My 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s





This article is part of the 5 Favorite Films of the '50s blogathon hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe. Celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th by reading more great articles here. The photo above shows Kay Thompson, Fred Astaire, and Audrey Hepburn waving on the Eiffel Tower in Funny Face (1957).

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16, Rick at Classic Film & TV Cafe has asked film bloggers to compile a list of our five favorite films of the 1950s. I found this task fiendishly difficult both because many of my all-time favorites were made in the 1950s  -- Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, Born Yesterday in 1950 alone -- but also because it was such a fascinating decade in old Hollywood history.

The '50s not only represented the zenith of the studio system when brilliant directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, and John Ford were creating some of their finest work, but it was also the era of low-budget drive-in flicks that were designed to titillate audiences. For the first time since the silent era, foreign films began to make a sizable impact on audiences with art-house theaters in college towns across the U.S. showing films from France, Italy, and Japan.

I mentally went through about five or six different methodologies for compiling this list (should I do it by year? how about five great directors/five great films). In the end, I just decided to go with five films that I love. I hope you'll understand why these films are so special to me, and that you'll be inspired to watch at least some of them.

1. Funny Face (1957, dir. Stanley Donen)

Audrey Hepburn waits to film a scene from Funny Face (1957).
Funny Face combines three of my favorite things -- the music of George and Ira Gershwin*, the fashions of  Hubert de Givenchy, and Paris -- into one charming musical about a mousy bookshop clerk (Audrey Hepburn) who becomes the muse of a fashion photographer (Fred Astaire). To be honest, this isn't one of the "great" '50s musicals -- director Stanley Donen did much more innovative work in both Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) -- but the film does have a shimmering fairy tale-like quality that makes it one of cinema's truly beautiful experiences. You can never go wrong with Hepburn clothed in gorgeous Givenchy couture while taking viewers on a virtual tour of the City of Lights. Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.

2. The Searchers (1956, dir. John Ford)


During the '50s, directors like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made Westerns that dealt not only with issues of race and class, but also the anxieties of Postwar masculinity. Ironically, John Ford, the auteur of the American frontier, largely sat the decade out** until 1956, when he returned to Monument Valley to make this dark and lyrical masterpiece.
 Love him or hate him, John Wayne's masterful performance as Indian hunter Ethan Edwards is quite stark for a top box-office star (it is also a direct contradiction to his later reputation as a conservative firebrand), but it is Ford's typically fluid camerawork that is the movie's real accomplishment. The final shot, (GIF above), perfectly captures Ethan as a man apart: Forever searching, forever alone. 8:30 am May 24 on TCM. Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.


3. To Catch a Thief (1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955)
No director had a better '50s output than Alfred Hitchcock. The Master Suspense began the decade by dabbling in film noir (both Strangers on a Train and I Confess are great examples of noir style) before embarking on a series of stylish thrillers that made him a household name. For my money, Rear Window (1954) is the purest example of Hitchcock's '50s style, but for this list I'm going with To Catch a Thief, which is a sentimental favorite from childhood days of watching classic movies on Saturday night. 
This breezy caper is perfect escapist fare for a rainy afternoon. There's huge movie stars (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly literally set off fireworks) in stylish clothes, a sunny south of France locale, and an interesting, but not too taxing mystery that is laced with Hitch's trademark macabre humor. Streaming on Amazon Prime; Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.

4. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, dir, Robert Aldrich)

Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Unlike the three previous movies on the list, Kiss Me Deadly isn't a comfort movie I watch on Saturday afternoons, but I greatly admire director Robert Aldrich's gutsiness in combining noir style with science-fiction tropes to create old Hollywood's most unexpected apocalypse. 
Kiss Me Deadly has a little too much (mostly implied) violence for me, but there's also a deliciously seedy L.A. atmosphere, great character actors  (Juano Hernandez, Jack Elam, Fortunio Bonanova), and perhaps the greatest McGuffin in all of film (appropriately called "the great Whatsit"). Finally, there is the surreal final 30 minutes, which stretches the noir style to its very limits and beyond (I first caught this movie late at night on TCM, and the timeline of my reactions was: 1 "Love the camera angles!!! 😍" 2. "Why are they all sweating like that? 😰" 3. "This just took a weird turn 😕" 4. "That was the greatest thing I have ever seen in my life 👏"). Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.

5. The Burmese Harp (1956, dir. Kon Ichikawa)

Shoji Yasui in The Burmese Harp (1956)
 Japanese cinema became a prominent cultural force in the 1950s, especially the work of directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, but for this list I've chosen a lesser-known film that I deeply love. Director Kon Ichikawa's first screen version of the children's novel, The Burmese Harp***, is a deeply moving anti-war film about one soldier's journey from a World War II private to Buddhist monk. 
The Burmese Harp presents a much more human portrait of Japanese soldiers than the grinning villains in most old Hollywood war films, but it also deals honestly with the atrocities on both sides. The sensitive private (Shoji Yasui) at the center of the film is broken by the slaughter of innocent people and animals and the destruction of nature; at first, he runs away out of fear and horror, but  eventually he finds his way into a life of repairing the world that honors the dead and comforts the living. Streaming on The Criterion Channel. DVD.

I didn't mention any Doris Day films in my five favorites, but it would be remiss of me not to show my appreciation for the old Hollywood legend who passed away Monday at age 97. Here's Ms. Day singing "Secret Love" in Calamity Jane (1953), which won the Academy Award for best song and became one of the top hits of the decade.


*Funny Face isn't an adaptation of  the Broadway musical penned by the Gershwin brothers, but it does contain four songs from the play.
**Ford's only previous '50s Westerns were Rio Grande and Wagon Master both made in 1950. He made movies in other genres, most notably The Quiet Man (1952), throughout the decade.
***Ichikawa remade this film in 1986.


Comments

  1. I am embarrassed to admit I haven't seen THE BURMESE HARP, so that's one for my ned-to-see list. KISS ME, DEADLY is a terrific choice. As you wrote, the seedy atmosphere is perfect and the opening and closing scenes are dynamite. Heck, it's just a terrific picture. TO CATCH A THIEF has appeared some several lists today...it's just a lot of fun.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent choices and favorites of my own - the four that I'm familiar with: Funny Face, The Searchers, To Catch a Thief and Kiss Me Deadly. Though John Wayne is more-or-less considered outre these days, he delivered some very fine performances, was quite an icon, and The Searchers is one of the best examples of what a powerful presence he brought to film.

    I haven't seen The Burmese Harp but it's on my list now.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You came up with an incredible eclectic list. I can understand the hold these movies would have on you through your insightful critiques. So many I must re-watch for a variety of reasons.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Loved your list (although I, too, haven't seen The Burmese Harp). Funny Face is simply beautiful in every regard, as is To Catch a Thief - so much fun! I'm not much for westerns, but The Searchers transcends the genre - a truly important film.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Searchers- its an understatement to say its a masterpiece- I actually saw it on the big screen with Lana Wood in attendance- it was an unforgettable experience! and YES To Catch a Thief is just one of those magical films! KISS me deadly- I blind bought the criterion during a sale- and was blown away by its brilliance!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. All great choices (ok, I haven't seen The Burmese Harp but I'm sure it's grea)! I'm so glad you included Kiss Me Deadly! Also, To Catch a Thief is probably one of the most glamorous films ever!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yes! Excited to see The Burmese Harp on your list -- a wonderful film. I would also recommend Fire on the Plains if you haven't seen it. Two very different anti-war examinations. They certainly create a more nuanced understanding of WWII.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm another one who hasn't seen "The Burmese Harp", so thanks for the introduction. You've chosen a wonderful group of films. I'm happy to see "To Catch a Thief" on your list.

    ReplyDelete
  9. A great list with some wonderful choices. It's not an easy task picking a top five and it feels like sacrilege to leave films off - I did so with The Searchers for my list, as well as Kiss Me Deadly. I've never heard of The Burmese Harp, but it is one I will seek out.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment