Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1950s

Often seen as a stepping stone to the more experimental sixties, the fifties offered some low-key cinematic experimentations in itself. Hollywood continued to focus on their traditional popular genres like Musicals and Westerns, but even in those parameters one can determine some variation and expansion taking hold. And this was mostly down to a subtle groundswell of protest against the toxic conservatism invading American post-war politics, epitomised by anti-communist McCarthyism that begun to have an impact on Hollywood in the late 1940s. Foreign-born filmmakers like Otto Preminger (The Moon is Blue) and Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life) introduced sub-texts that challenged the ideals of conservative American values, while directors like Elia Kazan (East of Eden) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) pushed boundaries with respective liberal notions about sex and youthful expression. The Hays Code begun to be broken (and often accepted by Hollywood studios), and by the end of the fifties the battle against McCarthyism was seemingly being won. Conversely though, Hollywood’s Studio System lost its grip on a more independent-looking industry. Stars like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster became producers of their own films, and emerging super-stars like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Marlon Brando honed a wholly different, and liberalised, idea of celebrity.

It is notable how American films went full-on international in the 1950s. From John Huston’s The African Queen in 1951 to William Wyler’s Ben Hur in 1959, the catalyst was set for more realistic-looking epics, co-produced with American and European money. And those movies, with the help of expanding technologies (things like CinemaScope and VistaVision), looked bigger and better. Indeed, this was seen as necessary to ensure continued engagement with an audience distracted by an invention taking hold in their homes: the television. Alas, even as Western shows became the most popular thing on the small screen (Rawhide, The Virginian, Maverick, Bonanza, Gunsmoke), the decade saw the most extraordinary visual masterpieces in the Western genre on the big screen – High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959).

European, Japanese and even Indian cinema also began to excel and reach audiences around the world, and this was thanks mainly to the increased appeal and glamour of the international film festivals. Stars like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida in Italy and Brigitte Bardot in France established their sizzling sex appeal that was on a par with Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. A World Cinema was certainly starting to form, and ideas were being shared across the oceans. Filmmakers like Robert Bresson in France, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, Federico Fellini in Italy and Akira Kurosawa in Japan, with their astounding creativity, became increasingly influential on American directors. The theory of cinema broke away from its shell and found boundless possibilities in the ever-expanding globalised world.

The 1950s is featured prominently on the Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time with 20 films currently sitting in the top 100. With the masters Hitchcock and Kurosawa at their prime, it is unsurprising that five of their respective films feature. The rise in quality of European, Japanese and Indian films from this time is very much reflective also:

  • A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) (=95)
  • Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) (=90)
  • Madame de… (1953, Max Ophuls) (=90)
  • Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder) (=78)
  • Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) (=75)
  • Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) (=75)
  • Journey to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini) (=72)
  • The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut) (=50)
  • Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) (=48)
  • North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock) (=45)
  • Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa) (=41)
  • Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder) (=38)
  • Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock) (=38)
  • Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) (35)
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton) (=25)
  • Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) (20)
  • The Searchers (1956, John Ford) (15)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1951, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen) (10)
  • Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujirõ Ozu) (4)
  • Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) (2)

All of these make sense to me – although I may argue that the two sequels to Pather Panchali (making up Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’) deserve to be alongside it, and I think Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds should be in the top 100 too? The fifties were such an exceptional decade for film and so much so, that it was not very difficult for me to find a further five features to discuss here.

Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)

Given the enduring popularity of Akira Kurosawa’s two samurai masterpieces from the early fifties (Rashomon and Seven Samurai), the film he made between those two can often be overlooked. But be under no illusions, Ikiru is a masterpiece, just of a different, less ostentatious kind. Kurosawa’s co-written screenplay has recently been re-adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro and made into a British film with a critically acclaimed performance by Bill Nighy. But of course, I think the original is best. Takashi Shimura (a Kurosawa’s regular), playing Kanji Watanabe, offers a tender and stoic performance of a cancer-ridden public servant who decides to shake off the monotony of his daily grind in his final months by making a difference with his work rather than just fulfilling his bureaucratic obligation.

The wonderful feeling that permeates Ikiru (which means ‘to live’) is its utter devotion to humanity. Like many of Kurosawa’s non-samurai epics, it grasps a realistic part of the modern world and explores the consequences on how we as human beings inhabit and interact with it (he also makes a point about the lack of humanity at the core of Japanese governance). In Watanabe’s doomed existence, Kurosawa carefully ensures that we are not led down a path of sadness and depression, but instead he allows for meditation and reverence to take hold. Initially, Watanabe falls into a spiral of despair, but soon finds solace and redemption in attempting to do something that will matter long after he dies. A wonderful conclusion to a wonderful film.

Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

Offering a slew of well-known stars and a high-end budget, Johnny Guitar surprisingly didn’t too well when it came out. But let’s explore the misogyny that belay its release for a moment. With a focus on Joan Crawford as the lead actress, critics from the time exclaimed that she offered a ‘sexless’ performance and ‘should stick to city lights as a background.’ It seems that sexual nuances in Westerns were too difficult for their narrow little minds to deal with. Sadly, not many films like this followed its release, probably as a result of cretins like these critics. But it remains a fantastic anomaly in the Hollywood Western canon – strange, passionate, intense, unpredictable, and remarkably un-masculine. It played with the conventions of the genre and placed people and actions into places and scenarios that they would not usually be. Having watched much of Nicholas Ray’s other work (and hearing him talk with Wim Wenders in Lightning Over Water in his later life), all of this experimentation checks out.

Crawford provides an unforgettable performance as Vienna, the fiery, piano-playing owner of a saloon that bizarrely looks like it is cut out of the side of a canyon. The townsfolk have a beef to settle with her because they do not want to see a railroad being built near their town even though she does, and she also welcomes some pretty unsavoury characters into her saloon. The titular Johnny Guitar (played by the tall, baby-faced Sterling Hayden) enters as a musician hired by Vienna, and as her ex-lover she enlists him to help with the feud. The plot is complex and winding, but it never feels overbearing. The searing, sometimes claustrophobic, but sometimes gloriously open, atmosphere envelops the viewer, and the often pointed and potent dialogue exhibits a wonderful flair that is unmatched by any Western since. I truly love this film, and I love the way Crawford inhabits a love/hate relationship with the audience as the film progresses. Mercedes McCambridge as Vienna’s bloodthirsty rival (and some would say, prospective lover), as well as Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond and John Carradine all give excellent support in what is truly an extraordinary film.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges)

Perhaps not the artiest choice, but there are some films that are widely-acclaimed, crowd-pleasing box-office successes that justify a place in my affections. I like Black Rock in a different way to how I like Johnny Guitar. It certainly is more masculine, and more astute and righteous in its messaging. However, it does contain some important sub-text, a lot of beautiful cinematography, and many memorable performances, and this is why I can get fully behind it. The film is set just after World War II and follows a mysterious man named Macreedy (played by the legendary Spencer Tracey) who rocks into a desert town looking for a Japanese-American man. The fruitless search leads Macreedy (and the viewer) into ever dangerous confrontations with the many racist and xenophobic locals, expectantly exposing a ghastly secret that the whole town is in on. 

Black Rock is one of those Westerns that may appear like all the rest, but in fact it has an underlying x-factor that raises it a measure above. John Sturges (who later gave us ‘forever classics’ in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape) expertly manages expectations throughout, and allows suspense to grip the viewer in an impressively Hitchcockian way. And it’s not completely a Western either, given its ‘modern-day’ setting – some call it a crime drama, a neo-Western or even a revisionist Western. The cast line-up is also a stand-out: Tracey is brilliant – ‘that’ judo-flip moment still produces tears of joy; Robert Ryan always imbued an uncertain sinister vibe that made him a great ambiguous villain; Ernie Borgnine could hold a scene even when he didn’t have any dialogue – what a dude; Walter Brennan could portray a clown with purpose and pathos in a way no one else could; when it came to sweltering, desert-based Westerns like this, Lee Marvin just had whatever ‘it’ was; and what could have been the thankless, only-female role, Anne Francis brings a freshness that rules out the usual ‘virginal young woman’ stereotype.

Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini)

Before he filmed Anita Ekberg in that iconic scene at the Trevi Fountain for La Dolce Vita, which brought worldwide acclaim in 1960, Federico Fellini made several well-received films in the 1950s. Of those that stand out are La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, both of which star Fellini’s long-term wife Giulietta Masina. It is the latter that showcases the truly extraordinary abilities and range of Masina’s acting. Cabiria is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes tortuous study (as is Fellini’s style) of a sex worker as she wanders the streets and outskirts of Rome over a couple of days. It moves from open setting to closed setting, each one as dangerous and unpredictable as the other. Masina plays the titular Cabiria, a woman who wants love but is constantly abused by men, laughed at by wider society, and exploited by other prostitutes. Hers is not an entirely sad story, it is full of abundant life and possibility. Masina portrays her at once as a child, and other times as a strong, resilient woman. In fact, she is a wonderful, example of humanity. When she is hurt, the viewer cannot help but be hurt too, and when she smiles, we smile with her. Even, a fourth wall-breaking wink towards the camera at the end fills us with relief.  

Fellini’s film is undeniably scattered in its structure as it moves quickly from one location and scenario to the next. But he ensures that Cabiria encaptivates us through all of it, no matter what random thing life throws at her. A long scene where she takes part in a church procession insightfully touches upon the Catholic Church’s hypercritical treatment of women and its obsession with the Mother Mary and, by contrast, her virginity. There is an obvious focus on how cruel the world-at-large can be to women, but of more consequence to the viewer is that prevailing sense of the human spirit, which Cabiria so wonderfully possesses. It really is a rewarding experience.

Floating Weeds (1959, Yasujirō Ozu)

Tokyo Story is the acclaimed film that most people refer to when they speak of Yasujirō Ozu, but the man made 54 films from 1927 up until his death in 1963, and each of them represented the work of a unique artist on a journey to finding meaning in moving images of people. Like his Japanese contemporary Akira Kurosawa, he became a technical master of cinema over time, improving with every film. But Ozu’s films were very different to Kurosawa’s, as they dealt with material in a gentler way. Floating Weeds was his third colour film, and a remake of his earlier black and white film, A Story of Floating Weeds. His cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa explained that the film was an experiment in bringing new life to an old story, i.e. through colourising and involving a modern setting. The result is a cinematic masterpiece: visually stunning and a deeply tender treatise set in a fishing village during a single hot summer.

It follows Komajuro, an actor and owner of a travelling theatre, as he arrives with his troupe at a town where his former lover and son live. The son does not know Komajuro is his father; his current girlfriend grows jealous as he spends time at his former lover’s bar; and a younger actress from the troupe is set upon the son by the jealous girlfriend. These pivotal events would be perfectly placed in a soap opera, but Ozu presents them so carefully and without fuss. The events just occur and slowly and serenely move on. As was his style, the camera, always placed low to the ground, lingers on the scene between dialogue. The camera never pivots or forms close-ups. It stays fixed on the moment, giving us time to peer into the gaps and contemplate. But we are never bored, because the material is so rich and the visuals are so lush. And unlike arty films of the modern day, Ozo always finds a satisfactory conclusion that sits comfortably with his humanitarian heart.

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