in which these movies were created.
The 1950s was actually a great decade for movie experimentation. The Sci-Fi thrillers like The Incredible Shrinking Man or the Godzilla movies brought over from Japan, movies aimed squarely at the problems of teens like The Wild One, The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, and hard-hitting murder mysteries with political overtones like Compulsion, Night of the Hunter and Kiss Me Deadly were all excellent movies that introduced new genres and created a series of extremely bad imitations.
Here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:
(1) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): Everything comes together to make this one of the greatest movies of all time. There’s great acting (Marlon Brando in his first starring role and Vivien Leigh in her last great performance), a tremendous story (based on the play by Tennessee Williams), and outstanding direction (Elia Kazan before he sold out). Brando as the savage Stanley Kowalski and Leigh as the fragile Blanche DuBois share a tenement together when they shouldn’t even remain together in Louisiana. Don’t watch this if you’re looking for some light entertainment.
(2) Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Though I’ve seen this movie several times, I’m always struck by how bizarre it is. We see James Dean as a drunken teenager smiling at a flower; a high school class on a field trip watches a simulation of the universe exploding; we have a knife fight outside of a planetarium; a chicken run takes place high up in the Hollywood hills; there’s a shootout in a Beverly Hills mansion; and we have Jim Backus wearing a kitchen apron to symbolize how he’s been neutered. James Dean completely overacts in this one, but the movie works.
(3) Night of the Hunter (1955): Robert Mitchum as a deranged religious fanatic can never be outdone for creepiness. (However, Mitchum almost equals this performance a few years later as the ex-con in the original Cape Fear.) To show how far he can go, Mitchum goes after some orphans for money allegedly stolen by their father – all in the name of God.
(4) East of Eden (1955): While others in the movie industry were out of work, Elia Kazan directed his third great movie of the decade. It’s extremely ironic that the greatest depiction in movie history of a novel by John Steinbeck (a writer long renowned for his leftist leanings) should be credited to a star witness of Joseph McCarthy. James Dean plays his greatest role.
(5) Seven Samurai (1954): Probably the most famous movie ever made that required subtitles. This Japanese movie directed by Kurosawa is like a great western – only the warriors fight with Samurai swords and are more than one-dimensional characters.
(6) Paths of Glory (1957): Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, it’s about three French soldiers tried and executed for refusing to fight for a commander who fired on them to make them advance during World War I. Kirk Douglas does a marginal job of acting while playing the lawyer who defends the men, but the story is so powerful that it really doesn’t matter.
(7) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956): This Rod Serling production was made for television and filmed live in studio on what must have been an extremely small budget. Starring Jack Palance, it is far superior to that of the Hollywood version later released starring Anthony Quinn. Palance plays a tough boxer who is now a “has been” and who is no longer welcome to fight in the ring. His trainer played by Ed Wynn (the man who used to appear in the Cracker Jack commercials - and whose acting in this movie is extraordinary) is one of the few people who can see the self-worth hidden behind all of the scars of the ex-boxer.
(8) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): “Lies and mendacity!” Burl Ives line in this movie loudly projects what the Tennessee Williams play was all about. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are the pretty couple that spend most of the movie yelling at each other, and they do a good enough job in support to allow Ives to take over the entire show.
(9) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957): This is one of the most remarkably strange science fiction movies ever made, and it’s all about a man who finds himself estranged from the rest of the universe as he shrinks to the size of the atoms around him. The victim, being of a philosophical bent and strong believer in existentialism, achieves a sense of freedom in the end as he has a whole new universe to explore.
(10) Ben Hur (1959): At times, this movie is grubbily sentimental. Fortunately, Charleston Heston as Ben Hur, who is often so bellicose in other movies, tones down his desire to overact. The battle at sea and the chariot race are, of course, probably the best action sequences in any movie ever made. But the death scene of Stephen Boyd as Messala (in agony, he still receives cruel joy by telling Ben Hur that his sister and mother are alive in a leper colony) is what turned this movie for me from a biblical epic to a great movie.
There are too many honorable mentions to describe in detail. The Bridge on the River Kwai is worth watching because of the acting of Alec Guiness as the British Colonel gone mad; Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train presents Robert Walker as the most memorable stalker in movie history; Thunder Road is a low budget movie with Robert Mitchum as the small time bootlegger who attempts to defy the mob and the feds; and The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman’s weird apocalyptic drama about the Black Plague during the middle ages, the second coming of Christ, and a knight’s chess game with death. All About Eve, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets are definitely worth watching for very different reasons.
Significant omissions include From Here to Eternity, Sunset Blvd and Twelve Angry Men. Perhaps because these movies were so talked up and I knew so much before seeing them, I couldn’t really enjoy them as much as I hoped. I’ve never thought of Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity) as a great actor; William Holden (Sunset Blvd) I’ve enjoyed in some movies and not in others; and Henry Fonda (Twelve Angry Men) is a much better actor when he’s not so preachy.
Of movies I’ve never seen, I would like to see The Big Heat and The Steel Helmet – just to name a couple.
January 3, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007